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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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!
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!).
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…)
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 for64 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?
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?
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?
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? http://64millionartists.com/pledge/
Creativity is a hard concept to define. Steve Wheeler pretty much nails it with this slide, part of his keynote at the Digital Pedagogies conference held in Doncaster on 3 July. By the power of Twitter (and @christinehough): “This”.
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