Fallen leaves, new leaves


leaves on campus

I have finally had time to revive these pages and it has made me realised how abandoned my blog has been while I have been busy doing other things.

A bit like the glorious images you can find on Instagram here, just not as exotic…

It has rather been like tidying out the attic and realising both how much dust has gathered while you have been elsewhere, and also how much enjoyment the things in there have brought, even if they need a bit of a clean up.

So my resolution to self, having had my pages- polish- and- purge is to turn over a new leaf to keep these posts alive, rather than just writing in more formal locations, and update them with stories of the different activities I am involved in. This is as much for my benefit – to capture the learning and contacts and inspirations that I gather through my daily activities. So many questions and occurrences and so little time, and so important to make the space for those that matter… especially when we often spend parts of our working lives having to learn and remember things that are expedient but which we would rather not have to know.

At the moment my own learning and development is blissfully supported by Autumn, as it involves foraging for and identifying mushrooms and fungi. It is teaching me so many things that are analogous with our approaches to learning in formal settings (book in the offing!) but two for now are

  1. remember to look up as well as down

treetops frenshamEssential advice when we can get so anchored and overwhelmed in the attrition and uncertainty of some aspects of our higher education existence…


2) There is growth and newness to stimulate our curiosity and it’s been around us all the time. We just have not known how to notice itme holding tiny mushrooms on pine cone

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.


The Power of Play in HE

The place of play in Higher Education is generating a distinct increase in interest at the moment- having been something of Cinderella to the ball for quite some time. Conference, projects and bids are suddenly emerging, as though the realisation is finally hitting home that play is not a dirty word in higher level study.

Chrissi Nerantzi and I have shared interests in play for a while and are now collaborating to create a global collection of our practices with play in HE. We would love to have proposals from colleagues all over the world and are keen to see how play is being interpreted in the early 21st century. To this end we can share with you our Call for contributions Power of Play in HE, with the first deadline for contributions being April 12th 2016. Please get in touch with us to share your practice!




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:)



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.


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.