Learning from Letters

Things have been a little quiet in Lacunae recently. With the pandemic inserting new layers of complication and chaos to our lives, it’s been a really busy time. As we have all been sucked into our own spaces, the monthly reading project has been shelved, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been writing! In fact we have been putting all our available energies into a research project which has taken us away from our screens (mostly) and immersed us in the world of good old-fashioned, pen-on-paper letter writing.

Without giving too much away (peer review may force us to revise what we promise to deliver!), we have been exploring our work and the world of academic development through the exchange of letters. Those letters – autobiographical accounts of our thoughts and experiences – are our data. Through analysis of them we have blurred the lines between fact and fiction, played with interpretations of text and looked for shared meanings.

The whole process has been revealing (not always in a good way!). And although our initial quest (a journal article) is complete, we were all so intrigued by the power and potential of the project that we have agreed to continue with it. Where the journey will take us is not yet clear, but we decided that sharing aspects and insights along the way would be a good thing to do. This, then, is a post to get the ball rolling.

For the love of letters…

At the moment I am reading the novel What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt and it has prompted me to reflect on what I have learned through my epistolary journey in the last 6 months. Half way through the story, following the tragic death of their son, a wife leaves her husband and the family home to take up a job in another city. Accepting their relationship is strained, but not over, they agree to find a way of sharing their day-to-day lives through letters:

‘I dont want the words to be naked, the way they are in faxes or on the computer. I want them to be covered by an envelope that you have to rip open in order to get at. I want there to be waiting time – a pause between the writing and the reading. I want us to be careful about what we say to each other. I want the miles between us to be real and long. This will be our law – that we write our dailiness and our suffering very, very carefully. In letters I can only tell you about my wildness…’ (p.151).

In a single paragraph, Hustvedt captures the essence of letter writing, exposing it as a physical, emotional, transformational experience which connects two people across chasms of space and time. For me, it really draws out some of the powerful contrasts between the way I reflect, read and write in the electronic vs. paper-based formats.

The physicality of letters

Letters have a tangible quality which emails or DMs just don’t have. The stamps and post marks say something about the miles travelled; the stationery carries a message of its own, be it a practical or aesthetic choice. The act of ripping open the envelope can be exciting, bringing anticipation, nervousness or joy. The clunkiness of having to fold all the pages together and stuff them back into the torn envelope and find a place to keep them – a pretty box or a letter rack (remember those?); mine are bundled in a blue elastic band! It makes email feel so sterile – opening with a click, standardised fonts and line lengths, moving to a folder – it is all so mechanical. The words are, indeed, naked.

Is it possible to bring some of these physical qualities and pleasures to electronic communication? You can include pictures, add attachments, use nice formatting. But is it the same? I don’t think so – it feels like a gap that can’t be filled. What is lost?

Writing our dailiness

Too often, electronic communication demands efficiency; the need to be lean with words/characters drives out what might be seen as unnecessary waffle or overly personal sentiment. What letter writing reveals to me is the power that ‘writing our dailiness’ has – it sets the context and connects the reader to the writer in a meaningful way. By sharing what we can see or hear from our desk, or musing about what to cook for dinner, we open up portals into our lives. This makes the reader experience richer, more intense; to be able to imagine the sights, sounds and smells that the writer experiences, and to feel/share the emotion is deeply satisfying.

I’m put in mind of Helen Sword’s work. Frustratingly, my copy of Stylish Academic Writing is stuck on my desk in the locked-down office – I can’t get a direct quote – but she talks about how we adopt a very formal, somehow detached ‘persona’ when we write emails. We are all conscious of being professional, and not wasting people’s time, but maybe it is time to think about how those communications could be more human? Is it possible to make receiving an electronic communication a more physical, sensual, connected experience through including more ‘dailiness’? Or must those details remain in the realm of the informal/personal rather than professional space?

Freedom in reflection

Somehow, writing with a pen feels more free and I certainly find it a more productive way to write. It is slower than typing, forcing my brain and hand to work together more slowly and deliberately. It is easier for thoughts to flow – it can be a stream of consciousness. But at the same time, I find that my mind is busy making decisions about what to include and not include – and often the things unsaid are more important than those written. When I write an email or text I seem to make these editing decisions after the words have been laid out.

I think letter writing has re-kindled a more active and honest form of reflective practice for me. I’ve bought a nice fountain pen (3 actually) and re-started my practice of a daily work journal (nothing more than a foolscap notebook which sits on my desk and records everything I do, think and hear). I am not sure when I stopped doing this – maybe a few years ago – but it strikes me how shallow and restrained my reflections had become without it. Letter writing has returned me to a place where visual and playful practices can catalyse and deepen my reflective thinking.

I’m pretty sure that none of these are original observations – there is a great literature on epistolary research and letter writing as a research methodology (literatures which we will inevitably get into as the project develops). But right now, it has really made me think about how I process my thoughts and share ideas and what I could do to make my writing and communications richer, more human, connecting to readers more strongly. What do you think?

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.

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?