my “selfie” mantra

I wrote this two years ago, around about the time of the start of the Brexit hoo hah and various other shocks to the collective system. As I’ve been reviving this site over the weekend I found that it had only been published privately. Strangely,  it has almost relentlessly resisted my attempts  to make it public after all – despite having been in hibernation all this time. This may be a sign – after all, I wrote it at a time when I had spent a great deal of energy supporting students in critical reflections of various kinds, and now I spend what energy I have left doing other things entirely. If it ever makes it out into the world I hope it is still useful and relevant.

In 2012 Stefan Collini asked the question “What are universities for?”; one seemingly answered in institutional mission statements, although how to espouse it and live it out is the challenging bit. It occurred to me, in the light of the last cataclysmic seven days in British politics, that the question is not necessarily what are universities for, but once we know what they are, can they function as they should? Who and what are we, in our roles as educators and professionals working within them? Will we be able to fulfil this role in the way we desire to or have done in the past? And as we try and work out what the answer might be to that in the face of extraordinary uncertainty and volatility we have another, more granular, curriculum-oriented question too. If we believe that higher education is about the growth of the whole person then how can we support students to develop their metacognitive and personal understanding as part of grappling with their subject.

As I mull over these questions I have come up with a “selfie mantra” that can be applied in whatever way you choose, to questions of learner and personal identity. In the light of my conversations with colleagues this week I have been pondering how it might be used to help students manifest their graduate attributes and do so in creative and multisensory ways (see the rest of this site for thoughts on that). What follows is a highly condensed version of that thinking – so apologies in advance to anyone looking for a highly theorised dissection of each element.

My mantra – for want of a better word – has four aspects, which are


Now you can very easily argue that these overlap in places or could be joined by any number of things starting with “self”; however they will do for now. (Less is more). While all have been extensive researched and/or written about in some form, I am using them currently as perspectives for developing awareness of ones identity and own learning.

Under self evaluation, which is something of a catch all term, I am thinking of the different ways a student might approach this, and how we can move away from the more familiar written models of retrospection. Engaging Imagination goes into this in plenty of detail so here I would like to offer two different illustrations which refocus consideration of self within a bigger issue. Now we know that reflection is always about something, so this is a nuance of this. One illustration  is Robert Nash’s work on Scholarly Personal Narrative, explained here, which combines intellectual analysis of personal perspective and lived experience with a bigger topic, theme or question. An example I have used this week is how someone living in a certain demographic, in a given geographic region, with a fixed political affiliation might answer the question post-Brexit “What is democracy?”. A second illustration  might be how we explore other complex questions through building, drawing or other means, such as “what is the state of higher education today in [insert relevant country] and what does this mean for me?”. By evaluating personal responses to these kinds of questions and experiences we have the chance to integrate thoughts of identity, values, place, role, knowledge and belief rather than itemise some of these things separately.

Self-efficacy as defined by Bandura and paraphrased crudely here is our perception of our ability to handle ourselves and the events that occur in our lives. For students this is often bound up in perceptions of success or failure, or personal confidence and self belief, or as the old saying goes:

Unpacking the extent to which self-doubt (there’s another one) has played a part in processes and outcomes of learning requires honesty and self-scrutiny (whoa – and another) which peer coaching as part of reflective engagement can support. Similarly building and sharing through LEGO or other media can evidence concerns, gaps or victories and how they played out.

Self- regulation is a broad term which more specifically should indicate self-regulated learning, or Zimmerman‘s work on how students adopt personally initiated ways to learn successfully. There is something faintly clunky and medical about the term (none of the self-pluses are particularly attractive words, however it sums up what is ideal and desirable in an independent learner.

Self-realisation, when you Google it, has all kinds of spiritual connotations attached to the term; while these may be important to an individual my take on it is much more pragmatic – being about individual capability to maximise and achieve potential or become who or what a person intends or desires.

These four aspects are shorthand for

A note on terms: while the “selfie” mantra is something that is easily understood I tend to use the different terms beginning with “self” sparingly to avoid any kind of jargon overload. good for students to know as referents, but better that they understand the spirit of what they mean so they don’t end up wanting to facepalm.

Head in Hands


Friday morning, July 1st, was damp, cool, slightly sticky. The train was crammed with passengers – no surprise there – jolting and swaying all the way to London. As I slipped my ticket into the barrier slot and came out onto the concourse at Waterloo I was conscious of a group forming a tableau. Its shape was blurred slightly by onlookers milling around it briefly, then dissipating into the haste of their onward travel. The group were World War 1 soldiers, alert, present, silent, making no eye contact, waiting for a train from a different time. Jostled by passing commuters I took a brief video, then a photo, then turned to leave. As I did so I noticed one, two, three soldiers, then more. And more. Grouped all around the station. Walking past singly, or in lines. I headed for the Tube, and as I descended the escalator a lone soldier handed a card to a traveller, with the name of a fallen comrade marked upon it. I felt stunned, emotional, dislocated by this strange presence from another world and time; feelings which increased as I walked through more groups, more lines, criss crossing through the passages of the Underground, focussed on their journey, detached and seemingly oblivious to the rest of us. As I headed along the moving walkway to the Jubilee line I heard first the tapping of boots stepping in unison, then saw a string of soldiers coming towards me.


This image does little justice to the profound effect being among these other travellers had on me. It brought home in an embodied and visual way, right up close, the reality of the war, in a way no history book could have done. Most powerful was the way the soldiers were performing by being others, but not acting. The shock of their presence remained with me all day, something that I wished my family could have shared, not just seen in photographs later. At work I had to tell my colleagues what I had seen, frustrated (for them) that they had not shared in it too. That need to tell was part of a witness, a testimony, a not forgetting of the losses of 14-18 that were brought alive so strongly by this work of theatre, of art.

Alongside the thoughtfulness and emotion the soldiers inspired I found myself wondering “Who did this? And how did they manage to do orchestrate it in secrecy?” This sense of curiosity and fascination grew as I learned that the soldiers had not just been at Waterloo, they had been all over over the country, silently permeating our streets, shopping centres and everyday lives. #wearehere as the moniker for the commemoration was a stroke of genius in its simplicity, as it expressed reminder, yearning, memory, warning in three words. No better commemoration of the tragedy that was the Somme one hundred years ago.