About Alison James

You’ve already seen from the Welcome page who I am, so this is a longer rumination about where I have been professionally, and the things that have mattered to me along the way.

Marissa Conway Photography Alison James 20

Photograph (c) Marissa Conway

Until December 2019 I was Director of Academic Quality and Development at Winchester and Professor of Learning and Teaching. I left full time institutional life to focus on funded research into play-based and playful approaches in HE in general, and more specifically in the context of management education at university. You’ll be able to read more about this here soon, as I am launching the data collection from January 2020.

Before coming to Winchester I was Associate Dean Learning & Teaching at the London College of Fashion. Although my first degree was in modern foreign languages and my own education followed a traditional, read-write, essay-based model, I have always had an affinity with the creative arts. I want to say ‘as a result’ – but really it was accidental (like many good turns in life) –  much of my higher education career has been spent working with creative arts staff and students and it was for this that in May 2014 I was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in the UK.

Connection, involvement, enjoyment and inclusion are the four touchstones of my work with staff and students. My years immersed in creative arts education mean that I understand the special characteristics and ambiance of learning in the arts, design and media. Within these disciplines I have designed and taught language programmes (English, French, Italian), taught cultural and historical studies and developed substantial experience in devising creative and alternative approaches to reflective practice and personal and professional development.

However, since moving into a multidisciplinary university context both the differences between them and other subjects and also the transferability between the two of ideas and practices have become even clearer to me. And some things are the same. Students trying to tell stories of their learning meaningfully cross boundaries. So do the types of issues that arise in coaching. The theoretical paradigms of curriculum design are the same, even though your content and outcomes might differ across disciplines. How you will explore a complex issue through LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is likely to use similar techniques, even if you cannot predict what people will build or say. So when people talk about what I have done in a creative arts context I am keen to point up the special characteristics and opportunities the field offers, and also the great scope for employing arts approaches into other disciplines and vice versa. (If you want to be inventive and try new approaches everything is up for grabs – that’s how perspectives shift.)

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My roles have been many and varied in my career; in different institutions and across all levels and subjects. I have been – and still am – an educational and staff developer, researcher, policy maker, manager and teacher.  Underpinning all of these roles has been a commitment to creative  and interactive approaches to pedagogy, a blend of realism and optimism (sometimes tough in our present educational climate) and plenty of room for humour.

Some years ago the word ‘edutainment’ was adopted rather sneeringly to suggest approaches to learning that were dumbed down, or simplified to keep a disinterested student body awake. I think this unfairly discredits teachers and learning support colleagues who stretch themselves to find different and inspiring ways to help students understand things like difficult concepts. It does students a disservice by assuming that all of them belong to the snowflake generation . Edutainment, I think, is quite a clever word and needs to be rehabilitated. It’s about knowing that you can have fun while learning, without shying away from the difficulties that may arise when tackling challenging material or tough encounters.

All these experiences made clear to me the extent to students grapple with questions of  identity, self construction and  personal learning narratives as they work through their programmes of study or research. A fascination with these informed my MA thesis on Auto/biography and Personal Development Planning (PDP) in the Creative Arts and my doctoral study of the life and art of Dod Procter, only the second woman to become a Royal Academician in the UK. My research into Dod was published as the first monograph on her; A Singular Vision (2007). Multiple strands – arts, the visual, personal narrative, creativity and development of learning – all conjoined in projects and teaching to nurture playful exploration of identity, values, emotions and drivers alongside evaluations of skill acquisition, knowledge and progress.

As a child I loved LEGO® and in 2009 found myself using it as a means of communicating my ideas about Wenger’s Communities of Practice framework and its usefulness as part of PDP and critical self-evaluation.  My use of it grew and led me to become an accredited facilitator of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® in 2013. I use (and adapt) this methodology extensively within and outside HE to enable people to reflect on and explore matters  important to them. Topics have included sustainability, evaluation, Erasmus partnerships, team identity, strategy and direction, handling change, overcoming stuckness, threshold concepts, relationships, widening participation and countless others. I’ve worked with educators, corporate executives, conference teams, students, public audiences and many others to explore topics and questions in this way.

I present widely on all of the above subjects and publish in books, journals, magazines and edited collections. In 2013 I received an excellent teaching award from the University of the Arts London for my work with LEGO SERIOUS PLAY and student learning. At Winchester I and my co-convenors won a Team Award for Innovative and Outstanding Practice at the University of Winchester for our five day Play and Creativity Festival. This event ran annually for three years and in that time attractedmore than 900 participants – staff, students and visitors. All my interests in play, creativity and imagination came together in The Power of Play in HE: Creativity in Tertiary Learning, co-edited with Dr Chrissi Nerantzi, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.  As of December 2019 chapters from the book have been downloaded 13,871 times in 26 countries.

In my role as Director of Academic Quality and Development at the University of Winchester I was involved in all aspects of academic quality and learning and teaching development. This experience and my role as Professor of Learning and Teaching generated many invitations to provide academic consultancy, staff and educational development, talks, keynotes and workshops outside the institution. I am delighted to say these are continuing in my new free range life. For me it is invaluable in terms of being able to share common concerns and explore challenges in a mutually beneficial dialogue with colleagues everywhere. Plus I meet some great people!

5 thoughts on “About Alison James

  1. Pingback: Call for contributions: The Power of Play in Higher Education | Writing Pad East Midlands

  2. Pingback: LEGO ® SERIOUS PLAY ® : a Research Student Perspective | Writing Pad East Midlands

  3. Pingback: Reflections on career and realisation of privilege through building with LEGO(R) | John Canning

  4. Pingback: #Mindbuilder Lego© Serious Play© Competition for Research Students, DMU Doctoral College 28.11.18 | Writing Pad East Midlands

  5. Pingback: You used LEGO(R) in your Viva? You must be kidding! | AESOP Young Academics

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