“We heard last night’s class was great!” the barista at The Little Mule Café calls out to Mark Gregory above the lunchtime cacophony. Mark laughs and turns to us to explain.
“The class was on Pleasure Physiology. So understanding the anatomy and how to get more pleasure from your sex life. It’s been very popular!”
And that is just one of the deliciously unusual evening classes that Mark and his co-founder Lucie Bradley offer Melburnians through Laneway Learning, a community driven education model that they launched in March 2012.
Mark and Lucie, who are both English, met eight years ago while interning at a pharmaceutical company in America. They decided to pursue a PhD in chemistry at the University of Melbourne two years later, and found themselves holding short classes in Melbourne’s laneways two years after that.
Laneway Learning’s name is a nod to Melbourne’s famous laneway culture. Its classes are informal, interactive and taught by the members of the local community, who fulfil the one and only selection criteria – passion for their subject matter, whether it is woodcut printing, native bees or the science of hope.
Six years on, they have found a firm home in Melbourne’s laneways alongside the bars, street art and cafes.
Mark: So I met a friend, Tom, while playing rugby. He had moved here from New York and told me about this idea called the Brooklyn Brainery that was happening there. It was essentially community driven education where people who are passionate about certain subjects could share what they know with others. I kinda’ thought, yea there’s something there.
We went back to the U.K. for Christmas and when we returned, Tom had gotten us a website and a logo. So ok, we were going to do this! We ran six classes over three weeks, all here at The Little Mule Café because we knew the owner then. It has changed hands twice since but they still like us (laughs). So Tom ran a class on Cryptic Crosswords and I did one on Chemistry of Life. And we roped in some mates to do a couple of classes as well.
Lucie: We had begged and bribed our friends to share it on social media, and to come to the classes so we would have images of people learning something! So there were about 10-15 people in each class. Mostly friends.
Mark: And we were really happy when we saw people we didn’t know on the first night. We were whispering to each other, do you know who that is? You don’t? Ooh that’s exciting!
Mark: We got a write-up in The Age two months after we started and saw a huge boost on our website with people emailing to say they wanted to teach. Classes started selling out 10 minutes after we announced them. We were like, wow there’s a demand for this! We very quickly went from one night of two classes a week to two nights of four classes a week.
Lucie: I remember looking on the website and seeing that the classes scheduled two weeks away were already fully booked.
Mark: The classes have to be on a topic that would be nice to know but not essential for your life. So there’s no class on Excel for small businesses. It’s not for developing your CV or improving your financial situation or anything like that. And it should be something a little different. If there’s already such a class running elsewhere in the city then we won’t run it.
Lucie: In terms of venues, we don’t want a whitewashed room that makes you feel you should be working. So cafes, bar function rooms, galleries, bookshops or music rooms. It has to be a relaxing space, and as Melbourne as possible!
Mark: Kitchen Cosmology. It’s so unusual and so good. The teacher essentially explains the universe through cooking and baking.
Lucie: The best classes are those you never thought you wanted to know about. Like, native bees!
Mark: And also the classes you never thought would be popular. Hair braiding is the number one selling class. So there are different surprises with the classes in terms of the content and the popularity
Mark: We focused on the city to start with. Then early last year we wanted to be more accessible to people who don’t get into the city a lot. Last year, we did a lot of stuff in Northcote and St. Kilda, and then towards the end of the year, Brunswick came in and Northcote dropped off. We’re now doing a pilot launch in Newport on Monday to see how that goes. Then maybe we can finish the compass and do the east as well. That would be cool.
Mark: We did a couple of pop-ups in Perth early this year. Unfortunately the venue we were running it in closed down and didn’t tell us. With most cities in Australia, we’ve either run classes for a considerable amount of time or are currently running them, like in Sydney, Brisbane, and Adelaide. We’ve done some stuff in Auckland and we’ve got a programme in Singapore. It all fluctuates because it’s a community driven thing. But Melbourne is still the stronghold.
Lucie: When we first started we set up a business partnership because that was the easiest thing to do that required the least amount of paperwork. We kinda’ always wanted it to be some sort of social enterprise but we just couldn’t find an existing model in Australia’s legal framework. Being a not-for-profit was a goal when Laneway Learning was big enough. It’s all been so organic.
Mark: There are people who come to our classes who could definitely pay a lot more to attend that course. But by making it accessible you’re bringing people from lots of different walks of life and social circles into the same place. You’re bringing together people who would never normally cross paths. And we’re always about interactive classes whether it’s a discussion or hands-on. It breaks down those social barriers so new friendships can begin.
Lucie: There’s also the personal level where you see people interacting on Facebook or you see them together in the city and go oh, you met at a class and now you’re friends, that’s really nice! Or they’ve formed a business partnership. There are definitely collaborations between teachers.
Mark: Teachers have started businesses from the classes they’ve run, like the hair braiding class. She now does professional braiding for weddings and kids parties.
Lucie: We’re waiting for someone to tell us that they met their future spouse at a Laneway Learning class. That’s the ultimate goal!
Lucie: When we started Laneway Learning, I had only been in Melbourne for about a year and I hadn’t quite worked out how excited people in the city are to try or learn something new.
Mark: People in Melbourne are always ready to have a go at something. They don’t feel restricted by not having a certificate to prove that they are qualified to teach what they love.
Lucie: That there’s always something to do and something going on. If I have a spare evening, I could just walk into Federation Square and there will probably be something happening.
Mark: It’s the positivity as well. People are always happy and that could be because they’re always entertained by something that’s going on.
Lucie: The first thing that comes to mind is what I already see changing. Melbourne has all these quirky characteristics - the laneways and independent coffee shops and bookstores. It adds to its culture and vibe. So every time I see a new skyscraper going up, it’s a bit rubbish.
Mark: I agree. It’s the independence. You go to Sydney and it’s the same coffee shop chain on every street corner. It’s good here because there’s always somewhere different to go.
Lucie: I’d love to see a train line from the city to the airport!
Mark: The hallway just outside the State Library. People are always on their phones or having a little chat.
Lucie: Go down laneways you’ve never noticed before and if you see a doorway that looks vaguely like it might be something, go in. We found Lustre Bar that way. There was a metal shutter that was halfway down and we said, this is definitely a thing! Keep trying new things. Don’t keep going back to the same places you love.
Lucie: Stephen McLaughlan who runs the Stephen McLaughlan Gallery in the Nicholas Building.
Mark: Sayraphim Lothian who runs Pop Up Playground.