Innovating in the Creative Arts with LEGO – publication

It has been an embarrassingly long time since I posted here, but at least a sign that life has been very busy! Among the many projects I have been working on this is one of them and I am delighted to share it here – a report for the Innovative Pedagogical Practice series commissioned by the Higher Education Academy on using LEGO in Higher Education for teaching, learning and research. Click on the link below and read on:)

https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/innovating-creative-arts-lego

 

coaching, connecting and really listening

courtesy of @JGamolina

courtesy of @JGamolina

I recently attended a coaching course which reminded me that I have probably been an accidental coach in the ways I’ve sought to support people – intuitively adopting some of the techniques and principles without being trained in them. (This doesn’t mean I used them anything like as well as ‘proper’ coaches, but indicates some commonality of thinking.) This experience made me think of how we develop student reflective capability, and how we encourage them to adopt similar coaching attitudes to help others or question themselves.

 

The importance of importing techniques from one role or context into another is something which we include in our list of fourteen situations in which students are likely to be reflecting (James & Brookfield, 2014:15) with Number 11 focussed on connecting thinking in one domain to that in another. Christening myself an ‘accidental coach’ made me think that I have probably been ‘naturally accidental’ rather than strategic in many other nooks and crannies of my life. I enjoy finding synergies and connections in unexpected places and this was exemplified the day after my course in the unexpected shape of a radio interview with a hostage negotiator.

As I drove through the sleety grey English countryside, listening to BBC Radio 4’s compelling magazine show Saturday Live, on came Richard Mullender, hostage negotiator, talking about the real art of listening. He instantly challenged some of my beliefs about how I listen. In our coaching session we had stressed the importance of active listening, body language, eye contact and forth as a means of being attentive and present with the coachee. All good stuff and I patted myself on the back for knowing and applying it.

Mullender, however, briskly wiped the floor with many of the easy references we make as to how we are really connecting to someone and establishing rapport. A hostage situation is, of course, infinitely different to a professional coaching session, however the need to listen is paramount in both. Mullender argues that while we may say we use listening techniques and think we do so well, we often do them badly, or not at all. He is not convinced that summarising/repeating back to people what they’ve said is actually effective as a means of showing you have really heard someone and can tap into their need or urgency. He believes that rapport is built by tapping into how someone else thinks and feels, while remaining neutral. For him what really matters in our listening is how we look for keywords that can give us information which we can then convert to intelligence. Our students (and our colleagues) are not our hostages – however they might feel on occasion! – and yet Mullender’s words impressed upon me my need to reappraise my effectiveness in how I listen. What he said also emphasised for me how valuable ‘exquisite listening’ (not his term) skills are for students, both educationally and also across all aspects of their lives. (A listener  – clearly as impressed as me – emailed in with exactly these sentiments).

Having heard Mullender I want to read and hear more, and think about three things: how what he advocates can help staff and students in much more mundane situations than the crisis territory within which he works; about how his recommendations may also support the work of an effective coach; and how I can challenge myself – not to reject body language, eye contact, and all the other things he is suspicious of as effective techniques- but to ensure that my use of them is fully present and focussed on the goals of the other. This is not a jillion miles away from either the work of the coach, or that of the educator.

Abstractitis

I’ve noticed a pattern emerging when I write abstracts for anything. I tend to bash something out full of energy and optimism, months in advance of the event, serene in the certitude that I will have ages to plan, write, cogitate and generally Be Prepared, in the best traditions of the Girl Guides. (I don’t know why this latter occurs to me, as I only lasted half an hour in the Guides, but that is another story.) Nearer the time, the slow but steady trickle of communications starts to arrive to make sure everyone is where they should be for the big day. None of this worries me as I am secure in the excellent organisational skills of those in charge, and in the knowledge that I have written my abstract, which must mean I know what I am doing.

Shortly before the event I remember my abstract and fish it out. I stare at it blankly and wonder where I was when I wrote it, spiritually, physically, anything. In a recent case I looked at it aghast and remembered how exhausted I had been when I managed to submit it just before deadline. It screamed ‘NEED A HOLIDAY’ from every sentence. I managed to bore myself reading it. One of two things happens. One, I tell myself I should have been a farmer and am unsuited to academia. Or two, after the staring and the horror have abated panic drives me to write a newer, better abstract. Ta DARRRRRR! I tentatively enquire if it is possible to update mine? The generous, patient (and possibly disgruntled, but discreet) organisers accept new abstract. I sigh with relief.

And then I reread old one. It was not bad. I reread new one. What was I thinking??? From the dreary I have moved to the impossible – and now have to write it with forty eight hours to go, with day job bulging with ‘to dos’ and the vaguest possibility of a domestic/social life receding faster than time lapse photography in reverse.

What happens next is the predictable agony of trying to live up to the new content and standard I have set for myself. The process of writing the full paper or presentation is infused with the same sense of bewilderment and panic that accompanied my sight of what I myself had written only days or hours before. Like playing a ball sport in deep fog, I write and write and delve and organise and fish for quotes and relevant materials, the sense and point of which move away from me the more I reach for them. I battle against the realisation that I have almost got it, but not quite, and definitely not enough to inflict on unsuspecting listeners. And then, just when I am ready to book a one way ticket to anywhere miles from the venue for a new life under a rock, the Fates are merciful.  What I am actually trying to say finally waves a little hand at me – as though to tell me that the interminable hide without seek is at last over – but wasn’t it fun?

I will remain in a state of tense uncertainty until the actual lecture or workshop is over and by some strange alchemy I have found my voice, made some sense, and hopefully not stolen an hour of other people’s lives that they won’t get back.

Does anyone else go through this?

 

 

What is ‘academic enough’?

mists oryctes

Image: a nice place for a stroll by Oryctes

September brings the return to work, the start of dodgy weather, and the last few things on the to-do list in readiness for the onslaught of enrolment.   This coincides with the receipt of external examiner reports, analysis of evaluations and surveys, and examination of conscience in order to write annual monitoring reports. Spiritually, many of us are making the dazed transition from ‘holiday head’ to ‘nail-biting professional’ while trying to remember passwords and what our jobs entail. Continue reading

“Only connect”: the London launch of Engaging Imagination

Today’s post gives you both a bit of literary vandalism and a sing-song…what more could you want?

London launch photoWe launched Engaging Imagination in London last Monday, April 28th, at the London College of Fashion, with a warm, welcoming and noisy reception enjoyed by colleagues, contributors, family and friends. However, there is nothing more tedious than someone droning on about the wonderful party you missed, so I will do no such thing, and instead misquote a famous writer and share a song as a creative reflection on identity as testament to the evening. Continue reading

Introducing Engaging Imagination

On the evening of March 19th, 2014, I hosted a lecture for the London College of Fashion Pedagogic Research Hub, introducing Engaging Imagination and discussed my emerging ideas on how I want to take this work forward in future – by examining the differences (however subtle) between creative practice, pedagogies and reflection. (In  my early post you can see how I define creative pedagogies here).

You can watch excerpts from the evening in the video below, covering the essence of the book, how we define creativity, imagination and play, and how these emerge through textual and non-written records of reflection. I take our model Polarities of Reflection, which displays some of the tensions and opposites present in curriculum-based reflection and overlay it with thoughts on how these reside within bigger issues of pedagogy and practice. If you feel like having a taste of examples from the book, I also discuss several of these, among them Duck Rabbit, Labyrinths and Lego Serious Play.

You’ll find that in the video I make a number of references to practice, largely because I this talk was aimed at an audience of creative arts students, teachers and practitioners. When I do so I am largely indicating craft, professional and industry practices within art, design and media domains. However in the book itself, we extend our thinking across much broader territories, so this should be taken as an illustration, rather than the whole story. So don’t let mention of practice put you off if it’s not your thing.

 

The goldfish is out of the bag

here it isWhen my youngest daughter was tiny she was given the surprise present of two goldfish, won, in traditional fashion, at a funfair, and presented to her in a polythene bag full of water. I was not best pleased, as starting an aquarium was not even in the recesses of my subconscious, plus we were over a hundred miles from home in a hot, rattly car and with a long journey ahead. We tried our best to transport them home safely, however, despite achieving this, they departed for the Great Fish Bowl in the Sky shortly after arriving.   Despite the tragic demise of these first two offerings, or perhaps in a guilt-ridden attempt to compensate for it, we did try again later to keep fish, only this time we dug a pond for them, which may explain why, twelve years on, they are alive and kicking (= breeding). This is not quite the digression it may seem. When we bought each new fish, we were advised to rest the bag of water they came in gently on the surface of the pond and open it gradually, so that the cold water could reach the fish little by little, and they would not receive a fatal shock through being sloshed straight into an alien environment.

So it feels with our book and website. I found my personal copy in my hallway when I arrived home yesterday evening, and published our accompanying website early this morning. However, there is a part of me that still wants to keep them in a warm, confined space, where no other fish can come and investigate. I feel I still need to be at the water’s edge, holding firmly onto the plastic edge of my bag, and allowing cold water to seep slowly inside while the warm water – and the fish – gradually acclimatise to making the move into the wild. I do know from experience, however, that while there is a risk that the heron, or other pond dwellers might swoop down and eat them, releasing the fish is much more likely to help them grow. Our pale gold one, after years of living by the kitchen window, went to live in the Great Outdoors three years ago and doubled in size. In book and blog terms, I guess I am expressing the hope that while a intensive period of work of one kind has led them to be the shape and size they are today, I realise that they will now become very different beings. I am apprehensive, curious and excited to see what these might be.

 

Detective work and wildlife tours

honeycomb made by LCF bees

honeycomb made by LCF bees

Organising a four-day conference on flexible and sustainable learning provided the perfect excuse for a range of events over two weeks, to explore overlooked aspects of our London campuses and get out and about in our spaces. On day one, our opening activity was a detective tour in and around an arts and crafts building in Lime Grove, South West London, which has had many iterations in terms of its inhabitants, purpose, life cycle and surroundings in the course of a century. To close, we had a wildlife tour of this urban site, which has had much work in the last twelve months to green up our outdoor spaces and make them more becoming to flora, birds, and fauna, as well as humans.

The flexible part was about us moving in, through and outside the space, interpreting and reviewing its history through contemporary eyes, and thinking about how we could make more of the opportunities our immediate environments provide. The sustainable part was about thinking about what had endured, what did not and how this building and its environs might constitute a resource to foster learning for sustainability. This was as much about relationships and human well being, as it was about re-using and recycling, or spotting the less sustainable uses of the site and its materials. An itemised account of the bricks and mortar will probably not mean much to anyone unfamiliar with it, so I’ll skip that bit, however the conversations and connections that led to the creation of the tour and its outcomes offer themes which may well surface if others are intrigued enough to try it in their own spaces.

We became conscious that we don’t always know the full story of the spaces we work in: we tend to skim their most recent surface and use them as the backdrop for our ‘busyness’ (unless they are well know and well documented architectural or historic locations). Deciding to rummage around in the history of the building came about through chance reminiscences from a format occupant, which inspired us to find out more. Reconstructing its story was made possible thanks to him and past users, who made time to stop by and walk corridors that they had trodden decades previously.

This was not a forensic historic investigation, nor did it take very long to prepare, so the resulting narrative was partial, however it generated a warmth of interest and curiosity about the site that had not been present previously. We had one hour to tour in, and pieced together a ten stop route, each point illustrated by the quirkiest, historically interesting, amusing or relevant anecdote. Scripting and selecting these points was a democratic and valued activity involving only a handful of people, but who occupied roles in all parts of the organisation. Some of the most amusing memories referred to what cannot now be seen, such as the time Darth Vader pulled up in a taxi outside the front door to go into the (now demolished) tv studios opposite, or when Quentin Crisp posed as a life model in the third floor painting rooms ( site of our wearable labyrinths conversation). These were the kinds of things that we found and which excited us as we conducted this activity:

  • that anecdotes of people’s use are every bit as important as the ‘factual’ stuff about who built it and when – the students who used to hide in the building over night to get projects finished, the pigeons who used to fly in through open windows in summer and redecorate work ready for exhibition…
  • the richness of people’s memories and their willingness to reminisce
  • how community spirit and a sense of common territory springs up when you investigate a particular building in detail and share its stories
  • the importance of the things you can no longer see and the characters who used to occupy the space – the shop assistant who was so afraid of knives that he would not sell scalpels to the design students; the charitable home for fallen women ‘Urania Cottage’, set up in the street by the novelist Charles Dickens – ‘ to attempt the reclamation of women from the dregs of society in order to make them fit for new lives’; the brickwork of the building which showed traces of being used as a canvas for surveying by new building or interior design students; the quirks of past uses which are no longer recognised in the present spaces, old photos and archive materials revealing the artistry and care with which plumbing and joinery materials were arranged in workshops; the recollections of the ghostly piano player, whose music emanated from the staff common room but who was never seen…
  • the things we overlook daily if we have no reason to seek them out (a door half way up a wall due to a long lost mezzanine floor, a window that looks out into the garden but which can’t be seen from the inside)
  • the ways in which flexible and sustainable learning had been pre-empted decades before by building and arts students working in different parts of the building. The morning after examinations, a large skip parked outside the back doors would be routinely filled with models made by building apprentices. By nightfall the skip would be empty – twenty miniature staircases reclaimed by arts students for their projects or by tutors fancying a more ornate stand for their plant pots. Textiles students would fish out anything that could be woven, including electric cables…
  • the ways in which greening even our most urban of sites provides an opportunity to strengthen relationships and a sense of pride and common purpose between those working on the projects – bird boxes, bug hotels, bee hives, wild life planting in the most unlikely of corners, and discussing with neighbours arrangements for growing fruits, vegetables and flowers over shared fences, wired netting and other common boundaries.
  • Just by resisting, and reworking these spaces, any number of assumption- changing facts were shared and new information gathered; a talk about our bees (formerly housed on the roof of our site at Oxford Circus, in the heart of London’s West End) and now rehomed by the Lime Grove pond, opened our eyes to the special routines and behaviours of their existence, while keen gardeners and newbies were acquiring and transferring skills from home to college garden and back again. (My particular favourite here was the Bug Hotel, which I now want to recreate in my own surburban space)
Chris Tookey's Bug Hotel

Chris Tookey’s Bug Hotel

Wearable labyrinths?

knitwear detailA serendipitous choice of sweater yesterday morning led to a chain of thoughts being sparked up as to whether or not it would be possible to create a wearable labyrinth? This flicker of genius came from Rachel Clowes, our embroidery technician, in the course of a labyrinth workshop up in a life drawing room: a lovely space for walking our canvas labyrinth, split into two roomy segments with high ceilings, light and airy windows, and the mysterious paraphernalia of painting around the edges…strange long wooden stools and clusters of brown easels, while the walls still bore the vestiges of paint that had somehow circumnavigated the formally designated places to draw.

wall painting lime groveShe had noticed my sweater, with  a thick, ribbed pattern, not unlike cable jerseys, and its dips and ridges suggested to Rachel that perhaps it would be possible to embed labyrinth shapes in our garments, for the same sense of contemplation and quiet, just traced in our own clothes. This seemed like a logical and creative extension of the finger labyrinths we have discussed elsewhere on this site and in our book – and echoes the tactility of the sand finger labyrinth Alison tried out at a previous event: with the labyrinth form hidden in a tray under a layer of sand, this had offered the dual sensation of dragging your fingers through cool sand and creating a labyrinth outline on the surface while tracing the grooves of the labyrinth underneath.   Jokes notwithstanding about who would be allowed to do the tracing, the idea is an intriguing one: would you embroider, stitch, knit, weave, applique, sew beads to form the labyrinth or leave gaps in material where its grooves might be? On what kinds of garments? What about size? What kind of effect might it have? We are used to the ways in which we soothe babies or console by rubbing backs but would it work when you are exploring a labyrinth on yourself?

We are going to see!

creative reflection and ‘getting a life”

castle window, Germany

castle window, Germany

The other day my sister sent me a link to an article about how work – and the ‘cult of productivity’ – have been allowed to become benchmarks of self definition in Western culture. You can find it here on Maria Popova’s thought provoking site, Brain Pickings. I’m sharing it here for a number of reasons – one of them being that if I include it here I stand a reasonable chance of finding it again myself. Plus it reminded me of how great things digital can be, when you get a single suggested reading in an email and can then follow it up, down and across a myriad paths through all kinds of new territories and ideas that you never would have followed before. AND – it got me thinking about various things on a personal and professional level.

The article, focussing on Anna Quindlen’s undelivered commencement address that subsequently became a book, addresses the central notion of how students need to ‘get a life’ – not in the derogatory way that we usually intend such a suggestion, but a kind of life worth living, rather than a scrabbling after status and success. You can argue that ‘a life worth living’ is a highly subjective and value-laden construct that will mean different things to different people. You can equally observe that aspiring to such a thing is an old favourite of religions, therapists, self help books, wise aunties and all sorts, however that does not make an element of truth in the exhortation of it go away.  Furthermore, if your over-riding goal is to make stupendous amounts of money and succeed at the expense of your fellows, then this kind of thing will just look a bit wet.

One of her points is that Quindlen insists that we should never confuse life and work. And I am still wrestling inside my head with whether or not I agree, and whether or not I do, so I won’t go on about it. However, it got me thinking about how creative reflection can be about getting a life – because in our curricula the purpose of reflection is to make students perform better, see themselves and their work critically and clearly, and set their goals more effectively. It still feels quite instrumental when described in those terms but students who reflect earnestly and honestly do move into the realms of personal values, motivations and drivers in quite profound ways. They may be doing so even when they don’t actually put it to paper too.  So if you look at our Powerful Questions in Chapter 8, these are all about how we, as learners at any age, can get to the heart of what we are trying to achieve and understanding what compels us in our actions.