Sentio’s gift of reflection

In this post Natasha Taylor shares the resources she used as part of a workshop at the ‘Re-enchanting the academy’ conference. To read about the background to the workshop and further details of the other activities included, please click on this link.

Background

The activity

Sentio’s story is about ‘learning by doing’. It is about transforming experiences into moments of wonderment.

In the slideshare ‘space ‘ participants were encouraged to imagine a world in which students are the best possible learners. They immerse themselves in the lecture experience, taking in the information presented to them and thinking about how it applies to the wider subject. They embrace seminars with enthusiasm, raising questions and exploring answers with each other. They complete their assessments, demonstrating they have achieved a critical understanding of the topic.

In appreciative inquiry terms, this process of ‘envisioning what might be’ is underpinned by the anticipatory principle; what we do today is guided by our image of the future. It sets the tone for what is to come in the workshop space.

All of our activities were rooted in experiential learning.  My activity involved a puzzle. Participants were split into groups of 4. In turns, one group at a time, they came to the puzzle table. In front of them was a set of equipment.

Teams were given the instruction that they had to use all of the equipment to make the bongos play, without typing keys on the keyboard. They were given 90 seconds to solve the puzzle. After the time had timed out, the group returned to their seats and the equipment was disconnected and laid out afresh in preparation for the next group.

The Makey Makey was chosen primarily because it provides a quick and accessible task for groups of different backgrounds.  The bongos and bananas work because they are  fun, non-threatening items. The cartoon-style illustrations gave the task the feel of a game. Music here is about simple sound making. It is a visual, aural and tactile activity, The task is not oriented towards a specific topic or piece of knowledge so everyone approaches it on equal footing (arguably though it is about electronic circuits and you may have someone in the group who analyses the problem in that way).

In order to connect the bananas to the bongos, two of the leads were needed. Each lead needed to be connected to a banana at one end, and the Makey Makey circuit board at the other.  However, simply doing this was not the end of the puzzle; tapping the bananas at this stage does not work. The key to working out this problem was to trace the circuit and to recognise that it had to be earthed. In practical terms this meant little more than connecting one wire to the ‘earth’ connection on the circuit board and holding the other end in the hand to complete the circuit. Once the circuit is complete, one can make each bongo play in turn by tapping the bananas with the hands.

The interesting thing about using the Makey Makey was that it also works at another level – it turns the table into a ‘maker space’. The inventors of Makey Makey developed it as a tool for exploring the world around us in different ways. They argue we can all participate in changing the way in which the world works. Makey Makey is a tool for helping people to see what is possible and see themselves as agents of creative change in their real lives. It allows anyone to ‘smash’ computers with every day objects. It is inspiring at an abstract, motivational level, but there are practical applications. Maybe we could turn a stair case into a piano to encourage people to exercise. Maybe we could use a simple household object to help people with disabilities to use the computer. The key is that a perfect world cannot be created by one or two experts and helping our students to realise this opens their minds to the exciting world of knowledge.

There was the great potential for learning to take place in the short space of 90 seconds. The puzzle tests team roles, abilities to work strategically, understanding how circuits work, experimenting with conductive and non conductive materials. If that had been the end of the puzzle and I just gave the class the answer, what would they take away with them? A memory that they had done something fun/a bit strange? But what else?

The puzzle activity was not about demonstrating that experiential learning is good. It is – hopefully all four of our activities demonstrated this – but I wanted to expose the idea tthat experience  alone is rarely sufficient for learning. In order for it to have deep impact (and become a moment of wonderment) there has to be reflection. Authentic and meaningful reflection is an important part of the learning process. It fosters critical thinking, connections, deep understanding, and metacognition.

Reflection is a bit like exercise. We all know that it has benefits, we know it is something we should do, we know the basic principles of how to do it. But we struggle to make time for it and make excuses for not doing it. Sometimes we hope it just happens anyway, embedded in all the other stuff we do.

As teachers and academics, we know our students should reflect on their learning experiences, and we probably tell them. But I suggest they need help and guidance to better understand how to do it.

One way of doing this is by teaching them to ‘freewrite’.  Freewriting is a technique popular amongst writers for increasing productivity, confidence and creativity. It is useful for tackling writer’s block.

In the simplest terms, you set a time limit and then just write. You have to keep your hand moving or your fingers typing at all times; you must keep writing even if your mind wanders or goes blank. If you are bored or distracted, ask yourself what is bothering you and write about that. You should not worry about spelling or grammar and you should not pause to read over your work and correct mistakes. You have to carry on writing, no matter how much you think it might be nonsense.  When the time is up, read through what you have written and highlight any useful sections that you want to come back to.

This is an approach which can be used in a number of different ways with students.  You could use it at the start of the class to get students to reflect on the level of understanding of a topic they currently have (what have they learned up until this point). You can use it at the end of a class to help students reflect on what they have heard/seen/done and identify and areas of misunderstanding. You could use it in one of those tricky moments when students are silent and unwilling to discuss things in small groups. Or where a class discussion is too intense, to get students to refine in their minds the contribution they want to make.

I asked each workshop participant to have a go at freewriting. For three minutes, they had to sit in silence and write about what they had just experienced at the table.

Discussion

Do you use any freewriting techniques with your students? If so, what is their reaction?

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