Taking a step into the abyss: reading The Fool’s quest as learner’s journey

I recently read an article by a co-author of one of my first papers. Actually, she was more than a co-author; an inspiration and a mentor would be a more accurate description. The paper, just out at the time of writing is a sort of retrospective on the scholarship of Problem-based Learning (PBL) that brings the topic up to date with some new challenges for the 21st C. What caught my eye was the section in which Professor Savin-Baden (2020) portrays the facilitator of a PBL classroom as a clown, court jester or fool. Suggesting that in some senses The Fool is also a wiseman (Savin-Baden 2020, 7) who through humour (satire) provides a critical commentary upon the world.

This triggered my interest as I have recently been involved with a transmedia storytelling project that drew heavily on the symbology of the Tarot as a central element of the story. Of course, most people will be familiar with the Tarot and one of the key characters in the cards of the Major Arcana, that of The Fool. Usually read as a tale of an innocent embarking on a journey of self-discovery, the archetype seems more akin to the role of learner than teacher; though, for sure, the roles are interchangeable. Taking this as a starting point I took a dive into the writings of Inna Semetsky an edusemiotitian and Deleuzian scholar who has been on my reading list for some time. Semetsky has written widely about the Tarot and its value as an educational analogy and it seemed as though the time was right to tackle what is honestly speaking, extremely theoretically dense material.

What follows is an attempt to make sense of this material and to wrap my head around the jargon. It may make sense; it probably makes some grave terminological errors but if you are not willing to fail then you will never learn anything. Which is kind of the point made below.

Making Sense of Edusemiotics (a first attempt)

For Semetsky, The Fool is on a journey to ‘become something other, something more than it is now’ starting at the point of ‘what might be’ and becoming-other through an encounter(s) with ‘what is’ to arrive at ‘what would be’ (1999, 59). She explains that from nothing, or zero, a sort of pre-conscious, pre-firstness, The Fool wanders through series of encounters, entering into a world of choices within which dwell the ‘seeds of all future possibilities’ (Semetsky 1999, 60). A process of creative becoming unfolds as each encounter initiates a ‘transformation into other signs’ (Semetsky 1999, 60), each transformation a rebirth and a reconfiguring of possibilities. Or, to put it another way, each transformation produces a new subjectivity leading towards individuation, in which the subject comes into fruition (a continual and ongoing process).


This is not portrayed as a linear, cyclic process, as often imagined by those who hold up the Tarot as an example of a mythic journey. It is shown to be multi-dimensional with each encounter a point in space from which any other point can be reached. When the cards are laid out on a table, a multiplicity of relations is set before the fool who can pass through each point in any combination of possible relations. The fool proceeds rhizomatically, following the logic of abductive reasoning (or muddling through cf. Hanney 2016), each encounter with an archetype from the Major and Minor Arcana, a potential life lesson. Semetsky wants us to see each card in the Arcana as representative of the “propositional attitudes […] which […] encompass such common semantic categories as beliefs, fears, desires, and hopes” (Semetsky 2004, 6), each encounter a problem to be solved and a lesson to be learned. She describes this as model for experiential learning and, following Deleuze (1988), suggests that: experience is constituted through relations of subjectivity that emerge when we are impelled to ‘think’ by encounters that are meaningful in the affective domain of the psyche. New concepts, ideas and frameworks are formulated in order to make sense of encounters with things in the world, our experiences. If theory is a model of the world, then the process of becoming-other requires a continual reconstituting of that model as consequence of each encounter.

It is worth taking a moment to think through how the becoming model of learning is presented in this material as different from a being model of learning. Perhaps the easiest way to represent the position Semetsky takes is to think of being as employing the logic of the verb ‘to be’ (is); this gives primacy to ‘objects, things, states, events’ (Linehan and Kavanagh 2006, 54), and proposes a world of static, discrete and concrete entities. Whereas, according to Semetsky, abductive logic proceeds by use of the operator ‘and’ with its emphasis on dynamic ‘processes, [active] verbs, activity, the construction of entities, and the role of language, meaning, and interpretation’ (Linehan and Kavanagh 2006, 54). Each encounter adds to The Fool’s individuation through this process of becoming-other. Each new subjectivity adds to the previous subjectivity and within each transformation exists the earlier transformations (think Dr Who here) as the relations of subjectivity extend rhizomatically: “process is the basis for the production of subjectivity” (Semetsky 2004, 3).

For Semetsky, individuation as a process of subject formation comes about through the lessons learnt along a journey into the symbolic world (2004, 7). In this reading the subject is an assemblage of signs, that are in relationship with one another because of the encounter with other signs. Semetsky wants us to think of the subject as a constantly transforming assemblage (subject), which is always becoming-other (than itself). A kind of cartography in which the subject maps, or overlays a model of the world, onto a plane of immanence, folding into themselves each new subjectivity. As each new identity is brought into consciousness the subject internalises that which exists outside. Deleuze summarises; “I do not encounter myself on the outside, I find the other in me” (Deleuze 1988, 98).

Phew… that is hard work!

In the classic Rider Waite image of The Fool, the character is at the edge of a precipice, the abyss. That is where I feel I am now, at the edge of an abyss, staring down the rabbit hole. What I will find is going to be messy, uncertain, it is going to involve risk and failure. But it feels as though it is worth the ride.


  1. For a detailed account of the steps the fool takes on their journey and the archetypal characteristics of each of the sign systems embodied by the cards of the Major Acarna see Semetsky (2004, 8-10).
  2. The featured image is adapted from Semetsky who adapted it from Barrow (2000).
  3. Inline image of the 22 x Major Arcana tarot cards illustrated by https://hivebyaka.com/.


Barrow, John D. (2000). The Book of Nothing. New York: Vintage Books.

Deleuze, G. (1988), Foucault, trans. Sean Hand, Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press.

Savin-baden, M. (2020). What Are Problem-Based Pedagogies?, Journal of Problem Based Learning [Epub ahead of print], pp 1–8. https://doi.org/10.24313/jpbl.2020.00199

Hanney, R. (2016), ‘Taking a stance: resistance, faking and Muddling Through’, Journal of Media Practice 17: 1, pp.4-20.

Linehan, Carol, and Donncha Kavanagh. 2006. “From project ontologies to communities of virtue.” In Making projects critical, edited by Damian E. Hodgson and Svetlana Cicmil, 51-67. Basingstoke: Pallgrave Macmillan.

Semetsky, I. (1999). The Adventures of a Postmodern Fool, or the Semiotics of Learning, 477–495. https://doi.org/10.5840/cpsem19997

Semetsky, I., & Ph, D. (2004). The Phenomenology of Tarot , or : The Further Adventures of a Postmodern Fool Deleuze and Guattari ’ s transcendental empiricism and a-signifying semiotics. Self, 1–14.

Models of management or models of practice – do we need to think again about project-based learning in higher education

I am interested to find out more about how other people use projects on their courses. I also want to find out if people are doing ‘projects’, or if you are doing ‘project-based learning’?

It’s a subject that has fascinated me for some time, actually quite a long time, and has recently led a PhD so I have gone into it a lot. Mostly though, my research was confined to libraries and observations of my own students. Sort of real-world learning, but sadly I never managed to get the opportunity to ask other people what they are doing and so I would like to take that opportunity now.

(Video Clip: Livestream on real world learning featuring among others my own point of view.)

My interest first came about after I transited from the world of professional filmmaking into higher education and I found everyone doing projects. It seemed like an odd word to use in a film school where surely the students would all be doing production work. In fact, the two words appeared to be interchangeable in that context. I also noticed that students were generally pretty poor at doing projects which more often than not ended in disaster (It was a long time ago and I am exaggerating a little here).

Importantly though, what I observed was; that nobody was teaching students how to do projects. Yes, they were being taught the craft skills, they were being supported through the technical and creative processes that go into making a film. But there were no lessons in how to do a project. That started me on a road of discovery that is almost 20 years in its making and is still ongoing.

The big question being: what is a project?

What follows is an outline of the theoretical model I have proposed in my recently submitted PhD which is further elaborated on in a forthcoming book chapter on real world learning. Using case studies drawn from examples of project-based learning on a media practice course at UK HEI aims to illustrate how such a reconceptualization of projects might aid educators in making projects real in an HE context.

The Conceptual Framework

A reconceptualization of projects away from projects as a model of management towards projects as a model of practice offers an opportunity to see project-based learning as a social practice. Given the desirability of the use of live projects as a means of drawing real world learning into the curriculum, this approach offers a new perspective that begins to address a number of problems with project working within a higher education context. For example, a community of practice requires novices learn more than just technical competences and entry level practical skills. They are socialised into a community of practice through the experience of socially situated signifying practices. Thereby exposing them not only to what can be seen to be done but also to what that which is hidden. Such as tacit understanding, transmission of meaning, contextualisation of tools and techniques, all of which renders the experience meaningful. A shift from executability to learnability of projects, foregrounds the ontological characteristics of a becoming mode of project working. One that offers opportunities for exploring the ways in which educators can transition communities of learners into communities of practice and thereby lead to a process of socialisation into real world working.

The challenge for media practice educators

Students involved in projects within HE are not part of a community of practice, closeted as they are, away from the workplace in the cloistered world of a community of learners practicing, so who do they learn from? How do we as educators build into the learning process the kind of experience that enables students, as novice practitioners, to develop the kind of tacit sensibilities found among expert practitioners?

The solution is? (that’s a question by the way)

Rethinking project-based learning as a pedagogy for practice-based learning rather than as an administrative framework for organising busy work. Opens up the possibility for rethinking how project work within an HE context might be reformulated in such a way as to place the social practice of projects before the management of projects. That emphasises learnability over executability and becoming over being.

In conclusion

The short answer to the question ‘what is a project’ is that there are people who see projects as a model of management, an administrative structure that contains activity and directs this towards some kind of an output, most likely a product, artefact or service. Then there are those who see projects as a model for practice, who see a project as a socially constructed space in which actors engage in a primarily social encounter with problems.

Actually, I think the two models are not mutually incompatible and can coexist. The advent of flexible, adaptive, risk driven project management methodologies such as AGILE offer up a space where the both social and learning are a key pillar of its approach. That said, I am still unsure if I really understand the nature of projects and I have real doubts about what project-based learning really is. So, I throw out this provocation to anyone who may be interested:

  • Do you do projects?
  • Or Do you do project-based learning?
  • Are projects models of management or models of practice?
  • Are you using AGILE in some way as a pedagogic tool?

I would love to know.

Further Reading

Bredillet, C. (2010). Blowing Hot and Cold on Project Management. Project Management Journal, 41(3), 4-20.

Gauthier, J.-B., & Ika, L. A. (2012). Foundations of Project Management Research: An Explicit and Six-Facet Ontological Framework. Project Management Journal, 43(5), 5-23.

Hodgson, D. E., & Cicmil, S. (2006). Are Projects real? The PMBOK and the legitimisation of project management knowledge. In D. E. Hodgson & S. Cicmil (Eds.), Making project critical (pp. 29-50). Basingstoke: Pallgrave Macmillan.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, B. (2013). What is a project? Towards a new ontology for projects and project management. Paper presented at the Critical Management Studies Conference, University of Bristol.

Rethinking project-based learning in a changing higher education landscape: design thinking as a paradigm for media making – Part I

I am going to take the opportunity to elaborate on an abstract I have just had accepted for a workshop at the annual Active Learning Network symposium on 11th June at Sussex University. The aim of the workshop is to engage in a rapid prototyping experiment and to evaluate the use of Design Thinking as a paradigm for exploring the ideation phase of the project-based learning lifecycle. My intention here is to explore the concepts I am to deploy and to start to think about how and what kind of data I might capture as part of the workshop process.

Design Thinking is an approach to the development of skills in creativity and innovation that is well established in the fields of design and architecture. It has similarities with other pedagogic approaches such as problem-based learning (PbBL) in that some of the core features of Design Thinking include the posing of ‘ill-defined’ or ‘wicked’ problems, solution-focused strategies, abductive reasoning, and practical prototyping of solutions. In the primary and secondary educational sectors (especially in the USA) Design Thinking has been used to promote creativity, team working and autonomous learning.

The deployment of projects as a means of structuring learning in media practice education is a long-established practice and aims to achieve similar goals, even though it is often overly focused on assessable outputs rather than the learning experience. Such that projects become mere administrative containers for structuring activity and their use lacks a firm pedagogic foundation. As an approach which places creativity, innovation and critical thinking at its heart, Design Thinking offers a potential way into thinking through the experience of project working for media practice students that enhances learning and places process at the heart of its pedagogic discourse.

Design Thinking is a methodology for exploring the ways in which cognitive, strategic and practical processes are deployed in support of concept development by individuals and teams. The notion of Design Thinking is well established in fields where experts conceive of themselves as designers (e.g. architecture, product design, graphic design, etc…) and has also been widely employed within business contexts as a means of innovating in products and services. There are a number of core features to the Design Thinking approach which can largely be codified as (cf. Cross 2011, Cross 1990):

  • resolve ill-defined or ‘wicked’ problems
  • adopt solution-focused strategies
  • use abductive/productive reasoning
  • employ non-verbal, graphic/spatial modelling media

Problem framing, solution-focused strategies and abductive reasoning

A key element is the analysis or problem framing element of the ideation process. In my experience, this is an aspect of unpacking a brief that needs a great deal of attention. Initial responses are often limited to the familiar whereas deeper analysis, evaluation and synthesis results in the potential for more innovative, creative solutions. Problem framing involves re-interpretation, restructuring and re-thinking the context for the problem in order to arrive at a conclusion. This is an inquiry oriented approach similar to that employed in Problem-based Learning (cf. Hanney 2013) and might address some of the issues raised in previous work on problem solving among student teams. This research concluded that students can find themselves constrained by a cognitive bias referred to by psychologists as ‘functional fixedness’ (cf. Hanney 2018). This bias is observed when people are challenged with a problem to solve. 

What is commonly observed is the generation of solutions based on the traditional uses of objects, reference to the familiar, selection of predictable outcomes which operate within preconceived constraints. The hope is that through the teaching of an overtly analytical approach to problem framing, as an element of a Design Thinking approach. It might be possible to overcome this cognitive bias resulting in enhanced possibilities for creative problem solving and innovation.

Design Thinking adopts a particular strategy for getting at problem solutions stands in contrast to what might be thought of as an analytical or scientific method. The main difference being that solution-focused strategies are not so much concerned with the underlying principles but with rapid generation of acceptable solutions. The contrast presented in the research (cf. Lawson 1979) is between that of a problem-focused and solution focused strategies. A problem-focused strategy is characterised by an approach that focuses on analysis at a level of granularity that would enable the discovery of underlying principles, concepts and structure of the problem. Whereas, a solution-focused strategy is concerned with the rapid generation of a succession of problem solutions which are then benchmarked against a set of criteria for success. It might be expected that a solution-focused strategy would tend to include more structural errors which might impact in unpredictable ways. However, the agility of the solution-focused approach results in fewer planning errors. While its iterative methodology means it can quickly deal with any structural errors as they arise.

In this way Design Thinking employs abductive reasoning (cf. March 1984, Kolko 2010) to infer the most likely, most suitable or most acceptable form of problem solution. It doesn’t aim towards scientific or empirical verifiability. Instead it adopts a criterion referenced form evaluation that equates to the simple of principle of ‘is it good enough’. Which in itself is a form of agile quality evaluation. It takes the position that if it works it is good enough and there is no need to be able to identify the structural principles that underpin the solution. In the creative field, there is a sense that if it works it works and there is no need to go further (we should perhaps leave that to the theorists and academicians). After all we are unlikely to be building a bridge so structural integrity or safety is not an issue. The evaluation of quality in creative work is essentially subjective even though there may be clear and evident benchmarks against which to evaluate success. For example, a prize-winning film might offer a standard against which to work. A must-see drama on a streaming service could offer insight into what works for audiences.

In this way, the use of abductive reasoning allows the creative process to move quickly towards a ‘most likely’ or ‘best possible’ solution. In a technical sense abduction sets up a hypothesis to account for some concepts and/or structural elements. Whereas the problem-focused approach seeks facts to prove the hypotheses and is therefore an inductive form of reasoning. In more simple terms, abductive reasoning is all about guessing (Peirce 1901) and poses a hypothesis for the purpose of testing. The point made strongly by Peirce (1910) being that our guesses more often than not, more successful than luck at deriving truth.

The process is essentially iterative in that as solutions are proposed these may shed further light on the problem. New ideas may lead to deeper understanding which may then generate more and better solutions. So, the Design Thinking process sits well in an Agile Project Management context and is well suited to experimental, creative and complex projects. As opposed to a Waterfall Project Management methodology that will necessarily require analysis of problem structure in order to predict and plan for a single solution that the project can work towards. A solution that may not, by the end of the project, meet the requirements for the solution of the project. After all, until you start to generate solutions how will you know what you need to do?


As part of this process the use of representations, rapid prototyping and the modelling of solutions is of great importance. The approach requires the presentation of ‘tentative concepts’ (cf. Cross 1982, Cross 1999, Suwa et al 2000) at an early stage so that they can be tested and their features or properties explored. This might be a well developed subject in product design for example. But how might you prototype something like a fiction film or documentary?

In one sense a script is already a form of prototype (originated by the early film studios as a means of managing the ambitions of directors). So is a pitching document that takes the common form of: a log line synopsis and outline. The problem here is that these are generally text based and are already formal documents. While they are also commonly edited as part of the development process there isn’t a sense that they offer a possibility for rapid prototyping at an extremely early stage of the process. Other forms of prototyping might include, animatics, storyboards, verbal pitches, sizzle reels and so on. But these also suffer from the same problem in that they are not quick to produce and often involve a complex production process themselves. So for the purposes set out below, I believe I will keep it simple and suggest the best and most simple way of prototyping a film is a poster.

So what happens next?

The aim is to run a workshop at the Active Learning Network symposium which will model the Design Thinking approach through the undertaking of a rapid-participatory-action-research activity. The aim of the activity is to not only model the Design Thinking approach for the purposes of knowledge transfer, but to evaluate the possible challenges faced in translocating this approach to a different field of practice. In this case that of media practice education as expressed through the framework of project-based learning (PjBL).

The workshop will set a ‘wicked problem’ for the workshop participants in the form of a typical creative brief delivered to media practice students, in this case one recently used to trigger a L5 unit at Solent University. The workshop will step through the five phases of the Design Thinking process in order to illustrate the core principles of the approach while adapting it, through practice, to a new field of creative activity. Further creative constraints for the activity will confine the problem-solving approach to tools and techniques commonly found within the field of media practice. At the conclusion of the practical activity there will be a rapid appraisal of the experience which will be captured for later analysis.

It is hoped that the outcomes of the workshop will not only provide an introduction to the Design Thinking approach but will also shine a light on any challenges that may be faced for educators wishing to transpose the approach to their own subject disciplines. The data from the workshop will be collated, analysed and evaluated leading to a rapid review (blog post) and later, the writing of a full journal article is intended.


Free: A Crash Course in Design Thinking from Stanford’s Design School

Part II will follow shortly after July 11th 2019…


Cross, N. (1982), Designerly Ways of Knowing, Design Studies 3.4, pp. 221–27.

Cross, N. (1990), The Nature and Nurture of Design Ability, Design Studies, 11, pp. 127–140.Cross, N. (1999), Natural Intelligence in Design, Design Studies, 20, 25-39.

Cross, N. (2011), Design thinking: understanding how designers think and work. Berg. 

Hanney, R. (2013), Towards a situated media practice: Reflections on the implementation of project-led problem-based learning, Journal of Media Practice, 14: 1, pp.43-59.

Hanney, R. (2018), Problem topology: using cartography to explore problem solving in student-led group projects, International Journal of Research and Method in Education, 41:4, pp. 411-432.

Kolko, J. (2010), Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: Drivers of Design Synthesis, Design Issues, 26, pp. 15–28.

Lawson, B. (1979), Cognitive Strategies in Architectural Design, Ergonomics, 22, pp. 59–68.

March, L.J. (1984), The Logic of Design in the Architecture of Form, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Peirce, C. S. (1901), On the Logic of drawing History from Ancient Documents especially from Testimonies, Collected Papers v. 7, paragraph 219.

Suwa, M., Gero, J. and Purcell, T. (2000), Unexpected discoveries and S-invention of design requirements: Important vehicles for a design process, Design Studies, 21, pp. 539-567.

From elf shelf to abstract in several convoluted stages

The aim of this post is to document the process of drafting an abstract for a conference paper. I felt it would be useful personally, as well as to others to explore this topic especially as I have just been through this process and thought that capturing the thought process while it was still fresh might be useful. Before we start though I do apologise for the length of the post, nobody should have to read a 3000-word blog post but, in my defence, there is a lot to cover.

So, let’s start at the beginning: an abstract is a concisely worded summary of an article, paper or presentation. You might think of it as a sort of précis or synopsis what follows and it is found at the beginning of a manuscript. It is an easy point of entry into the subject being discussed and should cover the scope purpose and results that will be found in the following text. The abstract might set out a thesis, outline the main questions and offer some context of the paper. It often includes key words or terminology form the main paper but should not be an excerpt but rather, it should stand alone as an original piece of writing.

An abstract allows the reader to quickly evaluate whether or not to read a paper. It can be really time saving when looking through lots of material. You may have seen abstracts when search library databases and in this instance, it gives you the opportunity to decide if this is an article you want to include in your literature review (indexing). It also serves as a means for selecting for example, whether or not to include a paper in a conference (election). So, my purpose in writing an abstract is to convince the organisers of the conference I would like to attend that: the paper addresses the conference themes, is an original piece of work, is scholarly and academic and would be of interest to those attending the conference. I also find that the process of writing and abstract, presenting a paper at conference and then developing a paper for publication is a very productive and effective writing process. So, there is a personal engagement with the idea of drafting abstracts which also, for me signals the start of a longer-term research process.

The abstract I am writing about was intended for the 10th Annual Small Cinemas Conference which, at the time of writing, is planned for September 2019. The tile of the conference is Small Cinemas, Small Spaces and the ‘call for papers’ (CfP) asked for respondents to consider a range of thematic issues (see below for these).

Topics for discussion may include, but are not limited to:
– the geographies of film: how space and time are articulated in small cinemas
– representations of space in peripheral or marginal cinemas
– spaces and scales of film production, e.g. costume and set design in small cinemas
– film locations in small nation cinemas
– exhibition venues and viewing practices in small nations
– audiences’ experiences of minor cinemas
– small spaces for film exhibition
– the emergence of film societies as alternatives to the ‘large’ mainstream
– smartphones, tablets or other devices as cinematic spaces
– cinema and scale in Youtube and other digital platforms
– making films for small spaces

When I saw the CfP, which came to me via an email list I subscribe to, I was struck be the correspondence between the proposed themes and an idea I for a paper that I had been keeping on the ‘elf shelf’ for some time.

NOTE: An ‘elf shelf’ is actually a term for a wooden shelf in an enclosed front porch and is a term I have been using for some time for a place where you can just store ideas until they are ready for use. Not all ideas are fully formed when you have them or are timely, ready for use or have a destination. So, it’s good to have somewhere to store them even if only metaphorically. Sadly, I am unable to provide an etymological reference for this term suffice to say that I first heard it used by a performance poet Rachel Pantechnicon, when introducing the poem ‘Elf Shelf’ at Write Angle poetry night in 2008 (see video).

The idea at the start was very general and related to a 48 Hour Film Challenge which, at that time, I had been running for around fourteen years. In the last few years I had started to collect data in the form of surveys and interviews with the aim of, at some point, writing a paper that evidenced the impact of informal filmmaking challenges on the development and formation of a communities of filmmakers. The notion of a 48-hour film challenge connected in some way or another with all of these themes, at least to me it did. So, I wrote to the organisers outlining my idea and asking for feedback. This is what I got:

It sounds like a fascinating topic, which is indeed connected to the themes of the conference. I can see how what you’re researching can be described as a small cinema – I just wonder if it is somehow connected to issues of space too? If you can make that link, then I wouldn’t worry too much about the ‘nation issue – as you say, it takes place in the UK, but it is mostly a local, alternative, practice. Hope this helps”.

And there lay the challenge – how to connect what I hoped to do with the notion of space!

I started to think about how I could address the notion of space in the drafting of an abstract and this is the process I want to try and now ‘trace’. In order to proceed I needed to develop a theoretical framework, a lens through which the issues could be addressed. I already had a sense of the problem, the questions and the purpose but how to find a way into this topic that addressed this issue of space.

The first stage for me is always a literature review, a discovery or ideation phase (following the principles of design thinking). Discovery needs to be fuelled by inquiry and in this case, I spent some time playing around with key words. Getting the right keywords is always a challenge especially when you are exploring a topic of which you know very little. What are the terms used by experts in the field, what forms of expression do they use, how are issues phrased? Cracking this code is a challenge but in my experience once you get the search string right the doorway opens into another world of knowledge and information. It’s a bit like falling down the rabbit hole, it can be overwhelming when you first crack the code and there is always the possibility of generating to much material, of distraction and horror of horrors procrastination (yes, the excitement of engaging in a lit review can also lead to procrastination as you explore tangential lines of flight and fall deeper into the rabbit hole). Unfortunately, I didn’t record the process of playing with search strings which is a shame, but what do is outline a few of the epiphanies that arose from the process.

The initial sticking point was that while the literature on small cinemas is quite extensive the categorisations in this field tend towards the geographical, political and economic. There is a concern here for the cinema of small nations and discourses of power that work through these categories. In one sense this was quite useful as it enabled me to conceptualise DVMISSION as a mirror in microcosm of the mainstream elite forms of cinema to which small cinema is contrasted. For example, cinema in this sense includes everything that occurs from initial idea through production, to sales, distribution and into exhibition. DVMISSION does all of these things by: setting a challenge for filmmakers to make a 2-minute film in 48-hours (from script to production); and then screen the film the following weekend at an awards ceremony (sales); after which the films are uploaded to the internet for a final online version of the competition (distribution and exhibition). This insight gave me an opportunity to position my study in relation to the body of work that would inform most of the conference papers at the Small Cinemas, Small Spaces symposium.

Epiphany number one: DVMISSION is a mirror of elite, commercial mainstream cinema in microcosm

However, this insight really didn’t address the issue of space in the way that I needed it to. Remember the purpose of the study was to argue for a recognition of the value I perceive these kinds of informal filmmaking challenges bring to local communities of filmmakers. Two papers I found unlocked this for me, the first on project networks and film careers, the second taking a sociological position on space that argued: space is inhabited by objects, place is inhabited by human beings. By which I mean, space is an abstract world inhabited by things that have physical relationships with each other. Whereas place is inhabited by symbolic objects that are situated in a semiotic system of signs. It is a node where the cultural, historical and sociological comes together in an encounter that is experienced or lived by human beings. Place is not located in relation to fixed concrete objective spaces it is something that is lived, dynamic, shifting and moveable. It is wherever people put it. This resonates with the idea of project networks which are rhizomatic and linked by nodes of intersecting experiences that occur not in space but in place. This insight allowed me to think of DVMISSION as a place not a space and enabled me to link the aims of the study with the theoretical framework for the conference.

Epiphany number two: DVMISSION is a node in a project network.

Epiphany number three: DVMISSION is a place not a space.

Obviously this all a little simplified for the purpose of writing this blog post (read the paper for all the excruciatingly brilliant details) but it serves the purpose; I had all the parts and could start to look at assembling the abstract. Now I have written abstracts before, and they have mostly been accepted but wanted to explore the topic a little further and wanted to know how to write the perfect abstract. A brief trawl of the topic online suggested that there is common agreement about what makes a good abstract. There are slightly different approaches recommended for particular subject disciplines. Nonetheless, it would be possible to broadly describe the structure of an abstract as thus:

Reason for writing: What is the importance of the research? Why would a reader be interested in the larger work?
Problem: What problem does this work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument/thesis/claim?
Methodology: An abstract of a scientific work may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.
Results: Again, an abstract of a scientific work may include specific data that indicates the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.
Implications: What changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?

Personally, I find that breaking writing down into chunks using headings is a really good way to ensure a solid foundation for the structure and focus of the writing. So, I proceeded to develop my content under the headings as below:

Reason for writing: What is the importance of the research? Why would a reader be interested in the larger work?

Breaks with the notion of small cinema as temporally located space and reconceptualises it as an embodied place. A shadow site, mirroring elite forms of cinema production and exhibition in microcosm, that acts as a locus for communities of practice that that intersect primarily through project networks.

Problem: What problem does this work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument/thesis/claim?

The study aims to question the ways in which participatory filmmaking challenges impact on the development and sustainability of dispersed and rarefied communities of practice. It takes as a case study DVMISSION, a 48 Hour Film Challenge that has been running on the south coast of the UK for 14 years.

Methodology: An abstract of a scientific work may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.

The research draws on rich mixture of auto-ethnographic reflection, observation and qualitative data undertaken via video recordings, online surveys and semi-structured interviews. The data emerges from work undertaken on a 48-hour film challenge that has run for fourteen years in Portsmouth on the south coast of the UK.

Results: Again, an abstract of a scientific work may include specific data that indicates the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.

The paper aims to evidence the contribution that supposedly ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ activities such as a 48-hour film challenge can make to the evolution of a thriving and sustainable creative economy. It aims to demonstrate the value of participation in events of this kind for early career filmmakers through their own personal narratives. It attests to the ways in which a culture of gifting, collaboration, creative leadership, and a philosophy of creativity through constraints fosters the development of effective project networks.

Implications: What changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?

Through the research it is hoped to be able to argue for increased support among local business, organisation and local governments for the support of initiatives such as a 48-hour film challenges by evidencing the impact on the development of communities of practice.

Once I had been through the text a few times, editing, refining, reworking I removed the headings and started to work on the flow of the sentence and paragraph structure arriving at:

The paper argues for a break with the notion of small cinema as temporally located space and reconceptualises it as an embodied place. A shadow site, mirroring elite forms of cinema in microcosm, a locus for communities of practice that intersect primarily through project networks. Taking as a case study DVMISSION, a 48 Hour Film Challenge that has been running for fourteen years on the south coast of England. The paper questions the ways in which participatory filmmaking challenges impact on the development and sustainability of communities of practice. The research draws on a rich mixture of auto-ethnographic reflection, observation and qualitative data gathered over a four-year period via video recordings, surveys and semi-structured interviews. The paper aims to evidence the contribution that participation in a ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ activity such as a 48-hour film challenge can make to the evolution of a thriving and sustainable creative economy. It aims to demonstrate the value of participation in events of this kind for early career filmmakers through an engagement with their own personal narratives. It attests to the ways in which a culture of gifting, collaboration, leadership, and a philosophy of creativity through constraints fosters the development of effective project networks. By evidencing the impact on the development of communities of an argument can be made for increased support among business, organisations and local government for initiatives such as the 48-hour film challenge.

As I am part of a writers group I was quickly able to get some feedback along the lines of “be more positive, for example say: ‘the paper evidences’ rather than ‘the paper aims to evidence the contribution’”. There were some typos and other edits made to sentence structure but the abstract was at this stage pretty much finished. I also played with the title to try and capture the ideas within the paper but also as a means of hooking the readers interested and thus the final abstract and title was:

From space to place: the 48-hour film challenge as a locus for project networks


The paper argues for a break with the notion of small cinema as temporally located space and reconceptualises it as an embodied place. A shadow site, mirroring elite forms of cinema in microcosm, as a locus for communities of practice that intersects primarily through project networks. Taking as a case study DVMISSION, a 48 Hour Film Challenge that has been running for fourteen years on the south coast of England, the paper questions the ways in which participatory filmmaking challenges impact on the development and sustainability of communities of practice. The research draws on a rich mixture of auto-ethnographic reflection, observation and qualitative data gathered over a four-year period via video recordings, surveys and semi-structured interviews. The paper evidences the contribution that participation in a ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ activity such as a 48-hour film challenge can make to the evolution of a thriving and sustainable creative economy. It aims to demonstrate the value of participation in events of this kind for early career filmmakers through an engagement with their own personal narratives. It attests to the ways in which a culture of gifting, collaboration, leadership, and a philosophy of creativity through constraints fosters the development of effective project networks. By evidencing the impact on the development of communities of an argument can be made for increased support among business, organisations and local government for initiatives such as the 48-hour film challenge.

(word count 231)

This was then promptly sent off to the conference organisers and hopefully, fingers crossed they will accept it. As I say above, I find the process of abstract, to conference paper, to draft journal article really works for me. It’s not for everyone but it is a structure that I find productive. Now of course I need to revisit the research data and start to do some analysis and prepare for the presentation. Then I will revisit the literature and begin to draft the paper. Probably in about 6 – 8 months’, if it all goes to plan I would imagine submitting to a journal in the early part of 2020. This is a typical time line for a study like this that has to fit in around other commitments. So around 18 months from first idea to final paper submitted to a journal and then another 6-12 months to get it published. So, the full cycle can be around 2-3 years for just one paper.

I hope this has been useful.

Featured image borrowed from: Mitcommlab

Dwelling Story Development Workshop: rapid story development for student-led creative practice

This last week I was given the opportunity to lead a workshop at the Active Learning Network Conference at University of Sussex. The entire day was a great experience and I got meet a lot of new people and to explore lots of really interesting ideas about Active Learning. The workshop was great fun even though I managed to set up in the wrong room and had to prepare everything really quickly. Luckily the participants were really helpful and together we got everything ready in just a few minutes.

The workshop set out to model a silent collaborative activity that has an aim of placing inclusivity and quite reflection at the heart of a story development through Dwelling. The idea is that participants respond silently to a visual trigger and inscribe their contribution to the story idea via posters which are continually added to in an iterative process of questioning and response. The final posters are then taken away, either individually or in groups and used as the basis for further fiction/factual, script/story development. The approach can be as a rapid development activity that is of benefit where time for ideas development is restricted. It can also be adapted easily to other settings, contexts and subject disciplines. The workshop simulated the use of this technique on a media practice fiction production course where there is a need for rapid development of an outline story idea that can go into preproduction.

The idea for the workshop came about through a number of different influences. The first was the discovery of an alternative to brainstorming called brain writing. This technique has been around for a while and there are lots of different versions of it. However, the form I came across in an article online was a little different from the way it is usually done and also, I adapted it a little to fit the story development process. The basic premise is that the ideation part of the process is to be undertaken in silence and involves participants writing ideas on post-it notes. The aim is for everyone involved to come up with as many ideas as possible in a restricted time. One of the benefits of this approach is that there is no judging of ideas, there is no nervousness, there is no dominating and people are free to just have ideas.

A second influence was an experience I had at the Rethinking Research Conference at Coventry University earlier in the year. By the way, the conference keynote was delivered as a cabaret which was truly inspiring and made me want to learn to sing. Anyway, one of the workshops I attended was run by three Practitioner-Researchers from The University of Central Lancashire’s, Dance Performance and Teaching team: Sara Giddens, Ruth Margaret Spencer and Justyna Katarzyna Urbanczyk The session was entitled quite simply ‘Dwelling‘. During the workshop large, blank sheets of paper covered each of the tables around which we were sat. At the centre of each table was a one word theme and participants were asked to respond in writing to the theme in a state of silence. It was an interesting experience and not only did we inscribe our thoughts but we added to other people’s comments in this way developing a conversation with others in the room, though we might not know who they were.

Though the emphasis of the workshop was on how slowing-down and finding-still-ness might inform alternative approaches to research. The experience seemed to be just as applicable to the classroom setting. The aim of bringing mindfulness to the classroom seemed to be more than appropriate and certainly resonated with the experience of using brain writing in ideation sessions with students. Mindfulness offers an opportunity to regulate attention by focusing on the present moment and this is something I felt very strongly during the workshop, that engagement and focus without interruption. There is also a sense of openness about the process of focusing on the moment which seems to instil a sense of curiosity. There is even research that suggests mindfulness can lead to changes in the way students apprehend information, process it and even how they manage learning (Lynch 2013).

The workshop leaders informed us that they in turn were inspired by Heidegger’s idea of “attentive dwelling” (1978:150). In fact, Heidegger has spoken on Dwelling a number of times and he seems to suggest that building (or perhaps we can change this to creating) and dwelling a synonymous (Heidegger & Hofstadter 1971, 10). My reading of his ideas (a novice reading at best I acknowledge), to me posits the notion that dwelling clears a space for building (creating), one that opens up for the potentiality of ideas to reveal themselves. A space in which an idea is able to gather to itself, in its own way, those things around it. Heidegger uses a metaphor of a bridge to explain how this process occurs pointing out that the bridge gathers two sides together and locates itself as a site for the confluence, of what might be thought of as the unconscious spirit of ideas that lies below the surface of realisation. There is then, a sense that for Heidegger dwelling is about return to a sense of peace in which the true nature of things is known (Heidegger & Hofstadter 1971, 3). That Dwelling as a form of thinking that returns us to where we always have been, without the noise, without the distraction, to recognise we are already there through careful attention to the moment.

I and my colleagues (I attended the conference with two research assistants) were very taken by this approach and we adapted it to a focus group methodology for a project we were at the time, just about to initiate. With the intention of evaluating the introduction of course blogs at our institution, the focus group session started with participants (in this case students) writing ideas down on post-it notes in response to a prompt. These were then placed on large sheets of paper on which each key theme had been inscribed at the centre. They were then encouraged to add other comments to the posters in an iterative, but silent process. This worked very well and after each Dwelling session we were able to facilitate a lively and productive discussion around the poster comments.

Alongside the development of the focus group methjod, I also adapted the approach to tackle a problem with a drama production module I was about to run for a group of second year production students. The issue here is that without teaching screenwriting (which would take a good 6 to 8 weeks) I needed the students to generate a story idea within the first three weeks of the semester so that we could get the pre-production planning started as early as possible. I also hopped to tackle another associated issue I which is that left to their own devices students, as novice screenwriters will tend to default to the lowest common denominator and you get stories that are immature, predicable, reflect a narrow world view and mostly involve a gun. A final problem I wished to tackle revolved around the attachment students have to their first idea. They seem to think that their first idea is the only idea and own it with such deep emotional attachment that it is difficult to shift them from it.

So, the aim of the story workshop would hopefully fast track the development of an idea, root that idea in a real-world experience and divest students of their attachment to their own first idea.

It seemed to work, the students were extremely engaged, and really excited about the posters (they were virtually ripped off the wall by their respective owners). Plus, the trick I played on them (see below for more on this) seemed to work in that their ideas changed and they continued to change as they received further feedback during the later stages of the story development process. Perhaps the real evidence of the approaches success though, concerns a group of students who arrived back from the winter break some three or four weeks into the semester. Having missed the workshop, they were offered the opportunity to develop a script on any topic they chose (this was the control group that added an empirical dimension to the research). Needless to say, while all the other scripts were dramas with a real depth to them, this one group made a somewhat cliched film about gangsters that featured a gun.

For anyone who wishes to adopt the methodology for this approach to story development I will close with a short recipe for its use. Feel free to adapt it any way you chose and I look forward to hearing of other people’s experience of using dwelling in other ways.

Workshop Methodology

Context: the need for rapid story development for drama production, to address the difficulty for novice screenwriters to write anything complex and mature i.e. without a, to break them of their addiction to their first idea.

Preamble: in advance invite participants to bring with them to the workshop an image or artefact from their past which for them evokes a story that they can tell. It is of value if they believe that they will be expected to tell this story in class and if possible it should be written down in advance (one page – title, logline, synopsis) and handed in to the workshop facilitator. Even though the participants won’t get to tell the story they have prepared it is important they have one in mind so that at the end of the workshop they can compare their first idea with their new ideas.

Instructions: place large A0 sheets of paper around the room with at least one per workshop participant. Invite the participants to stick their photo or artefact to the centre of a poster. Explain that in silence (you may need to police this) everyone will now go around the room and look at each poster in turn. Explain that they should write whatever comes to mind (what does the image or artefact make them think of). Let them know that as the workshop evolves you will be giving verbal prompts to add other comments to the posters. They should understand that they can write anything, they can add to other comments, change them, engage in dialogue with others through their comments. However, they are not allowed to write on their own poster.

Process: as the workshop evolves give prompts to initiate further writing (I use prompts designed to develop a three-act structure i.e. people, place, time; inciting incident; problem encounters; resolution or ending). You should probably allow anything between 45 minutes to an hour but be sure to give time for each participant to write something on each poster after your prompts. At the conclusion of the workshop invite the participants to take sometime to view their own posters. Ask them “has your idea changed”?


Giddens, S., Spencer, R.M., Urbanczyk, J.K., (2018). ‘Dwelling’, paper presented to Rethinking Research: Disrupting Challenges Research Practices, Coventry University, January 19th 2018. Available at: https://goo.gl/twYVCg [Accessed 9 June 2018].

Heidegger, M., 1978 (first published in 1956). The Origin of the Work of Art. In: D. Farrell Krell, ed. Basic Writings. London: Routledge.

Heidegger, M., & Hofstadter, A. (1971). Building Dwelling Thinking. Poetry, Language, Thought, (1), 42.

Lynch, S, 2013. Mindfulness in Higher Education: It’s a Win-Win Situation. Enhancement Themes, [Online]. Available at: https://goo.gl/4EyxtV [Accessed 9 June 2018].

Tucker, C., (2017). Borrowing a Powerful Brainstorm Protocol from IDEO. In: Catlin Tucker, 1st September 2017. Available at: https://goo.gl/R47B3p [Accessed 9 June 2018].


Using PADLET in class to promote inquiry and discussion around assessment briefs

One of the things that you quickly become aware of teaching in the online age is that easy access to information doesn’t always mean that people will access it. We live in the age of the attention wars and if you want people to look at something then the best way to get them to look is to shout louder than anybody else.

This very true of getting students to read assessment briefs. I have actually come to believe that for the most part this document is rarely read by students yet it is a key part of the assessment puzzle. There is a solution though and it’s a simple one – get the students to read the assessment briefs in class. It seemed like a good idea and it turns out it is also a very absorbing one. It even appears to be quite motivating.

I tried it myself this week in three different classes and got quite different results on each occasion.

The first class was a level 4 (first year) group of around 18 students and we undertook the task towards the end of a session in an IT suite. Prior to the exercise we had been researching material for a presentation the students will give in a couple of weeks which feeds into their assessment. I set them the task of finding the assessment briefs on the VLE (moodle) and asked them to read them having explained they would need to take notes. While they were reading I set up a Padlet (more on this below) and put the URL up on a screen.

It took a while for them to find the assessment briefs and to read through them. I think the whole thing felt like a bit of an adventure and I felt there was an air of inquisitive enquiry about the activity. After a bit of a note-taking session I asked them to get into pairs to discuss their notes. Then I asked them to open the Padlet URL and add notes to the page which they did and you can see the results by following the link below:


The second class was older, a L6 (third year) group consisting mostly of international students. This class performed the task in a more perfunctory manner and the air of inquisitive inquiry was not present. Looking at what they posted to the Padlet you can see that in general they cut and pasted directly from the assessment briefs and there was not much of an attempt to paraphrase or summarise. This may have been down to the way I set up the task, but equally I can see on reflection that these students were much more experienced and more confident about managing assessment. Nevertheless, I would have expected more questions and a sense of investigation which doesn’t seem to be present in their Padlet which you can see below:


For the final session, again another L4 group of around 18 students I took the time to frame the task in a way that I hoped would encourage them to take more time over summarising and paraphrasing the notes they posted to Padlet. I think this worked to a certain extent but there again the results for the first session where a little more inquiring. For example there are posts with excerpts from the grading criteria which suggest an attempt to express a sense of what needs be achieved that goes beyond pure description. You can see the final Padlet here:


In my mind, the task was very successful and it achieved what it set out to achieve. Throughout all of the sessions the students were absorbed and it allowed me to problem solve around definitions, interpretations and even ensure all the students had access. One student even commented that they had never read the assessment briefs before and that this was really useful.

If nothing else the students have now read the assessment briefs for the courses I am teaching, they know where to find them for other courses, plus hopefully they have gained a sense of the value of reading them. The use of Padlet also provided a good mechanism for focussing the student’s attention, it included the opportunity to read and comment on each other’s posts and also served to reinforce the information they had gathered through note-taking and then rewriting as they posted a note to Padlet.

I had never used Padlet before. It is a really good tool, very flexible, easy to set up and free (though you do get offers to upgrade). You just register and set up a profile. Then you can open and configure a page and go live within a few minutes. I can imagine using it again in numerous ways as the students really enjoy using it. The fact that you can instantly display their notes, the interactivity, all of this is very useful. Plus you can post the link to the Padlet on the VLE after the class and make all that information available.

If you haven’t already had a play with Padlet I would recommend giving it a go.