Playing at work: on arts-enriched reflection

Hazel Christie  It’s not often that I get invited to play during the working week.

One such invitation came my way this week fromThe zoo that is the IAD my colleague Daphne Loads.  Would I be willing to take part in a workshop on arts-enriched reflection that would involve playing with plasticine?  I jumped at the chance, intrigued, along with nine other colleagues from the Institute for Academic Development.

I admit to being puzzled by arts-enriched reflection.  I’m not really sure how using the arts can be a ticket to enhancing learning, other than in the arts subjects themselves, but it’s a hot topic in learning development at the moment and I was keen to find out more.  To my relief, Daphne started proceedings with a definition.  For her, arts-enriched reflection is about promoting:

‘active engagement with collage, sculpture, poetry, photography and other creative ways of prompting deep thinking about teaching practice and teacher identity’.

And play comes into this active engagement.  Would we, she asked, think about learning and teaching in different ways if we introduced play to our sessions?  Our challenge was to find out.  Plasticine in a range of different colours was available to us right from the start of the session and, as Daphne talked, we’d all been busy rolling, moulding, shaping, sniffing and generally abusing it. But now the real work was set to begin.  Our task was to produce a sculpture – anything at all – but to be cognisant of the fact that it would say something about us as a person.

Our labours took place amidst much merriment.  Various works of art were produced.  But things turned more serious when Daphne asked us to reflect on what the sculptures revealed about our identities.  And with that the mood of the session changed – the humour now was tinged with vulnerability.  But it was time to reflect on how all this sculpting linked to learning and development.  Our next task was to think about ‘embedding’ which is something we hear a lot about in academic development.  Here we were to take an object we had with us, embed it in our plasticine sculpture, and then consider what this might reveal about about our learning and teaching.

penThe embedding exercise was a light bulb moment for me.  I’d taken a roll of plasticine and wrapped it around my pen in a spiral twist.  And I suddenly got it – I was scaffolding learning.  With the aid of structures and supports students can develop more fully as learners and achieve things that were previously impossible, just like my spiral enabled my pen to stand upright which, of course, was not possible beforehand.

But the work didn’t stop there.  Next we were invited to join up our embedded sculptures to make a diorama.  The results were colourful, quirky and, as you can see, really quite inspired.  But I had no more light bulb moments, about how all of this connected to learning and teaching.

But help was at hand and Daphne concluded by turning our attention to the theoretical bases of the session.  Just what had been the point of all this playing?  One explanation was that play acts as a restorative space for academics; it is a break on the excesses of the ‘fast university’ where there is little time for contemplation or reflection.  And what we were doing, she suggested, was a form of embodied learning where we literally grasped at ideas about learning as we manipulated physical objects.  So too we re-embodied metaphors, in this case about embedding.  How often, Daphne wondered, do we take a concept and use it in a way that is completely disembodied from its original meaning?  And finally this example of a ‘contemplative pedagogy’ takes a stance against the narrow instrumentalism of much of the taught curriculum.  Here we were not concerned with targets or learning outcomes but instead were free to pursue an activity that was open-ended and dialogic.

So am I a convert to arts-enriched reflection?  Yes and no. I’d happily go to more sessions like this, safe in the knowledge that someone else is creating a learning environment where I can experiment and think outside of the box, and hopefully learn in this embodied and contemplative fashion.  But you’ll not catch me bringing plasticine to any of my teaching sessions.  That’s a risky business and one best left to Daphne.

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