A Reflective Walk

Another long overdue post…

a well-prepared bag full of bits

On 14th September I was lucky enough to join Sarah Williamson on a reflective walk she organised and led as part of a Teaching and Learning event at the University of Huddersfield. As you may know if you are a regular reader of this blog, Sarah teaches Art and Design teachers and this walk is one of the things she does with her students to remind them of the learning they have done and to encourage reflective practice.

While it will be difficult to do this experience justice, here are some of the things I particularly remember…

The Gateway – an entrance to a new experience

While we had a short walk to the actual beginning of the walk, once we were there, Sarah pointed out the gateway, making us aware of the idea of starting a new experience – this was not just a walk anymore, this was about us reflecting on our teaching practice.

leaving blahblahblah behind us

Once we had passed the gateway and turned the corner, we were greeted by a larger print-out stating BLAH BLAH BLAH, something we were to leave behind us on this walk (and hopefully in our reflection on our practice…).

We then encountered a number of texts and quotations that had been secured to the trees and shrubs, all concerned with reflective practice and teaching – and particularly the impact that landscape and environment can have on these issues.

encountering food for thought on the way

After the first part of the walk, which could be likened to a sort of literature review, very much referencing key texts and practitioners in this area, we were warmed up and could start to think reflectively ourselves.

a bag to collect mementos from our journey

To help us with that we each got a paper bag, which would become filled with little bits and pieces along the way.

We thought about describing things, how to find the right words, and how important that can be when trying to communicate something.

find that colour

For that we each got a number of colour charts and had to find something of that exact colour.

match a description

We then stepped away from the literal by matching given words with something we saw – and then explaining to another member of the group what we had found.

We thought about how framing can make a difference, to both presentation of work (or reflection), but also to focus, and how that is really well illustrated by using real frames. This links to Mason’s ‘discipline of noticing’ (2002):

To notice is to make a distinction, to create foreground and background, to distinguish some ‘thing’ from its surroundings. (Mason, 2002: 33)

We took inspiration from the decking we encountered and thought about which ‘ridges’ were reflected in the aspirations we had to teaching. We then jotted them down on Kraft paper (also nicely striped) and pinned them up on a washing line for all to read and discuss (and as an art intervention to remain once we had passed through).

our intervention

Another intervention Sarah told us about she does with her students (although we didn’t have the time to do it), is looking for a found object that is a reflection of your teaching practice, explain to the group why it is so and then build it into an installation by combining it with the objects everybody else has found.

an intervention encountered along the way

As we continued our journey down the tow path along the canal, we encountered some more art, but were also encouraged to notice things that we usually don’t – what is there and so much in the background that we often don’t even realise it, like the noise of the air conditioning units, for example.

We looked at the buildings, refurbished into university buildings but still showing an industrial heritage, and thought about the history of our discipline, and how it might have changed – and what that means for our inidividual contexts.

the dividing line between surface and deep learning

We also looked at the locks, with the water standing high on one side and low on the other, a great way of visualising surface and deep learning,

a precarious balance between the surface and the deep engagement

as well as the little bridge that can be seen to both keep the two apart and link them.

At this stage we also thought about Beard and Wilson’s concept of the Combination Lock for Experiential Learning (2006) and their notion of the importance of integrating the environment, activities, senses and emotion into the learning experience.

We came to another bridge a little while later – bridges of course a good way of thinking about linking one side with the other – maybe the practical with the theoretical, but also giving a good vantage point to looking into both the past – where have we come from in our practice, how have we developed- and future – what is around that next bend of the river, where do we want to go next?

thinking of the bend in the river

Sarah gave us a poem by Philip Larking,

Bridge for the Living (1975)

Reaching for the world, as our lives do,

As all lives do, reaching that we may give

The best of what we are and hold as true:

Always it is by bridges that we live.

We also encountered stairs, which Sarah used to visualise Schon’s notion of the Swamp:

stairs leading from the messy swamp down below to the academic high ground

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. on the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be; while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest concern. The practitioner must choose. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve the relatively unimportant problems according to prevailing standards of rigour, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems and non-rigorous inquiry? (Schon, 1987)

linking it to Fawbert’s suggestion (2004: 28) that we are all working in the messy swamp of complex classroom practice, wheras many managers and evaluators measure what we are doing from the relative safety of high ground. Sarah asked us to consider what the messy swamp in our classroom practice is…

At the end of our walk we found ourselves on benches facing steps going down to the canal, which gave us an opportunity to rest and think back on our walk, and all the different things that had been raised about reflection on our teaching practice. As it is a bit like an amphitheatre we also briefly thought about Augusto Boal’s views on theatre as the art of becoming:

looking down on the canal as if its ever changing flow was a theatre

theatre is born when the human being discovers that it can observe itself… Observing itself, the human being perceives what it is, discovers what it is not and imagines what it could become. It perceives where it is and where it is not, and imagines where it could go (Boal, 1995: 13)

Not so far away from reflective practice, is it?

This also ties in with Palmer:

When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are, I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadow of my unexamined life – and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well. When I do not know myself, I cannot know my subject – not at the deepest levels of embodied, personal meaning. (Palmer, 1998: 2, cited in Day 2004: 52)

I went home with so much to think about, about my own teaching, about which elements I could use to make up my own reflective walk to make students think about their practice in a more reflective way. While Sarah is very lucky to have a lovely walk just outside the building she works in, I do believe that it is possible to translate the points she was making and the activities she used to develop our/the students reflective thinking pretty much to anywhere – with a little bit of care.

I’m so glad I made the trip to Huddersfield that day!

1 comment
  1. This interesting piece reminded me strongly of an amazing artwork by Shrley Chubb, The Thinking Path, based around the sand-walk which Darwin used every day whilst composing Origin of Species etc, and called ‘the thinking path’ by his family – see it at http://www.thinkingpath.org.uk/commission – it has video/sound of the walk, objects (some museum collection & some from the artist) and it really fits with the activity described above. Having attended the first (?) seminar in Stoke last year I have been activiely pursuing the tactile academia ideas in my own PhD research into creative research methods in the qualitative evaluation of creative community projects. I hope to be carrying out a creative evaluation activity at the RGS conference next August.

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