Learning walks with awe are good for you

Intense colour captured on a #nightwalk

Awe walks boost emotional well-being according to a recent study conducted by researchers from UC San Francisco and Trinity College Dublin. The study looked at the effect of a weekly 15 minute walk on adults in which selected walkers reported positive effects on their emotional well-being and stress levels.

The walkers were asked to focus on their surroundings rather than themselves and this connects with several activities and studies that I have discussed here previously. I have not, however, presented the well-being benefits enough perhaps, though during the pandemic I have thought about the benefit of regular awe walking (it’s good to have a name for it) for myself and, if I’d had the time, I would have advocated using the Twalk method more during this time. In fact, I have done several workshops on Unified Active Learning in which I have promoted Twalks as one of several innovative approaches to ‘Creating Some Warmth Through Active Learning’ (Global Festival of Active Learning) – Twalks (social media semi-structed walking conversations) can bring students together even when they are geographically dispersed.

There are social benefits from learning walks, though the study on awe walks focuses on the individual. Being part of something provides the individual with a way to come to know themselves – that something can be the wonder of the material world or the social world. The study does not distinguish between the rural or urban landscape – awe is wherever we look for it. That is the message: walk purposefully and look out for things that may be common place but which, on further scrutiny, may surprise you. As an art student I was trained to do that, but I think there is a strong message here for any educator and student: learning to look deeply promotes creative and critical thinking habits.

I live in a West Yorkshire town that is neither simply urban nor rural. I walk every day. I do the minimum 10,000 steps and more during the week, although this often involves road walking. I take pictures and listen to podcasts on my walks. I have walked these roads so many times that you have to scour the landscape to find a new image. Often it will be the shadows, vibrant night colours, textures and the negative spaces, not only the objects, that catch my eye. At weekends I range across the Pennines feeling the awe of the hills, the moors, the reservoirs, canals, and cloudscapes and sunsets. During the week, after a long working day when the nights extend too far, it can be a struggle to work out where to go to find awe. I need an ulterior purpose. Ulterior, meaning being beyond what is seen or intentional, seems apt. If necessary I will just walk to tick off the steps, but I much prefer a purpose, a destination or an idea. As part of my walking routine I have the mission of taking at least one photograph and posting it to my Instagram account. Having an excellent smartphone camera that copes admirably with my #nightwalk scenes really helps.

Finding awe by being on your own in the middle of the world doing its thing

I notice that such walking has its risks and dangers. Being on the street at night on your own is not for everyone, to say the least. Being on the moors at night can also bring dangers. I nearly got stuck on Holme Moss recently having got lost in thought and wonder.

View from Holme Moss – miles from anywhere at sunset

The sublime

Awe is an unusual word. Perhaps this is because we don’t tend to positively experience awe when we are caught up in the ‘day to day’ business of living. We don’t tend to talk about it. The study on awe walks implies we should be conscious of awe. Being awestruck is good for us.

Philosophize This!, presented by the excellent Stephen West, is one podcast I take with me. When walking on the hills around Peel Tower in Lancashire a few weekends ago I listened to the episode on Kant and the Sublime (connecting places to listening is a topic I have written on with my former colleague Anne Nortcliffe).

The sublime is a rare experience of the world at the extreme. It is more than awe, indeed it can be threatening, creating a sensation of humility that challenges the human tendencies of arrogance and omnipotence. In comparison, awe can be stupendous but commonplace and available to those who go looking with their senses open.

Bringing it back to learning

Good learning can be defined as that which satisfies curiosity. For good learning we need awe inspiring moments.

We can get these moments from excellent teachers, but as learners we should aspire to inspire too. Looking with the artist’s eye for both detail and that expansive sense of immersion, and becoming practised in navigating between these extremes, is something we can all develop and bring to our study and to our world views.

I have talked about looking deeply with the artist’s eye, but previously I have made similar points about using our aural senses and thinking about how we can use audio as active ‘learner gatherers’ (Middleton, 2011). Whether through isolated wandering psychogeographical expeditions or more purposeful or social meanderings such as learning walks and twalks, well-being can come from finding awe.


Middleton, A. (2011). Audio Active: Discovering Mobile Learner-Gatherers from Across the Formal-Informal Continuum. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning (IJMBL), 3(2), 31–42. https://doi.org/10.4018/jmbl.2011040103.

Nortcliffe, A. & Middleton, A. (2008). A three year case study of using audio to blend the engineer’s learning environment. Engineering Education: Journal of the Higher Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre, 3(2).

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Playing with time and crossing boundaries: multichronicity #activelearning

Warped clock face based on Dali's painting 'The Persistence of Memory'
after DALI ‘The Persistence of Memory’

In Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education I examine the inadequacies of binary descriptions of space and time for representing contemporary learning experiences. Within the exploration I considered social media for learning and two of the case studies described tweetchats. An analysis of the tweetchats revealed that neither synchronicity nor asynchronicity are able to capture the essence of what goes on in such a conversational space. Neither get close to capturing the value of the learning experience.

Tweetchats disrupt the binary of synchronous-asynchronous communication and instead present a ‘multichronous’ multidimensional flow of live conversation. While the tweetchat epitomises an intense multi-participant and immersive conversation, it also lives on as a learner-generated resource.

Middleton, 2018

Unified active learning – a pedagogy of connections

Quite rightly, during the pandemic our attention has been given to the operational matters of ensuring our students can access their course irrespective of their situation. At Anglia Ruskin University I continue to engage colleagues in the concept of ‘unified active learning’ (UAL) – a principle-based articulation of a design ethos and supporting pedagogies in which active, inclusive and collaborative learning provides a learning framework.

UAL is people and engagement-centred – the starting point for the academic designer must be the need to connect with every student: any design that does not accept the challenge of engagement is prone to failure as a teaching strategy.

A critique of synchronous and asynchronous conceptualisations of learning design, therefore, sits within this context. Such a binary conception of learning focuses the teacher only on the practical; the doing. That would seem to make sense in an active learning paradigm. However, it is not enough. The danger is that the academic designer asks “What am I expecting the learner to do at this point in time?” with the implication that the acts stand alone with no history or consequence for each learner. They are portrayed as being disconnected. As noted in an earlier post, it is not the act but the consequence of the act that indicates where we should look for value in an active curriculum: the ‘so what?’ of reflection in and on learning.

Multichronicity, therefore, provides a way of looking at the design of experiential learning in settings that accommodate learning ecologies: the academic designer must consider the quality of time spent in and navigating through a learning experience.

An analysis of desirable acts of learning is helpful to understand the role of time and flow in the design of active learning.

Ekeblad (1999) makes observations about the value of pace and fluidity in consideration of engagement with mailing lists:

Discussions on a scholarly mailing list typically do not proceed at an even pace, but swing between phases where contributors converge on a new object of intense discussion and phases of topical divergence and diminishing interaction frequency

Ekeblad, 1999

Returning to the tweetchat scenario (a learning environment defined by its simple affordances), a breakdown of interaction patterns quickly indicates the significance of time to thoughts on engagement and learning: the Twitter environment acts as a conduit for faux synchronous discussion, in a process that co-produces a persistent archive of multiple concurrent conversations (‘multilogues’ [Shanke, 1993]) demarcated by the hashtag spatial signifier. The act of posting is an act of intervention, production, creation, contribution and participation. It is inherently active, inclusive and collaborative. The act of posting leaves traces of evidence in which thoughts are made real and left abandoned to be found or ignored like embers from a fire. Each ember has latent energy with the potential to ignite further embers or to metamorphose into sooty deposits. Ekeblad (1999) refers to these as patterns of ’emergence and decay’.

Let’s trace the life of a tweet to understand this ecology and observe how, rather than being binary or linear, time is multichronous.

The life of a tweet

A tweet is a posting full of potential to provoke reaction. It finds its space in the tweetchat by incorporating its shared hashtag. Inherently, tweeting is an act defined by its latency: it demands acknowledgement, but may go unnoticed or be overtaken by other events such as other tweets that may capture attention, or may be returned to as its meaning and value become clear.

A tweet is a message. Simply, its primary purpose is to be read and its meaning conveyed. While it may be ignored, in the instant that it occupies the limelight, one or more people may like the tweet, retweet it, or reply to it. Any such act draws attention to the tweet and its essence. This attention gives it more energy potentially – it is no longer only associated with the tweet’s originator, it acquires new provenance, value and association. For each association, the tweet has both an immediate presence and one or more future lifelines that create traces, embers, or hauntings: memories that may spark new life or fade, decay, and disappear.

The tweet exists within the context of other tweets. Once released, it has its own life and timeline, but for the originator and those who interact with the tweet, it may hold up proceedings as the centre of a micro-conversation. In a tweetchat, for example, other participants may keep up with the pace set by the tweetchat facilitator as they release more stimulus questions or, instead, participants may get side-tracked into new micro-conversations. Such micro-conversations are like eddies in the flow of a stream, having their own energy.

Active learning as a multichronous learning ecology

At the Active Learning Conference 2021 (aru.ac.uk/alc) #activelearningnetwork #ARUalc which I had the privilege of Chairing last week, I ran a session titled “Playing with time and crossing boundaries: beyond synchronous and asynchronous active learning” in which I began to explore some of these ideas and demonstrate how multichronicity characterises the real value found in many active learning designs, including in the hybrid UAL methods.

An analysis of activity patterns in flipped learning pedagogies, learning walks and twalks, co-created educational podcasting methods, crowdsourcing and curation activities, co-writing assignments, for example, all reveal the value of multichronicity in understanding why such methods work.

Undoubtedly, I will return to this idea of multichronicity and how we value it in active learning.


Ekeblad, E. (1999). The emergence of multilogue. Self-regulation of a scholarly mailing list (revised version). Symposium proceedings, ‘Time and coordination in a virtual community of learners. European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction conference (EARLI 99): Advancing Learning Communities In The New Millennium’, Guttenborg, Sweden, August 24-28 1999. Online at:

Shank, G. (1993). Abductive multiloguing. The semiotic dynamics of navigating the Net. Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture v1n01 (March 22, 1993). Online at ftp://ftp.lib.ncsu.edu/pub/stacks/aejvc/aejvc-v1n01-shank-abductive

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Learning with consequence #activelearning

Evening walk following the campfire session

It’s the Global Festival of Active Learning this week. Our secret question in the organising group is ‘so how do we make this a festival and not a conference?’ It’s got to be about people and attitude. Just feeling good with each other!

It’s really put me in a reflective mood. All sorts of ideas buzzing around my head on the back of conversations. So, having been for an evening walk after my campfire conversation, and enjoyed another fantastic April sunset, it occurs to me that we focus on the action when we talk about active learning, but of course it’s much more useful to focus on the consequence – for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Leaving the word opposite to one side for a moment, let’s just note that the AL teacher needs to think about the intended reaction of their activity.

One answer is the student’s reflection. So for me this evening I am reflecting on the nightmare I’m having with technology this week. I can hardly work. Everything is on a wing and a prayer, so when I turned up for my session I couldn’t run my PowerPoint. I really needed those graphics to talk about Unified Active Learning. Very conceptual stuff!

Well, of course, all you need really is experienced people ready to enter into a conversation (‘experienced’ here is a redundant word – all you need is people!). And some decent questions.

So I led our conversation. It was ‘my’ session/workshop. But a successful conversation is one that has parity. I loved listening to people talking about their practice. Whatever I may have had planned, it was the stimulating examples of practice that I will take away. All I did was to bring some really interesting people together. Thank you for getting me thinking and reflecting on my sunset walk – the consequence of a good session in which I played just my part.

What about ‘opposite’ reaction? Is it the to and fro of conversation, how we reflect back, contradict, challenge, echo, find complementary anecdotes and examples?

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Fluency – standing, walking, dancing

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Being able to distinguish between skills, literacy and fluency is a perennial part of my job as an educational developer. This is most visible in thinking about how to communicate and engage people in conversations to do with digital capabilities, as is the case for me again now. However, it is more fundamental than that – it comes down to how we think about educational development, learning, employability, professional development, and the academic ecosystem in its entirety.

Fluency first

In this post I explain why ‘fluency’ is the right discourse for framing any educational or professional development conversation. Skills and literacies have their rightful places within that discourse, but attention to fluency means attention is given to the agility and agency of the subject, whether academic or student, or the organisation itself. Let us begin by breaking things down. What do we mean by skills, literacy and fluency?

Skills, literacy, and fluency – what do we want?

A skills discourse is the most straightforward – a skill describes the ability to perform a given task. To perform a function. As such, we can see what we have achieved if we have learnt a skill, and it is easy to evaluate whether we can successfully perform that skill at a point in time and in a specific context. It is easy to certificate skills therefore, and this is gratifying for all concerned, especially people who we do not know yet but who, in the future, will seek proof of our abilities. There’s a lot going for a skills discourse, but that’s not with a higher education is about. Graduates and academics need to be more than that. Skills are limited and, after a while, their values diminishes as specific context change and new contexts become apparent. Still, certification also demonstrates that we are capable of acquiring skills and there is some value in that.

Literacy, or being literate, is a good term, especially in the academic world. Being literate suggests we are knowledgeable and well-read. It implies a degree of critical and creative engagement with the subject. It suggests we can interpret and apply some knowledge to what we have to do. However, there is a lot of implication and ambiguity in all that – the literate person is certainly aware of a knowledge domain, but there is no real sense that this awareness will cause the individual think through the implications of what having that knowledge means for their practice or that how it will help them to respond to contexts that are not yet clear. There is still too much suggestion that the knowledge is received rather than something to be considered and owned. Literacy promotes a laisse-faire attitude – we are allowed to engage with the knowledge, but the knowledge is not presented as having significant consequences that must be addressed. Knowledge exists within the intellectual domain.

Fluency, on the other hand, presents knowledge as something that is defined by its ambiguity. The knowledge exists within a complexity that can’t, and mustn’t, be defined or contained. It demands that strategies (e.g. skills) and critical lens is applied to the subject matter. However, what really matters is having a depth of personal knowledge that leads to the individual being able to respond wisely, almost without having to think. Fluency is about self-efficacy therefore.

What do we want? – We (in my case ‘education’) want people who are fluent and therefore relatively autonomous; people who are more than (‘more than’ is important) capable of making wise decisions in a given situation.

Postdigital fluency

As noted, developing digital fluency is an important focus for me in my work at the moment. However, this agenda exists within the context of the postdigital world (Fawns, 2019). This helps and adds to the complexity of how to address this.

The postdigital context refers to ‘the digital’ as being ubiquitous, pervasive, and integral to the lived experience. If we stop talking now about ‘the digital age’ and instead pay attention to our reality of ‘everyware’ ubiquitous technology (Greenfield, 2006), then a skills-led discourse shows itself to be a hinderance to what we really need to develop. It represents a pretence that we are equipping staff or students for the foreseeable future. Whereas the future can’t be foreseen, but we do know it will be significantly different.

Look back 10 years – how has your digital landscape changed since then? What are the implications of this to your life, then, now and the future? We cannot be satisfied simply if someone (academic, student or other) has learnt a new skill. That skill only has meaning and value now and if its acquisition is understood as evidence of a habitual engagement with a fluid context.

Any development activity needs to be labelled: “Use with Caution!” (and criticality).

In terms of complexity, then, an educational discourse requires the development of spatial fluency – that is, each of us must be able to critically and creatively assess the situations in which we exist and respond wisely, as though we have not had to analyse the situation, before participating effectively. Our attention, as developers must be given, therefore to positive ‘agency’ and ‘placemaking’.

Before moving on, spatial fluency allows us to think about other big, bold questions of our times too (Sparrow, 2018).

Dancing is the answer!

I don’t mind writing and thinking here if it sometimes means me tying myself up in knots! This is what this space is primarily for in many ways. However, top of my mind is how to communicate a shift towards fluency, and beyond skills and literacy. How can we all grasp and deal with a university experience as being a space in time to develop complexity strategies? How can I frame this discussion with academics, students and managers in a straightforward way that makes sense to anyone?

My immediate thoughts are to visualise the ideas and to use metaphors. I must acknowledge the excellent podcast Philosophize This! and the second episode on the philosopher John Locke in which the idea of dancing, not standing, was discussed.

Digital fluency reflects the innate agency at the heart of learning – especially in an active learning paradigm in which we have respect for the learner and their own motivations.

While we might be able to teach someone how to stand up straight, that is all we are teaching. Being able to stand up straight is a specific skill. It is a function that can be performed and checked. We can use that skill, but it is difficult to apply it with any versatility or confidence to any other situation that we may encounter. If we learn to stand up from a chair, or on a slope, for example, to what extent can we confidently say we can also stand up in a moving vehicle, or when the slope is down instead of up, when there is or isn’t something to hold on to? A particular skill, and its value, are necessarily limited. We can always teach those other skills, but when do we stop? As parents, we know that standing up is not the ‘be all and end all’ to a small child – they have greater purpose and curiosity that gives them resilience. Focusing on developing curiosity is a clue to how we teach in complex situations and, in fact, an individual’s own, unique context (their part of the ecosystem) is critical to their sense making.

So clearly, thinking about teaching the different skill of walking, rather than standing, would be a better idea. There’s more in it. But what are we teaching the nascent walker? We are still teaching them to stand, but we are also teaching them how to move their legs in the the ‘right’ order so as to move forward, or even backwards. And necessarily we are teaching them to balance and to stop. Of course, we must teach the walker some other basics including how to decide on what direction to travel in and for how long. And to not run before you can walk! Then, we need to consider when to introduce ideas about travelling. Travelling causes their sensory context to change because of the actions they are taking, so that they must be able to respond to that change. It goes without saying that the walker must begin to interpret their context and respond to it. As parents, we know that we don’t sit our child down with a script and go through the ‘how to walk’ manual ‘step by step’ (though this is an interesting thought -there may be a book opportunity there for the unscrupulous teacher!). No, we allow for a few scrapes and bruises and try to put reasonable safeguards in place, but also create a supportive and constructive learning experience. The teacher parent helps the learner walker to reflect on the decisions they made – and then we quickly move on.

Let us now consider dancing and why learning to dance might be more useful than learning to walk or stand up! It is about context, motivation, and agility. Fundamentally it is about agency though.

Dancing is such a joyous act. It is about life itself. It is about who we want to be and how we want to feel. It is that bigger, bolder picture of memorable moments. It is about the freedom, even in or especially in, a social situation that we desire. [nb. anyone who knows me may be surprised to hear me effuse about dancing – just enjoy the moment! ;-)]

Dancing conveys a fluency that is not necessarily so obvious in the functional act of walking. Walking is an intellectual act (usually – but also see ideas of wandering and psychogeography). We tend to approach walking as a perfunctory act that enables us to get things done. We have focus and purpose and, for most of us, we know how to do it and we don’t pay too much attention to it. We know its limitations and will turn to other forms of being ambulant when walking is not going to achieve what we need to do. We have walking literacy.

Dancing, on the other hand, is us at our joyous best – when we are able to respond to any situation with utter confidence and fluidity. We have a sense of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) and being. Dancing, as an enactment of fluency, involves us in self-demonstrations of exuberance and deep engagement with life. Physically, this dancing fluency is a matter of audacious balance, especially when this involves dancing with a partner.

Balance as a dimension of dancing and movement, perhaps epitomises fluency. Our bodies are dynamic containers of energy in motion and the physical space around us is in a continual ‘split second’ flux. It only goes wrong when we stop to think – when we become too literate and so too conscious of the world around us: I heard the athlete Kelly Holmes on the radio yesterday describe how she lost a podium place by looking up to check her timing as she approached the winning line. Fluency would have carried her over – and later in her career it did.

Balance and fluency, underpinned by technique and a sure knowledge of one’s skills and ability to deploy them, mean that the dancer, the skater, the artist, the musician, the athlete, the theoretician, indeed any of us, all excel when we ‘know’ without having to stop and think.

I argue, then, we should aspire to fluency by focusing on the agency we desire within our learning ecosystem. This takes skills, awareness, and opportunities in which to positively apply ourselves as we explore our worlds being driven by our respective curiosities.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.

Fawns, T. (2019). Postdigital education in design and practice. Postdigital Science and Education, 1,

Greenfield, A. (2006). Everyware: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing. ‘Voices that matter’, CA: New Riders.

Sparrow, J. (2018). Digital fluency: preparing student to create big, bold problems. New Horizons: EDUCAUSE. Online at: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/3/digital-fluency-preparing-students-to-create-big-bold-problems, 132–145. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-018-0021-8

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Lifewide learning domains: rich intersections or contested spaces

Deerhill in the snow. One of the moor top walks I take to wonder and wander

I noted in my previous post on mapping our learning that I would be engaging in the collaborative inquiry ‘Towards a Better Understanding of Our Own Learning Lives’ led by Norman Jackson, Rob Ward and Jenny Willis. I have just about managed to engage with this in week one (increasingly finding any space in my wide life feels tricky!) and I look forward to reflecting on how we compartmentalise or connect our learning lives across various domains as I pay attention to my own intentional and incidental learning.

This is essentially the focus of the study as I understand it. It coincides so well with my own thinking and questioning, and this blog space is one important strand in my own lifewide learning narrative.

My first task in the exercise has been to devise a Lifewide Learning Domain Map which I share below. I did it really quickly, believing that this cannot be a science and a rough and ready mapping will be as revealing as anything else. Indeed, I have added ‘connections and crossings’ to my map’s title because I think the intersections and contested nature of the domains will reveal more to me as I participate in this study – my role being mostly as a subject. Note, I have also used the word ’emphasises’ as I introduce each domain to again indicate the fuzziness and changing, ambiguous nature of (my) life: ‘If I say [domain name], then it is mostly to do with…, but note entirely or exclusively.’ And for me, this fuzziness is especially relevant to how I/we learn. That cliché of ‘I have my best ideas in the shower’ makes the point well – I find space to think and learn in apparently disconnected spaces and this gives us the concepts of third space and third place, as in the hairdresser’s fire escape fag break (Shortt, 2014).

Psychogeography is a surprising high level domain for me, and I may decide it is too much of a passing interest, however I see it as a broad set of ideas that connect and make sense of a lot of my life. This is quite ironic, because the literature on psychogeography, as far as I can tell, really caricatures it through the aimless nature of the lone wonderer. Obviously, for me, it turns out being aimless is an important dimension in my life, contrasting with the intense purposeful nature of pretty much everything else I do. My waking hours do feel as though I am on an intense mission most of the time. And that is the way I like it. I will return to psychogeography in a future post.

Colliding and compressing domains

In the introductory presentation given by Norman, he asked whether the domains in our lives had lost their distinctiveness during the pandemic. In these days of lockdown everything seems to happen at home. Being online happens at home – hence polycontextuality. The only time I leave the house is to walk or shop for groceries. I don’t expect this to change for a long time. If I’m right, there is an urgency for each of us to reflect on and develop new life strategies.

I think for most of us, this compression of domains will be most evident in those areas of life we have created to do with friends, family and leisure. Simply, friendship feels very different in Zoom. It’s the wrong place, because friendship is often quiet: friendship is about the space between words, being acceptant of social signals, doing things together for no other purpose than doing things with people just feels good. That’s much more difficult than the focused and purposeful activities we undertake at work or when we are being intentionally creative and productive.

Therein lies the crisis of schooling: the primary learning outcome of a formal education is to become a social being – it is not the ‘stuff’ we’re assessed on.

Quiet personal bubbles

And then, even though we are generally experiencing great social isolation during the pandemic, to what extent are we managing to find and protect those transitory dwelling places each of us needs? I get it in walking, taking photographs and posting them to Instagram, playing the guitar, writing, doing a lot of Skill Share courses, and watching a lot of YouTube videos (some ‘serious’, some not).

Often this could induce feelings of guilt though, given that a lot of this involves switching off in my bubble demarcated by my Bluetooth headphones. I can’t really imagine how on earth this plays out in families. Fortunately, I just live with my partner and we navigate our spaces pretty well! (I think?!)

Boundary crossing

As indicated, identifying domains feels somewhat arbitrary to me. It will be interesting to see how it works out for me over the next five weeks of the study. So much of what I think and write about is to do with experiential crossing points – I suggest it is the intersections of our lives in which we come across our meaning, when things get in the way (collisions) or when things add up or multiply (connections).

In terms of learning and what I am doing at work as an educational developer, this is informing what I am doing on Building Learning Communities: developments around non-formal learning space to enrich the student’s experience in a time of great alienation.


Shortt, H. (2014). Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work. Human Relations, 6, 1-26. DOI: 10.1177/0018726714536938

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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.

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Revisting the 5Cs to discover value for different times

Bring Your Own Device 4 Learning

I have had an immense feeling of warmth and solidarity this evening as good thoughts and memories have been triggered by Sheila’s post on How Sheila Sees It ‘Bring your own device for learning or bringing learning to your device?’

Bring Your Own Device 4 Learning was a ground breaking experience (more than a course/not even a course). Structured around the 5Cs over 5 days, incorporating tweet chats and eventually leading to the LTHEchat, it was a remarkable experience – truely ecological, in that everyone who took part, whatever their role, found their own level/value/outcomes. Just as learning should be.

So please read Sheila’s post for a little more on the background and to see her proposition that there could be a place for it in helping us to respond to these difficult times.

Yes, somehow that does make sense. As Sheila says, not as BYOD4L, but BYOD2L – bringing learning to your device. Reaching out, and connecting wherever and however you are.

This idea of ‘wherever and however’ has been central to my own responsibilities and response to the pandemic. Working at Anglia Ruskin University with our commitment to active and inclusive learning, we squared up to the pandemic recommitting to our principles for active and inclusive learning when it might have been simpler to retrench pedagogically. Consequently we continue to advocate, develop and explore Unified Active Learning – a people-centred principle-based philosophy that encapsulates technical responses such as blended, hybrid and HyFlex. I learnt much from my own experience of BYOD4L that informs my thinking around UAL now.

So yes, let us explore together BYOD2L and share what we have learnt and applied from the 5Cs of connecting, communicating, curating, collaborating and creating.

Rediscovering the 5Cs

I know I have examples of pedagogies that reflect each C, and the technical connected space students and teachers have constructed to establish a rich and rewarding experience in trying and unpredictable times. I would love to share and play with the approaches and attitudes we have each drawn upon.

Thanks Sheila!

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Bring your own device for learning or bringing learning to your device? – howsheilaseesIT

Bring your own device for learning or bringing learning to your device? – howsheilaseesIT
— Read on howsheilaseesit.net/curriculum-design/bring-your-own-device-for-learning-or-bringing-learning-to-your-device/

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Structure and memory-mapping in #activelearning

Photo by Alice Butenko on Unsplash

The idiom ‘from pillar to post’ both indicates the role of structure in a journey and, at the same time, cautions that substance, purpose and clarity are necessary to a fruitful experience. In the previous post, I discussed divergence and convergence as ideas that can help the academic to create regular patterns in curriculum design. The strength of pattern is that it suggests substance: a repeating pattern offers the predictability that the viewer needs. It allows them to become part of the creative experience by colouring within the pattern’s outlines. To do this, they use their prior knowledge, experience, or imagination. The viewer becomes colourist. When multiple colourists bring their aesthetics to the task, we create a discourse through collaboration.

In learning design, the patterns and shapes are different, but still the academic plays with ideas like ‘less is more’; leaving space for the learner to bring themselves to the task. The academic avoids filling in the space knowing that it would be futile to make all the aesthetic decisions for each and every student. Leaving space becomes an inclusive learning strategy; one that accommodates their students’ diverse perspectives.

The art of teaching to an active learning philosophy, it seems to me, is about understanding how to create loosely structured learning maps so that each student can bring their aesthetic to it. Our challenge is to create a just enough structure so that our students can fluently navigate their topic or course, without them getting lost along the way; or rather, without them getting irretrievably separated from the core narrative and its intended outcomes. This points to another topic: the value of deviance and self-determination.

Map reading

I incorporate maps in my use of twalks and learning walks. In twalks, where participants are not co-located geographically, the idea of map is incongruous yet perhaps even more important than for situations in which participants are co-located. But how can you use a common map if you are not co-located? While the twalk map depicts common landmark types (i.e. library, lawn, staircase, etc), so that the activities can make reference to the meanings of such places, they can’t do much more than that. The value in a learning twalk often comes from observing the difference between ‘my library’ and ‘your library’; in that way we discover, through our own experience or the storiy we share, ‘library-ness’.

Memory maps – learning as cartography

Your aim as a student on completing a twalk, a walk, or any other active learning event, is essentially to create a memory map.

You are given stimuli, challenges, questions, and discussions and these become structures in your metaphorical map. Each of these constructions has some solidity and acts as a point of reference.

Your learning comes from your response to the stimulus, how you address the challenge, your response (right, wrong or different) to the questions, and what you gather from and contribute to the discussions. Your contribution, as a learning participant, is to distil your memories and to add colour, substance and annotations to your own memory map. That is active learning.

Photo by SEASHELL IN LOVE – Kristin on Unsplash

This points us to the relationship between active and reflective learning and the value of portfolios for learning: collections of personalised memory maps (significant artefacts), carefully stored, curated, and ready to be reviewed by the learner later to inform subsequent explorations.

Co-creating memories

This idea of memory mapping is congruent with the social construction of knowledge. Learning alone can be soulless and dispiriting. In my experience, learning is lifted by comparing what you think to what others think. This can be competitive, but mostly the value is in co-operation and the appreciation of other, different or complementary ideas, and especially the growth of ideas and knowledge that comes from thinking together. In social situations, your experience, alongside the experience of your collaborators, is to create a rich picture from the bare bones scaffold of the landmark activities given you by your teacher, leader, or the situation itself.

Objects, pictures and interpretation

I have worked with colleagues over the years who have been captured by the idea objects as a tangible focus for learning through conversation and contemplation.

For example, Beatriz Acevedo and myself interviewed Alison Greig for our Exquisite Corpse podcast. In the discussion, Alison shares how she engaged her students in learning about systems and sustainability. With participants all over the world, Alison engaged them in discussing ideas by using self-selected geographical landmarks. With minimal framing, they used these as the basis for understanding complex concepts: from a canal in Manchester to a fish market in Hong Kong. In the following recording, Alison presents some useful insights from this experience.

Exquisite Corpse podcast

Alison’s use of self-selected objects in the landscape is a good example of how objects lend themselves to personalised and interpretive discussion. Such analytical devices elicit conversational learning, creating a fluid and immersive experience where the learner has a high degree of agency over their learning. At the same time, the collective contrivance of the object in the landscape, in this case, connects the thinking, and learning, of all those who take part.

In conclusion: daring to provide no more than just enough

Whether it is outlined patterns or objects, the active learning teacher scaffolds learning by creating a learning environment composed of just enough direction to send students on their way with purpose and clarity. Providing clarity and removing clutter go hand-in-hand when the learner is intent on creating their own substance from a process of mapping memories.

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Playing with divergence and convergence: designing #ActiveLearning

Playing with divergence and convergence – designing #activelearning

Active learning is a process of opening up and closing down possibilities.

Whether you look at course, module, session or activity design, knowing that your role as an academic is to play with divergence and convergence can be really helpful. As a teacher, you are a designer and an orchestrator of learning experience.


Divergence is about opening possibilities and creating choices (Brown, 2008).

Knowledge is usually hard won, interpreted, and not a matter of certainty in higher education. Ambiguity can be an important characteristic in many disciplines where students learn immersively, taking deep dives to explore ideas and produce new knowledge. Learning requires an open and creative attitude to navigate and negotiate complexity, even when theoretical knowledge is well-established. Exploration, play, brainstorming, problem-solving, experimentation, enquiry are all examples of generative approaches to developing knowledge and they often begin by expanding and making ideas and problems more complex.

Martin (2009) proposes the value of ‘integrative thinkers’: those who can take a broad view of a situation even where this breadth increases complexity when considering problems. Such people are able to consider and evaluate alternative perspectives. They are able to think laterally (de Bono, 1970) and can address detail while keeping the entire problem in mind. Such people are able to think creatively and critically.

Looking at de Bono’s description of brainstorming, it is useful to note that divergence does not by any means equate with a chaotic free-for-all. Sessions are intentional, structured and involve provocative stimuli framed by cross stimulation, suspended judgement, and the formality of the setting. As an approach within active learning, divergent lateral thinking activities make sense. Indeed, “The more formal the setting the more chance there is of informality in ideas within it.” (de Bono, 1970)

However, this opening up, or divergence, can be challenging for many students if their expectation is that they should be told what they are ‘meant’ to know. But there is no challenge in that, and therefore little meaning. Further, knowledge beyond the classroom does not work like that and so generating divergent complexity is as much a strategy for developing self-efficacy as it is for developing knowledge – we learn we are capable of devising thinking strategies. A student learns to see their own capabilities differently as they engage with learning strategies that develop their confidence, resilience and agility.

On the other hand, didactic methods are generally disingenuous to the student – they reflect the ‘spoon feeding’ tendencies of training methods. Instrumental teaching strategies simply give the students what they think they need and are characterised by little divergence or convergence. Lecturing is often described in this way, but we need to be careful. We all remember inspirational lecturers, so it is not about lecturing per se – a good lecture will be one that inspires curiosity (opening up possibilities) and engages the learner in an exploration of a topic’s dimensions before arriving at some conclusion (a convergence).


In design thinking, convergence is about working towards a single best solution having started with possibilities. From the breadth of opportunity, learning is often a matter of making sense by trying out and testing ideas, usually with others, through analytical thinking or reflection on action.

The learner has agency over their learning: they are ultimately responsible for the construction of their knowledge. Convergence, therefore, refers to the scaffolded and effective processes that teachers deploy to ensure a student learns by selecting and evaluating options, making decisions or commitments, and drawing conclusions.

Spotting patterns

Patterns of divergence and convergence can be discerned in any active learning strategy at course, module, session, and activity levels of design. They can be repeating patterns as in exploration of a pattern of weekly topics through a module or learning cycles. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (1984), for example, incorporates concrete experience (an open exposure to something), reflective observation (a convergent process of analysing what happened), then abstract conceptualisation (an expansion as the definite experience is generalised), and then active experimentation as generalised knowledge is evaluated and committed (a convergent resolving part of the cycle).

In a webinar I ran recently on divergent and convergent design in active learning, the question of assessment was brought up. It is always interesting for me when assessment comes up. It always feels like we may descend into an impasse. When considered holistically in an active learning paradigm, assessment does have an important (if sometimes distracting) summative purpose; however, assessment should really be considered strategically as a pattern to be designed within the learning experience. Within any assessment pattern there will be elements that appear to have little to do with the summative act but which are, nevertheless, integral to the assessment. This is all to be played with, but elements such as ‘outcome setting’ and ‘challenge’, for example, are orientation dimensions that may be used at the start of a module to open up and develop curiosity. Then ‘brief’, ‘question’, or ‘task’ suggest focus and convergence within the assessment strategy. Good formative feedback is about opening up and generalising the particular so it can be applied to other situations, while the summative task can be used either to test for specific application knowledge (convergence – ‘what is the correct answer?’) or create a divergent learning space (i.e. the major project – ‘tell us what you found out, why and how’). So, the design of active learning assessment strategies provides a good example of how patterns of divergence and convergence and can help the academic designer.

Here’s a list of divergence and convergence ideas:















In conclusion (but only for the moment!)

I was frustrated as an art student. I felt I got little guidance when I needed it. Everything was “open, open, open”. I felt I never arrived. It was dissatisfying – for me. I needed tension, challenge and feedback. But in other situations I have got equally frustrated – HR training courses do my head in! There is no room for contextualisation and interpretation, and quite honestly I don’t retain what I learn on those training courses. I need to be stimulated.

I don’t think I am alone. A well-designed learning experience, I think, is stimulating and has ebbs and flows, loud and quiet movements, complexity and revelation; patterns of activity that are equally inspiring and challenging, and ultimately informing in a way that makes sense to me.


Brown, T. (2008). ‘What does design thinking feel like?’ Ideo Design Thinking [blog], 7th September 2008. Online at: https://designthinking.ideo.com/blog/what-does-design-thinking-feel-like

de Bono, E. (1970). Lateral thinking: a textbook of creativity. London: Penguin Books.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Martin, R. (2009). The opposable mind: how successful leaders win through integrative thinking. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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