Tag Archives: analogies

After publishing the Writing Essays by Pictures book, I have been chatting to people about how to use this approach to teach. If you are one of those people interested in integrating some of the activities and strategies, check out this new workshop I will run the morning of 5th May in Manchester, which will introduce the Board Game Blueprint, an analogy I’ve been playing around with for the last few months – and to make it even better you have the option to sign up for the afternoon making educational games with fellow National Teaching Fellow Andrew Walsh, too!

Booking via EventBrite here.

Picture This! Using the ‘Writing Essays by Pictures’ approach to teaching academic practice
Writing Essays by Pictures is a workbook for students who need help with researching and writing their first evidence based research essay for university. It explains academic practice that often remains hidden to students through everyday analogies and offers activities that allow students to explore the research and writing process in the step-by-step way of painting by numbers.
While the book was originally conceived as a workbook for students, it can also act as a resource for teachers, which will be further explored in this workshop with Dr Alke Groppel-Wegener, the author. Using a new activity, the Board Game Blueprint, designed to help students visualise the syllabus of a module, we will explore how to use the ‘Writing Essays by Pictures’ approach in day-to-day teaching, whether as a dedicated module or stand-alone support sessions.

All attendees will receive a copy of Writing Essays by Pictures (list price £15).

Dear all,

I’m glad to announce that I have finished the workbook for students I have been talking about for years and that after the ‘test’ copies produced as part of last year’s Kickstarter campaign, an extended version of  “Writing Essays by Pictures: A Workbook” (ISBN 9780957665224) is now in print… just in time for all those lovely new first years arriving at Uni!

This is very much a development of the work I have been doing for the last few years, much of it chronicled on this blog, and it uses visual analogies to lead students through the process of writing essays at University. Find out more about its origins on the dedicated page here. Mainly designed for students to work through on their own, it could also be used in led workshops and is full of creative and visual ideas for teaching information and academic skills. It is priced at a level that hopefully many students will be able to afford to buy themselves, and I hope that some of you might add it to your reading lists to help students transition to writing at undergraduate level.

Available from all normal book suppliers from this week, list price £15, currently £12.99 on Amazon ( or just £10 direct from the publisher (

I am currently working with both the Writing PAD network and my fabulous publisher to organise some workshops for staff who want some more ideas how to use the material within in their teaching, which I will of course announce here once we have settled on dates.
Best wishes,


After our December workshops had gone down quite well, Falmouth University invited Pat and myself back to this time put together a whole day as part of the Writing in Creative Practice series – Making Writing.

We started off with making name tags in order to explore the materials available for reflective bookmaking – and I don’t think we ever had as many feathers to use before!

Pat then started us off with an extended Writing Warm-up, which we used to explore writing on different textures ending up with writing about both objects and photographs. Again, a very rich experience to loosen us up (we didn’t really need to warm up as the weather was absolutely fantastic!).

Nancy de Freitas then shared her expertise of coming to writing from a material studies background, talking about Writing and Materiality (Falmouth_workshop2) – starting us off with blue sky thinking, introducing the importance of having a working abstract when doing any sort of research project, the usefulness of questions to prompt where you are going, the utilisation of images in both abstract ‘writing’ and planning structure as well as the differences between personal and academic writing (yes, there should be one!).

What I particularly loved was her use of the image of a shed to illustrate what a working draft of a piece of writing is like – yes, it might feel cobbled together (and the shed on the image she showed us really was…), but the important thing is that it is holding together! in a way this is the point when writing goes from a solitary to a social activity – now you can show it to somebody else, because it has enough structure to make sense. And from now on it can be worked on, carefully turning the precarious shed into a house with foundations, a solid structure, a roof that doesn’t leak, maybe even a conservatory… No, she didn’t actually mention conservatories, that is just what I was thinking, she did however go on to talk about the importance of editing as a social practice, because writing should work for the ‘other person’ – the reader! (An important fact that my students often don’t seem to be aware of.)

Nancy also shared some interesting thoughts on active documentation, and how that can be used to get students to think about structure and editing.

After lunch Oliver West took over sharing with us his journey of how he developed the Footnotes project out of his own struggle with writing as a dyslexic student and then practcioner. This is based around taking notes on a simple folded grid – allowing visuals to be recorded, annotated and then reordered. And of course we got to have a go – and I saw Nancy’s shed make an appearance on not just my grid!

I ended the official program with a gallop through the visual anaolgies and metaphors I use in order to engage my students with writing and particularly academic practice. Using the ‘mini’ quilt’ developed for the recent School of Education conference as a starting point, I introduced the framing of Kolb’s Experiential Learning cycle and then really briefly talked about The Land- and Seascape of Creative Practice, The Butterfly Challenge, ways of using objects, reflective bookmaking and poetic inquiry, The Dress-up Doll of Formality, visualising introduction/main body and conclusion of an essay as stages in journy planning, The Fishscale of Academicness, The Button Connection and The Winning Hand of Independence. And while I am not convinced all of them made sense with only a few sentences to explain them, I believe the gist of it came across – and I had some interesting feedback at the end of the session.

We ended with a discussion round wondering whether approaches are different for practitioners and teachers, people who see themselves as more comfortable with words rather than images – and how we can make sure to cater for different learning styles of out students.

It was a fantastic day full of interesting sharing, and some fabulous reflective books were made that will hopefully inspire things to come – and I hope that we can do it again sometime. (And then we immediately did with a Writing Retreat the following two days, about which I will blog soon!)

There are exciting developments with what I call the Fishscale of Academicness. You might have come across this before at one of my talks – or through my little booklet (which is described here).

There are two exciting new things happening – my colleague Geoff Walton and myself are working on a chapter on this for an open-access book on information discovery journeys. We have been having a number of meetings about this in the last few weeks, and I am happy to report that it is progressing nicely. We are trying to combine what I already have as written for the little booklet with a commentary on information literacy and information discernment, that locates this in an academic context. Most recently we have been working on ways of how to combine the different texts/images, here some of our working drawings:

We are hopeful that we have worked it out!

The other exciting thing is that we have been given some funding by the university to produce at least two different ways of delivering this – a hard-copy and a digital one, which we want to use to test this further with students in the coming academic year, hopefully in different departments and possibly at different universities.

Let me know if you are interested in taking part in this further research!

One of the things I particularly wanted to explore at the second workshop in Stoke-on-Trent last year was genre, and why academic writing specifically seems to be such a problem for students. Yes, there are the students who ‘don’t like to write’, but in my experience a lot of students also come to university safe in the knowledge that they KNOW how to write, because they learned it at school. And it is difficult for them to understand that they now need to write at a different level – and for a different purpose.

I was talking about this with my colleague Jane Ball, who works at our study skills centre and was scheduled to do one of the presentations at the workshop, and she mentioned the Concscious Competence Model/Ladder/Matrix. In brief, if you are learning skills you go through four main stages:

  • Unconscious Incompetence (You don’t know that you don’t know)
  • Conscious Incompetence (You know that you don’t know)
  • Conscious Competence (You know that you know)
  • Unconscious Competence (You don’t know that you know, because you have internalised the skill)

(Some people argue that there is a fifth stage which is akin to either mastery or coaching, but I don’t want to make this more complicated here.)

Now I think that this is a really good model, but one of the problems with it, is that there are some tongue twisters in there and it becomes really complicated to try to talk about the difference of concious incompetence (which is the stage I would like my students to be at) and unconscious competence (which is the stage most of them seem to think they are at, due to them not paying attention to what I am trying to teach them when it comes to essay writing), because frankly the terms all sound so much alike. So we needed some better terms, and possibly a little visual to tie this together. And we came up with the lifecycle of a butterfly – and that is what The Butterfly Challenge became about.

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So the trick is to be aware of what stage you are in for each skill you encounter. Are you at the egg stage (blissfully unaware of anything going on around you – and not really caring)? Are you a caterpillar (hungry for knowledge you realise you don’t yet have)? Are you at the crysalis stage (knowing all the rules and quietly practicing applying them all)? Or are you indeed already a butterfly (having internalised all the rules to the point where they are second nature to you)?

different types of butterfly representing different genre

different types of butterfly representing different genre

This becomes particularly tricky if a transferable skill is concerned, because you might not be aware that the rules have changed. (And I think this can often be the problem with my students.) Surely once you know how to write, that is it? Well, here it becomes important to understand the concept of genre – not all written pieces are the same. There isn’t just one type of butterfly, there is one for writing text messages and one for writing academic essays, and they are not necessarily exchangable. But because some students are not aware of that, they think that they are a butterfly (or in the crysalis) as far as writing is concerned, when really they are only at the egg stage for the writing they have to do.

When I presented this idea as part of the talk I did for the Staffordshire University School of Education conference, this seemed to particularly strike a chord… at a different level. Not of undergraduates coming into Higher Education, but rather of graduates continuing on at Masters and PhD level. There also, academic writing (and other research skills) takes a ‘step up’ (in the case of PhD work quite dramatically), and students are sometimes not aware of this. Indeed, somebody in the audience said that when she was working on her PhD it felt like she was a butterfly who got slowly torn apart… In order to avoid this sort of student experience, it might be well worth to introducing the students to this model at the beginning of their courses.

A possible activity to go with this would be to get the students to make butterflies out of copies of different types of texts, and then put them together on a museum type tray complete with labels that identify the specific rules the different texts have to adhere to. (I developed this as an activity a bit, I thought washing pegs might be good for the body of the butterflies, but then never actually used it as the idea of using a paper doll came along and seemed to make more sense – see The Dress-Up Doll of Formality, to be blogged about soon.)

(This booklet was made in a preview edition of 31 handed out to delegates at the Writing in Creative Practice: Integrating Writing into a Studio-based Curriculum workshop, each with a pop-up butterfly in the middle.)

This was the first of the Tactile Academia books I made and funnily enough I didn’t set out to do a book at all.

So here’s the story of that one:

In June 2010 I went to the Flying Start symposium held at Liverpool Hope University. This was disseminating the work that had been/still was going on in the Flying Start project, which was concerned with academic writing transition. Here I saw Claire Penketh talking about her work, and one of the things that particularly struck a chord with me was her work on reading at degree level. In her presentation she menitoned a quote from John Bean which stated that “learning to read at degree level is like learning to fish in deep waters” (2001). In her slides she made this point to her students by showing pictures of fish and likening them to certain types of reading – goldfish (a bit like emails, small and colourful), sharks (with teeth, so a bit scary, like a peer-reviewed article might be) and angler fish (just weird, like something that was written for a different audience altogether).

Now I absolutely loved this idea and built up a presentation for my students all around the idea of evaluating secondary sources by likening them to sea creatures and ordering them on a scale of academic depth. It described a number of ‘standard’ secondary sources, such as blogs, newspapers, introductory texts, academic journals and doctoral work. This seemed to go down well and alert students to the necessity of evaluating sources, something they have a problem with in my experience.


The Fish-scale of Academicness – linocut edition 2012

As I thought this was a very good way of explaining the concept of provenance to students I wanted to turn this into an Open Educational Resource, however, my slides were populated with copyrighted fish from animation, so I needed to find a way to illustrate this. And then a course on the Illustrated Book came along near me and I signed up for that with the express plan to work on the illustrations for this. And so I made a book out of it. I played about with the layout and used tear-aways to show a sense of depths. This book, with original linocuts, was done in an edition of 7 in 2012.

At the same time I thought this might be a very good way for me to explain this concept at this workshop I was organising and how nice it would be to give the delegates something special. So I also made an edition for them, which is photocopied and has drawn illustrations, but it also has the ‘torn’ pages meant to visualise the depth of the academic ocean.

This booklet was produced in an edition of 31 and given out at the Thinking through Writing and Making workshop.

The Fish-Scale doesn’t stop with explaining the concept to the students. I have also started using it as an activity. I give students excerpts of sample text from a variety of academic depths, and ask them in groups to decide what sort of sea creatures these texts would be and draw them. What is important here is that the students also are able to articulate the reasons why they decided on a particular sea creature. We then all order them in terms of their academic depths through a group discussion. I encourage students to go through this thinking process when they are using their sources, and to visualise their bibliography in terms of the depth achieved – and ask them to think about trying to ‘go deeper’ when they progress through the years.

The very small-scale evaluation I have done on this so far, has indicated that introducing the lecture coupled with the activity has resulted in students using a better range and better quality of secondary sources in their essays.

I’m currently planning a research project to test whether this would work with students from other universities and disciplines. Maybe as part of this I will actually get around to making that Open Educational Resource. If you are interested in collaborating on this, please get in touch!