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Last Friday was finally the day – I got to try out the Academic Afternoon Tea format with some brave adventurers (or maybe just afternoon tea lovers). I’m still working through the feedback, but thought I would post some initial thoughts and feedback before too much time passes.

We met at LEAF Manchester, a cafe that I had selected for their excellent afternoon tea and cosy atmosphere. And they did not disappoint, the staff was super lovely and helpful and food and beverages were delicious. (If I am bringing the Academic Afternoon Tea back to this venue I will have more time for people to engage with their wonderful menu of teas, which we didn’t really have time for this time around.) What slightly put a dampener on spirits (quite literally) was that a lot of people got caught in a heavy rain shower on their way in. Luckily I didn’t so the materials I brought remained dry.

Over the next three hours we made our own nametags, reflected on the role and agency of students and how that matches up to the learning activities we put on (or doesn’t) by making a volvelle (or pinwheel), we wrote Calls to Adventure for our students to follow, drew maps of the Unknown world we invite them into, thought about the people and ‘devices’ they meet – and how those might help and hinder them – and turned these into storydice, and ended by writting ourselves and each other messages to seal into a little bottle to take home with us.

And in between we had declicious food and drink and the opportunity to chat to each other, exchange stories and get inspired by other points of view. We were lucky in that we could use a different space to eat than to make because the cafe was not busy – this worked out really well and I would definitely make this a feature next time. Because the one thing we really needed was a bit more table space for the making – another thing to keep in mind for the future.

Another opportunity that came with moving between different spaces was that it encouraged mingling and re-mingling, which gave people the opportunity to meet more people. In a way this made up for us not doing a round of introductions at the beginning (which I avoided because in my experience that can get really out of hand and eat into the scheduled time), however, the people with dietary requirements remained seated together because of where their food was, which is something to consider in future.

I collected feedback via questionnaires and feedback bunting, here some of my favourite comments:

  • make your own name tags – Great for pre-sessional teacher induction
  • In times of trouble… turn to TEA
  • The pin-wheel was an eye opener. I’ve always thought of activty first – putting students first, not activity is really obvious!! But we don’t think like that!
  • Map as a reflective journal – great for students
  • Turn a problem into a challenge
  • feedback bunting – So much better than post-its
  • These activities would be excellent in PGCert Teacher Training!
  • Excellent ideas to take back to work & change teaching practice
  • I really enjoyed the process of doing short bursts of activity interspersed with getting to know other people + eating 🙂
  • As challenging as I anticipated. So much to learn. So much learning taking place. Well done!
  • Relaxed + friendly space to develop and remember our creativity
  • Freedom to opt in + that there was no ‘right’ way
  • Fascinated at the possibilities for how the hero’s journey can map on to the student experience & how this might change dependent on level & moduel etc. Would like to now see how my students might interpret this…
  • Lots of great ideas that I look forward to adpating and using. Thanks
  • Thank you so much for this! I had a beautiful time and feel inspired!
  • I was active & interactive, not passive!!
  • I usually hate this kind of thing but I actually really enjoyed it. So thank you
  • This has been delicious and fun and interesting! I am leaving inspired amd with tangible plans and ideas. Thank you

But I think my absolutely favourite comment was the questionnaire answer to the question of what was their favourite bit that stated “adjusting my thinking about ‘experience’ and ‘student experience’ away from facilities & buildings!” In a way this is exactly what the afternoon was meant to be about, thinking about how to put the students at the heart of their own individual journeys, to reflect on how challenging and transformative that can be – and trying to find ways to facilitate that through experience design, rather than fitting it into an existing context that might not (or only partly) be fit for purpose.

So all in all a successful try-out of the format! I will get on planning some more for the future – is there a particular topic you would want to explore in an event like this? Let me know as a comment!

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Looking back at conferences I have attended, I seem to remember little about the large themes, but so much about the people I actually got chatting to – sometimes in the scheduled tea/coffee breaks, sometimes over lunch, sometimes at the conference dinner and sometimes while deciding to miss part of the scheduled programme (and yes I admit to feeling slightly naughty for ‘skiving off’). These conversations (some of them struck up because of me seeing the other person give an inspirational paper, some through the simple coincidence of sitting next to each other) have led to me making changes to my practice, but also long-term collaborations.

Having the time to talk to each other is so valuable, but in today’s Education context this seems to become a more and more precious resource. Whenever I get to plan a conference or workshop, I have always tried to build in some extra time to just chat – whether that is a long lunch or (as in the case of the 2017 ReGenring conference) even an afternoon sharing session without formal programming. Sometimes this leaves attendees a bit surprised – there’s nothing planned? they say. Actually, there is something planned, the plan is to give YOU the opportunity to start to react to the all the content we’ve already thrown at you, to start digesting, and this works best if we can allocate some time for that.

I was absolutely delighted to be at a residential conference/course last September, where a whole day was declared a ‘Day of Conversation’ with the brief for us to go out and finish the conversations we had started with other attendees and start the conversations we hadn’t had yet, but really wanted to have. Partly this became an Unconference – people forming little groups around subjects, and partly this was tiny groups of two or possibly three people sitting together talking to each other – and if any of the others were like the conversations I had, they were scheming and laughing – making lifelong friends with people you had only met three days before and laying the ground work for future collaborations.

So it might not be a surprise that my upcoming workshop is experimenting with a different format – I wanted a framing that would let people chat and give them time to exchange ideas and practice. But I also wanted a little bit of structure. And delicious food. In fact, I wanted an environment that was different to the corporate teaching rooms at a university, changing expectations…

Academic-Afternoon-Tea-Blackboard-for-web

And so, the Academic Afternoon Tea was born.

Loosely structured by the three traditional courses of savouries, scones and sweets, this will give us the opportunity to explore subjects, share practice and network. The first one is open for booking now – join us at LEAF in Manchester, UK on 10th May 2019 to explore ways that principles of experience design can help thinking differently about students and our own roles! There will be tea, food, some guided creative activities (we might even start with the ever popular making of our own name tags) and – most importantly – lots of time to chat.

To get your ticket, check out the EventBrite page here.

Hope to see you there!