SRHE 2016 Educational birds – singing for freedom ‘The Moment’

Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘The Moment’.


The following reflective pieces were undertaken as ‘field work’ for our conference paper at SRHE 2016, ‘Educational birds: a hybrid metaphorical enquiry’.


This entire poem spoke to me as an extremely powerful metaphor for knowledge and raises the pertinent issue of ownership of knowledge. In our current exploration of how students learn and in particular the positioning of the student as co-creator of knowledge. This shift in teacher-student power has implications for the role of knowledge in the ‘supercomplexity’ that is the contemporary university (Barnett) as well as who controls and therefore owns that knowledge.
In my context, the first stanza strikes me as an apt description of the PhD process. The fact that there is no full stop throughout the whole stanza gives such a strong sense of the length of the process. The positioning of ‘you’ at the beginning of the third line draws in the reader at the ‘centre’ and forces us to look inwards, to reflect on what it might mean to us, as individuals. This inclusive ‘you’ brings the reader closer to the narrator, but this sense of self that is brought out through the use of the word ‘centre’ is further emphasised through the enlarging sense of space spreading out from the ‘room’ all the way to the ‘country’. This vastness of time and space highlights the extraordinary depth and breadth we go to in our ‘voyage’ with all its connotations of peril and adventure to cross the threshold and reach the other side. The doctorate. But who is the gatekeeper? As the poem continues, doubts creep in, reading through the lens of learning and teaching, the imposter syndrome grows and ‘No, they whisper. You own nothing.’ The insidiousness of these voices, which is highlighted by their plurality imply the impossibility of ever truly crossing that threshold to the other side. The gatekeepers – for the PhD students – are their supervisors of course but they are also the academic establishment. The chilling words at the end of the poem ‘You were a visitor, time after time/climbing the hill, planting flag, proclaiming’ emphasise the precariousness of knowledge. As PhD students, with each new discovery, new reading and new argument put forward is the sense that you are getting closer to that moment of ownership, of validation. And yet, as the poem expresses so poignantly, this is an ever-elusive process. For once you have the PhD and you in turn supervise others, you realise that actually ‘the cliffs fissure and collapse’ as you are not really the gatekeeper you had assumed existed. The more you read and learn and even teach, the less in control the knowledge becomes and in fact the more ambiguous everything feels… Working with this ‘found poem’ in workshops, participants respond to this metaphor and begin to probe their role in terms of gatekeeper or owner of disciplinary knowledge. Discussions around whether we can ever actually ‘own’ what we know or if everything is in fact known only in its relationship to what has been before emphasises how individual our contexts are. This may seem obvious but in fact, it is not. When we talk generically about ‘knowledge and understanding’ as a key benchmark for our disciplines, this glosses over the complexities the poem draws out as well as the way in which the individual has been shaped by and in turn shapes their own knowledge and then translates it as teachers and learners. Without reflecting critically on what this poem as metaphor means to me, these messy layers of ambiguity would have been left unexplored and the assumptions remained under wrap.


The powerful inversion of ownership in the final lines of Atwood’s poem asserts an unfamiliar and uncomfortable authority. The emphatically end-stopped lines admit no challenge. What you thought was is not. Hard work, journeying, success does not mean possession, even though this is the story that you tell. The sense of just reward that you feel is fallacious. The right of ownership, not just disputed but denied, is not just material – of a room, of a dwelling, of a domain, of a community, of a nation. It is also deeply entwined with mastery of your own narrative, you stand not only in the centre of your space, but also at the centre of your story: ‘knowing at last how you got there,’.

For me this speaks of the reflective self, and uncomfortably confronts idea of the reflective practitioner that I promote in my academic development work. For example, I draw upon the work of social anthropologist, Geertz (1995) asking academics to position themselves within the parade of their lives, representing where they have come from in order to understand their pedagogic assumptions, and to ‘own’ their future development. It speaks to my allegiance to narrative enquiry which I believe sustains multiple truths, but which still creates ‘knowledge’ to be transferred and exchanged. I wonder, can you truly deal in that which you don’t own?

In Atwood’s poem it is at the point of certainty, of attainment, of tenure that knowledge disintegrates – melting back into its component parts. All which was comforting and secure retreats, ‘soft arms’ ‘unloose’, the language which you thought was your own is reclaimed, high ground is leveled, you have no medium within which to exist: ‘you can’t breathe’.

So, which certainties does this poem interrogate? What is this contested property? Knowledge? Narrative? Identity? When I first read this poem I thought of it as knowledge – that is imagined and reimagined, which belongs to no-one but belongs to the world. We stake our claim, we proclaim our interpretations (which we often present as certainties) but each fresh clutch of academics supplants our readings, rushing up the hill to plant a flag of their own. Like most academics I rushed to interpret the academic world through its research activities. But now, I read it again, and I wonder whether this could represent learning and teaching. We speak of ‘our students’, ‘our practice’, ‘our teaching philosophies’ – we impose ownership, we are recognised, certified, exhibited in offices, we tell stories of our teaching and about who we are as teachers. But perhaps Atwood’s poem prompts us to question this. Are the unloosing trees our students moving into independence, taking back their language as they learn and then unlearn, as they draw away do we gasp for air wondering how we can be teachers when we no longer ‘teach’?

If we relinquish our acquisitive grip on education, the story of our practice is no longer our story alone, and we can no longer be the truthful tellers of it. Rather we are the sum of many stories, and it is in the ways in which we are found by students that we earn our place in the world.

“We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round”


Engaging undergraduates in independent research: LSE Groups

This week my LSE colleague, Esther, and I  will be off to the Engage 2016 conference to talk about LSE Groups. This initiative takes place at the end of the Summer Term when undergraduate students from across the School can opt to take part in a two-week research project.

Yes – a research project completed in just two weeks! As a relatively recent arrival to  LSE I thought the idea was more than a little bit mad… But then I saw it in action.

Students come together in interdisciplinary, cross-year groups to develop a research question, decide on an appropriate methodology, collect and analyse data and write up their findings. And when I say ‘write up’ I mean a full paper and conference presentation!

Of course they don’t do this entirely on their own. There is a group of supervisors who are on hand to advise the students, and other staff present workshops on research ethics and methodologies. But the idea that underpins the project is that this should be independent research – the students call the shots.

The abstracts from last year’s projects illustrate just how ambitious students can be when given this independence. One of the groups (Hipsters and Spikes: mapping gentrification and defensive architecture in Tower Hamlets ) won the prestigious Booth Prize at the recent LSE Research Festival. The judges commented “The judges felt that this work touched closely on both themes and methods featured in Charles Booth’s pioneering work, combining state of the art mapping techniques with qualitative research to enhance our understanding of how inequality is produced in urban contexts.”

And the video below illustrates the process in more detail.

But there is an inherent tension in trying to provide students with this independence within the two week timescale and trying to encourage the students to think about the public engagement role of social science research. Do we try and enlist the help of certain organisations in advance and risk narrowing the possible choices students can make when designing their projects? If we are going to ask the students to do more to disseminate their findings to relevant organisations, which would involve a much bigger time commitment on the students’ part, might we reduce the number of students willing to participate? These and many other questions have shaped our thinking as we have tried to envisage LSE Groups as a more publicly engaged project. And we are hoping that our colleagues at the Engage conference will help us to find some answers! We are also hoping that people who can’t attend the conference will also share their thoughts, and you can do this by using the comments section of this blog.

Thanks in advance for your advice and support.





A communion with learning: inside the lacunae

Inside the Glasite Meeting House, Edinburgh @Helen McCrorie, 2016

We know that learning happens informally and formally, and in all sorts of learning spaces but how often do we pause and consider the serendipitous nature of learning in all its forms? In this blog post Catriona Cunningham reflects on possibilities that open when creative and academic practices intertwine.

August 2016: Helen McCrorie stood on the threshold of her exhibition – opening the wooden door to allow us to enter into the dark and intimate interior of the former meeting house. A symbolic choice of location. We made our way along empty pews before nestling in the corner, right in front of three large screens which flickered between moving images. I could see the outlines of other heads around me but my eye was drawn to the murky glass skylight panel above my head, which cast a sombre light on the room; it felt like we were being watched from above. We were also participating in our own ritual. Our communion.  With one another? With nature? With ourselves?

The images on the screen went round in a loop with no obvious demarcation between beginning and end – the ceremony is not the climax here. It is the process that counts. So, we watched the men as they prepared for their own commune. We observed one man’s everyday ritual banal and familiar as he ate breakfast and started to prepare for his initiation into the priesthood. We watched others, a collective of men, who banged and moulded the raw material of wood from their surrounding landscape to create the flambeaux that they would then carry through their local Scottish village in Hogmanay celebrations.

McCrorie’s commentary on these male rituals is far from neutral: the camera lingers on the physical surroundings of each context – the mysticism of the lay priest undermined by the sight of him sitting on the sofa eating his toast and marmalade or by the laddish enthusiasm with which the other priest embrace and slap him heartily following on from the ceremony. There are other juxtapositions: the solemnity of the male procession through the village gently parodied by the close-up of a can of irn bru or by the way in which one of the young man struggles under the weight of the flambeau. Male power and strength, both physical and societal, are thereby questioned and critiqued, albeit without malice. The voiceover commenting on the film is anonymous and androgynous. Ambiguity reigns.

This theme of watching, observing and noticing matters for the purpose of McCrorie’s probing bird’s eye view on our society’s male rituals. But the act of observing her observations inspired me to notice more closely and carefully what I learned. My role in learning and teaching positions much of my reading and observing in the domain of scholarly thinking, of pedagogical research as a way of informing my own academic practice and my work with colleagues as they cross over their own learning and teaching practice into professional recognition. McCrorie’s film made me remember how powerful art and literature can also be in shaping the way we think about learning and teaching.

These simultaneous films going round in loop highlighted to me the rituals of what we do in academic development and how little we question the process of how we recognise good practice in learning in teaching. Are we also trapped in the lacunae where we collaborate to ensure that the process remains the same? In his most recent novel, David Mitchell illustrates the danger of conserving the status quo in a most chilling way. Madeleine Mien’s novel gives us terrifying perspectives of the danger of sacrificing the collective for the individual and for trying to make education fit the purposes of a political agenda. McCrorie, Mitchell and Mien have all influenced the way I think about my own work in the last month alone. The theme of laddism; the danger of the collective; the purpose of society and its rituals. These issues all matter in higher education but it is through creative media that I understand why. My learning cannot be contained to the rules of the academic world. Can yours?

McCrorie, H. The Clock in Commune, video installation at The Glasite Meeting House, Edinburgh Art Festival, August 2016

Mitchell, D. Slade House. London: Sceptre Books. 2015.

Thien, M. (2016) Do not say we have nothing. London: Granta.



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?

Do, think, share #64millionartists

Junk modelling
Junk modelling

New Year’s Day. The day when everyone makes those resolutions to start dieting, take up more exercise and just generally be a ‘better’ person. Years ago I stopped making those resolutions because I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would never keep them.

So why was this year any different?

Searching on Twitter (I know!) for ideas about the role of creativity in learning and teaching, I came across the account for 64 Million Artists and decided in  a mad moment to sign-up for their January Challenge. Still haven’t really unpacked what prompted that impulse, but I’m glad that I did.

Put simply, you get an email to your mailbox every day throughout January outlining a different creative challenge. You do, then think, then share.

Over the month I have, amongst other things, compiled a picture of the year ahead,  made a junk sculpture, danced myself silly (nothing new there!), documented my day through taking a photo every hour (goodness my life is boring!), carried out a random act of kindness and, written a story a line at a time in partnership with fellow Lacunae blogger, Natasha.

I won’t claim to have completed all the challenges.  But I had a go at most of them. You can see my responses to the challenges, and those of many others, on Twitter via #64millionartists.

So what did I take away from this experience, and how is it relevant to learning and teaching?


Talking to my 8-year old self.
Talking to my 8-year old self.

It’s amazing how much time you can spend thinking and writing about creativity, and yet not actually do any creative activity beyond the thinking and writing.. I think this can be a real issue when working as an academic developer. I have certainly spent more time showing people how to make rich pictures and explaining the theory behind them than I have ever spent doing them myself.

Putting aside 20 minutes a day to complete the challenge, and allowing myself some more time if I was enjoying the activity, was a real treat.  And I did feel like I had achieved something everyday. I don’t consider myself to be any good at certain types of creative activities but I am quite competitive, so turn the activity into a challenge and I’ll give it a go!

I think this points to the first take away message from this challenge. Having a go was what mattered. And having someone else telling me what it was I had to have a go at gave me permission to not be very good at it.

As teachers do we give ourselves time to do something each day (or even each week!) that we might not be very good at? By this I don’t mean the ‘worthy’ activity of identifying areas for CPD and working on them. I mean just having a go at something where the outcome itself is of little consequence. Given we are all so time poor, it isn’t surprising if we don’t. But perhaps we should.The actual ‘doing’ bit of the tasks, which in many cases involved very tactile experiences, felt very satisfying. This was definitely more about process than outcome.

And it is that focus on process that might make this a very useful learning tool when students can be so very focused on outcome. It’s difficult to introduce tasks into learning and teaching that aren’t directly related to the context of their desired outcomes (their qualifications) – “If it doesn’t count towards their grade, they won’t do it”. And because of this we do take the time and effort to try and contextualise activities that don’t involve direct scored assessment by explaining how they might help them do better in that type of assessment. Once again we drag their thinking back to outcome rather than process.

But what if we didn’t try and do this contextualisation? What if we just provided a short, sharp bit of creative ‘doing’ each day? Would they do it? They might if it were fun!

But why would we, as teachers, bother?


Memories of summer
Memories of summer

Now you don’t need me to reiterate here all the arguments about the role of reflection in and on learning – hopefully we can all agree that this is a ‘good thing’. But it is not always easy to get students to engage in reflection in a consistent and constructive way. In order to somehow structure the activity we provide templates or series of questions that require a response.

Perhaps we should think about how we can use a much more ‘free association’ approach (going all Freudian!) to encouraging the development of these particular academic muscles. The prompts given by the 64 million artists team were What was it like? Did you enjoy the experience? Did it feel difficult?

The qualitative researcher in me baulks at the inclusion of some closed questions as a prompt for reflection, but actually I found they worked well. When short of time or feeling a little alienated by any of the activities, I could respond quite simply no/yes, but often I found that afterwards the question of ‘why that response?’ spent time percolating through my thought processes. Sometimes even eliciting more sophisticated responses! At other times I felt I could just stick with the no/yes response with no need to justify my response in any way.

Might students, especially those only just beginning to shape their academic identities, find this a more engaging prospect when compared to the more directed reflection we tend to offer them?


Instructions to an alien. How to mend a broken heart.
Instructions to an alien. How to mend a broken heart.

Sharing your thoughts and reflections – always a ‘deep- breath’ moment! The focus here was on sharing the feelings and thoughts about doing the activity rather than sharing whatever you had produced. Again, process rather than output. Lots of people did share what they had produced, however, and I found that sharing very affecting.

You could share via a project space on the 64 million artists website, or via social media. Mostly I engaged via Twitter, and as the month progressed I felt a real sense of community developing.

I have been reading and thinking a lot recently about student self-efficacy and resilience. And I keep returning to a piece of work that Simon Cassidy wrote about on the HEA learning and teaching blog. Specifically, the issue that students who are more resilient for themselves also have the potential to support the development of other students’ self-efficacy and, as a result, their resilience. As Simon points out, this has encouraging implications for peer-led learning and mentoring.

Again, there is a tendency to formalise this type of learning and mentoring, but is there space for a much more fluid engagement in a learning community? One of the things that struck me about the January Challengers that shared via Twitter was just what a diverse bunch we were. In most instances the only connection was participating in the challenge, but that connection still enabled learning from each other, and a supportive and encouraging space.

One aspect I include in workshops I facilitate that focus on providing learning and teaching beyond time and space is the need to provide opportunities for learners, who may never meet face-to-face, to create a social space for peer-support. In my work as  a tutor with the Open University that space was a ‘Cafe’ forum within the module space on the VLE.

Interestingly, during the rounds of introductions that characterise the beginning of the module students seem to want to be able to situate each other both in terms of space and time. Contributions usually started with “Hello my name is xxx and I live in xxx”. Subsequent discussions – discussions where people were continually presenting and (re)presenting their identities – usually included some elements relating to the the contexts in which they were attempting to study.

But these spaces, confined as they were within the VLE and linked to specific modules, were formally informal! Is there the potential for students to come together around a theme like creativity and an aim like completing the challenges to develop a learning space that encourages peer learning and support? Would that space be the richer for having students from different disciplines and at different stages of their academic careers contributing?

More questions than answers there! I’d love to hear your thoughts – or to hear about any similar strategies you already have in place.

So, the January Challenge is done and dusted, but I have signed up for the Friday Challenge – a creative challenge sent to your email box every Friday. Why not join up and join in?

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.