The rise of alternative learning in laneways, pubs and new 'schools'

MELBOURNE -- Wish someone had taught you how to be confident or how to find a job you love? Melburnians are picking up some life lessons and new skills as part of a trend in "altucation."
Written by Lieu Thi Pham, Contributor on

MELBOURNE -- At The School of Life there are no exams or homework, no draconian attendance records or debilitating entrance fees. The teachings from the school take shape as a form of breakfast talk, workshop or "secular sermon" held in a repurposed warehouse building set in the inner-north enclave of Collingwood, the unofficial stomping ground of the city's creative community.

From long intensives to short courses and with fees starting at AUD$50 (USD$49), students can choose to enroll in classes like "How to have better conversations,” “How to worry less about money,” "How to find a job you love," "How to be confident" and a number of other unorthodox subjects.

And The School of Life is hardly alone in its unconventional approach. It is part of Melbourne's rising "altucation," or alternative adult education scene, consisting of small-scale, creative, non-accredited systems of education that recognize people's urge to continue to learn well past graduation.

Founded by Alain de Botton, the author of bestsellers How Proust Can Change Your Life and Status Anxiety, The School of Life originated in London with a group of thinkers, academics, artists and cultural historians, coming together to deliver adult learning overlooked by traditional forms of education.

"The School of Life is aimed at people like me, and like many other people, who face different challenges in their life and want some advice at how to approach them ... a new framework to look at these dilemmas," Melbourne's School of Life Program Director Sara Tiefenbrun said.

Since opening in 2008, the School of Life has attracted over 100,000 students with its unique course syllabus. At the end of 2012 the Melbourne social enterprise firm Small Giants partnered with the London School to bring the School of Life to Australia, heralding the first international outpost.

Another similar business, Laneway Learning has hosted informal classes in city cafes, and inner-city pubs and outdoor markets since March 2012. For AUD$12 (USD$12) per head, members of the community can teach or learn just about anything, from the zany "Why zombies are so awesome" to the more practical "Introduction to playwriting."

Yet another altucation group -- the Melbourne Free University (MFU), an independent higher-education institution established in 2009 by a group of academics --offers one-off lectures or six-week courses to those seeking to take university-style subjects at no cost.

Classes are held at two bars and subjects range from the pragmatic "Economics for everyone" to the more literary "Classics of crime fiction."

Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, who recently completed a PhD and convenes the MFU, explains that the existing options in the education market are too exclusive, with MFU providing an alternative type of learning opportunity more accessible to the general public.

"You don't walk away from the MFU with a certification of your skills, and we don't offer the type of courses you get at class universities nowadays: Ours are much more conversation-based, less about knowledge transfer and more about opening up a space for the sharing of ideas," Westendorf said.

Similarly, the Old School: The New School for Design and Typography, a graphic design institution founded on "old values" of design was established by Melburnian Veronica Grow in response to what she saw as problems with the mainstream design education both in the government and private sectors.

"Both models were profit-driven, which was detrimental to the quality of teaching and learning," Grow said. "Students were not receiving adequate feedback, and both systems were breeding graduates who had qualifications, but with a huge discrepancy in skills. This meant that some graduates were excellent, and others not so."

Grow's informal design center offers the public a range of hands-on classes, such as the one-day "Slow typography master class" workshop or the five-week intensive in "Finding your unique illustrative style." Fees range from AUD$145 (USD$143) to AUD$320 (USD$316).

Over at Melbourne's The School of Life, Tiebenbrun said that the organization's particular learning model puts great value in learning from culture, films, books and music.

“If you go to an academic institution, you learn a lot of theoretical information that doesn’t necessarily apply to your own life, so the founders thought, 'Why don’t we switch the model around and start with the pressing concerns that individuals have, and then use the wealth of history, philosophy and art to address people’s modern-day concerns?” Tiefenbrun explained.

The Melbourne director acknowledges that the school might not appeal to everyone. "There are people who do not like to communicate with other people in that way, and there are a lot of people who are resistant to sharing their experiences with strangers," she said.

Speaking from London, de Botton explained that the social enterprise provides a reliable trusted introduction to emotional knowledge; to all the things you're meant to know but that no one ever teaches you -- issues around work, love, the meaning of life, anxiety, pain and death.

"We're interested in self-improvement, in the deepest sense. We're also trying to make our experiences fun and unembarrassing -- which counselling often isn't," de Botton told SmartPlanet.

"The decline in religion has definitely opened up a gap which we're trying to fill. At the same time, the arts aren't doing what they should to help satisfy people's needs," de Botton said.

As Tiefenburn puts it: "You can’t just have one degree and expect a certain career to take you through the rest of your working life. You’ll reach different junctions and you’ll have to use different tools, whether it’s School of Life or another education provider, to keep you up to date with the jobs market and also in the personal realm."

Images: School of Life aphorisms; School of Life Melbourne director Sara Tiefenburn; School of Life founder and author Alain de Botton. All photos courtesy of School of Life and David Michael.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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