Connecting curiosity, creativity and criticality

Connecting creativity, criticality and curiosity

In this post I explore creativity and critical thinking and how they connect with the fostering of curiosity.

This post continues my exploration of curiosity as a state of learning in which learner motivation and agency are central. Following on from the earlier post on curiosity, the need to maintain the learner’s motivation (more than just interest) leads the academic designer to look at creating situations which ensure learning is situated and open-ended.

Problems and possibilities

Creativity and criticality relate to each other through patterns of divergent and convergent thinking.

If creativity is about possibility thinking and asking “What if?” through engagement with problems (Burnard, Craft & Cremin, 2006), critical thinking is about evaluating or weighing up possible options and answers. Learning is a process of making judgements – asking about the strengths or weaknesses of an argument, looking for alternative perspectives or answers, deciding what is or isn’t significant, or what is useful to know.

Divergent and convergent patterns of pedagogic design are the basis of design thinking in which the learner fluctuates through phases of ideation, application, and synthesis. From possibility thinking the learner applies and evaluates what they know to form firmer conceptions of knowledge. Learning is equally active, cognitive and meta-cognitive.

Open-ended learning

Iterative patterns of divergence and convergence or problem finding and problem solving suggest learning is a matter of forming conclusions and finding definitive answers. In reality, and in the case of authentic learning theory (Rule, 2006), this is not the case.

The implication of this is that the learning designer needs to situate learning so that learning always has somewhere to go: new, emergent ideas and understanding need to be continuously applied, tested and reworked. Acts of learning should seed learner curiosity by design.

This conflicts with a teaching and learning culture in which summative assessment is positioned as an acceptable and dominant motivational force – it feels so cynical and lazy to accept surface learning as the defining force in learning design.

Designing for curiosity through feed forward

Personally, I think effective assessment should always be formative – the act of assessment is itself should be a significant act of learning. Summative assessment should sit within that frame when it is necessary to make academic judgements about the learner’s performance to date, however, if the formative flow is allowed to colour the assessment activity, it becomes clearer how designing for learning can help to carry the learner forward.

The trouble is the act of summative assessment is so often reified by both the teacher and the learner. This is well-known in the literature on feedback design.

Fostering a state of learner curiosity, arguably, is as necessary as feedback that that is designed to feed forward. Feed forward, perhaps, is the obvious opportunity to reinvigorate a learner’s curiosity. Rather than telling a student about what they got wrong, feedback can emphasise possibility thinking. For example, if the assessment problem specified variable ‘x’, feedback can ask or explore what would happen if variable ‘y’ had been specified. Or, as in good feed forward design, provide intrigue in terms of how the learner might apply the theory, skill or knowledge in a later module or activity.

Don’t leave me in the lurch – inspire me

If learning is always an unfinished symphony of possibilities, it follows that the academic designer is faced with leaving the learner ‘hanging’ and dissatisfied. On the other hand, they can leave them wanting more by assigning each learner a sense of their agency: an expectation that they can reflect further to make sense of their experience and draw out further meaning.

This takes us to meta-cognition and reflective learning. Beyond learning as an act of making sense (creating a general sense of understanding), Moon points us to the need to create expectation and space to go further. Only then can making meaning, and then working with meaning, lead to transformative learning.

Curiosity, then, seems to have a strong connection with the desire to apply learning with a strong sense of agency to make meaning.


Burnard, P. , Craft, A. & Cremin, T. (2006). Documenting ‘possibility thinking’: A journey of collaborative enquiry. International Journal of Early Years Education. 14.

Moon, J. (2003). Reflection in learning and professional development: theory and practice. Logan Page.

Rule, A. (2006). Editorial: the components of authentic learning. Journal of Authentic Learning, 3 (1), 1-10.

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Community of Enhancement

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I keep returning to the phrase Community of Enhancement to describe my philosophy behind my staff development role. It is not astounding but, significantly for me, it is a better than Community of Practice.

It reflects and models the ethos of student-centred active learning which is so often the focus of my work when supporting staff development and curriculum innovation.

Here’s how I define Community of Enhancement

Community of Enhancement

A community of enhancement (CoE) connects principles such as joint enterprise, mutual benefit, and shared practices with ideas of networked development. At the heart of CoE is the expectation of participant empowerment through the collective exploration of existing knowledge of effective practices. It is a form of networked authorship.

Individuals in such a network develop through specific acts of co-creation in which the best of practices and philosophies surface and combine to create expressions of excellent innovative practice. While creating useful tools together (e.g. guidance, explanations, case studies, stories) participants learn as contributors. The collective act accommodates ‘experts’ and ‘novices’ equally through discourses of explanation, exemplification, application, evidence sharing, questioning, and reflection.

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Curiosity – untapping latent energy

Continuing from the post ‘Sublime, curious and distracted – challenging conceptions of learning’, I want to examine curiosity towards finding strategies that can be deployed by the academic and the learner themselves to create an engaging learning environment. Surely, curiosity is a defining human attribute? We exercise our curiosity everyday through life and doing so drives us to learn. Literature on psychology agrees this much and my reading reveals curiosity to have many dimensions (Grossnickle, 2016). Importantly, the academic can adjust the learning environment to promote curious thinking (Kashdan et al., 2004)

Grossnickle explains that curiosity is more than interest. In her literature review she finds curiosity defined in several ways, including as a personality trait, as a person’s need for knowledge or information, and as a motivator for exploratory behaviour.

Nature and nurture

In the same way I approach writing a blog post to reflect my current state of knowledge and my curiosity to understand more, we can see that all of us are curious learners, receptive to knowledge and to opportunities that promise to point us to our personally defined or ill-defined next steps. This, in turn, explains why metacognition and personal acts of reflection are important in the design of active learning: we need to have space to define our next question or motivator. This suggests curiosity is both a matter of nature and nurture – the implications for the academic being that we need to think about the space or situation we create to bring the best out of people and to stimulate their engagement.

Are we closing down curiosity and engagement when we should be opening up thinking?

Secondly, I realise that learning designed around objectives, conclusions, summation, or end points is essentially a matter of closing down or resolving curiosity. This can be experienced as fragmentation in a module-centric course design approach (French, 2015) – a stop-start-stop learning experience. While bringing things to a definite conclusion seems obvious in satisfying the learner, actually, the act of leaving any phase of learning should be a matter of opening new avenues and directions, even if that means asking the learner to reflect on what is next for them. Module design should aim to leave the learner on a high, curious to explore a lingering sense of “So what…? What’s next?” And this suggests the need to think about designing-in course narrative.

This, then, is a matter of designing for liminality: in undergraduate education we can devise courses so that they flow on many levels. One level should accommodate the student’s renegotiation of their learning based on the curiosity they have about their own capabilities and their own state of knowledge, its meaning, and their opportunity to apply it.

We need to consider how we facilitate that flow and transition, especially in a module-centric experience. Who is helping the learner to engage metacognitively to redefine their next steps and next questions? This development around curiosity and negotiation is important: being able to redirect one’s interest and energy is a life skill.

Deep learning

Kang et al. (2009) have found that curiosity-driven learning also enhances the retention of new information. The academic challenge, then, is to consider strategies that seed individual curiosity so that information is interrogated and negotiated. More than presenting interesting facts, it seems that personalised learning strategies should centre on helping the learner to generate deep questions – one’s the don’t promise simple answers, but which promise cognitive adventures, challenges, decision-making, tantalising insight, and a sense of promise. This sounds like game-based learning in which a sense of immersion is fostered creating a space in which the learner is intrigued by acts of decision-making and tantalised by finding out if they allow them to proceed or whether they must retrace their thinking.

Curiosity or just interest?

Grossnickle (2016) observes the need to differentiate between the concepts of curiosity and interest. They are not synonymous, although curiosity may lead to interest.

This is particularly pertinent to the development of active learning environments. Being interesting or being interested in something are essentially passive responses to knowledge. You could preface interest-driven learning with “You need to know this.” It points us to extrinsic forms of engagement and passive strategies.

Developing curiosity, on the other hand, is a precursor to the drive to act upon the desire to know. If the academic designer keeps the learner’s curiosity in mind, they are being student-, and hopefully learning-, centred. Activity design focuses on intrinsic motivation: the learner’s desire rather than their need. While not exactly sugar-coating a bitter pill, adding a dollop of intrigue to learning is one way of using curiosity. For example, the puzzle presented by case-based learning (Yale Porvue Centre) is full of intrigue for the learner, being akin to piecing together the clues of a mystery and applying knowledge and skills in a process of deductive reasoning.

Being curious equates to a person’s drive to know, being aroused in such a way that they must satiate their desire: getting to the bottom of something. Grossnickle (2016) (with reference to Arnone and Grabowsky 1992; Berlyne, 1954; Litman 2005) offers this definition of curiosity: the desire for new knowledge, information, experiences, or stimulation to resolve gaps or experience the unknown.

A desire for agency – exploring, knowing and escaping

Agency and curiosity go hand-in-hand then. Not only do we expect the learner to respond, we expect their response to be strong and self- (or team-) directed. Within their response, the learner will have formulated the goal they seek to achieve in pursuit of resolving their curiosity.

This promise of achieving a goal, which is very clear in project-based learning design for example, seems to be at odds with needing to keep curiosity alive. It’s not. Learning is best thought of the meta cognitive dimension of such task-driven learning: by taking one step back to observe and scrutinise what we are doing, we engage on two levels – the level of doing, making or acting, and the level of reflecting in, on, and through learning. This second reflective level is about making sense of a situation and generalising knowledge so that it can be applied to future situations.

For the academic designer, this suggests curiosity may take the learner through a series of challenges each of which provides feedback to confirm or invalidate their thinking. At the same time, the goal (as end point) must be denied as the learner’s curiosity is reignited.

Curiosity is enhanced through ambiguity (i.e. there being no single right answer and plenty of possibilities). Hints and incremental feedback are part of the idea of exploration (Metcalfe et al., 2021).

As in game design, the design of learning challenges must accommodate harmless and fruitful false starts – hitting an obstacle must help the learner’s deduction and spur them on further.

Curiosity, in learning design, increasingly feels like an interplay of irresistible exploration and knowing. Learning is about satisfying a hunger and thirst for knowledge and experiencing a sense of wonderment. Wonderment, or enjoyment of knowing, includes a degree of titillation, which Metcalfe et al. (2021) describe as “a desire for agency” which “holds that in order to take advantage of the opportunity to obtain the answer by their own efforts, when curious, people may wait.” They do not opt to passively receive a neatly packaged answer, but rather they are more interested in the feeling of getting the answer for themselves. Designing for curiosity involves valuing and connecting a sense of personal achievement with the intended learning outcome or desirable knowledge state.

A focus on curiosity suggests that a student can be motivated to engage if they are led to believe possibilities exist through escaping simple unsatisfactory explanations, reasoning or contradictions. The use of critical thinking techniques may help a learner to realise that they need to go further to cure their itch.

I’ll leave you with a question, in case you are not yet curious about curiosity: how does curiosity relate to creativity and criticality? I will explore that in the next post…


French, S. (2015). The benefits and challenges of modular higher education curricula. Issues and Ideas paper, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Online at:

Grossnickle, E.M. (2016). Disentangling Curiosity: Dimensionality, Definitions, and Distinctions from Interest in Educational Contexts. Educational Pschological Review, 28(23-60. DOI 10.1007/s10648-014-9294-y

Kashdan, T. B., Rose, P., & Fincham, F. D. (2004). Curiosity and exploration: facilitating positive subjective experiences and personal growth opportunities. Journal of Personality Assessment, 82, 291–305. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa8203_05.

Metcalfe, J., Kennedy-Pyers, T. & Vuorre, M. (2021). Curiosity and the desire for agency: wait, wait … don’t tell me!. Cognitive Research, 6(69).

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Sublime, curious and distracted – challenging conceptions of learning

Sublime and curious

Tyson E. Lewis in ‘The Dude Abides, or Why Curiosity Is Important for Education Today’, looks at the idea of curiosity from a pedagogical perspective. He sets curiosity in stark contrast to widely held beliefs about education where blind faith in truth and certainty keep the world simple and people happy. He refers to the influence of philosophers such as Augustine and Heidegger who warn that, without that clarity, we are prone to anarchy and void of definite structures we can follow.

Curiosity, then, is indulgent and disruptive. It is divergent and sensual; a matter of observation, impulse and distraction. What role can it have pedagogically, he asks.

Curiosity in #activelearning, as a matter of distraction, impulse, and anarchic (self-determined, intrinsically motivated inquisition?) should not be strange to pedagogues. Curiosity is a key word when understanding motivation and one dimension to a mantra I find myself using when I talk about active learning: “engagement first”. The academic’s challenge is to make each learner curious. It is the opposite of giving way to extrinsic motivational factors, especially giving way to a culture which promotes mark-driven engagement. Curiosity is the carrot to the stick of summative assessment.

I am not sure that distraction does define curiosity. I think positive distraction could be more helpful. Another word that springs to mind for me, while not a synonym as such, is ‘intrigue’ – pedagogically, curiosity is a matter of positive, formative distraction as a response to intriguing conundrums, problems and scenarios. That begins to sound like something we can work with intentionally.

Lewis, including in the chapter’s title, refers to ‘abiding’ – perhaps understood as aimless, unstructured and wandering. Wandering is another theme that appears regularly in my writing, being an important expression of openness evident in psychogeography in which the subject allows themselves to be immersed in a situation – especially a city: soaking it all up, and having no commitment to retaining anything. Virgina Woolf’s 1930 essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure is an example of this. Strikingly, the tale is inconsequential (although she can’t resist returning the protagonist to the certainty and charm of home at the end of the essay). The street is experienced as an environment without intended consequence and would seem to have little to do with education, but I would argue that it explains ideas such as immersive learning, reflection, and non-formal self-determined learning (heutagogy cf Hase & Kenyon, 2001). If you are unsure, think about the value of contemplation, or the value of other immersive experiences such as listening to music. These spaces are important to us in life, but they are frequently overlooked when discussing learning, and even more so when discussing teaching and assessment.

In academia, we do seem to value creativity and, in the same breath, critical thinking. This redirects us to the value of the interplay we can make between divergent and convergent thinking. And we do seem to value thinking about connectivity as educators. I ran a workshop on the Connected Classroom (again) yesterday, and my academic colleagues are usually one step ahead of me as we explore its many meanings and possibilities, frequently using words like experience, empathy, exploration and evolution to describe an essentially open-ended learning environment that allows for the curious. We get its value, but we are not explicit about curiosity as a design objective. Anyway, to what extent can you make other people curious? Some research argues you can’t (Zurn & Shankar, 2020) and say this explains why some students never stop asking “Why?” while others determinedly seem to wait to be told what to think, with the only sign of curiosity being about whether this week’s topic will be on the assessment!

Openness takes us back to the idea of the sublime (previously discussed). A dangerous, wild and rare, but valuable, space for the learner to find.

In conclusion

Fostering curiosity would seem to be a matter of an active learning ‘engagement first’ strategy. It reflects a student-centred learning philosophy in which each learner learns how to trust their impulse, albeit with criticality. It seems to emerge as a matter of designing the learning environment as a place for creating conundrums to intrigue.

This may be more helpful than it may seem: creating a trustful space for intrigue, deviation, divergence, distraction and immersion feels realisable. The use of games, conundrums (problems that have no solution), and similar open-ended and risky pedagogic ventures, are legitimate and valuable ‘engagement first’ strategies that lead our students to follow their noses into deep challenges in which they discover, decide upon, and determine their learning and future selves.


Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2001). Moving from andragogy to heutagogy: implications for VET, AVETRA, Adelaide, March. Available at

Lewis, Tyson (2018). ‘‘The Dude Abides, or Why Curiosity Is Important for Education Today’. In: Perry Zurn & Arjun Shankar, Eds, (2020) Curiosity studies: a new ecology of knowledge. University of Minnesota Press.

Wolf, V. (1930). Street haunting: a London adventure. Online at:

Zurn,P. & Shankar, A., Eds, (2020) Curiosity studies: a new ecology of knowledge. University of Minnesota Press.

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Unified Active Learning – our commitment to #activelearning wherever and however we access learning

Photo by Clint Adair on unsplash

I am in reflective mode – it’s summer 2021 and in the West we’re trying to get over the pandemic, catch our breath, and decide what we value, what we have done, what changes will stick. It is both a time to explain what I have been doing and to think about what this means for the future. So I give you Unified Active Learning.

I like to use this space for musing: it is a ‘public thinking’ space, but like many colleagues in similar educational development roles, I have been working flat out to support academic colleagues to respond to the pandemic over the last year or so. Key to that has been helping colleagues look beyond one-size-fits-all emergency ‘solutions’ to find ways that are meaningful for them and their students. For me, this has involved devising an approach called Unified Active Learning, a principle-based approach which emerged through the academic response group I lead at Anglia Ruskin University.

I went to ARU because of its Education Strategy – specifically its commitment to inclusive student-centred learning articulated in its Active Curriculum Framework. Other posts here discuss what this means to me. So when we all had to go online in March 2020, given we had spent the previous year running Course Design Intensives to develop an active learning culture, we were clear about our philosophy, even if like everyone else, making the shift online, or to a form of blended learning, was going to be a practical heave for staff and students alike.

Principles provide clarity

Unified Active Learning is a straightforward principle-based approach. It is consistent with, indeed it is a restatement of, what we had recently implemented in our Active Curriculum.

One principle we didn’t write down was ‘don’t panic and fall into the trap of relying on teacher-centred delivery-based strategies.’ In many ways the situation has helped us to think about what learner engagement means. It was not the time to start spoon feeding students. A higher education has to be about creating exciting challenges and stretches – even in a crisis.

At ARU we have established Unified Active Learning as the basis for teaching and learning during the pandemic. It is captured in the following adoption framework.

UAL Adoption Framework

The framework allows the academic to evaluate their approach:

“In their formal engagement, all of my students, however and wherever they access their learning, normally:

  1. Identity: Learn alongside each other, being aware of each other and their common purpose, having a strong association with their course and feeling a strong sense of being part of something.
  2. Connection: Learn through regular interactions in their connected class and through formative and summative group work in which they have a clear and equal role. They learn from their different perspectives, regularly working as supportive teams.
  3. Commitment: Value each other, coming to refer to each other habitually in all that they do as co-producers of knowledge and co-creators of their learning experience.”

The first dimension, Identity, reflects the essential idea that being on a course should feel like being part of something. The other two levels extend this to reflect a course experience that is active, inclusive and collaborative by design.

From this, our academics are supported to use their ingenuity to involve every one of their students, as they work out how to put these principles into actual practice: “This is your starting point. What can you do with it?”

What will stick?

A lot of academics have had to turn to technology, where in the past it may not have felt necessary to explore its possibilities. Like many universities, ARU has had a minimum expectations approach to learning technologies. To be honest, I’ve never been comfortable with such strategies.

Change comes from intrinsic motivation; essentially this means teaching is a matter of curiosity, imagination, measured risk, and design. ‘Want’, not ‘need’, is the byword. In the pandemic technology has given professional academics what they want – real options to teach. Zoom initially, then Teams, have turned out to be amazing learning spaces. Used simply at first, some great pedagogies have emerged, connecting well with the more familiar LMS – Canvas in our case. Indeed an ecology of digital-physical space for hybrid learning has taken shape, adaptable to specific contexts.

I sense that course teams have done more to share good practice amongst themselves too. A culture of peer support is even more important perhaps than advocacy of specific technologies and techniques. Facilitating further sharing and co-developing of good emerging practice is where my new academic year will start.

Looking ahead, we all need to decide how we want the blend to work. There is still so much to be done, but now this feels much more about sharing and building upon war stories than feeling embattled. People have created and experienced rich blends and begun to understand that the possibilities are endless for creating active, inclusive and collaborative learning environments.

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Transparency, turbulence, ambiguity and uncertainty in #activelearning

“One student’s safe uncertainty is another student’s chaotic nightmare.”

(Orr & Shreeve, 2018)
Photo on Unsplash

Based on research I conducted with others into student satisfaction of learning (Heaton et al., 2015), being clear with students about what is expected of them has become a key principle in my thinking about good teaching. Indeed, it is part of the ‘Cs’ framework I use (see my post ‘C is for course of course’):

Clarity – good, inspirational teaching is founded on clarity. Students are well-briefed and supported and their formative and summative experiences are designed holistically so they make sense and promote learner confidence.

However, this seems to conflict with my interest in Studio for All in which uncertainty and ambiguity are celebrated as defining attributes of experiential studio-based learning (Orr & Shreeve, 2018; Austerlitz et al., 2008).

In this post I consider the compatibility of these two apparently opposing positions.

I remember being a very frustrated Fine Art student. I wanted direction and instruction. Even though I had done an Art Foundation pre-degree course, as an undergraduate I still saw an Art education as a very technical matter. I was wrong, but I didn’t yet know this.

Painting students must approach their paint, their brushes and canvas with such a technical confidence that the tools and techniques become invisible – like the keyboard to the writer, they should become second nature. Knowledge and ideas develop alongside technical proficiency. This involves a lot of failed attempts at finding one’s artistic voice. Or academic voice.

While I wanted direction, my tutors were determined to stand back and let me struggle. This created a real turbulence. It didn’t work for me. I felt adrift and unsupported. My tutors were not present enough to realise this. It was only years later that I began to realise how all this was meant to play out, and I have to say that as an experienced educator now, I am quite critical of the tutors I had – who better remain nameless!

Clarity, direction and active learning

My student experience shows there is a difference between clarifying a technical process and what knowledge discovery involves. Tools are more than the brushes and keyboards of course, they are the methods and processes we rely upon too.

Learning should be a stretch, but students need to be sure that their struggle has purpose and that they are on track. Ambiguity must feel positive as a space for self-orientation. Ensuring students have clear goals is part of this. These can be given or, even better, negotiated and navigated.

Learning design usually falls into periods of directed, self-directed, and self-determined learning. Active learning aspires to high degrees of self-determination, however this requires self-efficacy – the student must feel good about their self-pursuit of knowledge: they must know what to do, why they are doing it, and how to go about it, even if the personal route is not prescribed. In my own case, I knew what I wanted to do and why, but I was not sure how. On reflection, it is possible that I was using methods appropriately. I may have given the impression of being competent and even decisive. But looking like a good student is not the same thing as being a good student. Internally, I was lost and in turmoil, unable to make sense of what I was doing. I lacked a critical system to continuously evaluate and reconstruct my artistic strategy. In Art, this is compounded by the value put on originality and creativity – one is expected to work through a struggle to discover one’s original voice.

To be successful, all students need to find their confident academic voice or persona. This is what is known as academic fluency.

If I was giving my previous tutors feedback (a strange idea, but they really didn’t have a clue about teaching back in the day of the romantic art school), I would talk to them about the need for providing clarity within the open bounds of the art studio – establishing some guiding parameters.

Teaching is essentially quite simple in reality and has much in common with parenting. It involves,

  • a small number of ground rules to establish parameters
  • encouragement to play and to surprise oneself
  • a strong concept of scaffolding
  • regular light touch contact with tutors
  • opportunities to talk, reflect and negotiate
  • a social environment in which to learn alongside others i.e. do you own thing but find and give support through co-presence
  • modelling epistemic culture – learning to ‘be’

All of these things require minimal effort, but together establish a healthy exploratory learning environment.

Good teachers create a scholarly network around them. My tutors were absent, busy being artists in their own right. I never saw my tutor outside of the termly assessment. Modelling practice and thinking in an active learning environment brings benefits for students and tutors alike – together you can inspire each other, with the tutor being available to guide when needed.

The need for clarity in active learning should not be mistaken as a need to provide epistemic knowledge. Clarity can come from explicit direction, but it can also come from creating the right challenging and supportive learning environment.

A well-briefed student is one who is scaffolded: they are challenged and supported in equal measure, so they feel confident to enquire, explore, experiment, design, solve problems, or undertake other actions that raise their curiosity and drive themselves forward.


Austerlitz, N., Blythman, M., Grove-White, A., Jones, B., Jones, C., Morgan, S., Orr, S., Shreeve, A., & Vaughan, S., (2008). Mind the gap: Expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education. In: Drew, Linda, (ed) The Student Experience in Art and Design Higher Education: Drivers for Change. Jill Rogers Associates Limited, Cambridge, pp. 125-148.

Heaton, C., Pickering, N., Middleton, A., & Holden, G. (2015). Exploring perspectives on good, inspirational teaching. SEDA Educational Developments, 16(1), 15.

Orr, S. & Shreeve, A. (2018). Art and design pedagogy in higher education: Knowledge, values and ambiguity in the creative curriculum. Routledge Research in Higher Education

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Between states: metaxis, connectedness and fluency

In-between (Photo by boris misevic on Unsplash)

Learning, for me, often describes a state of being between. This betweenness may refer to ideas, knowledge and understanding, modalities, or spaces.

In this post I examine the nuances of terminology used to describe these states; terminology that goes beyond the impersonal notion of ‘journey’ to reveal nuances of experiencing learning and how they can help when thinking about learning, embodiment, interdependence and agency.


Falconer (2011) identifies metaxis as a term used by Plato to describe the human condition of ‘in-betweenness’. It points to a sense of suspension in an ecology of polarities or binaries. This reflects the idea that learning exists in a social web of continua, a constant theme in my consideration of spaces for learning. Learning can be thought of as acts of transition through this multidimensional constellation of affordances (Middleton, 2018). In other words, learning is less about transaction and accumulation of knowledge and more to do with inter-actions (hyphen intended), immersion, and being engrossed in states of becoming. The quality of time and place, and movement therefore, matter.

Falconer (2011) notes Linds (2006) use of metaxis as “the state of belonging completely and simultaneously to two different autonomous worlds.” For me, this echoes the idea polycontextuality.


Polycontextuality describes being present in more than one context concurrently. The idea of presence is significant here in relation to agency – polycontextuality recognises the effect of spatial affordances on the person, and the effect of the person on the contexts in which they are simultaneously present. I have blogged about polycontextuality on many occasions, mostly considering the bridging effect of social media, however polycontextuality during the pandemic has become a familiar condition to all of us as we have navigated (often with great difficulty) our conflicting identities of home, work, school and leisure.


Connection, connectivity and Connectivism (Siemens, 2003) allude to our networked and ecological lives. For education, it is the connectivity created by the socio-technological and semantic nature of the situations we experience that interests me: how one thing relates to another, and through that, how connection creates new value.

Connectivity is a multidimensional phenomenon; one that reflects the influences of spatial and interpersonal affordances. Connectivity is a way of describing interactivities and agencies. For example, the idea of the lab is only given meaning by the potential for human interaction within it. Without this understanding, ‘lab’ is, at best, a room with objects in it. Equally, the potential users of the space bring their own affordances or contexts: what they know, what they have done before, what they expect, what on a given occasion they want to do with the knowledge they glean, etc.

Thinking about hybridity by analysing and reflecting on accounts of academic innovation during the pandemic, the idea of ‘digital advantage’ emerges as a way to understand that new concept of learning environment we are trying to put our finger on; the 1+1= 3 factor of the post-digital world in which ‘digital’ can no longer be problematised as distinct, separate, or other. The idea that through association or connection something greater than the sum of the parts emerges. This new space signals a potential for interactivity in the hybrid connected space.

It is fascinating to wonder how all these interweaving and connecting factors can be used to enrich the experience of learning.

Tethers and ties

Savin-Baden (2015) uses the term ‘tether’. It alludes to a changed space in which the presence of the personal digital device has disrupted previous conceptions of learning space, though it means more than this. It reflects some of the ideas of connectivity discussed above, but takes us closer to understandings of human behaviour rather than technological determination.

Savin-Baden defines digital tethering:

as both a way of being and a set of practices that are associated with it. To be digital tethered would generally be associated with carrying, wearing or holding a device that enables one to be constantly and continually in touch with digital media of whatever kind. Practices associated with digital tethering include the practice of being ‘always on’, ‘always engaged’: texting at dinner, or driving illegally while ‘facebooking’.

Savin-Baden, 2015, p. 1

This is similar to what I have previously called ‘smart learning’ (Middleton, 2015).


Savin-Baden talks about liquid learning. Certainly fluidity, fluency and flux are relevant to thinking about learning and agency in a post-digital age. It raises questions about embodiment and corporeality, and our state of ‘being’ or self-identity. Who or what is in motion? What is being changed? What is between states? And how do our respective changing states influence others?

Fluency ultimately concerns our sense of our self. Our self conception is our perception of our own unique identity in change. It bundles what we know about ourselves: our personality traits, abilities and knowledge, likes and dislikes, our beliefs and moral code, and motivation. It is how each of us answer the questions, “Who am I and who am I becoming?”

I think these questions are fundamental to university learning. They explain why developing meta cognitive skills through reflective learning is important in an undergraduate education.

Flux, then, refers to our state of continuously changing self, with the implication that knowledge itself must be understood as fluid too.


Liminality is frequently used in association with the idea of threshold concepts; a passing from one state of knowledge to another. In this context, it implies a planned incremental progression: do this first, then you are ready to move on up to the next stage.

This idea of liminality tends to focus on knowledge and skills though. Its original conception was more anthropological and concerned with a rite of passage and a conscious shift in a person’s state of being (Turner, 1969).


Hybridity, for me, simply means exploiting two or more modes or systems effectively.


A permeable state is one that is infused with qualities. I often imagine social media in terms of this infusion of media in ways that it can adapt to context. The media is malleable. It is accessed to the extent that it is useful. It interfaces smoothly with a given situation.

This leads us to instercies.


The interface or meeting point between two or more spaces, a phenomenon which asks us to consider how communication or exchange happens between spaces. In education, for example, how can feedback from one interaction come to affect learning so that it influences subsequent learning?


The exploration of the terminology covered in this post shows that we have many ways of thinking about connections and hybridities.

I have also indicated some of the benefits of developing a more nuanced discourse when thinking about learning as being a shift in a person’s state of being.

I have expressed such ideas of in-betweenness as being to do with inter-actions, implying that learning actions are relative to two or more states of being; an example of this being, the learner’s awareness of who they are and who they are becoming.


Falconer, L. (2011, November). Metaxis: the transition between worlds and the consequences for education. Presented at Innovative Research in Virtual Worlds.

Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining spaces for learning in higher education. Palgrave Learning & Teaching.

Middleton, A. (2015). Smart learning: teaching and learning with smartphones and tablets. MELSIG and Sheffield Hallam University.

Savin-Baden, M. (2015). Rethinking learning in an age of digital fluency: is being digitally tethered a new learning nexus? London: Routledge.

Savin-Baden, M. & Falconer, L. (2016). Learning at the interstices; locating practical philosophies for understanding physical/virtual inter-spaces. Interactive Learning Environments, 24:5, 991-1003, DOI: 10.1080/10494820.2015.1128212

Siemens, G. (2003, October 17). Learning ecology, communities, and networks: extending the classroom. Online at:

Turner V.W. (1969). The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine.

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Crisis – what crisis? A time for academic innovation

RSA Future Change Framework

At Wonkfest I attended a panel session titled Changing the Culture of Changing the Culture in which Charlotte Summers, who is Head of Commercial Development at the RSA, referred to the RSA’s excellent Future Change Framework.

Admittedly, I am a sucker for a framework, but this got me thinking. Given that I believe many academics have had to leave certain teaching practices behind and have had to discover new practices, I am hopeful that more people will have discovered not just new methods, but new teaching identities – individual and collective identities.

No going back

It would be wrong to generalise, but I can see in my own working life some ingrained practices that have had to change and will never return to their pre-crisis state. Here are a couple:

  • I haven’t printed anything on paper, but I used to carry a rucksack to work weighed down with journal articles to read. I used to like making written notes on them. I am now reading papers digitally. I am not sure I have created an equivalent reading and note making habit yet, but I will.
  • It seems like I use Teams for everything I do at work. I hadn’t used it previously but now it is an integral part of my working ecosystem. While a physical room has its own affordances, my digital ‘room’ is always with me. Many of us are asking if we’ll ever go back to campus. Even though I am making plans for working back on campus from time to time, I can’t with all honesty work out what will work better, and indeed what ‘better’ means. I am actually a lot more productive being away from campus – at least double. It’s incredible what I can achieve in a day, and I believe I was very productive before. It’s not that simple though: is the quality of my working life as good as it was? No. I do miss real people (as opposed to pixel people) and there are some situations where I want to stretch out with a coffee and just cogitate with colleagues or walk up to a whiteboard and think through ideas visually with others. I don’t want to go back for the sake of presenteism though – we must leave that behind and focus on the good reasons for being with others. The productivity is indicative perhaps of a more instrumental ethos. I find myself having to make more decisions, whereas my natural inclination is to be more consultative.

Stop, start, pause, resume

The RSA framework is not so new – it’s a version of the stop, start, pause, resume workload management approach I’ve used for years, a system that clarifies when you realise that to start new work you have first got to relinquish existing work.

But the context is different. Now is a brilliant time to remind ourselves that we all have an excuse at the same time to stop things – those things we assume are unassailable and are part of who we are but are probably just old habits that serve to reassure us that we are indispensable. Letting go of ingrained behaviours can be extremely difficult when socially we are not all in the same place. But we are all in the same place – for a moment. It is a good time for change through reappraisal.

Become a social innovator

My appeal, and I think the appeal of the RSA Framework, is to redefine yourself as an innovator, socially. Innovators are usually cast as exceptional people who buck the trend in pursuit of higher goals. I have written about them being outlaws and risk-loving ‘work arounders’ (Middleton, 2018). But now we have a great opportunity to adopt innovator mindsets collectively – it is easier for more of us to spot the opportunity and give each other courage to think and act differently.

So academic course teams, think differently and give each other the courage to imagine positively. Discourage the naysayers and Devil’s advocates (Kelley & Litman, 2005) and start getting exited together about what you have just achieved and how doing more new things (and shedding more old habits) can make your lives better and your students’ learning experience better.

Don’t snap back

Peter Bryant blogged a few months ago cautioning about the tendency we may have to fall back into the old normal – when “staff and students want to stop feeling liminal and transition back to certainty.” I agree, the desire for certainty is possibly the danger here.

Peter discusses what the urge for normalcy means for teaching and learning. For me, snapping back to lectures, discarding technologies that can connect our classrooms with people and situations around the world, allowing confident voices to dominate proceedings when the digital has shown us how to be more inclusive and egalitarian, are just three that spring to mind for me. Peter lists others. What would you list?

The crisis?

Peter is right, our crisis would be giving way to the temptation to snap back – the unthinking desire to reclaim a kind of normalcy. Even an overbearing romanticism based on the mis-belief that the past was perfect.

The crisis would be that we ignore that we have been through hard times together – it often feels we forget about the power of acting together. Instead, notice how much we have cared for each other, and missed each other.

Now is the time to co-operate and become social innovators. Keep hold of the good stuff and shed those worn out academic habits once and for all. Give each other courage to change.


Bryant, P. (2021, blog post 12th January). SnapBack. Peter Bryant: Post Digital Learning

Kelley, T. & Litman, J. (2005). The ten faces of innovation. New York: Doubleday.

Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining spaces for learning in higher education. Palgrave Learning & Teaching.

RSA (2021). Future Change Framework : a way to think about how we respond to crisis and how that can drive positive change –

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Photopedagogy and photovoice

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Loopmans et al. (2012) observe that photographs incite public debate about place and community. When that public context is the university course and where there is a desire for learning engagement and community building, how can photography empower the learner?

A useful baseline for thinking about media-enhanced pedagogies is Sfard’s two ‘metaphors for learning’ (1998) – learning by acquisition and learning by participation: the learner is user or producer of the media, and in some cases will have both roles at the same time.

The act of making photographs or of seeing representations of what you know, or what you know differently, is under theorised and under practised in higher education. As Marguiles (2019) notes, photography lends agency to the constituent community – we can think of this as photovoice, where ‘voice’ means agency (see also the charity PhotoVoice).

In studies of audio-enhanced learning, I have discussed the learner-as-gatherer driven to interrogate the world (Middleton, 2011). Photography also enables the learner to gather as an act of learning providing “ways of sensing for exploring human relations with other kinds of life and enactments of difference.” (Marguilies, 2019).

The ubiquitous connected camera and the equally ubiquitous screen create a rich and stimulating learning environment for the teacher and the student alike. The photograph captures a moment in time, and whether author or viewer, it demands that we reflect on the significance of the moment. But this challenge is imbued with subjectivity and begs the question, “How do we see the world and how is this different to the ways other people see it?” Photography, then, has an integrity that helps to clarify why learning is a form of perception and interpretation – an ecological force. This is photography’s paradox: apparently fixed, definite and evidential, it demands interpretation and is experienced differently. Susan Sontag (1977) explores this, and also asks us to consider the pre-eminence of the image over the event it captures. Indeed, making the picture is an encounter in itself, as previously discussed.

In this introductory post on photopedagogy, I outline some of the ways we can think about the photograph as a site of learning. Before proceeding, let’s be clear this post is not about teaching photography: we can assume that if we have a screen we must be critical of what we see and if we have camera we have the essential skills to operate it including sharing what we produce. This post is about any discipline and the role for the photographic image in the way it is taught and learnt.


An interpretation of Collis’ Contribution-oriented approach to learning activities framework

Drawing upon the framework presented in an earlier post on co-production and epistemic fluency, I briefly outline some of the ways afforded by photography as a site of learning.



The idea of using the camera to gather evidence or visual information is relatively straightforward. This can be quantitative data (e.g. the number of shoppers parked in an out-of-town supermarket carpark at a time of day) or qualitative (e.g. evidence of the different ways people interact with a place).

Analyse and adapt

The use of photo elicitation as a research method (Harper, 2002), for example, shows how the photograph can be used as a stimulus for analysing a situation and, in Design or Planning, how visual stimuli can be used for mocking up ideas in the course of a development. A photographic analysis of a process as the basis for its enhancement is an example of analysis and adaption; potentially the basis of a student assignment.


Using the camera and photography to create artefacts is well understood. Educationally the challenge is understanding the value of this to any discipline, beyond those usually associated with visual media. In some cases the obvious applications are found again in the act of photography as a stimulus on the journey to creating an argument or a scenario. The making of visual artefacts is easy to do and the creation of visual metaphors can help to open thinking. The assignment to take a picture of something that conjures Winter, for example, will generate a wide range of images that individually or together may provide the basis for a poetry assignment, consideration of childcare, global warming, seasonal business requirements and opportunities, diversity, etc. The photograph, and the decisions involved in its making and selection, all serve to provoke engagement and deepen thinking.

Knowledge creation


Location is immediately associated with ideas of place, experience and belonging (Tuan, 1977). The ubiquitous camera can chart our progress and its retelling. Digital storytelling as a pedagogy incorporates photographs to evoke deep explorations of experience (McLellan, 2007). Whether in the form of photomontage, photostory comic strip, or portfolio, photographs create records of place and experience. Photographs act as aides memoire, or they can be presented to illustrate context or detail, and they can be annotated.


The X-ray of a fractured bone presented alongside a healthy bone is an obvious comparison that, in this case, allows the radiotherapy student to learn about what they should be capturing in the images they make. Other types of change can be photographically recorded for analysis: erosion, development of a process, growth, aging, urban planning, layering of paint on a canvas, and so forth. Visual timelines showing photographs of places as they used to be adjacent to contemporary views are inherently fascinating.

Add and update

The editing of photographs and the superimposing of new elements or annotations onto photographs can be useful in assessment, but also project planning.


Incongruity can be a powerful stimulus for learning. “What is wrong about this image?” can be a engaging opening question. Combining and juxtaposing one idea with another, or editing out or editing in a critical element can, for example, engage students in discussions about critical literacy. Collage – the assemblage of disparate visual elements to create a new image – can help to establish new associations – what happens when the image of a white person is replaced by a non-white person, or a man for a woman? Could that be a basis for discussion!?

Use and value

‘Use and value’ in Collis’ framework, pedagogically, asks us to focus on audience and user of the media. Whether the photograph is found or produced by the teacher or student, it is interesting to think about its use over time.

Single course use

Nowadays immediacy is associated with the digital photograph. Unlike analogue photography, the digital changes the inherent value of the photograph as artefact. Today, there is an abundance of imagery and, should we not find what we need, making a new photograph is technically straightforward, even if the situations we want to capture are inaccessible.

Single use photography brings currency and authenticity. We, the teacher or learner, can vouch for their authenticity and it is that direct association with the image that sometimes matters. As such, photographs are more understood as being ephemeral and inexpensive commodities.

Course re-use

Re-use changes the inherent context of the image. Its author may be forgotten, its currency may fade, but its meaning can be reassigned. As a record of what has happened before on the course, the photograph can help to model expectations and provide insight to previous work, experiments and outcomes.

Non-course use

Photography can have many audiences. The publication of photographs is commonplace. People use social media photography to inform, attract and chart their world: life blogging is part of life itself.

The photograph demands to be seen by others. Academically, then, this public thinking through the media of photography can become a powerful incentive for presenting research and ideas to a general or specific audience.


I have been looking at the photograph and the act of making photographs as a site of learning since the first camera phone came out. I tried to run an academic innovation project in about 2006 called ‘Picture This!’ It struggled. I found it fascinating that we could grab a visual note so easily. But it wasn’t easy then. It is now.

I would love to hear from anyone who has examples of how photography is being used in the higher education curriculum.


Collis, B. (nd). A pedagogy for learners in the co-creation of knowledge and the problems that confront it in practice. Online:

Collis, B. & Moonen, J. (2006). The student: learners as co-developers of learning resources for reuse in web environments. In D. Hung and M.S. Khine (eds.), Engaged Learning with Emerging Technologies, 49-67.

Harper, D. (2002).Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13-26

Loopmans, M., Cowell, G. & Oosterlynck, S. (2012). Photography, public pedagogy and the politics of place-making in post-industrial areas, Social & Cultural Geography, 13:7, 699-718, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2012.723734

Margulies, J. D. (2019). On coming into animal presence with photovoice. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2(4), pp. 850-873

McLellan, H. (2007). Digital storytelling in higher education. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19, pp. 65-79

Middleton, A. (2011). Audio active: discovering mobile learner-gatherers from across the formal-informal continuum. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning (IJMBL), 3(2), pp. 31–42.

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing
just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4-13.

Sontag, S. (1977). On phography. London: Penguin Books.

Tuan, Y-F. (1977). Space and place: the perspective of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Posted in Academic Innovation, Academic Innovation and Possibilities, Active Learning, BYOD4L, Creativity, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Media-enhanced learning, photopedagogy, Smart Learning & BYOD, Social Media for Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deviation and self-determination #activelearning

A learning constellation

In a previous post I suggested that the art of teaching to an active learning philosophy is about creating loose structures so that each and every student has the space to bring their own knowledge, experience and imagination to their learning. Designing for learner deviation is about valuing learning as an ecology, therefore; the learner, whether they know it or not, brings value to the learning situation and the teaching challenge is to accommodate and orchestrate the riches that students bring. Students are not inert; each learner represents a wealth of knowledge, experience, motivation, ideas, and answers.

The learner is part of the assemblage of the learning environment; part of the dynamic constellation (Delander, 2016). They will find their own way.

Deviation – finding your own way

The use of ‘deviance’ to describe learning may grab your attention. I have selected it purposefully, not in its rebellious, oppositional or moralistic sense (though that is healthy too), but in its psyschogeographical sense; that is, to deviate or wander, perhaps aimlessly, and certainly without recourse to provided structure in the spirit of the flâneur. It is the most extreme form of self-determination reaching beyond intention, accepting the innate desire to observe and be part of life. It is where wander and wonder collide, and establishes a space to be curious.

Heutagogy and self-determination

In education, deviance is more often known as self-determined learning. Self-determination Theory (SDT) was developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and provides a theory of motivation in psychology. It highlights three innate psychological needs of human beings: for competence, for autonomy and for relatedness. (Ackerman, 2021) It is sometimes referred to as heutagogy although, strictly speaking, this means the study of self-determined learning (Hase & Kenyon, 2015). In a heutagogical approach,

“Teachers don’t teach, I have long believed. Learners learn. ‘Teachers’ (the quotes are deliberate) provide a context within which learning is encouraged and enabled.”

Dick, 2015, p. 51

Heutagogy is “where the learner has the autonomy to determine and direct his/her own learning path and process.” (Hase & Kenyon, 2000, p. 86)

Blaschke looks at the web as a context for self-determination.

“the learner’s ability to be self-determined is inherent in the system: the web is non-linear, allowing the learner to decide in a random way what and how she will learn.”

Blaschke, 2013, p. 57

The routes beyond the confines of the classroom clarify and make prescient ideas about wandering as learning. It suggests a connective infinity, and makes digital and spatial fluency aa relevant and important matter for educators.

Creating a space for deviance

That space, for me, is encapsulated in the idea of studio: a place of connectivity and curiosity. A place to wonder/wander. Learning involves encountering problems and conducting inquiries, facing and embracing the challenge of inspiring your peers or ‘publics’ (people who represent an authentic audience) and your teachers. It involves making things: written, visual, time-based media, or events. It involves working in isolation, in collaboration, and through co-operation (‘learning alongside’). It involves negotiating and defining your own terms (and criteria). It involves being aware of (and open to be inspired by) your peers navigating similar territory, albeit in their own way.

“teachers do not play a less significant role; they play a different role and it is one that is at the heart of good teaching.”

Eberle, 2015, p. 149

As I work with academic teachers on developing active learning strategies, that point is so important. The role of the teacher is much more than the lecturer. It requires the knowledge and credibility that we associate with lecturing, but it also requires an artistry for designing learning situations and a commitment to the continuous exploration of knowledge.

The teacher, then is game-maker, guide and agitator. Deviant learning does not threaten formal learning: it recognises the value of curiosity, intrigue, and scratching an itch as part of the act of building one’s knowledge, as well as learning how to develop and use those important deviant tendencies wisely through life.


Ackerman, C. E. (2021, 15-02-2021). Self-Determination Theory of motivation: why intrinsic motivation matters. Blog post, online at:

Blaschke, L. M. (2012) ‘Heutagogy and lifelong learning: a review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, l(13), pp. 56-71.

Delander, M. (2016). Assemblage theory. Edinburgh University Press.

Dick, B. (2015). Crafting learner-centred processes using action research and action learning. In: S. Hase & C. Kenyon, eds., “Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action.” London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Eberle, J. H. (2015). Lifelong learning. In: S. Hase & C. Kenyon, eds., “Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action.” London: Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 145-15

Garnett, F. & O’Beirne, R. (2013). Putting heutagogy into learning Eberle, J. H. (2015). Lifelong learning. In: S. Hase & C. Kenyon, eds., “Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action.” London: Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 131-143 .

Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2015). Heutagogy fundamentals. In: S. Hase & C. Kenyon, eds., “Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action.” London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Narayan, V., Herrington, J. & Cochran’s, T. (2019). Design principles for heutagogical learning: Implementing student-determined Learning with mobile and social media tools. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, August 2018.

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