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