Social Learning at Festivals: Lessons from Face Your Elephant

Richard Fletcher is a Research Assistant at De Montfort University, Leicester working on a public engagement and peer education project: ‘Face Your Elephant’ (FYE). He is also a part time lecturer in Arts and Festivals Management and has contributed to numerous research studies around events and festivals.

Face Your Elephant acknowledges support from the Royal Academy of Engineering and its partners: Centre for Alternative Technology and Woodcraft Folk.

Festivals are an interesting learning environment, whether you have a specific issue to address or if you are just trying to fulfil the curiosity of your audience. My experience of this has come through my work with Face Your Elephant – a solar powered exhibit communicating the science and engineering of climate change to festival audiences. It’s been around for 10 years in different forms so we’ve had time to see what works and how public perceptions have changed over this time, both towards climate change and towards the green efforts of festivals themselves.

Firstly I’d say that just sleeping in a tent once or twice a year does not necessarily give you a magic connection to nature. Some festival sites are in more naturally beautiful parts of the world than others of course, but much of the time it’s just there as a backdrop. You can be amazed by the natural environment and still leave all your rubbish behind, and festivals are often sadly a testament to this. There may be some benefit at the extremes, such as Burning Man where nothing is supposed to be left behind, but arguably this is more part of the event’s social contract than something objective about the environment itself. It’s worth bringing this up to start with as I think there are still assumptions that simply being in the natural environment is sufficient in itself to ‘learn something’ by doing so. It is also easy to argue that a temporarily repurposed bit of farmland is not really the natural environment to begin with.

So why do we try to teach people about climate change and the environment at festivals? The atmosphere of exploration and potential for social learning are by far the most valuable things for us. The off-grid nature of the event is a close second, giving us some practical examples and a microcosm of an urban environment to examine. The age and general demographic of the audience is of course important but this varies from festival to festival, and may be more or less important depending on your objectives.

Social Cognitive Theory is what we use to understand social learning and can help illustrate why festivals are a good place to carry this out. The basic model incorporates Environmental, Cognitive and Behavioural factors – put very simply, for the learner or audience member these are: where you are, what you know and what you can do / see other people do. Our exhibit is designed around making the most of these, so firstly, to address our environment we’re at a festival and we present information about what festivals are doing to reduce their impacts. Being at a festival gives us the kind of associated social capital we wouldn’t have if we’d somehow convinced all these people to come to a lecture theatre instead.

The cognitive factors mean that we try to explain things in a variety of ways to account for different learning types, we present everything from broad, accessible summaries all the way up to original academic research, for those who are interested. This is key for academics in that you can be surprised how much people actually want to know about your research when you give them an accessible entry point, it’s not about dumbing things down and just getting the maximum number of people through.

Our volunteers or ‘peer educators’ are great at communicating these difficult issues in a positive and encouraging way, which is at the heart of the behavioural factors – it is young people talking to young people. It helps that there are some tangible things we can show to people, whether it’s through basic solar toys, charging your phone from our solar trailer, some readings from a generator at the festival; it can all be related back to people’s everyday life and behaviours. Self-efficacy is kind of the ‘end result’ of Social Cognitive Theory, it’s not only having the knowledge but also the self-knowledge and confidence that makes you capable of acting.

Alongside this, we’ve carried out academic research with festivals and energy suppliers to directly address emissions from generators, which provides a lot of material and general interest for the exhibit. We like encouraging suppliers and festival organisers to communicate their work to the public. These aspects of a festival will almost always be hidden away from general view and even when they aren’t, no one has the technical expertise to understand what they are looking at. It is fascinating to see what is happening with regards to smart controls, biodiesel and hybrid generators, though the main problem in reducing power emissions seems to be getting accurate information on time to actually do anything about it. I would like to see traders understand the needs of their own equipment a bit more but there is either little financial incentive to do so, or the upfront costs of investment are seen as too high.

The overall trend I am most positive about is in the increasing intellectual and educational content of festivals. People generally want a range of experiences at a festival, and it’s something festivals can offer that is away from the spiralling competition around headline acts. Of course panels, talks and exhibits are never going to be a huge spectacle like Rammstein’s pyro show or AC/DC’s train, but if it’s well produced they can certainly be entertaining in their own right, holding people’s attention and giving them something that really stays with them to talk about after the show. It gives people something else to do in the day, something to contrast with the excess and partying. In some cases more than others, it is a way for festivals to use their inherent social power to help move the discussion of an issue forward. One-off campaigns and charitable donations are important too, but their impact can be very transient without education to back them up.

I would also be interested to see more focus on the volunteer army behind every festival. From an organiser’s perspective, these volunteers really love your festival and likely others too; maybe if they had a more formal role or structure to their experience I’m sure they would come up with some valuable insights. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen already, but it’s patchy and ultimately if you are able to offer and advertise more attractive positions, you should get and be able to retain better and more dedicated volunteers. In the wider perspective, the volunteers (FYE included) are the ones on the ground communicating face to face with people, so if there’s a message you want to get out there, these are often the best people to do it.

In conclusion, festivals can present a huge social learning opportunity but, as we know from our colleagues in production to security to licensing, it does not just spontaneously ‘happen’. I would encourage all festivals to think about what kinds of social learning already happens within their fences, across audience, volunteers, staff, traders and all their partners, and how this could be captured and developed over time rather than just coming and going without a second thought. If we’ve learned nothing else from 10 years of FYE, it’s been that change takes a long time.