How do we learn from repetitive events? Much of the activity in a settlement fits this description. A method had been developed by Ali Kaviani and Nina Feldman to learn from and improve their dance club activities. This paper codifies this approach, and illustrates how it was applied by resident Frances Foley to the annual street party, by Sonia Kneepkens in the weekly lunch club and by Ali Kaviani, Richard Galpin and Sonia Kneepkens in the first iteration of the Walworth Living Room.
For the present we describe the approach at Method-C, with the ‘C’ referring to choreography.
We learn in different ways. There isn’t a right way, or a wrong way. Ratio’s work with Pembroke House has encouraged a different perspective on learning, one less concerned with proving impact and more focused on learning from mistakes. One less dependent on external evaluators and more embedded into routine work. One that is nonetheless rigorous and can stand up to robust external criticism.
For reasons described in a series of publications, we refer to this new way of learning as Era3. Ratio has been testing the approach with several partner organisations. Most of this work has been testing innovations. Can alterations in the use of space create altruism and mutual aid? Is it possible to give busy people permission to stop and chat and maybe help each other? Most of the learning has been about something considered to be novel.
But what about routine, repetitive activity? A lot of energy exerted in the service of the human condition in civil society comes in the forms of clubs, events, associations, campaigns and committees, much of which have been in existence for years. How do we learn in this context?
The paper suggests a way of learning from repetition, from activities like lunch clubs, dance clubs for people on the margins of society, living rooms that connect the disconnected.
Essentially it is a codification of ideas that have been developed by and have guided the work of Ali Kaviani and Nina Feldman. They conceived and led the inclusive dance clubs at Pembroke House, clubs that bring citizens together to dance. The paper is intended as a guide for others looking to learn from repetitive activity.
By setting out the method, we also set out three propositions that readers may or may not agree with. These ideas, intrinsic to the approach, are also by Ratio’s analysis fundamental to how a 21 Century settlement will work.
The first proposition is that rigorous design of habitual activities like clubs releases the agency of the people who use the clubs. That by carefully planning the context around the event, the people attending the event can be themselves. That the more control is exerted by the person leading the event, the more participants can exercise their free will.
The second proposition is that detailed reflection by the people leading the event, after the event has completed, will ensure that it remains alive, that each event is as vital as the last, that it doesn’t become just another lunch club or street party. Peter Brook in the introduction to Yoshi Oida and Lorna Marshall’s book The Invisible Actor writes that ‘the mysteries and secrets of performance are inseparable from a very precise, concrete and detailed science learned in the heat of experience’. By staying connected to the detail of every event, the organisers not only learn how to improve the next, they give the same if not more energy and attention to the next.
Third, the point of these repetitive events far exceeds the stated intent, to dance, to eat together, to take part in an annual community celebration. It is a subtle mix. William Burroughs observes that ‘the audience want to see something they haven’t seen before but they want to recognise it when they see it’. The point will vary from event to event, but in the settlement we observe it to things like connection, a shift in cognition, the recovery of agency and joy (happiness shared with others).
These propositions do not sit easily with the outlook of many people working or residing at the settlement, and we suspect they will seem strange and unnecessary to many leading successful community organisations. An observer might reasonably ask ‘Isn’t this to overthink something simple and straightforward?’ ‘Is it not sufficient to create a context for people to meet and let them get on with it?’ As we say several times over in this series of papers, there are 1.3 million informal associations in England at any one time, with 12 million members. Is it reasonable, never mind realistic to apply these ideas of learning on their activity?
Choreography of repetitive events
The activity taking place in the ambit of Pembroke House is, from one perspective, as old if not older than the Settlement itself, 130 years and counting. There is a lunch club every Thursday for any local resident (it is primarily used by women aged 60 years and over). There is a street party every year attended by 500 or so local residents. There are a variety of dance clubs for residents, including local youngsters, often boys kicking against the traces left by school and other representations of mainstream society. There is a gardening club thought to appeal to those challenged by their mental health, but taken up by a broader population. The most recent innovation is a living room, an old church hall in the neighbourhood, now used as an experimental space to bring together public servants, people from civil society organisations and citizens to find new ways of working.
The challenge with this activity is repetition. We struggle to see things that repeat. They become habits, almost unconscious actions. It is Thursday, lunch club day, off we go, let’s make it happen. The organiser, the volunteers who facilitate, and the people who come to lunch gradually find a rhythm that minimises the need to reflect never mind learn. The same thing happens week on week. To some extent that is what makes the event attractive. Before long few can remember why the lunch club was started, what it is intended to achieve, or why people show up. It just happens.
How do we rescue this activity from the unconscious, bringing to the fore elements from which we can learn? One route is choreography. Ali Kaviani brought to Pembroke House a desire to learn from each single event they put on, and to use learning from one performance to improve the next. This drive applies as much to using reflection about the 103rd event to learn how to make the 104th better as it does to the first, second or third.
An artistic performance, a ballet, a play, a musical, is in many ways analogous to the routine activity found in civil society clubs and events. There is an organiser or choreographer. There are the performers, stage designers, ushers and so forth who make activity happen. And there are the people who come to the event, the audience. Artistic events share with civil society events the challenge of repetition. Every performance is both the same as the last (and the next) and unique from all the others. Also, we are speculating that the effects of an artistic performance may be similar to those generated by a successful civil society event, a sense of joy, and an openness on the part of all participants to entertain new ideas. This is an idea we are testing with data from the dance club activities at Pembroke.
A play or dance is a collaboration, the product of several people and groups working together, the writer or choreographer, the director, the set designer, the performers, the venue, and more. Levels of trust between participants may influence the success of the event.
The work is intended to create meaning from repeated often mundane actions that combine to leave the audience with a story, a moral. This may change from one performance to another. The performance doesn’t instruct the audience it creates a context where onlookers are encouraged to ask questions of themselves or each other. Most compositions deal in the core elements of human interaction with the world, language, movement, sound, and light.
These elements have to be arranged. Choreography combines detailed planning of every step, and usually demands careful recording. The choreographer keeps score, adjusting each performance in the light of the last.
The choreographer thinks not only about the dancer’s step-by-step movement from one moment to the next but also how each step fits within the overall rhythm of the performance. The method described below owes much to Yoshi Oida and Lorna Marshall who describe a play beginning slowly, tensions building and becoming quicker, a climatic moment and then a rounding off before the ending. (Or, as Colm Tóibín puts it in his description ending his novel Blackwater Lightship, the rounding off -what he calls a softening agent that demands that the reader imagines the aftermath of the story- comes after the ending). Without rhythm, a work of art becomes abrupt, boring and predictable.
The choreographer works for an audience, one that will change from performance to performance. This interaction makes each event to some extent unique. The work involves some calculation of what the audience wants, particularly in the conflicting desire for something both familiar and novel.
As such, the choreographer makes a contract with the audience, giving them a sense in the publicity material, in the selection of the venue, in the appointment of performers, in the people who come along to see it, in the lighting, set and costume design, in the first bars of music, about what they should expect.
Understanding continuity is important to building a good relationship with the audience. The choreographer knows what will carry from one performance to the next, and what will be unique to each, and the audience role therein. This is broadly analogous with the delineation in Ratio design work between the core -that which makes something work- and adaptable -that which encourages people to use that something, and make it their own.
The potential for failure is omnipresent. Jonathan Burrows in The Choreographer’s Handbook writes that audiences accept failure if it is acknowledged by the performers. The audience may leave at the interval or respond with muted applause (or cat calls). A full house may be followed by nights of empty seats. A good night may be followed by a bad night. The audience reaction is fundamental.
How to translate these abstract reflection into a concrete method, one that can be used to guide learning about repetitive events in a 21st Century settlement, or any other civil society organisation working to similar ends. What follows is one approach. It comprises five components.
- What is the point?
Those organising an event with this methodology will seek a shared understanding of its meaning, a purpose that goes beyond the activities of eating, meeting, dancing or playing together. This could be creating a sense of connection between participants. Or a sense of joy, of shared happiness. Or it could be to encourage reflection, to create an openness to new ideas, or to re-consider entrenched beliefs. This shared meaning will cross all of the events, even those that run for many years or are repeated in several contexts. It will be intrinsic to the event. It will a lunch club that creates, for example, a sense of joy -not just a hot meal on a Wednesday. It will be a street party that creates a sense of belonging to place, not just a chance to sing and dance.
2. A detailed plan
With the shared meaning as a constant backdrop, the designers will plan the series of events in great detail. In the work at Pembroke, that planning comprises four components:
- Content: In the theatre this will mean the script, the performers, the people who make the performance happen and the audience. In a 21st Century settlement it refers to the nature of the activity, the number and characteristics of the participants, the roles of the people leading the event.
- Space: In dance, this would include the design of the stage, the lighting, the entrance and exit of the performers. In a settlement, it will mean planning for how participants find their way into and out of the event, how the furniture is arranged, the ambience -of excitement, of calm, of study- to be conveyed.
- Timing: In film, this would be represented in a storyboard capturing a scene by scene account of how the movie will unfold. A storyboard could work for planing a settlement event also. It means setting out, minute by minute, the experience of everybody involved, from the moment the first participant arrives to the moment everyone has left.
- Rhythm: As already described, in the arts this means charting the dramatic pattern of the performance or story, thinking about its climax, helping the audience to ease out of the tension created without losing the overall meaning. In a settlement it asks the planners to reflect on what participants will feel at different stages of the event, nervous maybe at the beginning, comfortable in the flow in the middle, and comfortable and reflective on departing, or after departure.
In Oida and Marshall’s The Invisible Actor, and replicated in Kaviani and Feldman’s dance clubs delivered at Pembroke House, the rhythm is broken down into:
- Jo -something is about to happen
- Ha -something is happening, and
- Kyu -the climax.
This analysis is applied not only to the event as a whole, but also to parts of an event. The pattern of anticipation, action and culmination may occur several times.
3. Reflecting after each event
There is the plan, and then there is the reality. The method demands detailed reflection after each event. Difference between plan and reality is to be expected. It is not a matter of continually seeking a reality that mirrors the plan. It is a matter of understanding, accepting and learning from the differences.
The components of the plan -content, space, timing and rhythm- structure each review. The review has two objectives. The first is to ensure that the people leading the event do not loose track of its components, that they stay engaged with the detail of what has happened. This is achieved by writing down what happened in some detail, or engaging in the highly focused conversation with other people who were at the event. However it is done, the purpose is to make sure that what some would consider mundane, unimportant information is not lost, and that the organisers don’t slip into automatic pilot.
The second is to learn. The differences between plan and reality can be healthy, and therefore a source of replication, or they can be unhelpful and a focus of adaptation and change. The purpose of learning is to make each event as good as if not better than the last, accepting that some will fall short of expectations.
4. Periodic stocktake
The learning takes place after each event. Where the events are repeated many times, there will also be a periodic stocktake. This involves going back to the plan, and using the accumulated learning over previous weeks to re-examine content, space, timing and rhythm.
In addition, the periodic review will reflect on:
- Reach: how many people are coming to the events, is there an opportunity for more to participate
- Quality: broadly speaking, are the events broadly being delivered as planned, and what does deviation from the plan reveal for future events, and
- Impact: what evidence is there of the event changing the participants, even for short periods, maybe in conventional terms -better well-being- or in deeper terms -joy, trust, sense of worth.
- The purpose of the stocktake is not to prove the value of event, demonstrating steady improvements from one to the next. Rather it is to provoke reflection on aspects of the plan that do not work, to sponsor innovation and development.
- Each stock take results in a revised plan. Each plan is recorded, providing a record of change, and reasons for change.
5. General Features of Era 3 Design and Learning.
Any method is only as good as its execution. Whether it is a randomised control trial, a complex economic model, game theory or qualitative research, if the person learning is slipshod in applying the method, or enters unreliable data, the net result will be worthless. Elsewhere, Ratio has written down the principles and approaches to what it calls, after the work of health scientist and policy maker Don Berwick, Era 3 learning. The following points will be valuable in the context of Method-C.
First, it is useful to apply the method where the event has taken place, and not so long after the event has occurred, in the main hall of the settlement, in the living room, or on the street after the party.
Second, this should allow some input from representatives involved in the event, the dance teacher, the student, the event organiser, maybe the parent of the student. Design and learn together.
Third, where the activity is enduring -lunch club is in its 10th year, the dance clubs in their eighth, the living room is open every day- the learning should be continuous and lead to small iterations in the plan, culminating in periodic stocktakes, or major revisions to the plan. We are not talking here about a six month evaluation.
Fourth, it is better to collect small amounts of smart data than large amounts of information that is never used.
Variations on Method-C have been used at Pembroke House to learn about the lunch club, the experimental Walworth Living Room, the dance club DT17 and the annual street party. There are separate learning reports from Ratio on Walworth Living Room and DT17, and documentary material on the lunch club and street party has been placed on the Welearn site. Here we draw out one aspect of the Method-C when it has been applied to these four activities, an illustration of the approach in practice.
The lunch club takes place every Thursday in the main hall of the Settlement. It was the invention of a doctoral student seeking to understand the value of and place of non-intimate relationships in a setting like the lunch club. Local residents share tables with Pembroke House staff, residents and visitors. The food is cooked and served by residents, staff and volunteers. In this description it is much the same as many other social eating events taking place around the country every day of the week. What does the method add?
At Pembroke there is a choreographer, somebody responsible for each Thursday lunch. It could be a member of staff, at present it is a resident, at the time these observations were made it was an outside consultant designer Sonia Kneepkens. The primary structure of Lunch Club has not changed since its inception. But the character of each event reflects the interpretation cast by the choreographer, or designer.
There are many variables at play. The lunch-clubbers have to find their way into the event; do they stop in the office for a chat, do they come early and watch the end of dance club that uses the space immediately prior; do they join in a dance open to all in the five minute interregnum between dance and lunch club; where are participants sat, or are they allowed to sit where they ordinarily sit; how are newcomers introduced; what kind of food; how to share information of interest to participants, or that outside agencies or the settlement would like participants to know; whether to include additional events -a visit from the Young Vic Theatre for example; how to end the lunch club -at this time a game of bingo run by one of the participants; how participants leave the building.
In these questions, we see the elements of content, space and timing that Sonia juggled as she arranged each Thursday gathering. The movement of participants into and out of the building, into and away from the seats, is itself something of a dance with a rhythm of anticipation, happening and reflection.
During the time of Sonia Kneepkens stewardship the reach of lunch club increased, although it was still dominated by a core group of women who monopolised selected tables (as recorded in hourly photographs of the room taken from the balcony above). There was plenty of innovation, most of which was delivered to the quality sought. The impact was never fully defined, but like most activity at Pembroke House the potential for connection and a sense of shared joy are prized.
dt17 is a dance club for young people, many of whom are struggling in some way at home or in school or in the community. They come to dance. The implication is are asked to take instruction, to learn, to understand themselves in relation to their body, to co-ordinate and get along with others in the group, a discipline that is challenging for most. They are led by a dance instructor -in this illustration there is real choreography taking place- supported by a resident, member of staff or volunteer.
Dance club has repeated several hundred times over nearly a decade. How to retain the focus and quality of input that gave dt17 such a strong reputation when it was introduced into the community nearly a decade ago?
As well as leading the class, the instructors have to record in considerable detail the experience of each individual child, and the group as a whole. A the end of the event, they sit down and make a note on each child, recording their engagement with the settlement and dt17 from the moment they step into the building to the moment they step out. They then make a quantitative assessment of each child’s mental health -typically this has involved applying the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, a 25 item measure of conduct disorder, emotional disorder, attention deficit disorder, and social relations. The written and quantitative assessments take roughly 30 minutes per child to complete. The review is completed with a reflection on how the group as a whole functioned.
In the hours running up to each dt17, the instructors review the notes from last weeks club. If the instructor is new, they will read several weeks of notes to get a sense of the group, and of the recording requirements.
In the learning report, we say more on what has been learned from these data. The point to convey here is that these assessments would continue absent of any learning. Their function is to keep the instructor fully engaged in the process, sufficiently aware of each child to be able to make a through record. The data also provide continuity, allowing the instructor to prepare for the next session by reading in some depth what happened in the last.
The Street Party takes place every year. The challenge is not so much how to maintain vitality from one week to the next as how to sustain continuity from year to year. The Street Party is organised by a member of staff and a resident working in tandem. The report on the 2019 Street Party by resident Frances Foley is available at Welearn.
Frances co-led the event having moved into Pembroke House during the year, and so without any experience of previous years’ events. We see in the report Method-C’s structure of content, space and timing. We see also the comparison of the plan and what actually happened. The report leaves a record for the people who lead the Street Party in 2020.
Without it being named, the report captures the rhythm of the Street Party, its repeated patterns of Jo -something is about to happen; Ha -something is happening; and Kyu -the climax. It is possible to read into this account a sense of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, that is Frances’ being fully immersed in her tasks, absorbed to the point where she looses sense of chronological time, another form of rhythm.
In this account, the intended impact is named giving citizens a sense of pride in place, of being a part of something bigger, that they are anchored by the Settlement and its activities. Connection and cohesion are stated objectives. A sense of joy is reported.
Walworth Living Room
[to be added]
Learning is in the blood of a settlement. By their own description, the founders were largely ignorant of the disadvantaged communities into which they moved. The combination of humility and ignorance demanded learning. As the movement grew in numbers and confidence, learning became an expressed part of the mission with Jane Addams in Chicago talking unashamedly about the potential for experiment. By design, settlements have been a mixture of academic outlook mixed with practical engagement in place.
Method-C is an attempt to codify one of many approaches to learning that have been or could be applied in a settlement context. It deals with repetitive events, clubs, associations, committees, the stock-in-trade of the settlement movement, meetings that occur routinely, encouraging a loss of reflection. Method-C is designed to rescue the familiar, to make it once more a source of reflection and learning. It is a way for people involved in these events to re-invest new energy, and seldom to re-invent.
To some, this attention to detail, potential to learn, desire to continually improve commonplace social gatherings may seem farcical. As might the suggestion that they are invested with a broader social mission, to connect, or moral imperative, to build trust, or belonging or pride. Are we not just over thinking what is common sense? Cannot the same be achieved by providing a space to a group of people with a shared interest and let them get on with it?
This point is central to the conception of a 21st century Settlement. Is close attention to the context around citizen gatherings a mechanism to release their agency? Can detailed planning of and reflection about routine events make them better, more joyous, more meaningful? Is there a point to these activities other than eating together, playing games with each other, doing arts and crafts? These are questions that will focus the minds of those seeking to find a place for the settlement movement in this century.