From astronomy to beekeeping, the niche lessons taught by ordinary people over steaming bowls of soup, sell out fast. Jenny Valentish meets creator Tom Ding
What was the Genesis of Laneway Learning, Tom?
I came to Melbourne from New York about 18 months ago. While in New York I stumbled across something called the Brooklyn Brainery, which offers cheap classes in random subjects, taught by ordinary people from around the city. I really liked the concept and when I realised nothing similar existed in Melbourne, I pitched the idea to the guys at the Little Mule Cycle Co. & Café. We have been running classes for about three months now and have done about 25 different ones.
We differ from the Idler Academy in London or the Brooklyn Brainery in that we use an existing café for our classes. I really like this aspect because we end up introducing new people to the Little Mule every week. It's tucked away in one of Melbourne's laneways, but it deserves to be known by everyone. It is a cycle shop / café / classroom and it’s right in the heart of the city.
Is Laneway Learning your moonlighting project?
It sure is. During the days I work in advertising. It was my job that brought me out to Melbourne after stints in London and New York, and after about 12 months here I decided to start up Laneway Learning with my girlfriend, Kim Hay. We have recruited a couple more friends since then [making this an entirely mid-twenties team] – Mark Gregory and Lucie Bradley – so it is very much a team thing. People approach us to teach classes and we take it in turns to go and meet them.
How far would you like to take the concept?
It's still early days for us, but we have a few ideas for how we could take it further. At the moment we run between two and four different classes each week and we haven't repeated any yet, so there is plenty of room to grow. At some point we would love to capture a lot of the things we have learnt in the classes and publish them all together along with profiles of the teachers, kinda like a community directory. At the moment though, we are happy as we are – spending a couple of evenings a week, learning cool new things from some interesting, passionate people.
Is there a classroom-like atmosphere?
Of course! The space at the Little Mule is perfect and we change it up depending on the class. For a lot of them we have a lecture style layout, with tiered seating and clipboards for taking notes. For the more practical classes, it's more like a workshop with long benches where people chisel or scribble away. Then for the Zazen Meditation class last week, we threw out all the furniture and everyone sat on cushions on the floor.
When it comes to learning, people don't often consider the atmosphere, but it is very important to us. A lot of evening classes seem to happen in office or university rooms, with white walls and wipe-clean tables. We find people relax and enjoy themselves more when the lights aren't quite so bright and they have a coffee and a bowl of soup in front of them. And if they are enjoying themselves, hopefully they will end up learning more!
Do you have a favourite past class or two you’d care to mention?
All of our classes are so different, but a couple of moments stand out. At the end of our jewellery class, everyone went away with their own silver ring that they had designed and made themselves, all for $45. Some were amazing! Another highlight was in the Green Urban Space class when Lucas, a local landscape gardener, had teams of people playing with models of his house that he had made from cardboard and egg cartons. He taught everyone the principles of permaculture, then we had to figure out how best to arrange the chickens, the herbs and the lemon tree.