Nicole Brown facilitated an interactive workshop at the recent HEA Annual Conference, where participants used LEGO® and a river drawing activity to explore their own experiences within HE. This session attracted a lot of interest from the delegates, so we have invited her to tell us more about how she encourages students to use LEGO® and other visualisations to create physical metaphors as triggers for reflection.
Nicole is a Lecturer in Education at the UCL Institute of Education, where she teaches on the Master of Teaching course within the Secondary Teacher Education Programme (STEP). Students are recruited from all over the world to a fully funded scholarship programme in London where they study for a double master's degree in preparation for an employment as teachers in their home countries. As part of the STEP programme students attend teaching placements in UK secondary schools. Reflecting on these placements is critical to enhancing teaching practice; however students often struggle with reflection and limit it to describing specific incidents. Nicole wanted to encourage holistic reflection, and has worked with students to research the use of using metaphors and artefacts as triggers for deeper reflection.
Reflection is a key tool within teacher education for trainee teachers to self-assess their strengths and areas for improvement. However, the commonly used models of reflection rely heavily on individual incidents or experiences, which are analysed using words. I realised that students were applying the reflective models mechanically rather than trying to engage with their deepest thoughts and feelings. I wanted to gain a holistic insight into their experiences in placement schools and therefore needed to adjust my approach.
I asked students to picture a river from source to mouth and to consider its natural and man-made features, such as rapids, waterfalls, meanders, tributaries, bridges, stepping stones and the like. I then required students to map their learning experiences onto that river, creating their personal “River of Learning”. Students' identification of challenges and enablers in their learning suddenly became more meaningful and detailed. Buoyed by their positive engagement in this activity, I then asked the students to build their personal learning journey using standard LEGO® bricks, LEGO® people, and some special features like doors, windows and arches.
Although I felt that the drawing and model-making activities were working well, it was important to undertake a robust evaluation of their impact. As the aim of the research was to get a detailed holistic insight into the students' experiences; I realised that the best approach would be to engage students as active partners in the research - not just participants or objects. I worked with a focus group of five students who were the project investigators, responsible for data collection and analysis. My role was to guide them by setting the methodology and demonstrating how the analysis could be done.
We agreed that all students would express their experiences with the help of objects, artefacts and metaphors, recreating their experiences as physical, metaphorical representations. This approach is based on the notion that human life and language are closely connected with metaphors and as humans we cannot escape the metaphorical (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). Once students had expressed their experiences using metaphors the investigators collected the objects and held conversations with their peers about the artefacts' meanings. The investigators took an active role in the meaning-making process by interpreting and analysing the metaphors.
The diverse ways in which students represented different concepts was very revealing to the research team, for example ‘Time’ was represented as an elastic band, an umbrella, a watch and an alarm clock. This led to conversations about the ‘elasticity’ of time, which can appear to pass very slowly during the lesson planning process, when students tried to fill 50 minutes with activities for their pupils, but those same 50 minutes passed very quickly once they stood in the classroom to deliver their lesson.
The research demonstrated that the majority of students had a very positive experience in their placements, however it did prompt us to make some minor changes to the way in which we communicate with schools and to the activities we asked students to complete during their placements. The outcomes of the project also informed our curriculum review in which we restructured the entire placement organisation.
In recent years, the student voice within Higher Education has become louder and stronger. Partly, this is due to the changes in HE funding structures, which have resulted in students having become consumers of education and expecting specific returns for their tuition fee payments. Partly, the student voice has increased in importance in the context of the heightened interest in teaching, scholarship and research-based education within Higher Education. Engaging students in staff-student collaborations and connecting students with research at an early stage in their education means letting students take charge of and responsibility for their own learning. The students participating in this project developed their research literacy and actively practised research skills long before they were required to carry out their own, independent projects. At the same time, the outcome of such collaborative research projects can feed back into the development of courses and modules so that teaching, learning and the student experience are improved.
Lakoff G and Johnson M (2008) Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press.