May 26, 2015

The Dark Would

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Last week I had the pleasure of attending a really special two-day event hosted by the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) at Warwick: The Dark Would. Established by an IATL project team (Rebecca Fisher, Amy Clarke, and Naomi de la Tour) in conjunction with some of the work Naomi did with Phil Gaydon on the IATL module 'Applied Imagination', the Dark Would is both a physical space and an approach to creative reflection and communication. The event allowed participants to experience both: we were able to explore the Dark Would in the morning of the first day, and spent the afternoon in workshops. Overnight, the Dark Would was transformed by a team of artists; while I wasn't able to attend on the second day, I've been informed reliably that it's just fantastic.

So, what is the Dark Would? It's a space filled with activities designed to take you out of the everyday and allow you to connect with your research, your teaching, your learning, and yourself in a way that you'll have to experience to understand. The darkened, dream-like setting engages all your senses and encourages you to embrace a child-like state of learning. But don't be misled into thinking it's an adult playspace; the activities presented in the Dark Would have solid pedagogical research behind them, and they are meant to shape your research and teaching/learning in fundamentally practical ways. I won't reveal too much--that'd ruin the mystery--but I highly recommend checking it out whenever you have an opportunity to do so.

Following the Dark Would experience, I was able to visit some of the drop-in sessions that had been set up. One of the spaces was open for creative expressions in a curated space and asked to create artistic responses to prompts like, 'how would you draw your learning and teaching?' I enjoyed it, but I was absolutely astonished by the second drop-in session, 'I stole this from the internet', developed by Cat Powers-Freeling from her 'Applied Imagination' module assessment last term. Cat presented a wide-ranging collection of items that she described succinctly as herself. She sat in the middle of her things and told stories about the objects. The objects were themselves an eloquent monument to the complexity of the average student (though Cat is far from 'average' in a perjorative sense!); items included medication, poetry Cat wrote when she was a teen, toys with emotional meaning from childhood. These were emotional objects, and Cat's ruminations on the objects were profound and profoundly moving. But it wasn't just an artistic exposure of the inner self--though as that, the session was magnificent--it was also a well-considered exploration of the student experience (or, at least, one student's experience). This was an excellent example of a holistic approach to education, to developing a complex and multi-tiered teacher-student-classroom relationship that was energizing and inspiring.

The workshops were more traditional, in some respects, but that's a relative measure. I attended 'Becoming a Beginner: Science Busking' with Sarah Cosgriff from the University of Birmingham's STEMnet. Sarah led us through her range of accessible science-based activities, showing us how to think more creatively about how we bring our research to the public (and what the public brings back to our research!). At the same time, Rachel King (Warwick) led a workshop on ecopedagogies, and Robbie Foulston ran a workshop on his work bringing clowning to professionals. I was disappointed to miss those--I heard nothing but good things about all the workshops.

In the second timeslot, I attended 'All grown up-ish: primary school pedagogy in a university setting' with Pav Ghuman (a primary school teacher at Earlsdon Primary) and Phil Gaydon (a PhD student at IATL/Philosophy). Pav and Phil discussed their work on how they bring university-level philosophy to young children, and how these philosophical issues can be connected to the students' experience through their physical environment. We discussed approaches to these learning processes in the HE sector, and had a really exciting conversation about student ownership of teaching space. Also held during this timeslot was Paul Taylor's (Leeds) presentation on 'Day/Night Science', about the role of creativity and interdisciplinarity in the sciences; we also had Ali Pidsley from IATL Student Ensemble leading a workshop on imagination.

Finally, I attended Alison James' (University of the Arts London) session on 'reflection for teachers and learners'. Alison led us through a cyclical process of reflection and discussion that helped anchor some of the thoughts and emotions the day had produced. I missed out on Jonathan Heron (IATL)'s session on how to 'Fail Better' and George Ttoouli's (Warwick Writing Programme) seminar on 'Using Constraints Creatively' as a result, but both these themes came out in Alison' session as well. Though participants had a wide range of experiences and reactions (naturally!), it was fascinating to see how similar our reflections were, in a broad sense; though the workshops were varied, we all felt that they'd brought problems (or opportunities, if I can make that comparison straight-faced) very clearly into focus. How can we teach students in an honest, accessible, egalitarian way that doesn't sacrifice rigor and the abstract with an over-focus on practical training? And yet, paradoxically, shouldn't practicality lie at the heart of education?

These big questions were discussed in a spirited roundtable led by Christina Hughes involving Cath Lambert, Ruth Leary, Alison James, Jonathon Heron, Ollie Higgins (a Chemisty finalist), and Cat Powers-Freeling (the same student who ran the curated emotional objects session I raved about earlier). The contributors did an excellent job connecting theory, practice, and reception (as exemplified by the day's events as well as in broader contexts), and it was really thrilling to hear how the attendees were able to connect the often abstract events of the day with their own experiences, both in terms of personal practice as well as with the wider HE sector (this was only a few days after the UK general election, after all).

Disappointingly, I had to miss the second day (though for a good reason: I was leading a workshop on 'digital networking and communication' at the Warwick Doctoral Training Programme at the Warburg Institute, run by Warwick's Centre for the Study of the Renaissance--more on that later). I was particularly upset to miss the reinvention of the Dark Would, which was the centerpiece of the second day. Michelle Bailey and her team of artists physically built a new space that really captures the dream-like quality of the Dark Would; Alex Miles composed music and sounds to accompany the exploration of the space, and the whole thing was filmed and photographed by Ben Cook. I should say that the participating artists didn't simply build a new set, or take a few pictures; they were all invited to incorporate the Dark Would process into their own work, and did so with wonderful results--Ben Cook's 'influence map' and forthcoming video projects in particular are just incredible examples of the imaginative power of the Dark Would.

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