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.


About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Academic Innovation, Active Learning, BYOD, BYOD4L, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Walking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A place for imagining – blue skies under the tree canopy

  1. Pingback: Making curriculum design a walk in the park | Tactile

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