Further reflections on learning walks and the #Twalk model of #activelearning

spacewalk2020

An Illustration student we encountered in the Ruskin Gallery during our #spacewalk2020 at Anglia Ruskin University

The walk I organised for last week introduced several new ideas about the role and methods of learning walks for me.

This is a very long post. I was tempted to break it down. However, I needed to get it written while my thoughts were still fresh. Hopefully, it is readable.
It covers the following topics (also see tags for keywords to search and scan through the text),
  • the difference between a walk and a twalk and the value of connectivity to other groups
  • the ‘teaching’ role – facilitator, orchestrator, notemaker, etc
  • the use stimuli (beyond the physical environment) e.g. readings, conundrums, scenarios, problems, etc
  • group size and the nature of conversation
  • deviation and self-direction
  • extending the time from 1 to 2 hours and how it affects engagement and the nature of the conversation
  • implications for active learning design in general.

To walk or to twalk?

Twalking involves, walking, talking and connecting to others via social media. It is a subset of the learning walk. By incorporating social media connectivity, a few elements are added:
  • situating your own learning experience within a broader, global context;
  • the expectation that the learner is a networked author and contributor – we do more than talk, we summarise, reflect and make posts as we walk;
  • engaging with peers by viewing and responding to their posts and interacting as a connected group.
These dimensions, potentially, can extend the learning environment exponentially, not just technically and socially, but pedagogically. It is a divergent space. However, an effective learning environment is also characterised by clarity. Each participant should be clear about what is expected of them, how to do this, and how this maps to their own purposes and capabilities. So while social media opens up the learning environment and allows for wider participant-centred engagement, without due care it can confuse the learner who, in a walk, has plentiful space to wonder and wander.
Without the social media element, the teacher/facilitator/walk leader has a clear role within the walking group. Typically, the leader introduces the walk, sets its parameters, hands out route maps, and poses questions. The leader establishes and supports the learning activity, albeit with varying degrees of direction. In other words, there is a teaching function for managing the clarity requirement.
In last week’s walk, we had walking groups in two locations (there may have been other lurking walkers). The walk was promoted as an opportunity for the Active Learning Network at Anglia Ruskin University. In my experience of walks and twalks, they are usually initiated and contextualised by a specific need or interest and subsequently others are invited to ‘twalk alongside’ by sharing the hashtag and the twalk route/conversation plan.
When you superimpose social media connectivity onto a physically located design (producing the affordance of polycontextuality), participants prioritise their engagement in the physically co-located space, enjoying the affordances of physical embodiment. The connected space creates the effect of a hybrid learning studio, but the purpose of the interaction across spaces is different – it becomes more about triangulating experience, providing a mirror reflecting the in-person experience, creating a sense of duty to and responsibility for others. These are powerfully enriching dimensions of a hybrid learning studio, but they define the space not as a seamless whole, but as a space made up of different social affordances and agencies within a pretence of equity and similarity.
In a two-centred example, like the walk the other day, these thoughts suggest one centre is subservient or of lower value to the other. No. Obviously, each group plays both roles: that of in-person community and that of connected community. Secondly, both in-person and connected situations afford different functions and provide different values. I noticed this when my in-person group was tweeting into an apparent void for a while and we received no immediate feedback or inspiration from our remote participants (they were, I suppose, busy in their in-person interaction).  I was looking for affirmation, solidarity, and an injection of thinking into our digitally co-present conversation.
Similarly, at the end of the walk, members in our group had to dash off for trains before we did the final ‘wave goodbye’ selfie. It didn’t matter, but I felt I had let our remote group down. I pictured them waiting for our wave in return to their’s, shrugging their shoulders, and deciding to call it a day without us. That connectivity creates an emotive sense of co-responsibility. It didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth, but a feeling of regret that I had been (unwittingly) rude.
I think the dynamics of the situation affect this change markedly. The other day, because of the small numbers, I was paying more attention than usual to the size of the groups. Both of our groups were small and, counterintuitively, I think the value of the in-person interaction grows as it becomes more feasible. I would instinctively think a large group would be noisier and more self-reliant because that is what it looks like, while a small group, presumably, needs to make itself bigger to have a decent conversation. Actually, the intimacy of a small group allows a conversation to flow more naturally in a less structured way even to the extent that the walkers deviate. This happened to both our groups on this occasion, actually and also metaphorically. Each decided to pause or go and look at something unplanned, and the smaller conversations during the walk also tended to wander around the stimulus question rather than being directed by it. The participants make and find their own value. The role of the ‘other’ group acts as a formal reminder that you are involved in a structured learning exchange with its associated responsibilities. You know that at some point you may be asked or volunteer to share and compare thinking on the common topic. I observe that larger groups need and accept a higher degree of direction in order to function at all – negotiating or enacting leadership and decisiveness gets caught up in social ettiquette, and while that is present in small groups it is easier and quicker to decide how the group dynamic will work best.
Deviation and self-direction in thinking and walking feel desirable if the group is in agreement. We reflected later that our respective deviations were the most memorable parts of the walk. Being accountable to too tight a structure is likely to hinder this. Allowing more time for wandering and wondering helped us, but a scaffolded approach to developing self/group direction over a number of sessions may help also. In this incremental approach, which would apply to any active learning space, more room for deviation is created as the scaffold is strategically withdrawn.
There is another approach to designing in self-direction based on a Victorian parlour game which I will save for another day – after I have tested it!
Intentional deviation (if there can be such a thing!) accommodates an ecological, student-centred view of the learning space in which we find a way to personalise and democratise the learning situation.
I had a mentoring meeting on the morning of the walk supporting a colleague who never ceases to inspire me. This time he introduced me to ‘On Looking’ by Alexandra Horowitz. I downloaded and read it immediately. I have struggled with the idea of learning ecologies and how to communicate their value. In part, this is because, for a highly structured timetable-based curriculum, it seems that whatever we believe, first and foremost the academic must be pragmatic – how can we cater for the individuals in the room when the number of individuals is so large? Horowitz’s book helped me to think through this perennial dilemma.
To conclude this section on walk or twalk, I think it is useful for walk leaders to know what connectivity brings to a learning walk and to form an idea about the extent and nature of the interaction beforehand – being clear about expectations and having some soft ground rules in mind that can be adjusted for group size may help.

Stimulus

Last week’s walk followed my mentoring meeting and, having read the introductory chapter, I realised that it would set up the Twilight Walk for later in the day. I have never spent time at the beginning of the walk doing anything more than welcoming people, checking all was in order and setting off on what inevitably would be a tight schedule.
I had designed the walk to last two hours, not the usual one hour. I did this on the basis that we were a cognate group (ARU’s Active Learning Network SIG), albeit dispersed over two campuses. I think two hours did decide some people against turning up, but it was worth taking that risk I felt.
With the extra space, however, I was able to begin the walk with a reading of two paragraphs from an accessible yet pertinent extract from the Horowitz book. The reading was a stimulus. Sometimes stimuli are provocations, conceits like scenarios or conundrums, problems or challenges. A reading felt appropriate as a basis for reflective walking – we were considering space in relation to Doing, Being, Belonging, Becoming and Connecting. I will think more about using stimuli: where, what, when, by whom, and so forth. The idea is pertinent to two active learning paradigms I am currently involved in developing: the institutional rollout of Live Briefs as authentic assessment and the design of multi- and interdisciplinary sandpit events.
The idea came from stumbling upon a perfect, in my mind, couple of paragraphs which I thought would get us off to a good start. And there is a point here that pertains to promoting active learning: a pedagogic transition to active learning need not be difficult if you, as course designer, know your stuff and can point others to the need-to-know knowledge for their own consideration. So, often active learning design is primarily concerned with stimulating curiosity and imbuing confidence in a peer group to self-direct their learning.

More time, space and distraction

In previous posts, I have noticed that it can be quite a challenge to feed Twitter and walk and talk. Fitting this into a well-planned one-hour itinerary is quite a pressure. I designed last week’s walk, therefore, to last two hours with the danger being that we would lose some participants due to being busy academics caught up in marking (a factor that makes it so difficult for many colleagues to engage in non-critical reflective development activities). As noted, that’s how it turned out: the groups were smaller and some of the key participants in the Active Learning Network didn’t turn up and one who or two who did had to leave early. Nevertheless, I was keen that we should experiment with a two-hour walk.
A walk that lasts two hours creates a better space for conversation and thinking through ideas. As the walk leader last week, I still found myself too preoccupied with the process of photographing the spaces and tweeting the best ideas. My colleague Isobel Gowers who led the parallel walk in Chelmsford told me it was the same for her. I had wondered whether that function may have fitted better given more time. It didn’t, because when you’re talking you just want to keep talking. In fact, the end of the walk petered out (in a good way – see deviation above) in terms of the formal structure because the group were so carried away in the conversation we forgot to answer the last question (ironically on connectivity!).
As walk leader/teacher, I found myself pulling people back to the central question during the whole walk. It’s what the active learner teacher must do because without any structure a common sense of purpose gets lost. And, like a DJ or orchestrator, someone must look after the interests of the whole group to ensure the conversation flows. Again, note my thoughts above on self-direction and deviation. This is not straightforward but needs to be consciously managed by the walk leader.
Some participants choose not to do the Twitter thing, and that’s okay. Isobel said her walking partner had no interest at all in the Twalk – only the walk.
In larger group scenarios, I’ve also thought about assigning or suggesting a Twitter reporter role as either a formal or informal duty within a group . For example, it would reflect the idea of assigning roles to group work such as the triads we use in SCALEUP pedagogy. However, in informal settings, it’s not always appropriate or possible to assign roles and it can be quite a skill if you have not walked, twalked, and talked before. Nevertheless, if the intention is to run it as a twalk then you need at least one person making the connection for the group in Twitter; if possible more than one person.
There is a value to having that producer-connector role. Logistically, the Twitter role adds pressure as walking, texting/typing, and photographing complicates and interrupts the conversational flow. Further, as a leader of a small walking group and leader of the Twitter conversation, it is quite a logistical challenge practically to post the questions in the right format with the hashtag and question numbers in place, never mind replying to the questions and to the answers that follow (I keep a Google Doc open on my iPad with all the questions in the right format ready to copy and paste in Twitter, and previously I have used services that will automatically post your tweets on time for you). However, the note-making recorder role involves synthesis and active listening (Gearhart & Bodie, 2011). Active listening involves restating, paraphrasing, summarising, and reframing. Good teachers do this automatically, but it is a skill that most of us, including our students, have to work at (Chastain, 2013). So, leading a conversation by adopting an active listening strategy and Tweeting is where the challenge lies. It can be very distracting and you have to do that thing where you look like you’re listening, but actually your tweeting! Sorry 😦

Clearly, the walk leader isn’t the obvious Twitter feed operator. In our two groups, both walk leaders did assume the Twitter note-making role however. This becomes inevitable when you cannot be sure there is someone within the walking group who will agree or is able to perform that role.
This led to my decision to use the Twilight Twalk format. Spanning two hours and starting at 4 o’clock, the activity spans the formal working day creating an in-between time that includes going home time. It’s a liminal space, and good for reflection. This actually accentuates the notion of shared ownership over the learning space. It makes that point by introducing ambiguity about whether we should be here at all, and as we are, then the implication that we might assume a higher degree of self-determination. Clearly, the leader/facilitator loses the automatic right to lead and so negotiated space is part of the learning context. This brings pros and cons which I wont to explore further here.

Final thoughts

Reflecting on walks and twalks demonstrates how complex the learning environment is. This complexity indicates its richness, but I would argue makes it no harder than any other learning environment to design for. Indeed, given I ‘know my stuff’, I would rather plan an active learning session than a lecture in terms of planning load. If you know how to meet the learning outcomes, the detailed planning of a lecture becomes unnecessarily arduous in my opinion. In the active learning environment, you must plan and develop your supporting resources too so that they are useful for and usable by your students/participants, however, the central questions, stimuli, social setting, and possibilities for deviation and self-direction make active learning so much more rewarding and, in fact, viable for all from the perspective of learning ecologies and connectivism.

References

Chastain, A. (2013). Use active listening skills to effectively deal with conflict. Michigan State University Extension, December 2, 2013. Online at: https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/use_active_listening_skills_to_effectively_deal_with_conflict
Gearhart, C.C. & Bodie, G.D. (2011). Active-empathic listening as
a general social skill: Evidence from bivariate and canonical correlations. Communication Reports, 24(2,) 86-98:

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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