‘Desirable difficulties’ in higher education

A re-blog from the LSE Education Blog

In this, the first of our Heresy of the Week mini-series, Dr Esther Saxey of LSE’s Teaching and Learning Centre discusses Elizabeth Bjork’s and Robert Bjork’s work on ‘desirable difficulties’ and explains how making things hard for students – if the right things are chosen  – can be good for learning.

Source: Heresy of the Week 1: ‘Desirable difficulties’ in higher education

Sharing – sometimes frustrating, but also fun!

Followers of our blog might recall that, last year, Jenni and Natasha took part in the 64 Million Artists January Challenge. Well, we’re embarking on it again this year and we thought it would be interesting to reflect at the end of each week on our experiences and try to relate our activities to the world of learning and teaching. Here, Jenni reflects on the first week…

Day 1:An image of fireworks exploding Have you heard the news?

Great start to the challenge – or so I thought! The idea was to design the front page of a newspaper with stories that you would like to see in 2017. The thought of doing something around visitors coming to earth from other planets popped straight into my head, which will come as no surprise to those that know me well!

I have to admit that I did spend a little time looking at other peoples’ contributions before getting started on mine. Funny how I frame that as a confession. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but no doubt that seeing other contributions further shaped my thoughts. There were a lot of ‘world peace’ headlines being posted, and I think that made me think I might not use that actual term.

I think the reason I feel the need to ‘confess’ to being influenced by others goes back to the ‘it should all be your own work’ that so often pervades teaching and learning. Not a notion I subscribe to, but one that is deep-seated. How frustrating it must be for students if we over-emphasise individual work rather than encouraging collaboration.

Anyway, I decided to produce my newspaper using Sway – and that’s when things really went to pot! I am new to using this, but had the basics sorted. No problems producing the newspaper, but then I had to share. To cut a long story short, a combination of the embed code seemingly not working and the institution I work in disabling the ‘public’ share options (or so Sway kept telling me!) meant that anyone wanting to view the newspaper had to sign in with their Microsoft user details. In the end I just had to do a screen grab of the headline and post that.

The first ‘take home’ message from this is obviously check the functionality of any tech. you are going to use before you use it! But there is also something here about barriers being put in the way of sharing. Might have to re-visit that thought in a later post.

I missed the next couple of activities due to some bad news that meant my focus had to be elsewhere.

Day 4 – a deeper shade of blue

Day 4 of #64millionartists January Challenge. Walking around looking for blue. Part 1.

A post shared by Jenni Carr (@jenniwithoutthee) on

The challenge was to take a 10 – 15 minute walk and focus on spotting things that were blue and photographing them. I work near to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, so decided to go for a walk there. Now I know that commonsense should have told me that this would have been better for green stuff rather than blue… Still it was a nice walk! Had to do a bit of walking around campus to get the images I needed.

Changing the focus of this activity, but keeping the format, has a lot of potential, I think. Instead of looking for colours you could ask students to focus on a concept or theory. They could go for a walk, in small groups and capture images that they feel in some way represent that concept or theory. The images could then be displayed (or presented) with an explanation. Getting students to apply their knowledge in this way should really deepen their understanding. Word of warning – when you send them off for their walk, tell them what time you expect them back! That was a lesson I learned on my first placement when studying for my PGCE. Losing all my students for a complete double period didn’t go down too well with my mentor!

Day 5: the golden conversation

Now I love poetry, but don’t feel very confident about writing it myself. Always in awe of those that can. But the idea of taking the first line of the fifth text on your phone and using it to structure a poem was such a novel idea that I thought I would give it a go. Having looked at which text I would need to use (coincidentally a text from fellow blogger Natasha!) I suffered a bit of a ‘poet’s block’.

I arrived in my office and explained the task to a colleague who immediately got their phone out and wrote their poem. Just like that! Their advice to me was ‘just don’t overthink it’. The words in the text immediately suggested to them the tone of their poem, and they just wrote. So I did the same. And it sort of worked.

What was a little odd was that the original text had been designed to cheer me up, but the poem was rather gloomy.

But I think the main insight here was that sometimes it’s not good to think too much. I’m a big fan of free-writing usually, and encourage it in all kinds of settings with students, and this experience reminded me why.

Day 6: ABC go

Such fun! A game of photo tag. You form a group. Someone takes a photo of an object beginning with the letter ‘a’, next person does ‘b’ and so on. Now have to say we weren’t too good with the ‘tagging’ notion in the sense that we didn’t nominate who should do the next photo. Ended up being a  bit of a free for all – but we got the challenge done and had some good laughs along the way.

I suppose with my teaching and learning head on I should say something about this illustrating how group activities need to be set-up very carefully and you need to ensure everyone knows the rules. But, well, the chaos was kinda fun!

Here’s some of the photo’s we took.

Feeling inspired? It’s not too late to join. Sign up here if you want to get challenging! Follow the daily conversation on twitter #64millionartists .

Snap Happy – Images of Community

 

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Blue things on the school run. Poppy, Ethan and Jaida (aged 7)

Followers of our blog might recall that, last year, Jenni and Natasha took part in the 64 Million Artists January Challenge. Well, we’re embarking on it again this year and we thought it would be interesting to reflect at the end of each week on our experiences and try to relate our activities to the world of learning and teaching. Here, Natasha reflects on the first week…

 

 

So, the first week has passed and already we’re awash with creativity. The first few days were a struggle for me because I had tonsillitis. I managed to design the front page of a newspaper and to draw the view from my window. I’ve still not got round to building a tower, but that is fine because there are no fixed deadlines (well, end of January I suppose). I find it interesting that I have every intention of going back and catching up – I am not sure my students would be so enthusiastic about a missed seminar task! My assiduousness, I think, is partly down to a curiosity about the learning gain (what will I discover?), and partly because I am invested in the challenge commitment (I can’t miss a day!).

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Sheffield shades of blue

My momentum finally got going on Day 4 with a challenge to photograph and share things which are different shades of blue. I enjoyed checking in to twitter throughout the day to see other people’s collages. What really struck me about this challenge though, was the way in which it brought together the virtual and real worlds. On the afternoon school run, I told the children what I was doing ( I had to explain why I was snapping a tatty old chip fork!); before I knew it a whole bunch of adults and children were pointing at objects and shouting ‘BLUE!’ and ‘Put mine on twitter!’. It was a very striking example of how an activity can capture the imagination of a group and result in a collaborative mission to collect and produce.  And if that weren’t satisfying enough, imagine the delight when a 7 year old, completely unprompted, excitedly reflected on how we so often go about our lives without noticing things. This was, of course, the point of the whole exercise and provided a powerful moment of shared reflection to everyone gathered around the phone.

New in the January challenge this year is ‘Collaborative Friday’ – a weekly task which can be completed in groups. The first was a game of ‘alphabet photo tag’ which required team members to work their way through the alphabet posting images and tagging others*.  Unsurprisingly, we immediately magnetised to form our own group, but it was so nice that several other people – strangers – were keen to join us to make a wider community. As the day progressed, our identities started to emerge; we playfully mocked ourselves, glimpsed into people’s workspaces, enjoyed sharing what we ate/drank. Without actually meeting or asking direct questions, we learned an enormous amount about each other and, I think, built bonds. At the end, we were proud of what we had achieved and looked forward to working together again.

So, what was it about these two tasks, in particular, that have engaged me in week one? Well, they both involved the use of images and I think that is important for giving learners confidence. Images allow us to explore, analyse, test and communicate ideas and there is massive potential for using imagery in teaching, even in the most unlikely of subjects. Another aspect, I am sure, is that these tasks were easy to complete with a smart phone; the fact that I could seamlessly integrate the tasks into my day was convenient but also empowering (no guilt!). But the biggest thing I will take away from this week is the power of the learning that takes place when you are involved in creating, sharing and co-producing – whether this is in the real or virtual world, part of a game or just something I do on my own. Feeling you are part of a community is energising and gives you the motivation to actively participate, interact and reflect on events; isn’t this the holy grail of teaching in higher education?

*Amusingly, the technicalities of the ‘tag’ game escaped our attention and we launched instead into a free-for-all game of ‘splatter’.  Our teammates were very generous in tolerating our complete disregard for order and rules.

Feeling inspired? It’s not too late to join. Sign up here if you want to get challenging! Follow the daily conversation on twitter #64millionartists .

Post Script:  Day 5 was poetry. I disliked it. I got on and did it. I think I passed (just). I got a bit of gentle (sympathetic) feedback. I am not sure I learned anything. Let’s move on. (thinks: how often do students feel like this about an assessment? Might come back to this…)

 

 

SRHE 2016 Educational birds – Singing for freedom ‘Old Tongue’

Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Jackie Kay’s poem, Old Tongue

The following reflective pieces were taken as ‘fieldwork’ for our SRHE 2016 paper on metaphorical inquiry.

 

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Catriona:

This poem highlights the way in which language is part of our identity and that sometimes learning something new actually invokes loss and even a connection with the past.

This sad tale of transition hits me in two ways. Firstly, it reminds me of the trauma of moving to France when I was a student and being completely lost in another language before eventually finding all those new words at once exhilarating and stimulating. However, unlike the narrator in the poem, I didn’t feel like I was ‘turning back’ or that ‘I would have taken them in,/swallowed them whole, knocked them back.’ For me, it was quite the opposite and I was desperate to absorb as many new words and sounds as possible with the aim of becoming French, becoming other…

The phrase ‘It made my mother’s blood boil’ made me smile (and not only because of the real ‘Scottishness’ of the phrase – she may have lost her words but not the sound). It reminded me of how upset my own (Scottish) mother was when – as I became increasingly fluent in French – I muddled up words, used the wrong prepositions as I substituted French syntax for English. There was a sense of betrayal. Yet it was this love of French, this desire to become French that was my intrinsic motivation to pursue my studies and keep going through the PhD. I have never lost this ‘new tongue’ and it has enriched my language, my ‘old tongue’ endlessly.

However, I chose my exile. For the narrator in the poem, this imposition of another language and culture is not made by choice. It makes me wonder – given that English is the lingua franca of higher education – how many others feel like that. How many of our international colleagues or students are economic migrants who arrive in our institutions, their ‘own vowels start[ing] to stretch likes bones.’?

The sense of rage, of helplessness, and finally in the last words, of defiance implies that the ‘old tongue’ lives on regardless despite being ‘lost’ and ‘buried’, the entire poem itself rejoices in the sounds and intonation of that same language. On a very personal way, it also evokes my own transition into higher education where I was struck by the inadequacies of my own language, particularly in English Studies. Like the narrator in the poem, ‘words fell of my tongue’ as I was forced to learn and become fluent in academic English. I remember returning to my hometown in a former industrial part of Scotland where I was mocked for ‘having a posh university accent’. I had abandoned my roots.

This imposition of English, of academic English in particular, in order to succeed in the world of academia and its paralysing and empowering effect on both staff and students is the thread that comes through both of these critical reflections of the poem. In one of our workshops, which we ran in Singapore, one of the participants was herself a Scottish academic who had lived there for a number of years and she chose to read the poem aloud to the group. She wept. The act of speaking those Scottish words aloud that had been ‘buried’ inside her triggered an emotional response. But also, as her tongue wrapped its way round those long forgotten words, she still knew them. As a learner and as a teacher, her ‘old tongue’ continued to speak to her. Another layer of identity to be unravelled…

Jennie:

The most striking aspects of Kay’s ‘Old Tongue’ relate to ideas of agency. Loss is a consequence of compulsion, a driving out, compelled by unidentified (or unidentifiable) external forces. Linguistic dislocation is an unconscious reaction to relocation. The result of this is similarly unseen, the gradual processes of loss not initially perceived, cannot be stopped until it is too late. Words fall, lost – although not lost. They still leave echoes, and can be recalled and listed in memoriam. It is this memory of what was before which perhaps creates the emotional experience of loss more than the actual changes in linguistic register. This knowledge of the ‘wrong sound’ – can only come from a remembrance of the ‘right sound’ – which was homely, and in which identity and sense of self and the expression of that self were aligned. This dislocation of self – can only be realised within the person who knows the before and after. It is imperceptible from outside. The new words which ‘march in’ are not ghastly if they have always been your words – ‘scones said like scones’./ Pokey hats into ice cream cones’. The poetic richness of language becomes functional, imaginatively sparse, anchored firmly to a prosaic explanation.

This speaks to my own loss of disciplinary familiarity. When I was 28 I was forced ‘south’, changing fields from the critical traditions of English Literature, which celebrates subjectivity and creative interpretations, revels in metaphor and reading against the grain to academic development. Immured in the social sciences, I felt compelled to swap pokey hats for ice cream cones.

My ways of disciplinary knowing become Kay’s lost language. They stole away, did a moonlight flit, loading the cart with academic identity, confidence and prestige leaving behind only a debt of methodological uncertainty. What happened to these ways of knowing? Kay’s poem seems uncertain, they are wandering and might be found, they are buried in her new alien land. In my own practice, like Kay, I try to call them back, ‘like calling in the sea’. I want them back, I want the right sound in my mouth, the old disciplinary ways of knowing which for me are forceful, powerful vehicles through which we can know more profoundly. In order to engage academics in pedagogic exploration, I reach for ways of expression which ‘gie it laldie’. This power can only be mastered as Heaney phrases it ‘in the language of first utterance’ – which for me is the creative, the poetic, the subjective, that which is powered by the force of critical imagining.

Yet, I pause. Is this desire to ‘gie it laldie’ and to find succour in my old ways of knowing, even now my disciplinary bones have stretched, and as I have grown into a new identity, like calling in the sea? It looks like my work is having impact, but the sea would have returned anyway. Has my new language, the language of learning and teaching, with its frameworks, paradigms, and data, born of the social science ‘south’ stealthily become my own? Is this professed desire to ‘gie it laldie’ – to express academic practice in an ‘old tongue’, a tongue which is lost, just a performance which testifies to my loss.