Being smarter than AI – rethinking our assessment design?

The discussion channels used by educational developers have been dominated by the topic of ChatGPT since the New Year. There are two dimensions to this: concerns over academic integrity and the opportunity ChatGPT and other AI tools bring to assessment.

Addressing anxieties over concerns about academic integrity is more urgent. Our academics need to be aware of the risks and have strategies for managing them so their confidence in managing the integrity of assessment is not undermined. It is less urgent we explore the opportunity that AIs like ChatGPT bring. However, the latter supports the former – the design of smart assessment will ensure that we are assessing the right things: actual student work and criteria that evidence learning, rather than engagement or delivery of assessment artefacts or products.

Smart assessment is authentic assessment. By this I mean we need to use methods that challenge students to think through and deal with problems that have demonstrated: personal agency within the task; currency; require inquiry investigation and deduction; are open-ended and not definitive; are likely to be socially mediated or negotiated.

This is not new. Smart authentic assessment is reflected in a curriculum designed around student-centred active learning and the above list echoes the components of authentic learning as proposed by Rule in her 2006 editorial ‘Components of Authentic Learning’ where her review of literature defines authentic learning as,

real-world problems that engage learners in the work of professionals; inquiry activities that practice thinking skills and metacognition; discourse among a community of learners; and student empowerment through choice.

Rule, 2006

There are significant implications in revising or adopting an active and authentic assessment strategy, not least that this qualitative approach needs to be manageable. A quick ‘solution’ to manageability may be to have two components to an assessment – perhaps even an additional small qualitative approach.

The ideal assessment method is not something that scales: the viva voce. However, it gives us a clue to other manageable methods: the viva validates a more substantial piece of work giving the assessor confidence of the authorship of the dissertation.

With that model in mind, we can be less concerned about the authorship of a substantial submitted artefact if we can find straightforward and manageable ways to assess a student’s understanding of their substantial submission. Methods including self- and peer- assessment may be helpful here, but also techniques such as multiple choice or short essays can be used. Using and assessing peer feedback is another approach that springs to mind.

Smart assessment focuses on the experience of learning and a student’s justification or defence of their argument or rationale. We need to assess the student’s role in the experience e.g. solving a current problem, undertaking a project (the process, not the product), examining case studies, conducting context-specific case studies, assembling a portfolio of evidence and analysing it, etc. We need to look at:

  • What process did you follow and why?
  • What decisions did you take in your study, why, and which decisions were good/bad and why?
  • What theoretical frameworks did you use? Why? Were they reliable? Why/not?

This requires we focus on:

  • the learning and assessment process and accumulated evidence rather than end-products of learning (learning is an active state, not an end state!)
  • the marking criteria so that it reflects the student’s explanation and reasoning for their action – how and why they arrived at a conclusion or solution and implications (further actions needed).
  • embrace and value nuance and complexity (found in current and local contexts or situations) and the student’s active engagement and agency over the task.
  • the justification of selected references (they must decide what was most useful and why)
  • how assessment should accommodate diversity and not uniformity – with the diversity of possible responses reflecting the diversity of the participants.

These foci help us to imagine assessment methods can reflect the richness of our subject, are part of a learning-centred design, and are manageable and rich experiences for all.


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

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A Man Walked into a Bar: humour, space, self-deprecation, #activelearning

In this post I explore the pedagogy of humour in the context of higher education teaching and learning and begin to realise there’s more to humour in the classroom than having a bit of fun!

Laughter (photo by Jackaylor Toni on

This was my starting point, realising that I like to quickly gain the trust of an audience, especially where I may be a new face to them. Humour is risky though and can easily backfire. I am careful enough (or lucky? Or insensitive? Oblivious?…) because I don’t think I have overstepped the mark, but have seen others crash, with the best of intentions, resulting in a deathly silence at best. Self-awareness, then, is important in thinking about the academic performance and the ethical responsibilities that need to be managed in the classroom while lightening the mood.

There’s a lot to go at here and I realise this post is likely to be the first of several as I consider humour and,

  • engagement, approachability, trust, and release of tension
  • wit, intellectual fluency, intelligence, and self-evaluation
  • in-jokes, jesting and banter
  • inclusivity, empathy, emotional intelligence
  • taking risks – self-deprecation, irony, and ridicule
  • performance, the role of surprise, and revelation
  • active learning roles, play, personalities and persona

And much more, I am sure. Having said that, it is an under-researched area in higher education.

Humour for engagement

In Henri Bergson’s essay Laughter (1900), he describes how laughter can release tension,

“Freud suggests that humor is generated by the pleasure in stimulating others, and/or by the desire to release emotions.”

I have also seen self-mockery as a form of whit. Indeed, I am partial to this. However, this is potentially self-defeating because it can puzzle those who expect and need you to be serious and reliable. I think this strategy is best when an audience knows you and your foibles well. It implies something about the audience – not just you: “I’m prepared to talk about my weaknesses because I know you have weaknesses too and that’s OK.” It may be better to just say that and avoid being hoisted by your own petard. Selecting when to use humour, how much, and how extreme it is, is where we need to focus as performers – it’s all about timing. Well, not quite, but that management of interludes of relief as part of an engagement mix is useful to think about.

Performance and persona and the need to ‘edutain’ and instil some drama into today’s lecture theatre or classroom is in the mind of most academics when they deploy humour to gain the necessary attention to teach (Tait et al., 2015).

To be humorous and light-hearted requires practised stand up comedic skills or, as is likely to be the case with educators, a fluency and understanding of the situation and a wit.

How many teachers does it take to change a lightbulb?

I couldn’t continue without asking, “how many teachers does it take to change a lightbulb?” But why? And should I have asked the question?

It feels like a good thing to do because my audience will recognise the standard format. But who is ‘my’ audience? Am I unwittingly excluding people who have not encountered this before? There is no malice intended in the posing of the question but, for the uninitiated, they don’t know this. So there becomes a tendency to explain jokes (never a good thing). By the way, I have included some answers to the question at the end of this piece.

Humour comes with a cultural bias – especially ‘in-jokes’ which can be extreme, implying expectation for complicity. However, like jargon, in-jokes can signal unity and ‘being in the know’ and, therefore, can be powerful indicators of a functioning community. Pedagogically, designing a humorous process (one with obvious faults to the insider for example) takes us towards some interesting possibilities – slapstick pedagogy! But it all feels dangerous and brings the possibility of adding to the tension.

Before moving on from making use of common frames of reference, I was chairing our Course Leaders Conference last Friday. Due to multiple unforeseen circumstances I found myself having to reorder the whole programme on the hoof. When the programme slide came up, to release the tension (my tension!) I said, unplanned, “All this is happening, but not necessarily in the right order!” A reference to the Eric Morecambe/Andre Previn sketch from the 1970s. It made me smile, but I have no idea if, for example, our many Asian staff or younger staff will have understood the reference. Well, it made me feel better and I hope my smile helped to put people at their ease. Sometimes it is worth the risk and, even though explanations can be self-defeating, humour exists within a greater context in which trust-building happens.

Playing with knowledge

More positively I’d like to shift the focus from teaching to learning and think about humour as a pedagogy and what students bring to class.

Teachers know how different our students are. They all bring themselves in glorious Technicolor and this can be a joy, or it can be tiresome and trying. But students need opportunities to express and discover themselves. For example, on a Computing course where I was teaching a module on Innovation, I was having real problems with the ‘classroom clown’ – you grit your teeth and mutter to yourself, “They’ve got a bit of growing up to do.” A comedian takes pride in how they deal with hecklers, but usually this is a matter of mutual put downs being exchanged. That’s not appropriate in class obviously. Eventually, if you are lucky, you realise that, by spending time with the individual, they have strengths that can be mined. I have found that these students are usually outgoing if nothing else and you can work up a healthy good fun relationship with them winning them friends in class, providing a laugh and a sense of joy, and generally bringing the class into a positive frame. This was the case in the Computing class. We built a strong rapport and, from week to week, we enjoyed a good-humoured exchange.

Turning to pedagogic methods, focusing on fun and humour can lead to entertaining activities. Here are a few brief examples:

  • using humorous distractors or answers in in-class multiple choice polls
  • Setting a limerick as a feedback method for a group breakout session rather than a standard “tell me what you discussed”
  • Assigning behaviour-types in a role play activity, e.g. be sad, angry, flamboyant, etc
  • Using absurd problems or scenarios to explore concepts rather than highly authentic ones
  • using 10 second ‘wrong-handed’ ugly drawing activities to encourage the ‘non-artists’ to capture the essence of a group activity – then asking members of other groups to explain what it is meant to be communicating (it’s fun and, surprisingly, interrogations lead to deep inter-group sharing)
  • Anything that involves making collages, pipe cleaners, glitter (etc)!

Once you stop to think about bringing humour into your pedagogy you realise there is so much you can do. Of course there has to be some serious learning in all that fun but this can come out of the playing. Using a game of snap where each card includes a set of symbols that have real meaning or rolling a dice to decide who must answer a question or using a modified dice to change a variable in a learning scenario all shift the tone of the activity and help to promote interactivity.

Longer playful learning activities can be devised too. Modifications of TV programmes like ‘Would I Lie to You?’ (2 true answers, 1 false proposed by a student with a poker face) or a Sherlock Holmes deduction activity in which a set of clues in various media are presented along with a set of questions – the group has to resolve the mystery. The humour and enjoyment comes from the social intrigue rather that the ‘telling of jokes’ in these cases.

Breaking down barriers

The use of humour and fun in class is all about breaking down barriers and making learning more accessible. This must work for everyone, but it is a good lesson in itself – students need to know learning is fun and enjoyable and that being with others working on problems, in class and in later life, should feel good, not only challenging.

Lightbulbs and teachers

The following answers come from – please add yours to the comments:

  • ‘None, that’s what students are for.’
  • ‘None, but they can make dim ones brighter.’
  • ‘I’m not going to just tell you, you need to work it out for yourself.’
  • ‘None, there’s no budget for lightbulbs.’


Bergson, H. (1900). Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic.

Bruner, R. (2002). Transforming thought: the role of humor in teaching. Present Value: An Informal Column on Teaching

Garner, R. L. (2006). Humor in Pedagogy: How Ha-Ha Can Lead to Aha! College Teaching, 54(1), 177–180.

Tait, G., Lampert, J., Bahr, N., & Bennett, P. (2015). Laughing with the lecturer: the use of humour in
shaping university teaching. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 12(3).

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The importance of creating ambiguous space

In addition to being an educationalist, I am a photographer. Indeed I identify as a creative in general. I am a printmaker, musician, and painter. I don’t usually list these separately – these things connect and make me who I am. As an educator this connects to the concept of learning ecologies in which we come to understand our students and ourselves as complex beings with diverse knowledge and motivations. This helps to explain the value of collaborative learning – even though we might be denominated as ‘student’ or ‘teacher’, it is our differences, our sense of personality, and the values we hold, that make us interesting and useful to each other. Similarly, knowing our own strengths, preferences, biases, ways of being and so forth is important – knowing what we bring to a conversation, or self-awareness, comes from a broad knowledge of ourselves.

In this post I reflect on something that has been preoccupying me in my alter ego of ‘being a photographer’. I consider how my ‘photographer self’ helps me understand my ‘educator self’ and my teaching and learning philosophy.

From this, I explore creating space for ambiguity; a space where knowledge isn’t pre-populated but where ambiguity invites imagination and connection-making so that real truths can be found and entered into, and so that complexities can be developed by others on their terms.

This will hopefully become clearer to you, and to me, as we think this through together! (n.b. that’s the point really).

Street photography

Last year I went on a street photography course. Street photography is often gritty and graphic, capturing the human condition as it is played out ‘on the street’.

Photographers such as Henri Cartier Bresson exemplify the rich tradition in photography around life on the edge and the quirks that reveal our essential humanity. It is quite a distilled form of art therefore. At its best, street photography captures the essence of being human and social; empathy, endeavour, resilience, humour, and life.

However, I have a huge critique of the trend for street photography (or should I say ‘#streetphotography’?) Cartier-Bresson and other great photographers have enraptured us with ideas like the decisive moment and the essential joy that can epitomise humankind even in adversity. However, the popular engagement with this trend is usually romantic, superficial, cliched, dehumanising, and at its worse, aggressive and exploitative. Perhaps great work always inspires poor imitation – and that should be lauded as we attempt, however badly, to stand on the shoulders of giants.

A search of the hashtag #streetphotography on Instagram or other social media platforms turns up a plethora of technical excellence and trickery along with a shallow, unconvincing sense of empathy and conviction. The responses seem to come pat out of a playbook. It seems to milk human life, yet generally maintains a distance that pretends to a profound objectivity, but which is often simply unethical reportage and exploitation.

I count myself amongst those intrigued by the trend. I have many books on street photography! Anyone who knows me as an artist will recognise a consistent anxiety in this!

The impossible art of being literal

When I was young I remember coming across the concern amongst anthropologists that the Papua New Guinean people they were studying believed that the researchers’ cameras would steal a person’s soul. That is partly what I am saying here about the ethics of street photography, art and education – the artist, songwriter or photographer must treat their subject with respect and do them justice. Superficial representation is not just or meaningful, and it is potentially harmful. That creates a dilemma for the artist intent on finding a truth or bottling the essence of their subject. The truth can be found in the context rather than the people who populate it. Art (and street photography is a case in point) can steer us towards the sensational or the ‘shocking’ reality thereby missing the essential nuances that make up reality.

The superficial and sensational is a misrepresentation of a situation. It is too obvious, too easy, too expected, and too open to misuse. This is why I left my first career – in press photography in Belfast at the height of ‘the troubles’. I knew the same pictures were being spun differently in every paper in which they appeared. That was unethical, so I left and joined a rock’n’roll band :-)…

The artist, therefore, requires the audience to be agentic – to be interrogators of the work. The artwork becomes a space for participant interrogation. There needs to be ambiguity and space for the viewer or listener or reader to delve deeper. The same is true for the educator – ethical education accommodates the learner as investigator and interrogator.

Latterly, my response as a photographer has been to create unpopulated photographs and focus on the urban landscape, just as I came to paint urban landscapes and landmarks rather than the actual people in the city. It also explains why I turned to printmaking which allowed me to focus on graphic structures that I believed did more to reveal the human condition than painting in people – it is the viewer who is given agency. In active learning, it is the student who needs to be given agency.

Including people in artworks leads one down a narrow road that closes out options for the viewer’s interpretation or self-superimposition. Literal representation excludes the viewer’s or listener’s profound engagement. A lack of ambiguity means the viewer or student is given a window through which they can look onto the world rather than a portal for entering it on their own terms.

The dilemma, then, for the artist and the educator alike is to decide how much should be conveyed and what should be left out for the agentic and curious participant or viewer.

Romantic paradox

I am a romantic by nature and this fills me with self-doubt as a creative and educator. Whether as a songwriter, printmaker, photographer, or teacher, my selection of subject, content, method and structure has to satisfy me aesthetically. It is in my nature to look for the good and represent an ideal world. I seek to create and offer explanations. I seek to represent a recognisable and desirable truth. Instead, I know that it is better to leave room for the participant-viewer to delve into dissonances, nuances and complexities so their sense-making instinct can reveal more about truth than I can imagine or deliver.

In education, we may doubt that our students understands their role in this act of learning and, if they can be persuaded, whether they will know how to act – what they are meant to do. Hence, our tendency is to begin filling in the gaps and setting out the detail…

Ambiguity, allegory and absence

A photograph without a human subject depicts absence and leaves space for the viewer to contemplate. Great stories work when the reader or listener is engaged in anticipating or constructing their own resolution.

So, I have been coming to terms with my diffidence about street photography, its over-simplified use of dark spaces and shadows, and its tendency for black and white over chaotic colour. When the abstract painter Franz Kline painted large white canvases with bold strokes and splashes of black, he was finding his sweet spot for engaging the viewer. He accommodated the viewer and our innate desire to construct our own meaning. Educators – find your own Franz Kline! How can we create ambiguous spaces that stir our students’ curiosity and desire to construct meaning?

I am happy when there is no central or dominant person in the picture – with a given narrative. Along with this recommitment to unpopulated work is a recommitment to black and white photography – leaving the colour out is working for me too. More attention is given to shape, structure, and just the most significant detail. Noise and distractions are reduced. In my teaching, can I address my tendency to fill in too much detail? To leave explanations for my co-participants in the room? It feels that not to do this is disrespectful to the learner. We may direct students to think about a topic, but we should avoid telling students what to think.

Intentional space

I have mantras as an educator committed to active learning – “engagement first, learning will follow”. Recently, as I have been focusing more on learning as an outcome of reflection in, on, and through learning, I find myself saying “create space for reflection”. I think this is good advice for the artist and the educator. If we are creating space we are saying ‘less is more’ to some extent, but more importantly this ambiguous space should allow for dissonance, nuance, and complexity in the student’s own experience and struggle to construct meaning fooor themselves.

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Ritual in the learning environment

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

In this post I explore what is meant by ritual in relation to the teaching and learning experience and, as we reset our post-pandemic classrooms, why we should care.

Given that there is little obligation to care, beyond a notion of professional value and common decency to others, Chy Sprauve reminds us (‘How ritual can inspire connection in the classroom’, Visible Pedagogy blog, 12 November 2020) that an effective classroom is one in which students feel secure. She suggests academics build a ‘ritual toolkit’. I propose understanding affinity spaces may help us do that.

Does rituality help educators to address the problem of alienation?

I am struck by the eagerness of students to return to campus and salvage something of the experience they had known or expected. I can’t tell whether this desire reflects their interests in or out of the classroom. In many ways it does not matter. We can say that a campus-based education is about experiencing the world together at a highly formative point in our lives.

If we were concerned about our students being isolated and alienated during lockdown, as I was, this was because that safe space of being amongst peers had been disrupted. For myself and my colleagues, our question was how can we now foster belonging and create a sense of safe interdependence amongst students and staff while making opportunities for friendship amongst peers. In other words, we gave serious thought to developing a surrogate online connected experience. To help us we referred to the hard-to-define affordances of affinity spaces (Gee, 2005).

As we return to campus it is time to do that same thinking exercise to remind ourselves of the value of being and learning together.

Affinity spaces

Affinity spaces accommodate social affiliation by being places where learning can happen and where acts of learning are acts of being productive together. Being productive together can be called collaboration, but the features of affinity spaces emphasise the value of the ‘being’. They can be categorised using the following features which allow the academic to check their learning environment design:

  1. Common endeavour – students connect through common interests, endeavours, goals or practices
  2. Common space – that does not discriminate on experience or reputation with each finding different value in the space according to their their own choices, purposes and identitiese
  3. Strongs portals – learning activities allow students to engage so that they can make a useful contribution to the space
  4. Dynamic and variable environment (Gee calls this ‘Internal grammar [practices]’ -) – the core focus, purpose, or activity is transformed by the actions and interactions of participants
  5. Encourages intensive and extensive knowledge – participants gain and disseminate knowledge and are able to develop indepth specialised knowledge
  6. Encourages individual and distributed knowledge – encourages and enables people to gain both individual knowledge and to learn to use and contribute to distributed knowledge (knowledge that exists in other people, material, places, or mediating devices)
  7. Encourages dispersed knowledge – the use and application of knowledge that is associated with other domains has value
  8. Uses and honors tacit knowledge – knowledge built up from experience but which may be difficult to explicate fully in words
  9. Many different forms and routes to participation – there is not a set way of participating
  10. Lots of different routes to status – people demonstrate and are known for their different strengths
  11. Leadership is porous and leaders are resources – leadership takes many forms according to the different demands and opportunities afforded by the space

Ritualising learning

Ritual is usually described in formal ways of being, rites, and ceremonies. It often has religious connotations. It describes a sense of acquiescence or willingness to silently consent to a system or to show respect for the procedures that define us. I note Wikipedia’s definition, which I find more useful in thinking about constructing our own ritual toolkit:

A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed according to a set sequence. Rituals may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, including a religious community

Wikipedia: Ritual

Its interest for educators, I think, is in knowing the value of acquiescence and agency as being complementary and without contradiction. You could say that acquiescence and agency are co-dependent features of an effective space; a space that frames expectations and provides a common sense of certainty.

Ritual may be a powerful thing, not only in uncertain times, but more generally in what is essentially an uncertain and formative phase in our lives. Committing to being a student is about making a commitment to an unknown culture and an immersion in an inherently alien, liminal and dynamic experience. For some of us our parents made this commitment before us, or our siblings, or others we know well. We may have learnt from them about the value of acquiring a tradition, becoming an ‘insider’ with ‘emic and being able to assume the identity and status that comes with that.

For many students these days, making this commitment is less well founded. Many students enter education on trust and with their own expectations which may be ill-conceived, for example being based on what they may have experienced in education previously. I try to keep this in mind as an educator. Making values, traditions, and ways of being explicit is the beginning of creating a ritual toolkit. Doing so can be an act of co-creation. Working together on creating a set of ground rules, for example, is something I advocate. Talking about learning in a constructive way clarifies expectations and debunks unhelpful myths.

Discussing rituals, habits, practices can help us to create a safe space without unduly constraining and determining a student’s experience. Talking about tools, folklore, respect, and so forth, is a healthy way to immerse our students in our practices and scholarship and developing a strong sense of our ways of doing, seeing, being, and feeling.

Being part of the tribe

Studios can be defined by their customs – rules that have to be learnt but are full of mystery and tradition; rules which may even be unspoken; rules that are learnt in the doing. This can sound elitist, cliquey, and alienating, but being an insider ‘in the know’ or an “emic” performer to an onlooker can also create a communal sense of pride in ‘being one of us’.

Calling yourself an artist, an engineer, or a scientist is arguably the first step to acquiring identity and expertise. Sennet (2009), reflecting on military and religious uses of ritual, discusses it in terms of ‘codes of honour’. As such it provides a society or tribe with a way of evaluating itself – what ‘good’ looks and feels like – and this can help us as educators to find alternative ways of assessing good learning. Dannels (2005) considers academic ritual in the studio in terms of ‘tribes’; a term also used by Becher and Trowler (2001) to help differentiate disciplinary cultures, norms and territories. Knowing who you are, why you are, what you do, how you do it, who you do it with, and how you are different to others, are all part of ‘being’ and knowing.

“In such [affinity] spaces, people who may share little, and even differ dramatically on other issues, affiliate around their common cause and the practices associated with espousing it via affinity spaces that have most or all of the previously described eleven features.”

Gee, 2005, p. 229


“Ritual-work is an intentional practice of something one builds into their routine to bring them feelings of joy, safety or calm. We probably all have rituals we practice as instructors and students, and in the space of the classroom I invite us all to bring those things more to the surface… [It] can help us to feel grounded in a very groundless time.”

Chy Sprauve

Indeed Sprauve suggests that we reconceptualise the classroom as a workshop. In effect, she says elicit the value of ritual by adopting an active learning strategy in which the ‘complex web of meanings’ (Dannels, 2005) can take shape as we observe knowledge flow and habit, identity, culture emerge.


The features of an affinity space provide a way-in for any academic designer beginning to think about enculturation in the classroom.

Equally, rituality and custom can provide a lens for interrogating what is already done, what mustn’t be lost, or what could be introduced from professional practice. Ironically, they can be invisible and hard-to-spot for the initiated who ‘have always done it this way’ but clear as day to the uninitiated – those from other tribes.

This suggests that making a list of ‘10 things that define us’ and comparing this with lists made by people from other academic tribes could be an interesting and useful exercise in recognising the value of difference.

Sprauve develops the idea of toolkits and provides some examples of how they can be developed with students.


Becher, T. & Trowler, P. (2001). Academic tribes and territories: Intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines, 2nd edition. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Dannels, D. P. (2005). Performing tribal rituals: a genre analysis of “crits” in design studios, Communication Education, 54:2, 136-160, DOI: 10.1080/03634520500213165

Gee, J. P. (2005). ‘Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces’. In: David Barton & Karin Tusting, eds, “Beyond Communities of Practice: Language Power and Social Context”. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sennett, R. (2009). The craftsman. Yale University Press.

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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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