Creating happiness and flow

Photo by Amauri Salas on Unsplash

Photo by Amauri Salas on Unsplash

Listening to 6 Music this morning, Marie-Ann Hobbs noted how both Viv Albertine and Johnny Marr could not equate happiness with creativity. Instead, creativity seems to be something quite separate. – a drive to be productive.

I do a lot of creative things and, in each case, the experience is of a creative urge – an unstoppable drive in the pursuit of good feelings, but which, in all likelihood, will be characteristised by a sense of struggle and often despair. So, ironically, happiness is rarely part of the creative process itself, but it is behind the motivation to engage creatively attracting me like a light at the end of the tunnel.

Happiness relates to creativity usually in two ways for me. And there is a third, but rare, state that can be experienced if everything falls into place.

Firstly, creativity and happiness are there in the sense of anticipation when I mentally construct often idealistic pictures of what I am going to produce. At this stage, I know I am setting myself up for a challenge, and possibly for a fall, but the pure joy of imagining ideas and possibilities creates an energy. I know this energy is usually insatiable, nevertheless, there is a belief somewhere that I will one day do something excellent (on my own terms).

Secondly, in some cases, happiness can be found in the sense of pride many years later when I can look back objectively on what I achieved. This happiness requires the passage of time. Whether it is art, music, writing or teaching I never like what I have done when I finish doing it. Finishing a creative episode therefore usually involves creating or having a constraint of some sort – usually time. Switching off the creative, critical mind and the heightened subjectivity involved in making creative decisions is very difficult. This usually means I have a strong sense of dissatisfaction when producing work. I can’t read, view or listen to things I do. For example, I have a thoroughly researched article that I have written and rewritten through an immersive set of iterations this year. It is probably or at least possibly excellent and, if not, I am fairly sure the peer review will be a valuable and constructive experience – so this reticence to submit is not that I am worried by the criticism I might receive from others, it is that my immersive flow was interrupted at that final point and I now have to summon up a new energy, and interest, in seeing the job through. As a creative person, ironically, the creative struggle of problem-solving provides the intrinsic drive – not the satisfaction of having finished something.

There is a third state of creative happiness and I hope (as I always do) to experience this over the next three days. I am in various bands or, more correctly, I am involved in variously music-related endeavours including two bands of very long standing. So, after all this time, there is an intrinsic happiness that comes from purposeful sociability centred on making things with other people – writing, arranging and recording songs. The third state, one that I often do experience when writing music, is that idea of flow. It is a fleeting sense of everything and everyone coming together; being on the same page; being in the right frame of mind. Usually, this is about being relaxed, trusting your instinct, playing with cliche and irony to find originality, and not over-thinking anything. Together. So flow is a rare and much-desired example of where creativity and process do come together. The feeling is so strong and bankable that it energises all future ideas of being creative, setting up intrinsic motivation around creativity.

So I am obviously happy in that pre-state today. My bandmates and I have set ourselves quite a challenge as we have much of the album recorded (I trust it’s good – I won’t be listening for a while of course). But we need one or two new tracks and it is critical we get the drums down by Wednesday. That becomes the constraint around which other parts are layered over the next while. I believe constraints create an amazing condition to trust what you know and find your flow.

But we’ll see…

Creativity and learning

This does explain a lot about my thinking on education and creating effective learning environments. I think creativity is an important and healthy part of learning that embraces constraints and challenges linked to ideas of satisfaction. Learning co-operatively through creative decision-making creates a rich and immersive space for learning; one that is highly stimulating, but not superficial and not about immediate gratification. A creative learning experience should foster pride or self-esteem – ultimately. This means it should involve a deep and meaningful struggle, the value of which is often not appreciated in the short-term, but which continues to inspire and drive you in years to come.

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The tweet is the new photograph

I am reading Susan Sontag’s seminal book On Photography from 1977. It’s interesting reading the book in an age where the act of photographing the world has exploded beyond what Sontag could have imagined – even though her critique of everyday photography takes the mass proliferation of the acquired image as its starting point.

I am struck how social media in general, but especially the tweet or WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat message, have directly replaced the role of the photograph in everyday life. As you read the following, replace ‘photograph’ with ‘tweet’ (etc.).

“A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights—to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions. The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing. This, in turn, makes it easy to feel that any event, once underway, and whatever its moral character, should be allowed to complete itself—so that something else can be brought into the world, the photograph. After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed.” (P. 11)

The act of social mediation, in its various forms, is ‘one with ever more peremptory rights’… Positively, the act of acquisition is an intervention that, with critical decisiveness, demonstrates the learning agency afforded by social media.

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Productive failure, drawing and erasing – exploring visual literacies #twalk #possibilities

Walk cards with proposition statements and visual trigger

Walk cards with proposition statements and visual trigger

More walking, talking and Twalking (just about)

I co-led a Twalk today on the subject of visual literacies as part of Sheffield Hallam University’s Learning & Teaching Conference with my colleague Helen Rodger. It was billed simply as a learning walk and it was only this morning that I put it out there as a #twalk. Strictly speaking it wasn’t as I had not published the route, questions/topics, or engaged other walking groups in other places (hence, the defining qualities of a Twalk are revealed by what I didn’t do). But this morning I did put it out there because I realised that there was interest beyond SHU once I had tweeted that I was leading a walk.

The conference theme of conversation and learning experience was very apt for exploring the walking methodology. The nature of conversational learning is central to the ideas of learning walk, Twalks and tweetchats as spaces for learning.

The idea for the visual literacies focus for the walk today was a response to my own daily involvement with Instagram as a dimension of my leisure walking and my personal observation that the act of having to take a photograph each day has changed my visual acuity. Looking deeply is a practiced habit. I thought this would feature in this walk, but when it came to submitting the proposal I decided I wanted to see if this came out of conversation rather than by pre-populating the conversation, so to speak. As far as I am aware, it didn’t! Another day for that then…

Normally I hand out a walking ‘map’ to guide my learning walks and Twalks: itinerary, questions, hashtags, etc. This time I used laminated cards (see above). One-sided A6 postcard-sized with a title, a proposition statement, and an image. Each card was used to scaffold 10 minutes of the walk. I had produced 4 sets, and there were 10 of us. The cards felt good and were practical. Originated in PowerPoint, I was able to segue from in-class intro slide for backgrounding the theme and ‘problem’ to projecting the first ‘card’. This meant I could

  1. explain how the cards should be used to scaffold conversation on the walk,
  2. switch off the projector,
  3. ask people to look at the very same card in their hand, and
  4. invite them to walk and talk.

All in one breath! That worked very well. I liked everything about the card-based approach especially the provocative image and proposition statement. I could have included a single Twalk hashtag – but that was an afterthought today.

It’s the third Twalk I have done in a conference setting and I think it is particularly appropriate. You really notice the change in tone as you bring a group into a conversational mode and, I believe, people feel very comfortable with walking and talking. In my intro I said, “You know, it should feel just like it does when you go out for a Sunday walk on Stanedge Edge with friends and family.” (Most Sheffield people do that ‘promenade’ in the Peak District every now and then because it is so near and very accessible).

From walk propositions to Twalk questions

Deciding to twalk-ify my walk created one problem. The proposition statements were too detailed for a Twalk, though provocative for a walk. You can see them on the cards above. Prior to the session I opened a Google Doc, framed them as questions, and included the relevant hashtags. During the walk i kept the document open and pasted the questions periodically. I began with one or two lead-up posts as you normally do in a tweetchat:

  • “#twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities join us in person or on twitter for 4 questions between 1 and 2pm #SHULT18”
  1. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities Q1 How do you visualise information in your teaching? #SHULT18
  2. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities photograph an object and explain how it will help us to save the world! #SHULT18
  3. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities Q2 How do you visualise metaphor in your teaching? #SHULT18
  4. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities Q3 How does visualisation promote confidence and fluency amongst your students? #SHULT18
  5. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities Q4 How does visualisation promote creative and critical thinking amongst your students? #SHULT18

Note I had 4 questions but threw in an extra challenge activity mid-way to photograph an object. One of the walkers asked me to photograph the train station in response to this which I did for her. She didn’t have a smart device with her or didn’t want to use it if she did.

As I noted at the University of Liverpool last week in my virtual visit, most photographing and tweeting were done by a dedicated person and today it was the same. I was not only doing most of the facilitating at our ‘pause points’ but doing the photographing and tweeting too. On another day, I would look to have a ‘scribe role’ looking after the social media as we did at the mini-Twalk at #socmedhe17.

Health and safety was an issue for me: walking down several flights of stairs, going through a revolving door, and crossing one of Sheffield city centre’s busiest roads twice – all while tweeting in the shiny sun… not sensible Andrew… Be warned!

Visual literacies

The topic was great. Very fitting for this conference and the staff group. I have previously published a continuum framework on the use of images and their relation to playful learning (Middleton, 2015). Today we explored some of this beginning with image as conveyor of information, then looking at the use of visual metaphor. But we also considered the visual in the context of creative and critical thinking and in relation to the ubiquity of the screen, mobile technology, and social media.

In the walk we talked about the various ways in which graphic media are incorporated in teaching and learning: photographs, infographics, CAD, web pages, diagrams, drawing, flow charts, concept maps, and visual elements such as tables within texts. We discussed how images give us access to situations and objects that are inaccessible due to cost, location and size. That brought us to a discussion about simulation. We talked about visual representation of complexity or organisational structures and we talked about the ubiquity of screens and the habitual use of photographs in social media.

We discussed how images lend themselves to divergent thinking and open-ended discourse and how divergent thinking is not always desirable in some disciplines where exacting processes and convergent thinking are needed.

I keep finding myself talking about the learning value of productive failure, uncertainty, and complexity in my thinking about studio-based learning. This makes me think about the ephemeral and, in terms of graphics, ideas such as sketching, drafting and drawing, and erasing. We discussed the value of ambiguity as a context for conceptual thinking, but the malleability of the visual – as in redrawing and reshaping – is also important if we are thinking about the versatility of the visual in comparison to written text.


We started, albeit briefly, in a classroom and we returned to the classroom for a 5 minute plenary discussion. This is new for me – normally learning walks have begun in a specific non-formal location and ended at whatever the 5th landmark turned out to be. But I have to say, I liked it today. Getting back to the class with enough time to wrap up was useful. And indeed, nobody was in a rush to get out of the room so the conversation ran over 5 or 10 minutes because I think everyone bonded on the walk and didn’t really want it to end!


I had to cancel a walk a couple of weeks ago. It was a twilight walk for senior managers that conflicted with England’s first game in the World Cup. It didn’t feel right to compete. Tonight we have the semi-final, but plenty of time to get home first.

So I am still thinking about rescheduling the twilight walk, but I think it will have to be next academic year.

On 3rd October I am meant to be leading the #GlobalTwalk – an induction-focused Twalk on the D3BC concept. It’s time for me to finalise plans, maps, etc for that. So stay posted!


Middleton, A. (2015). Room for imagining: The playful mind. Creative Academic Magazine, ‘Exploring Play in Education’, June 2015.

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Crashing or connecting? Navigating the #twalk boundaries

The #connectedlearning space, in its many and various meanings, is central to my thinking about the future classroom. This is obviously epitomised in the concept of the #twalk. It was lovely to hear that Alex Spiers was leading a Twalk at the Liverpool University today – again looking at learning spaces (#livunitwalk). And it was lovely to ‘connect in’.


photo of #livunitwalk by Ben McGae @bmegae

In my work on digital and social media for learning, I often refer to examples of the connected classroom as being something we need to exploit more. The webinar is the classic form for such connectivity and the opportunities for enriching the classroom by bringing in connected voices and expertise. The idea of ‘connecting in’ relates to that notion of ‘expert performances’ in authentic learning theory and it is prominent in George Siemen’s principles of connectivism.

In my own current thinking about the meaning of ‘applied university’, the idea of connecting is really important. It describes how we must develop capabilities to “look and reach outwards to our world” as a dimension of epistemic fluency (Markauskaite & Goodyear, 2016) [more on that in a future post].

‘Bringing in’ and ‘expertise’ suggest a mono-directional relationship. At #MELSIG_SHU the other week I introduced the day with reference to ‘together we are expert’ being only full of curiosity and potential without connectivity. So, it was a joy to drop in as an outsider on the Liverpool walk and recognise the value of taking out, not only bringing in, knowledge. I know I brought something to the #twalk – the focus of the activity there mapped directly to my own scholarship, but what I gained and what was valuable for me, beyond that sense of networked warmth, was being involved in a review of the essential questions as discussed by a group of academics committed to excellent teaching (self-defined through the act of undertaking CPD on academic innovation).

As soon as I connected to the hashtag #livunitwalk I realised I may be intruding – crashing in on conversations that need to be owned by the Liverpool group alone. I was aware my externality may deter productive, challenging conversations even though my intention was to contribute. So I asked, “Am I crashing or connecting?” You might assume that if it is happening in social media you have a right to be there – it is an implicit invitation. Nevertheless, I think this assumption needs to be checked. I was welcomed.

As someone who has thought through the questions being discussed many times, I ensured my tone of voice was facilitative rather than didactic. I hopefully posed a few useful supplementary questions and the group in Liverpool were free to ignore them! And they were hopefully busy enough with their own thoughts!

Anyway, for me, #livunitwalk was an interesting opportunity to think about #twalks, social media for learning, and boundary crossing. Thank you!

Posted in Academic innovation, active learning, Applied Learning, belonging, Digital Placemaking, learner engagement, learning space, Possibilities, social media for learning, walking | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rules of engagement – how to motivate students

fingerpostI have been working with course teams across the University recently on a number of themes where there is a common articulation of a fundamental problem – how to engage students. Without marks. Many books have been written and many words spoken about this, but I am going to do my best to give you a single answer, supported by three approaches.

The essential answer comes from Phil Race in his book The Lecturer’s Toolkit – a must read for anyone teaching in higher education because he makes everything so clear and straightforward.

Focus on ‘want’ – investing in personal intrinsic motivation

To engage students you must understand their ‘want’. What does each student want? If you can’t answer this you are going to struggle. Let me break that down a bit.

It is not about spoon feeding students or accepting their expectations. After all, do students have a better understanding than the academic of the subject, the rich meaning, the deep possibilities awaiting their discovery, or how university-level teaching works? No, these need to be developed. You, the academic, have the role of designing for personal investment.

So ‘want’, or intrinsic motivation and the best interests of the student, needs to be fostered. I say fostered rather than developed because much of this comes from establishing a conducive learning environment (UKPSF Area of Activity 4). This is about negotiating and creating a learning environment for the curious.

Neither is this about telling students what they need. This is a common teaching strategy, but one that inevitably fails to ignite engagement. “You need to engage in this formative assessment… yes, I know there are no marks, but you need to engage anyway. Trust me, it’ll be good for you.” Or, “I have gone to a lot of effort to mark your assignment and I have produced loads of feedback. Do me a favour and read it!” Both examples describe a teacher-centred ‘need-based’ strategy to engagement. Trust needs to be developed and earned and even if you are ‘really nice’ it is not going to be the factor that sways students to put effort into their study.

A ‘want-based’ strategy is a student-centred strategy. Here, student-centred refers to both the individual student and the collective. To achieve this I think there are three essential analyses a teacher can conduct:

  • Benefits analysis
  • Enjoyment analysis
  • Identity analysis

Benefits analysis

A benefits analysis focuses on a student’s self-interest – ‘what’s in it for me?’. It requires the academic to put on their “designer’s” hat. For example, first be clear why you are using a method and why it is the right method to achieve the intended learning outcomes. Be sure that this is the right method. For example, if you are using audio feedback to convey visual information it is probably not a good idea to try and convince students to use it. On the other hand, if you are trying to clarify why their performance in an activity was misconceived, it may give you the right space to address the issue clearly in a personal and timely way. Whatever your conclusion, you should be able to explain to your students the benefit to them associated with the methods you have selected before you expect their engagement.

Secondly, if you know ‘what students need’, then time spent developing their expectations is not only time well spent, but critical. Students don’t always know what they want or what will help them. Developing a student’s sense of learning purpose will not only help you to solve your engagement problem but, more to the point, will help them to see themselves in your curriculum.

Benefits are often expressed in terms of time and money. We can discount money I think (!), but we should think about other value systems such as experience and reputation. Experience, more than simply success, is a tradable commodity especially if it results in a record of engagement e.g. an assignment artefact, a reflective account, feedback, a story, etc. By designing for experience you are offering a rich learning opportunity; one with multiple dimensions each of which has a different mix of benefits for each student. Talk about this. Engagement with rich experiences generates evidence of learning and growth and gives the student a basis for referring to the activity and what they learnt from it, and what they believe are the implications of this learning for them. Again, support each student to negotiate what it is they think they want to get out of this opportunity, whether that is a formative activity or feedback. In what ways will they want to measure themselves? You can even agree to give them feedback, or ask others to, according to the criteria they devise or shape for themselves.

Time in class spent discussing the why’s and the how’s to frame individual and collective benefits is a sound investment for all and will help to situate the learning. Not doing this is, quite frankly, rude. (Though academics often tell me they don’t have time to do this as they’ve got a job on their hands to cram all this content in..! Cram it in then, but with no student investment the only outcome is likely to be a tick on your sheet to confirm you delivered it – it may not necessarily arrive however!!).

You can talk to students informally about what they want: from an activity, the course, life… Your job is to find out what makes a student tick and oil their cogs!

If you and your students share an understanding of the benefits you are able, if not yet ready, to situate the intervention. Many lecturers begin a session by setting out what they intend to do. How often do we ask, is this what you want? There is the danger that they might say “no”. Then what do you do? Well, you’ll do more or less what you planned to do, but you’ll first discuss and clarify the benefits.

Enjoyments analysis

Life doesn’t need any more tedium, passivity or frustration! Learning is a serious business and warrants serious fun! This is not to undermine the quality of the content and the intellectual rigour of the academic process, but nobody ever suggested learning should be a dull and passive experience. Learning should be challenging for each student, always. We need to focus on vibrancy; the life-affirming quality of the spaces we create for learning.

Enjoyment, challenge, curiosity, stimuli, and good feelings create a powerful cauldron for engagement. Sitting creativity and criticality side-by-side is a good starting point for designing enjoyable learning situations, for example in designing activities that require constant negotiation, navigation and decision making.

Building in a social dimension can heighten enjoyment and support, and help your students to feel they have agency over their learning. They need to sense they have ownership over their learning, and from this, responsibility. This is what we mean by learner autonomy – agency and responsibility leading to self-efficacy and self-determination. Asking them to make something (a statement, hypothesis, an object, a presentation, a joke, an excuse……) creates a meaningful focus for them laden with opportunities to smile.

We must be careful not to trivialise learning, however. There is a great danger that creating a fun environment can be misunderstood by the students and detract from what we are trying to do. It can appear patronising and end up being demeaning. Co-designing enjoyable activities with students can be an interesting approach. The learning objective, serious intent, and the benefits should all be clear so that there is learning investment. At the heart of enjoyment, then, is peer co-operation, activity, challenge, interactivity and integrated feedback. These ideas are central to Chickering and Gamson’s 7 Principles of Undergraduate Teaching (1987).

The idea of ‘conundrum’ is worth reflecting on for a minute. It conjures up the idea of an engaging, solvable problem, and one that may take several attempts to complete. If we look at Problem-Based Learning, for example, how can we make the problems we use more enjoyable? While the essential problem remains the same, the context we create around it gives us our focus for enjoyment. Who sets the problem, how is the problem situated and communicated? Will this be serial, parallel, sustained, thematic, etc, etc? What interventions can be made and what is there purpose? For example, what happens if you (or someone else) provides further information as the problem progresses? We are now looking at the problem from a designer’s perspective and touching on ideas of gamification.

Identity analysis

Our third focus for considering intrinsic motivation for engagement is identity. To analyse questions of student identity in the way you teach you can simply ask,

  • Do – what do we do?
  • Be – existentially, what dispositions do we display?
  • Become – how do we become?
  • Belong – how do we belong?
  • Connect – how do we relate to knowledge and people?

You and your students should be able to confidently answer these questions.

If you can, then I suggest the activities and interventions will all be clearly situated; they will have meaning that can be depended upon. You will not need to explain why engagement is necessary, everybody will have an understanding of why taking part is highly desirable and will be able to add to and shape the situation.


The academic is first and foremost a designer in the domain of active learning. Effective engagement is achieved by designing for intrinsic motivation. This means designing a learner-centred ethos. To do this the designer focuses on the learners’ interest and self-perceived needs and desires before using a strategy that scaffolds the learner’s development in a ways that matters to them. By exploring benefits, ensuring learning is a rich and enjoyable experience, and relating activities and interventions to a student’s curation of their identity, engagement in well-designed learning activities should follow.

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A place for imagining – blue skies under the tree canopy

Tree canopy and blue sky in Ecclesall Woods

Myself and a colleague have some difficult thinking to do this week. Exciting thinking, but difficult nevertheless. So, we could book out a teaching room lined with whiteboards for the day and see what happens, but that feels too ‘inward’ for what we have to do which is to take some theoretical frameworks and apply them to a problem situation to create a new strategic vision for an aspect of our service. We need to be inventive and to do this we need to put to one side everything we already do and know. That is why this is both difficult and exciting.

We need to clear our minds and find new stimuli.

We have one of these conversations about this time every year. The first year, when we didn’t know each other very well, we went for a 7 mile walk with a dog up Mam Tor in the Peak District – a place we both knew well, but hardly an office! It wasn’t intended to be a ‘jolly’, we had serious business to do and we set ourselves objectives to give us a focus. More than anything we created a space that could accommodate awkward silences – should there be any. There weren’t as it turned out.

We walked and talked, allowing ourselves to wander off topic and back onto topic as we climbed styles and negotiated steep and rocky paths. There are definitely metaphors in the landscape, but I don’t think we used them. What we did use was the natural rhythm of the walk to pace our conversation such as the moments when you have to go single file or look up to check the path. Having said that, we did get engrossed in conversation on a couple of occasions and went the wrong way, necessitating that we back track. (Back tracking is a topic for another post perhaps, but an example is described at the end of this post).

Last year we made a mistake. We went to a club with free coffee, comfortable seating and snooker tables. We were ‘off campus’, but the place was not invigorating. There was no real stimulation from the environment – all we had to navigate was our conversation. We achieved what we set out to do, but it felt like any other business meeting.

Today we are going to Ecclesall Woods in Sheffield – the UK’s oldest urban woodland I believe. It’s a place I know well and, given the expected 28°c today, the shade will be welcome. We have just three hours this morning and you can walk the woods in about an hour if you have a dog with you, though we’ll be on our own.

I have some frameworks that I think will help us think – each based on a set of principles. These are in my head. I don’t think carrying paper and stopping to make written notes is what is needed. But you do come up with gems of ideas on these occasions – that’s the point. So I’ll have my phone and Notes app in my pocket and, if I use it, I’ll use the dictate function and not the keyboard. I have found that using the microphone Siri function is about 98% accurate. Perhaps if we want to draw something we’ll get a stick and draw in the dirt and photograph it.

But mostly this is a walk for blue skies thinking.

There are implications here for my study of learning spaces.

  • Walking is a non-formal semi-structured space
  • The space has to be navigated and asserts itself on the conversation demanding that the walker looks up every now and then creating natural interludes
  • The space is open
  • The walking rhythm asserts itself to establish a thinking rhythm and a conversational rhythm
  • The walk is full of natural change points (a fork in the path, a bridge to be crossed, a hill to be negotiated, etc). These have metaphorical dimensions, but more to the point, they affect the conversation by being actual moments on the walk that delineate aspects of the discussion.
  • Conversation flows and deviates but, as walkers, you know you have a destination and you want to draw satisfactory conclusions before you arrive.

I’m about to arrive in Sheffield, so I will add some notes on the walk and the conversation we have as well as a picture.

Will we reach the blue skies? Will we arrive at a conclusion?

Reflecting on this year’s walk

It was beautiful and we didn’t stop talking. There were so many retired friendly dog walkers, all who wanted to say hello. One dog barked so vociferously I lost my thread, but it was OK – nothing felt so urgent or critical to capture.My colleague said, at one point, “Let me just note something you said when we were walking across that green…” she was referring to the conversation we’d been having 10 minutes or so earlier. I looked puzzled and then the picture in my head of us walking across the green open space came into focus and, as it did so, so did the conversation and the point I had been making. This is backtracking.We didn’t run out of walk and in fact managed to spend a productive two and a half hours covering the complexity and deviating our thinking as necessary. You just couldn’t have such a high quality conversation like this anywhere else and I was struck by the thought that so many bad decisions must be made in meeting environments because there was not an adequate space for quality thinking.That must be true for learning too. If discursive and reflective learning has value, to what extent is it conducted in the right place?Finally, I didn’t take a notepad and I did use my dictate function to record key points in my Notes app on my iPhone. The accuracy is amazing and later I was able to check and revise the notes and email them directly to my colleague and to my Evernote account. In effect we had created the notes together. As we walked, occasionally we’d say, “Let’s capture that.” Doing so demanded I speak the note out loud of course and this meant my colleague could hear my summarisation as we walked.

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The future is active – implications for future academic practice


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I have been thinking about the future academic and the implications for academic development recently. The Open University’s ‘Innovating Pedagogy’ is an insightful annual report (, though I would love to see one for 2018. I have seen Mike Shales present on these themes a couple of times and, whether you agree with the detail or not, the proposals are thought provoking and a useful reference point for futurecasting academic practice.

Many of the 10 trends identified by Ferguson et al. (2017) point to forms of active learning in response to current thinking on how people learn. While Spaced Learning advocates a specific pattern of engagement that takes account of findings from neuroscience, the idea that learning is stimulated by allowing the mind to engage with and digest knowledge by intentionally varying the nature and intensity of learning is not new: learning in an active way is enhanced by incorporating opportunities for the learner to apply, test and reflect on new knowledge. Ideas such as Spaced Learning reiterate longstanding constructivist theories which describe the learner as having a central curatorial role in constructing their own learning. Active learning methods are intrinsically concerned with, not only engaging students, but scaffolding deep levels of learning.

Active learning is also reflected in the idea of ‘Learners making science’, the second trend identified in their report. The authors note the need for graduates to be able to systematically ‘solve problems, evaluate evidence, and make sense of complex information from various sources.’ Attention given to complexity alludes to ideas of the authentic curriculum: one that is characterised by wicked issues, uncertainty, and dynamism. Our graduates need to be practiced and confident in making difficult decisions. This idea of ‘making’ is about the importance of not just learning by doing but learning by practicing and perhaps even learning by practising (as in authentic learning). From this, the implications for an ontological approach to curriculum immersion (the student’s meta-engagement with their ‘becoming’) are clear.

Today’s active learning environment needs to be understood as one of co-production and networked authorship. The role of group work, for example, is more important than ever; however, it is urgent that our understanding of the value of group work is developed. The benefit of group work is often couched in terms of teamwork, employability, and communities of practice. However, these are essentially inward-looking membership models of interactivity. Connected learning must reflect connected citizenship and the demand of society to look outward and to proactively reach out across dynamic global networks. Whether in the classroom or reaching beyond it, the learner must be responsible, agile, empathetic, critical, creative and resilient. In terms of the curriculum and academic practice, therefore, our students need to be continually immersed in projects that demand they are resourceful individually and co-operatively. This needs to be a developed maturity (see previous post), evident in their habitual practices of engagement and their ability to respond to unpredictable situations. This approach to collaboration is attitudinal more than goal-orientated. Students need opportunities that develop help-seeking and help-giving skills, so methods that depend upon and promote peer co-operation are key. These skills are noted in Ferguson et al.‘s (2017)  trend of Intergroup Empathy too, although, here, the authors focus on intercultural learning. This global context alludes to digital nomadicism (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004) and the capacity of a graduate to continuously manage their professional life and to confidently and seamlessly identify, make and take opportunities on a global stage.

The trend of Immersive Learning describes immersion in technical terms, for example through the use of haptics. However, there is a higher principle of immersive learning that points the academic to pedagogies such as simulation and the use of situated learning (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Brown, 1999; Brown, 2006) in which the academic creates credible scenarios and problems.

Such pedagogies emphasise how learner engagement is a prerequisite to learning and the development of self-efficacy, for example through safe failure. This is about knowing and trusting oneself to be competent in uncertain and unpredictable situations.

Uncertainty no longer can be understood simply in terms of the dynamic nature of knowledge, but in terms of the credibility of knowledge: we are well-aware that a graduate, and a student therefore, needs to be critically literate enough to deal with the power of ‘fake news’. Not just identify untruth but successfully challenge it. Ferguson et al. (2017) highlight the capability to navigate post-truth societies as a new literacy – mistrust, in itself, is of little use. Our future classroom needs to create an environment in which ignorance and falsehood can be confidently exposed and dealt with. Debate is one form of pedagogy that develops such acuity and adroitness. We should expect to see more evidenced-informed interaction in the classroom and less dependence on single authoritative voices therefore. In this way, graduates will become known as people “able to evaluate and share information responsibly.” Academics should look at ideas such as ‘epistemic cognition’ and ways of promoting this in learners according to the report.

As I have been discussing here and anywhere that will have me, the principles underpinning interactive social media allow us to see the value of connected space. Connected space is neither a phenomenon of online or physical spaces, but of blended or hybrid place. Hence ideas discussed on this blog about placemaking and agency. Ferguson et al. (2017) say,

“Online environments, such as social media, form global virtual spaces. In these, people from different backgrounds interact with each other, even if they come from countries or cultures that are engaged in conflict. This means that skills such as communication, teamwork, and empathy are important. When groups are kept apart, they are likely to develop negative stereotypes of each other. These stereotypes are associated with prejudice, hostility, and aggression. Members of groups that do not have opportunities for constructive social contact may think in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.”

Quite, but there is so much more to scaffolding learning in a blended context and I particularly think about the value of a learning environment that scaffolds international and interprofessional interactively and the need for a graduate to be able to continually refresh their identity, knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

What shall we do?

What are the implications for the forward-looking academic, their development, and for the universities and developers charged with supporting this shift?

Firstly, universities need to decide whether to grasp this challenge or not. It feels like Higher Education has been messing around with active learning as something that is a nice-to-have focus for the exceptional inspirational teacher. It doesn’t work like that – meaningful adoption requires a clarity that leaves the academic community in no doubt about the need to develop active, challenging and supportive learning environments wholesale. The lessons from the trickle-feed development of so-called e-learning or technology-enhanced learning, for example, should wake us up. How has this trickle of change since the mid-90s really improved anything? Similarly, the sectors lack of commitment to understand the assessment and feedback problem despite there being longstanding excellent research in this area.

Dependence on ‘lecturers who lecture’ needs to be challenged and we need to recognise that so-called ‘teaching excellence’ should actually be about versatility in academic practice as part of a philosophy of interactive and agile active learning. Without a commitment to versatility of practice we stagnate in a meaningless quagmire that neither does justice to the history of teaching nor its future.

The implications for developing the future academic are to look beyond research and knowledge and accept the challenge of student self-efficacy and the agile identity.



Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Brown, J.S. (1999). Learning, working, and playing in the digital age. Online at:

Brown, J.S. (2006). New learning environments for the 21st century: exploring the edge. Change, September/October, 18-24

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2004). A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 (originally published as Mille plateaux, Paris : Éditions de minuit, 1980).

Ferguson, R., Barzilai, S., Ben-Zvi, D., Chinn, C.A., Herodotou, C., Hod, Y., Kali, Y., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Kupermintz, H., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Sagy, O., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2017). Innovating Pedagogy 2017: Open University Innovation Report 6. Milton Keynes: The Open University, UK.

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