Mapping my learning: visualising not just being visual

The echo of people moving within the display of Jackson Pollock’s paintings at MOMA, New York

A few posts ago I thought through some ideas about using metaphorical maps as a way of navigating learning. I want to pursue this here to discover further intersections and connections, especially as we gear up for the collaborative inquiry ‘Towards a Better Understanding of Our Own Learning Lives’ led by Norman Jackson, Rob Ward and Jenny Willis. I expect this series of online engagements, running over six weeks from 1st February, will challenge us to think further about the significance of lifewide learning and, fundamentally, learning ecologies.

This post begins by focusing on the aesthetics of learning – the way we visually make sense of the world by reconstructing ‘good enough’ representations that stimulate our critical faculties. We begin in the gallery…

Immediately my mind turns to visual metaphors of spaghetti-like organic networks as I think about learning ecologies and networks; so solid and about structure in any snapshot, yet so fluid, incidental and self-directed in reality. There is an incongruity in this which we need to understand if we are to understand active learning (as in a formal conception of how learning is designed and offered) and how it is situated within the more significant space of lifewide learning and personal and social histories and trajectories. To some extent I think I captured this incongruity in the photograph I took at MOMA above. Let’s examine this.

Here we see the work of Jackson Pollock, the doyen of action painting. It would be ridiculous to explain his work, but my interpretation of it is it being a momentary snapshot of movement conveyed through sweeping lines and splashes using a readily available palette combined with traces of the artist’s own state of being as he interacted with the ‘world’ he was creating around him (‘the painting’).

In the foreground of ‘my painting’ (my photograph) we see the same action presented in other media – the people in the foreground who are blurred, moving, in the way, entangled. Who are these people? What are their missions? How did they get here and to what extent will this event actually affect their respective futures? Did I know, as photographer, that later I would have these thoughts and write this post? Did I know what I was capturing? No and no. But I knew something. As one of the people in the room I had my own part to play and my own reasons for being there. I may have had things in common with many co-participants, especially as we briefly intersected on that day. I was a tourist. I have a long backstory of valuing art in my life and a strong desire and curiosity to keep that as part of my lifeline. I had opinions that affected my perception in that moment and the decision to take the photograph in the way I did. Why was making a photograph something I should do – was it simply to remember? No, the photograph is too well framed to be just ‘a capture to look back on’. It is a solid artefact, but like Pollock’s painting, there is little value in its stagnant solidity. I was making a statement to myself (as the likely future viewer – I didn’t know about you then) about who I think I am. And in the act of making the photograph, I was making a statement to all those other people – “Look! I am taking a photo people! I must know something about this cultural stuff!” So, the ego is important in this. And as you listen to yourself talking and to others talking in galleries, self-aggrandisement is never far away.

But there are much more endearing qualities portrayed here: we chose to be here; we know there is more to life than the mere mundane and superficial things we mostly do; we are curious and we haven’t given up/in yet! We know that the essential ambiguity of ‘art’ more closely explains our lives and our futures than the certainties we receive and construct in order to get by each day. I am sure I should cite John Berger at this point or Susan Sontag (though those readings are buried in my ecology somewhere in the region of 30 years back) and many, many others; never mind referring to what the artists themselves may have thought or had to say. I don’t think I’ve heard Pollock talking about his own work, for example. Well, I probably have but it just gets soaked up along the way – and that is kind of the point.

But then, this painting isn’t Pollock’s work. It is my work hanging in an international gallery. Yes! The artist is only mediator or agitator. The only value in the work is the value we individually assign it as we intersect with it, and then the social exchange or influence that comes out of us as we intersect there and then, or subsequently.

I would like to mention psychogeography in passing at this point and quickly move on. Coverley’s book Psychogeography is a great read. For the moment, it describes the history and essentiality of the lone wanderer. I am one of those people – very happy to wonder and wander, walk, gaze, and think with no conscious purpose or intent. To soak it all up! Actually, photography is a wandering ‘crutch’ in my walking (apologies for the Instagram self-aggrandisement). I lean and rest upon photography as I walk and think – with the camera inviting me to pause, analyse, construct and move on (for example, that explains the ‘why’ of the picture above). The camera, for me, is an intersectional device like (small ‘a’) art itself.

Merlin Coverley (2018) Psychogeography book cover
Merlin Coverley (2018) Psychogeography book cover

What’s any of this to do with learning?

There’s a lot going on in the first part of this post. Turning to the post’s title, ‘visualising’ is used as a synonym for constructing or forming, in this case the mental maps that help us make sense, orientate, navigate and self-direct ourselves. I often use the words ‘navigate and negotiate’ as a single phrase when writing about learning: we need to assume agency over our learning and build and revise our personal plan for where we go next. This is about involving the learner as negotiator of their inner monologue but also as actant within their social learning mediating their learning with peers, tutors and friends. In this way we enact our sentience – our being. Philosophically, we could deviate at this point to people like Heidegger and Sartre – but I won’t go there today (I have a walk to go on! And photographs to make!).

The idea of spaghetti-like representations of learning echo the notion of rhizomatic ecosystems: forms which can be represented, but only inadequately because such things are living and open to positive and adverse influence and interference. Learning may be intended, but ultimately it is unpredictable and surprising, we hope. After all, how can we predict what we have not concluded yet. Art and ambiguity have a lot to say about learning (Orr & Shreeve, 2018).

Yet learning, like art, is experienced as being subjective and fascinating. It is always primarily experiential. Learning happens at the moment of intersection: personal and social histories and respective histories and trajectories collide, coalesce or fall apart. Like magnets we tug and push at each other. Intersections and clashes of knowledge and other paradigms too.

I like my choice of Pollock. Initially I was scouring images for motorway intersections, but then I thought about the so-called ‘abstract’ patterns in a painting such as Pollock’s (but actually any painting when you look at its plastic human application beyond any superficial attempt to represent the world ‘realistically’). The lines of Pollock’s swirling liquid paint capture his movement. Pollock, of course, stands over his work dripping and throwing paint and (importantly) standing back momentarily to reflect and make decisions before taking or making the next action. This is learning personified. We respond, make, consider, adjust, assess, commit in a personal continuous noise of action. Now imagine four or five extra Pollocks crashing into each other over the canvas responding to each other’s movements: learning as social performance and happenings!

Above, I mention the apparent subject of my painting foregrounded by people who, if you viewed them from above and traced their steps, would be creating something very similar to what we viewed hanging on the wall. For learning, let us consider the acts of joint endeavour in which we are involved and which we don’t need to think about too much, but which nevertheless do have significance – now or later. Our social, unspoken contract as co-learners is essentially affirming. Our essential human magnetism shifts our relative perspectives as we try to occupy the same space.

I write about status and ego. When we talk we expose ourselves as vulnerable thinkers while being conscious, to differing degrees, of how our contributions are received. We live within the tension of being imposters, co-operators, wise and foolhardy people. When we think about ‘learner engagement’ (as I often do), it is as well to remember that learning is a brave and necessary act. Those people in the gallery understand there is value in the space – but they probably have little real clarity about what that value is. It’s the same with learning. Galleries and education are ‘good things’, it is enough to start there.

There is little value in the artefact itself: it is stagnant and solid I suggest; essentially inert but with affordances. That brings us back to action, reflection, reconstruction. The value is not in what we hold, but in why we find value in what we hold and what this means for our futures; therefore, giving us clues to our intrinsic motivations. Connecting this to teaching, the devices or artifices we have used may be disrupted (e.g. by the pandemic or by bad teaching experiences or lack of currency and ignorance of context, etc), but the value is in how we reimagine and attempt to reconstruct what we do next. Simply, active learning/teaching is essentially productive, reflective and experiential.

The well-framing of a photograph speaks to: doing our best to communicate; attempting to use conforming jargon and language; ‘putting it out there’ – that is, being clear you are trying to make a statement or contribution. These are all things we expect of each other as co-learners and teachers in the active classroom. We should be empathic, even where we see loud, eager, opinionated voices, but certainly as we think about learning as lurking – a discourse which has re-emerged through discussions about ‘cameras on/off’ in educations response to learner engagement in the pandemic.

Let’s refocus on those endearing qualities observed in the gallery-going situation. As learners we have elected to be here – our initial motivations and expectations may not be so ambiguous, but teaching is about openning up ambiguity so that we engage in acts of negotiating trajectories, developing a sense of curiosity and helping each other to reconstruct our identities, now and for the future. As with the gallery-goers, we know there is more to life than the mere mundane and superficial things we are mostly asked to do and, when learning and teaching ‘click’, it is because we make connection by stimulating curiosity. We learn to appreciate the essential ambiguity of knowledge as an opportunity to work things out and make sense of our lives. Which, by the way, is why I blog – it’s not what I know, it’s what I want to know.

Let’s finish with that, and bring us back to visualising rather than being visual, or being engaged in a lifewide experience of perpetual reconstruction rather than in being satisfied with the static/stagnant representation of knowledge. Learning is a matter of ‘trying ideas on’ and seeing how they fit with who we are and who we want to be. The teacher’s role in this is to construct the space and play with the paradox and ambiguity: the canvas, the book; the paint, the text; the movement, the thesis.

As discussed in the previous post on structure, framing learning by offering metaphorical maps to help the learner navigate their learning means that the learner is given space, as colourist, to develop lifelong critical habits that will hold them in good stead.


Coverley, M. (2018). Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

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

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 Active Learning, Co-operative pedagogy, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Studio and Studio-based Learning, Walking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mapping my learning: visualising not just being visual

  1. Becka says:

    Once again Andrew, I very much enjoyed reading your blog and engaging with your ideas. In particular, your point ‘learn(ing) to appreciate the essential ambiguity of knowledge as an opportunity to work things out and make sense of our lives.’ This arena is one of the toughest gigs in learning and teaching, do you think? Holding with ambiguity, for me, is akin to learning as a form of emotional labour. How can we enable this potential affective space, to be explicitly part of the learning journey?
    Thank you.

    • amiddlet50 says:

      Thanks Becka. Appreciating ambiguity is a great challenge for both the learner and the teacher. We are brought up usually to work towards what is right or to find ‘the’ solution. Ambiguity can be frustrating.

  2. Pingback: Lifewide learning domains: rich intersections or contested spaces | Tactile

  3. Pingback: Fluency – standing, walking, dancing | Tactile

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