January Challenge Part 2

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Day 16: Whatever the Weather (A storm brews in a Melbourne park and the birds are ruffled)

There was a definite gear change for the second part of the January Challenge as I went abruptly back to work and had to juggle the daily tasks with everything else.  Coming back to work after a holiday is always tough, but I think the depth of the earlier challenges really did amplify the pain and resentment of being stuck in a gloomy office with no windows.

Anyway, I am pleased to say that although I haven’t managed to do it daily, I have at least kept up.  The rest of the family have been away so I have found myself using the challenges to help me snap out of the lazy and apathetic behaviours I can slip into when I am on my own. That has made me think really hard about procrastination in academic life – its the big demon for so many of us and I have never really been able to fight the paralysis that accompanies it.  This week I decided to try something new to break the mental and physical ‘patterns’ and the results were impressive. So, instead of sitting and staring at my laptop for two hours producing nothing but a heavy blanket of guilt, I channelled my inner creative. I had a hot shower, made mint tea, played cheesy relaxation music and spent half an hour sketching un-pretty flowers with a blotchy biro. 30 minutes later I was tip-tapping away at the keyboard with newfound vigour! And my back ache had completely gone.

That was a surprise.  Not the only one, and actually this is what I think has been different this week. I haven’t had the time or space to do the slow, deep thinking I’d become used to, so things have got a bit quicker (dare I say slap-dash) at the ‘Do’ stage. And I have been surprised a couple of times about what I actually got out of the process.

For example, Day 15 Self Portrait invited challengers to draw two self portraits – one with each hand.  I delayed it for a couple of days – drawing is not my strong point. But I gave it a go and it was fascinating. I started with my right (dominant) hand and was concentrating very hard on replicating the lines I could see.  I saw grey hairs, deep frown lines, glasses that don’t suit me, a left eye with a very sad angle. It was all so harsh. Switching to my left, I expected to just repeat the process. But I didn’t. I suddenly saw softness, curves and warmth. I was really taken back. Was this to do with using different parts of the brain? Was it about repeating the process? I just didn’t know. It didn’t matter – it was a genuine moment of wonder and that was quite magical. Again I am back in love with the idea of wonder in learning…and I hope to cling to that.

What else? I continue to share only on Twitter. I watch the Facebook group but its a bit too busy for me to do more than lurk – it does make me laugh sometimes and I feel I ought to give back. But I have always been pro-lurking, it is a valid form of engagement. Back on Twitter new followers are starting to emerge – people I will continue to follow after the challenge because they seem good folk who stand for hope, kindness and compassion (and we all need more of that).

Musings on the 2020 January Challenge: Part 1

This is my fifth year taking part in the 64 Million Artists January Challenge and, as in previous years, I’m taking time out at the end of each week to reflect on the experience and draw parallels with the (often un-creative) world of higher education. Here are my thoughts on the first week (or so)…

So far I have kept up with all the challenges. We’ve been on holiday in Western Australia since the New Year and I have come to rely on the daily challenge as a way of taking time out – to step off the holidaying tread mill (What’s for dinner? Are these socks clean? Why won’t this stuff fit in the case? Where did we park the hire car?), properly engage with my surroundings, and appreciate the impact that creativity has on well being. For the first time, this year, I’ve really found it an effective way of de-stressing!

I think the reason for this is that I have worked out how to make time for and enjoy the reflective parts of the activities. The framework that supports the January Challenge is ‘Do Think Share’; I have really cracked the ‘Think’ bit this time, and not just focussed on the ‘Do’ and ‘Share’.  This has made me think about how we teach, support and value reflection in our teaching, and work as academic developers – how we walk the walk as well as doing the talk.

Do

Anyone who has followed my tweets in Januaries past will know that I am an enthusiastic photographer and a very reluctant poet. I danced once in 2016 and declared that was enough! The whole point of the January Challenge is that it encourages people to take risks, have fun and just play. Failure is just as important as success.

So far, my most satisfying activity was Make Something Small Look Big (Day 5). I’ll admit that I was lucky with this one – it landed in my mailbox just as we’d made the decision to visit Wave Rock (Hyden, WA) in the morning, and I just knew what I had to do.  Being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no craft materials made it all the more fun – amazing what you can do with a penknife, an up-cycled boarding pass and a glob of stolen blutack! The mini super-surfer was born and it was a lot of fun playing around with perspective in the awesome surroundings of a 130 million year old landscape!

The hardest one (and least enjoyable) was Post-it Possibilities (Day 7). Yes, I know, imagine the shock!  Post-it notes are my lifeblood, my currency and I was quite smug when I first read the challenge – to do something creative with a post-it note. But then I was hit by complete creative block. I had nothing. I gave a note each to the (5) kids – within a minute they’d made chatterboxes, fangs, wobbly eyebrows, airplanes. But I sat for hours in the the car with an empty head and a pen, and inspiration never came. The deadline came and went and I failed; I failed the one task which should have been easy. The post-it pad is still on my desk, taunting me.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I think there is something in the fact that the Post-it note challenge brief was very open – just ‘be creative’ – it lacked the structure and assessable/observable outcome of the perspective activity. What is an easy or safe activity? What IS creative? I’ve seen so many creative ways of using post-its in my time, perhaps I was interpreting it to mean new or original? I was setting myself up to fail. It has made me think about how we introduce reflective practice to our students and colleagues – do we adequately explain what is ‘expected’ and how do we support the process? When we introduce new forms of assessment (which I absolutely believe we should) then how do we ensure there are no victims to the sinking sands of ‘creative stuckness’? Actually immersing myself in the experiential side of these questions has exposed new layers of complexity.

Think

It is interesting to think (!) about what I’ve done differently about the Think tasks this year.  I see a marked difference between noticing/observing what I have done, and actually uncovering the meaning beneath or within it. I have been reflecting semi-objectively, consciously, and that is not new…but there have also been times when realisations just pop into my head (‘maybe I did/felt that because…’). It is not always comfortable enlightenment!

I have found myself thinking deeply about the significance of being here in Australia, rather than in the UK. Some of the challenges need a twist of interpretation – so for example the challenge to write a winter Haiku (Day 8) led me to reminisce about the sensations of the British winter (cold, wet, grey but with soft lights, fires, comfort food) and contrast them to those of the Australia summer (which I LOVE) – being warm, outside, swimming. January brought the most horrific bushfires to our doorstep and this led to some poignant reflections on the power of nature and the threat of climate change (in both hemispheres). As the month unfolds, there will be more explorations of my identity, connection to country and desires for the future.

Context, then, is important. We can set the same task for all, yet the meaning they attach to it will depend entirely on the context; what came before, the place, the priorities. And context changes: hourly, daily, annually. Reflection never really ends – its a life long thing. The trick – and I think this is my breakthrough – is to find your themes. This is, of course, exactly what underpins the work I do to support Awards/Professional Recognition, but this is a great example which I will find really useful to share when I am explaining it to people in the future.

Share

This has been the one area of difference for me this year. In previous years, both Jenni and I have enjoyed the sense of community that has emerged as fellow challengers (strangers) connect and play.  This year, the only real connections have come in the form of a few ‘likes’ – that is nice of course, but there isn’t the sense of being part of a collective generative project that there was in the past. Looking at the tweets via the hashtag #£64millionartists, though, it seems like there has been a big take up of the challenges in physical spaces – community hubs, libraries, museums – this is brilliant and it has made me think about how I could do that next year.

There is a Facebook group and I have never used it in the past – I don’t tend to use Facebook in that way. But out of curiosity the other day I joined, and the conversations there are literally awesome – the levels of emotional honesty, openness and personal exposure almost terrify me. Perhaps the lull I am experiencing, then, is a Twitter phenomenon, and could be just as much a product of my own relationship with social media as anything else?  I’ve certainly used social media differently since moving to Australia – I notice and value interactions more acutely. It has made me think about the ways we connect online – use filters, crave ‘likes’, (mis)interpret silences, choose words and imagery to express emotions. It has made me think – again – about feedback…the message, the purpose, the vehicle, the emotion…..that’s another can of worms open!

So, that’s a wrap on my reflections for the first week or so.  It is not too late to join the January challenge if you want to give it a go this is a good place to start: Do Think Share.

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…)

 

 

Why are we here?

IMG_6987In this blog post, Natasha Taylor and Catriona Cunningham reflect on life in the wonderless classroom…and the perils of asking ‘why are you here?’…

Natasha’s story…

I was really excited to have the opportunity to teach this term, but it has turned into one of the most frustrating teaching experiences I have ever had. Attendance is a serious problem and even when they do come they are not engaged – it is like they don’t care. Out of a group of 16 students, I have never even met 8 of them. Nothing in my arsenal of ‘tried-and-tested strategies’ works – absence reporting, pleas to collective conscience, signposts to assessment, promises of fun. Not even chocolate.

Perhaps it is about misplaced expectations? It is a topic that I find interesting – academically, but also at a more general level. Who wouldn’t find crime investigation, prisons and the courts interesting? Who wouldn’t want to come and have a discussion about these things? What is interesting is that in the conversations we have had, they don’t seem to have any awareness of what is going on in the world – be it in real life news, or fiction. Perhaps I am wrong to assume that their lives are enriched with new movie releases, tweeted news headlines, trashy holiday reads and Netflix?

I have been determined not to accept the argument that they are all slipping into ‘consumer mode’ and just want to be presented with a certificate at the end of three years. Surely students come to university to learn, not just be fed knowledge? At the end of one mediocre discussion, I challenged them on this very point. WHY are you here if it is not to take every opportunity made available to you? WHY the inertia?

Devastatingly, the response was numbing. They didn’t even seem to care that I was challenging their very being, demanding them to justify themselves. It was so utterly frustrating because I know what they are missing.  Am I wrong to get cross with them for that?  Should I be letting them decide how and when to engage?

Catriona’s Story

January 2016: Return to institutional life after 5 years in the academic jungle of the Higher Education Academy with its many different tribes and territories. Now, I’m in an institutional landscape where learning and teaching is taking root and sprouting. In academic development we are launching a new HEA-accredited CPD framework and are piloting a (non-accredited) course for those aiming to become Associate Fellows. Within a few days of launching this course, waiting lists for the sessions were full; there was an appetite or even a hunger for teaching and learning… As the weeks have gone by, however, I’ve often felt like I was back in the jungle constantly battling through shoots that are resistant and occasionally hostile.

I had imagined sharing the excellent practice taking place across the UK and beyond, looking at this study, or this website and helping them see the magic you can unleash in your class. They explain very patiently to me that this is all great, exciting, possibly even inspiring and yet they have no time to integrate this new way of doing things. It is as if I am bringing them brightly wrapped gifts from around the world and they don’t even want to unwrap the paper. I want exploration, they want answers. I want change, they want empathy. I want hope, they want job security.

Yesterday, to my shame, I let my emotions show in a class. In an open discussion, I felt a surge of anger I couldn’t – or didn’t – conceal and asked them why they were here to learn about learning and teaching if they didn’t actually want to change. Unlike Natasha’s participants, there was an audible gasp and lots of comments in the session feedback sheets. They were confused, had learned nothing and were deeply offended that I had questioned their reasons for being there. And they were right to be angry because instead of opening up a model for collaboration and ensuring their space was ‘safe’, I was imposing my agenda on them.

But how, in academic development, in the spirit of openness and educational enquiry, can we change hearts and minds without getting battle-fatigue? Where can we find an open clearing in the jungle?

Oh, you shouldn’t have! (Or…is it a grower?)

Jockey Innovation Tower, PolyU, Hong Kong
Jockey Innovation Tower, PolyU, Hong Kong

The arrival of the fourth Innovating Pedagogy report from The Open University was met with muted enthusiasm at Lacunae HQ. Like a fancily wrapped gift that turns out to be rather disappointing…’It is just not very…innovative…this year!’, came the puzzled response.

In previous years the predictions have proven to be pretty good. For example, the 2014 report brought us the flipped classroom, BYOD, storytelling, threshold concepts and (a firm favourite!) bricolage –  innovations that we at Lacunae tinkered with for most of 2015!

So what is different about the predictions for 2016?  Well, part of the problem was that many of the ideas just didn’t feel very new or relevant at first glance. Many of us have been implementing ‘crossover learning’ for a decade or so. If you don’t teach maths or science,  all of the suggestions about labs and scientific argument don’t seem very useful.

On the other hand, those ideas which are more exciting, seem somehow out of reach. Different technologies to help teachers ‘read’ individual students and respond to their specific needs just seem a bit out of reach to the jobbing (time-poor) academic who sees their students one hour a week.

But then we took a second look…..

The key phrase  from the blurb for the report that framed this second reading was “ten innovations that are already in currency but have not yet had a profound influence on education“. And it is that notion of profound influence that brings the light bulb moment.

When you believe that your practice attempts to value the links between informal and formal learning, when interdisciplinarity is at the heart of what you do and you are convinced of the potential to capture affective learning through reflection – and perhaps more importantly you work collaboratively with others who think/feel the same – it is easy to forget that not everyone values these pedagogies. Or even if they value them in some abstract sense, the ideas lack heft and form when it comes to influencing policy. So, although terms like crossover learning, incidental learning and context-based learning may seem a little like cover versions of our favourite tunes, we do see the possible benefits of getting everyone to sing from the same song sheet!

Also, for those readers that feel tempted to skip over the bits that seem aimed at STEM colleagues – don’t!

As the report acknowledges, learning through argumentation is relevant across the disciplines. But we would argue that it isn’t just transdisciplinary, but provides opportunities for an interdisciplinary pedagogical approach. The report recommends professional development for STEM teachers to build their skills in supporting argumentation. Providers of that professional development would do well to draw on the skills of philosophy teachers and law educators. Scientific mooting anyone?

Likewise, computational thinking might provide a handy matrix for extending the acknowledged benefits PBL, but if we also overlay the matrix with the principles of learning and teaching based on ‘wicked problems’ then we could really be onto something.

The key to making everything fall into place and get the most from the report is to look at the table on Page 7. This presents all of the pedagogies identified in all four of the reports, grouped into six themes: scale, connectivity, reflection, extension, embodiment, and personalisation. When you look at the 2015 pedagogies in this context, it is much easier to see the value they bring and to understand how they contribute to a bigger story.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

It’s a charade!

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It took me a while to get into it, but I’ve bought into the whole Twitter thing now. But one thing I have struggled with is how can it be usefully employed in teaching? Is it me? What transforms the twitter sphere into a learning space and what can be gained from interacting with your students in 140 characters? I’ve seen it used in live feeds during lectures, or for a ‘chat space’ at revision time, but these applications haven’t really excited me.

Imagine my wonderment, then, when I attended a workshop led by Rosie Miles, Reader in English Literature and Pedagogy, from the University of Wolverhampton last week. Underpinned by the theory of ‘ludic learning’, Rosie has successfully developed a twitter-based activity in which students assume roles from fin de siècle literature and tweet in character. Reflecting on the experience, Rosie describes how twitter becomes a disruptive space characterised by the many-voiced, democratic, participatory spirit associated with ‘carnival’. Students relish in the opportunity to explore characters in novel ways and achieve deep, transformative learning through performances of self.

Twitter is the perfect space in which to situate these conversations. It requires students to say things better, smarter. By using protected accounts, it is easy to set up a twitter bubble – a space where students can interact without interference from the outside world (this is important for assessment).

I can see some many applications in other disciplines. Ask students to assume the characters of social theorists? Historical figures? Artists? Elements? Such a simple idea, yet brilliant.

Click here for the abstract for Rosie’s conference paper. She is keen to encourage more examples in other disciplines so if you give it a go, give her a tweet @MsEmentor .

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

All Wrapped up!

Christo and Jeanne Claude, Wrapped Trees, Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland, 1997-98
‘Wrapped’ by Bruno Casonato CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Earlier this year, I ran an HEA workshop with Karen Fraser on how you can squeeze the most out of MOOCs in your learning and teaching. I came across the idea of ‘wrapping’ where you integrate a MOOC into a traditional university face-to-face module.

 

Here is a really good case study by colleagues at Vanderbuilt University.  What I find exciting is that it combines the philosophy of the flipped classroom with pedagogies underpinning blended learning and communities of practice. It may not be an easy approach to take – the case study highlights many of the barriers – but I can see the potential for using open courses in my own teaching. Definitely one to watch!

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.