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?

Do

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?

Think

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?

Share

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? http://64millionartists.com/pledge/

A love that dare not speak its name?

Lecture at LTH LundThe long-maligned lectures holds sway (if not student attention) in most higher education institutions, and gives many HE professionals their job title.

In her article ‘Lecture me, really’ Molly Worthen bravely pledges her troth to this time-tested practice, so unjustly spurned by modish educators.

In her article ‘Lecture me, really’ Molly Worthen misguidedly chains herself to this archaic practice, so wisely rejected by enlightened educators.

Pieces in defence of the lecture appear regularly – and are met by a celebratory “hooray” from its avid and loyal admirers, and by dismay and bewilderment from its detractors.

Whichever tribe you belong to every vindication or condemnation offers valuable opportunity to revisit dearly held assumptions about the way we teach and the way in which students learn. Engaging in debate about divisive practices like the lecture can reinvigorate our engagement with the big questions: what can a University education do, how should it do it, and how do we as educators and students as learners best achieve our goals?

So, maybe not lecture me, really, but disagree with me, absolutely.

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

Lost at sea!

CC-BY-NC 2.0
Ninja Wolf Lost at Sea by Krysthopher Woods

LOST AT SEA!

A super activity to use on those occasions when you are welcoming a new cohort of participants to a programme, and you want an ice-breaker-come-teambuilding exercise that people won’t scoff at.

Put your participants on a yacht in the mid-Atlantic and set the thing alight! Give them 15 potentially life saving items and ask them to decide which they want to keep. What possible use could the chocolate and rum be?

You get the idea. It works so well because it neatly fuses together individual and group decision making processes. And it’s fun. I like to add an additional step to the end which asks the groups to reflect on the group dynamic and team roles and discuss how they perceived their own input, and that of other team members.

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

Once upon a time….

InviteIn this post we outline the rationale behind a workshop that we facilitated at the Re-enchanting the academy’ conference. We also share resources that provide opportunities for colleagues to reflect on how they might engage students using a range of stimulae – poetic, narrative, experiential and somatic.

Our story begins…

Once upon a time a long time ago the king and queen had a beautiful daughter. One day a wicked fairy cast a spell on the lovely princess, cursing her to never learn. The alarmed King locked the princess far away from the world in a high ivory tower. In time the princess was granted 3 A’ levels and set out for university. But one day, quite unexpectedly, the princess fell into a deep intellectual stupor. Her teachers lectured and talked, and talked and lectured, but the princess never seemed to learn. Each term she sat an exam, and each term she passed her exam, but at the beginning of the next term she had forgotten everything that she had known. The King and Queen despaired.

One day four benevolent fairies appeared and endeavoured to lift the hateful curse which blighted the princess’s university life:

Poésie, who spoke in many tongues and was the most charming fairy of all, offered a linguistic charm, ‘Whosoever reads these words shall feel at ease with the whole world, and will never feel doubt or shame even though their tongue may stumble over unfamiliar sounds and concepts. I give you the gift of confidence.’

Tale, who was never quite in the real world and who aspired to panache, brought a storybook, filled with devices, fancies and imaginings, ‘Whosoever lives these stories shall have the fairest prose of all. I give you the gift of academic writing.’

Sentio, who was a very practical fairy who applied herself to every task, brought a puzzle, ‘Whosoever puzzles this puzzle will grow wiser and wiser as each day passes. I give you the gift of reflection.’

Mind, an unassuming fairy who thought about everything a lot, brought nothing and said nothing, but offered the rarest gift of all: silence. Quieting the noise of the world, Mind gave the gift of concentration.

Why a fairy tale?

In keeping with the theme of the conference, we were inviting our colleagues to suspend the rational world of enhancement and embark upon a journey to a realm of enchantment. It was our job, as facilitators, to create a space in which that realm could be constituted – a space ‘in which it is once more possible to think’ (Foucault, 1970).

Excavating that space from the silted-up landscape of an academic conference – enchantment obscured under layer upon layer of convention, physical and intellectual: congested rows of chairs, an awkward rattle of cups and saucers, knee-balanced laptops and academic posturing, the imposition of ill-fitting theory, and the tyranny of properly referenced slides – is never an easy thing!

We are creatures of habit and convention, and do not always react well when our expectations are disrupted. But we were convinced that the value of our workshop – the possibilities for enchantment – lay in our colleagues experiencing for themselves the activities we had designed rather than listening to us explain the theoretical underpinning for our practice. The use of fairy tale was an interpellation to possible attendees – we are going to try something new, please come and join us if you think this might be your kind of thing!

But what do you do with all the theory and the explanations if you don’t want them cluttering up your space? It felt like it wouldn’t be enough to just demonstrate the activities and end with ‘trust us, this works!’.

Our solution was to create an additional online space where we could deposit the ‘useful clutter’. We then invited our colleagues – we handed out hard-copy invitations to delegates (see above) – that included the URL so that they could access these resources either before or after the workshop.

You are cordially invited….

If you would like to share in and comment on the resources we created for this workshop, please click on the links below

Poésie’s gift of confidence.

Tale’s gift of academic writing.

Sentio’s gift of reflection.

Mind’s gift of concentration.

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?