Learning through creativity

If the wall wasn’t plastered with ideas and images you were doing it wrong. It was important that everyone could see their own – and each other’s – ideas and processes

This post, from Kendra Quinn, is the last in series of guest post from students who recently graduated from the program where I teach and participated in the journey interviews for my book. Kendra, who came to Sussex via an Arts Foundation year, has a unique perspective on creative teaching and why it’s so hard to do in the social sciences. Thank you Kendra!

I recently graduated from Sussex with a degree in Geography and International Development, having previously completed an Art foundation course at Kingston University. This is not the most natural of paths into a social science degree, but as with many creative individuals who also enjoy more ‘academic’ subjects, on leaving sixth form I found myself with a predicament: should I pursue design, and take the creative route, or study other subjects of interest? I chose not to choose, and to delay my decision by applying for an Art foundation and settled at Kingston University. In the end, I decided to keep my deferred place at Sussex, so the following year I went ‘academic’, whilst friends went on to study graphics, product design, illustration, design engineering, and architecture. Keeping in touch throughout our degrees, it became clear to me that the overlaps between our different disciplines were not pursed fully, if at all, by either course.

Creative outlets

Whilst the creative degrees excelled at helping students think and design with empathy, as well as think critically around subjects and problems, my degree tended towards thinking in the abstract, about various problems, both on an individual and human level, and with a greater focus on the theoretical side of things. On starting my course in international development, I expected it to encourage me to think more critically about subjects and scenarios in which I was interested; but, being a course very much about people, I was also under the impression that it would be filled too with case studies and projects – creative outlets to allow me to think practically about applying the theory which any academic course naturally contains. Yet, I found that in the current exam/essay based culture of learning, critical discussion around the theories and abstract concepts leaves little room to be creative with how you learn, and makes it harder to still to be creative when it comes to the product of your learning; an essay, at the end of the day, is an essay, and an exam result is just an exam result. Design, often, is about asking questions – without necessarily expecting an answer. The solution is always up for interpretation. Coming from a design background, I certainly struggled with moving away from the idea that the results of my learning would definitely have an impact on a subject or discussion; modules at Sussex, on the other hand, often ended in an essay, which to me always seemed more to be proof that you were present and thinking critically – not that you’re actually adding anything to the debate.

A design course allows the individual time to prototype, to tangent and circle back, to learn from failures and use them to continuously develop a project. At each stage projects are discussed with fellow students openly, and critique is often welcomed over compliment. This is where the learning itself comes from, and the main thing I think the social sciences could learn from a design school is the ability to learn through creativity. Often a creative environment (in no small part as a result of how such courses are presented and promoted by schools and higher educational institutes) is seen as a space to present ideas through colourful images and models, etc. A lot of the modules at Sussex however did promote similar styles of discussion and presentation to those used during my foundation degree. We frequently engaged with group debate, presentation, use of different materials, etc. in order to communicate ideas. But there is a difference here, and it is fundamental: here you are presenting your learning creatively, not learning through creativity. There are a few things that I think social sciences can learn from here. Currently, students are asked to tick boxes with their essay, despite studying topics that don’t endorse the idea of right and wrong answers. Moving away from a linear results-based system might make for a more exciting environment where students can explore ideas more, rather than simply regurgitate and study arguments in the limited framework an essay represents.

Ongoing critique

Another distinguishing feature of a creative degree is the mindset towards criticism that students build and promote, from each other and their tutors. One thing that I feel puts students off speaking and expressing ideas in my degree is the negative association with feedback that essay based environments create. Creative students from day one are almost forced to share their thoughts and processes with fellow students, something which continues throughout a module/project, teaching them to use and take critique; the culture in a social science degree, meanwhile, is not about sharing. Pressure to produce a grade from one or two essays results in a fear of critique, despite this being fundamental to learning effectively. Leaning away from the assessment of a final result and more toward ongoing critique of processes and ideas might help remove the vulnerability and timidness that is often felt in students toward their own work and encourage greater contribution within the classroom.

As an example of the overlap between creative courses and social sciences, here are two examples from my studies. At Sussex we had a module called Disasters, Environment and Development; this module involved an essay and a group project in which we had to design our own ‘serious game’ that helped the players understand risk in the context of disasters and weather phenomena.  For the module my group designed a card-based game. The cards were split into ‘weather’ cards, ‘crop’ cards and ‘Life’ cards, and we used pebbles to represent a player’s assets. Each round, a ‘weather’ card with a hazard, along with its potential cost, is revealed. Each team decides to protect themselves or to take a card from the crop/life pile which has either a positive or negative effect on their assets. If the hazard occurs and the team did not protect themselves, they lose double the initial cost of the card. Essentially as the game goes on the teams learn that they are more likely to ‘survive’ the game if they protect themselves from the weather card every round. As a group most found it was challenging to build a game that educates and reveals something to the players. But the building of a game was useful, in that game building was a great way of learning about and presenting risk. You are, in a sense, studying yourselves in order to learn about the topic; by understanding your own behaviour toward risk and the variables that determine that, you can learn more and apply yourself better to the case studies discussed in the literature.  I think that the creative elements to social sciences courses work better with the students if there is an incentive for building or creating something. So, you are learning through creativity rather than just creatively representing what has been learnt.

A project I did on my foundation course reminds me of the kind of work that I understand creative modules at Sussex to be aiming toward. Tutors gave us a crime profile of a city and the brief was to design housing that would help the reduction of the specific causes of the crime, or the crime itself. I think this premise is obtuse, but it led to a lot of research into the social infrastructure of the city, the socio-economic struggles of its citizens, and the style of policing. I was given the favelas of Maceio, Brazil, and created a sort of modular low-cost housing system which eliminated blind corners and created shared patios to promote community. This aimed to reduce some of the chaos that comes with the building of informal settlements without reducing the appeal. The key aspect of this project was that the research had to be translated into a physical solution. 

Learning from each other

Having studied in two environments, with two very unique approaches to learning, I’m convinced that both can learn a lot from each other. I hope in the future to see more overlap and conversation between creative courses and the social sciences. The similarities between the module and project described above show how both are approaching similar topics and ideas through completely different lenses. What the social sciences can learn from design thinking is an empathetic and individual focus on the journey of a project and its value – not only an end result. I also feel that the sense students get from creating and completing an individual project, the sense that they have contributed and made a real impact on the discourse surrounding a subject, is far more empowering and incentivising than the more rigid student/teacher dynamic that is more common in an ‘academic’ learning environment. Likewise, perhaps creative courses can learn from the depth of theoretical study and critical skills that are more widely applied in a social sciences environment.

Researching teaching

Word cloud summary of keywords in flipped classroom research ...

Last Wednesday was results day at Sussex, when third year undergraduate finalists get their marks and degree outcomes. Usually it is a day fill with anticipation, joy and relief (and sometimes disappointment), food and conversations – a day of conviviality to celebrate student achievements. This year there was of course none of that, at least not on campus, although I know that some of our students had socially-distant celebrations on Brighton beach. This time of the year is also an important one for my project, as between the end of term and results day I conduct student journey interviews with finalists. These interviews are an important part of the research for this book, which I want to write about today.

Creative Universities is a creative, performative project that bring together various theories, disciplines and activities to make the possibilities of social science teaching contributing to students imagining alternative futures more present, credible and viable in the HE classroom. As I wrote when I set up the blog, I got the inspiration for this book from my own 15 years of teaching experiences in the field of Global Development and Anthropology in Berkeley, Auckland and now Sussex. Over the last three years, I have conducted systematic research, consisting of interviews with staff and students, in-class observations and action-research inspired experimentation in my own classroom. All of these methods inform the teaching activities that I describe in my chapters.

Classroom observations

One such activity was the Designing Back from the Future exercise in my urban futures module. Other examples from this module include students writing an urban manifesto for how to make Brighton a more livable city and mapping campus infrastructures in a form of outdoor learning about ecological issues. Being able to use my own classroom as an experimental space has been incredibly insightful as I can observe students’ engagement in and reactions to the activities, often followed up by a short survey and longer interviews with a few students, together with my own thoughts and feelings. (In-class research raises a number of ethical issue: the ethics approval for my research covered things such as informed consent and confidentiality, while none of my activities I included in the book were assessed).

Science and Culture: Can climate change games boost public ...
The board game Keep Cool involves players deciding whether to build carbon-emitting or carbon-neutral factories. Credit: Keep Cool GBR

I also conducted observations in some of my colleagues’ classrooms. The most memorable was a term of observing students designing and playing serious games to learn experientially and creatively about climate change related risk and uncertainty. There are dozens of climate change related games, many of them online, and they are increasingly used to teach students of all ages about the climate crisis. What was remarkable about the Sussex class was that students designed their own games and then played them with each other. I will write more about this soon, but as a novice to the use of games as an educational method, it was an eye-opening experience to observe students embracing an activity that was new for many of them and creating an amazing variety of games. I also sat in on a module where students learn practical and hands-on skills about development projects. I had planned to do more observations this spring, which unfortunately did not happen. Alongside these observations I conducted interviews with colleagues where they shared their activities with me. Throughout these interviews I have been inspired by the pedagogical passion of my fellow educators, who are embodying the academic subjectivities I wrote here. Conversations with them have also strengthened my confidence that a critical-creative pedagogy can help students imagine and create alternative ways of addressing current challenges, something we call teaching critical hope. And that brings me back to the students, whose voices, stories and experiences are central to my research.

Student journeys

In the journey interviews with students at the end of their degree, I ask them about their overall experiences studying International Development and related social sciences at Sussex. I ask how their views of global development and bringing about change more generally might have changed from when they started uni, often as enthusiastic but by their own admissions sometimes naive and idealistic young people wanting to change the world. They talk about how they have become more knowledgeable, critical and aware, but sometimes also a bit less hopeful, more cynical and disillusioned (hence the need for my book). They talk about particular modules they liked and found transformative. I also ask them to describe their studies in three words, which brings many surprising answers (I am working on the word cloud right now). Questions about how creative their teaching has been and how it could be made more so are particularly instructive, showing students’ desire to bring their own ideas, experiences and skills into the classroom and to apply their learning to practical situations. I thank all the students who have participated in my research over the years.

Especially this year, with all the upheaval caused by strikes and COVID, I have been amazed by the positive attitude of the students I talked to and their ability to still enjoy their learning amidst disruption, uncertainty and worry. I am therefore especially excited that a few of them, such as Ruthie Walters, have agreed to write guest posts, starting to fulfill a vision I had from the beginning for this blog to be a meeting place for like-minded educational travelers to exchange ideas. The first post by Ruthie focuses on the intersection of academic and activism, and the second, by Cristina Cano, explores the productive tensions of double degrees. In the third post, Lydia Bennett-Li is reflecting on how a year-long placement in India shaped her post-university journey in unexpected ways. In the final post, Kendra Quinn uses her experience of an Arts Foundation year before coming to Sussex to reflect on the challenges of making social science teaching more creative. I hope that you will enjoy these posts by the students as much as I do.

Thank you Ruthie, Cris, Lydia and Kendra and congratulations on everybody’s achievements.

Congratulations to Lantern Competition Winners! – Cultural ...

Diverse economy portfolios

image shows creative economy portfolios
What would students’ economic portfolios look like?
Image from https://www.debtdiaries.net/story/economic-crisis-seen-everyday-0

My last post explored how the COVID crisis might be used in pluralist economic teaching. In this post, I want to get a bit more practical and present another teaching activity: students creating personal diverse economy portfolios. The activity builds on Gibson-Graham’s groundbreaking work on diverse economies and the ontological changes this entails. Through their portfolios, students research and analyze their own economic activities, in order to recognize their diversity and social character and to ultimately realize themselves as interdependent and ethical economic subjects. The activity aims to shift students’ attention from, in GG’s words, ‘the paralyzing question of what is to be done’ to the more productive one of ‘what is already being done,’ with a focus on what students themselves are already doing. It is divided into 4 steps: 1) diary, 2) inventory, 3) questions and 4) iceberg, and could be conducted in an economics-focused social science class as an independent project over the course of a term or as a two-week more intensive exercise.

  1. Economic diaries

The activity begins with students keeping an economic diary over the course of a week to become more aware of their economic lives. In the diary they record all of their economic transactions and exchanges, where they took place, whom they involved, whether money was exchanged etc. Students then start to classify these activities into capitalist, alternative and non-capitalist, by drawing on relevant theoretical readings and class discussions.

2. Economic Inventories

The next step involves translating the diary into an inventory, using a template adapted from the Diverse Economies Framework that consists of three sub-inventories: transactional exchanges, economic organizations and labor practices.

image shows a diverse economy table to categorize economic activities
The inventory template from the Diverse Economies Framework
  • Transactional exchanges are likely to comprise capitalist market transactions, but also alternative ones such as students swapping things with each other or buying a vegetable box from a local farmer, as well as non-market transactions such as sharing household labor, free-cycling, gifting or community gardening.
  • Economic organizations register the diverse economic institutions students deal with, beginning with capitalist firms such as supermarkets or department stores, but quickly expanding to alternative capitalist enterprises such as op-shops, fair trade stores, non-profits, cooperative and community enterprises, food waste apps and shared ownership schemes. Non-capitalist organizations could encompass communal and household groups or independent businesses that might be supported by friends, children or other family members giving their labor for free.
  • Labor practices begin with standard wage work that many students have to engage in to make ends meet. Then there are alternatively paid labor activities such as under-the-table tutoring or baby sitting, self-employed gig work or maybe swapping childcare with other student parents or final thesis drafts with fellow students. Unpaid labor includes housework, household or family physical and emotional care, and maybe volunteer work or self-provisioning through gardening. 

3) Social and ethical questions

The next part of the activity involves students reflecting on two overarching questions: on what basis am I making economic decisions and what kind of social relationships am I entering or creating through my economic activities? The first question is likely to show multiple reasonings, including affordability, convenience and ethical concerns such as fair trade, animal treatment or food miles. Recognizing the plurality of their choices and calculations shows students the limited application of neoclassical theories of self-interested, utility-maximizing individuals and reveals (most) students as ethical consumers who complement their financial calculations with non-financial questions about how their economic activities might be impacting other human beings, animals or the wider environment. Establishing this awareness includes folding the economic into the ethical and and can potentially move students towards an ‘economy of generosity’.

image shows the HISBE supermarket in Brighton
Many Sussex students shop at the alternative HISBE supermarket in Brighton

The second question about social relationships goes to the heart of resocializing economic relations, as it makes students aware of the diversity of relationships on which their economic activities are based. These can range from a standard consumer relationship to parent/child or other kin connections, friend, neighbor, flat mate or mentor. Realizing how socially interconnected and interdependent economic activities are also undermines orthodox notions of autonomous, self-centered individuals and shows the economy as embedded within social systems.

4) Drawing the Iceberg

The last step of the activity involves students creating a visual representation of their diverse economy portfolios in the form of an iceberg or other creative, potentially multimedia, formats. The iceberg is a pedagogical tool developed by Gibson-Graham and colleagues to show that what is usually regarded as ‘the economy’ is but the tip of a huge amount of economic activities that are often invisible, sidelined or ignored. But they constitute the majority of people’s, and students,’ economic lives. The intention of this final part of the activity is therefore to make personal diverse economies visible and to move students from the linearity of writing to experimenting with more creative forms of imagining and expressing themselves as diverse economic subjects.

The aim of the personal diverse economy portfolio activity is for students to learn that capitalism is not as all-encompassing as is usually assumed, or, to use Gibson-Graham’s words, to decenter capitalocentric discourses that naturalize capitalism and assign positive value to capitalist economic activities, while devaluing all others. The activity brings together theoretical texts focusing on diverse, social and solidarity economies with experiential learning based on students’ already existing economic activities. It goes further by inviting students to imagine themselves as more diverse economic subjects and to create future alternative economic actions. Here, the new forms of sociality and mutuality that have emerged under COVID, such as shopping at the local corner store, buying food for those who are self-isolating or sharing with others in need, might provide important openings.

image shows Gibson-Graham's economic iceberg
The iceberg, image from Take Back the Economy
(http://agentsofalternatives.com/?p=2604)

Designing Back from the Future

Prototyping Brighton 2050

As I mentioned in my previous post, which is a summary of my book’s design chapter, scenarios – stories about possible futures – are an important tool in the design tool box. Scenarios have an interesting history, having been developed by Herman Kahn for the US RAND Corporation in the 1950s to support US military nuclear war planning. They have also been used by large corporations, foremost among them Shell, to explore possible energy scenarios. More radically, in 1995, the Global Scenario Group started developing multiple planetary scenarios, ranging from Conventional Worlds in which companies or governments continue the status quo, to Barbarization marked by breakdown or retreat to Great Transitions that present visionary alternatives focused on natural preservation, material sufficiency and social justice. Scenarios have also been used in teaching, and in the design chapter I write about an activity called Designing back from the Future, inspired by Anne-Marie Willis and conducted with students at Sussex’s School of Global Studies to imagine and prototype their preferable futures. For Willis, scenarios are the projection of likely futures, opening them up for reflection, including on actions that need to be taken to achieve the visions. The Sussex activity comprised two Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) design workshops ran by design Research Associate Paul Braund and student coordinators and a Big Build exercise I carried out as part of a third year undergraduate course on Urban Futures. In both activities, students explored what Brighton, where most Sussex students live, might look like in 2050.

Students at one of the SDG workshop

For both activities, the space was set up as an invitation for students to play, experiment, build and have fun. Tables for small groups were covered with thinking materials (sticky notes, marker pens, stickers, large sheets of paper, photos, quotes etc), building materials (crafty stuff, play-doh, pipe cleaners, foam sheets, pins, string, LEGO and wooden blocks etc) and of course snacks. In general, multi-use materials are preferable to single-use objects to provide students with base materials that can be manipulated to externalize ideas. To introduce an element of ambiguity, each table also had a random object, including a knight, a small plush animal and a Lego object, which needed to be incorporated into the prototype. Student were excited as they settled into the space and many of them quickly began to explore the materials with their hands, opening cans of Play Doh and often commenting how its distinct smell brought back childhood memories, or grabbing sticks of pipe cleaners and bending them into whimsical shapes. Such making ‘prompts physical, intellectual and emotional responses’ through a form of hand knowledge, where students’ hands become translators between words and materials. According to Tim Ingold, a leading design anthropologist, making involves deep situatedness, active participation and real-time connection, a coming together of mind, body and material that Ingold calls ‘animacy.’ While social science students might not experience this as intensely as art and design students, making can nevertheless open up cracks in which thinking can happen and learning can stick better. Alongside these materials there were questions, prompts and instruction sheets on the tables, as from experiences we knew that informal learning needs clear structures and guidelines to be successful.

Thinking and building materials invite students’ creativity

The overall question was ‘What do you want the world to look like in 2050?’ For the SDG workshop, which ran over 5 hours, the format was more open-ended and the first task was for groups to develop a concrete vision and action plan for their preferred future, which led to some intense negotiations as diverse group members agreed on a collective vision. Several starting questions were posed to help the students: What things will have been achieved? What new institutions, laws, norms and behaviors will have been created? Who would participate in the change project and who would be affected and how? To compensate for the lack of a research phase that usually accompanies scenario exercises to keep them from becoming fantasies (although students did look up some information on their laptops), students were encouraged to localize their scenarios in a place that was familiar to at least one participant in the group. The group working on SDG 11 on cities selected Brighton, which allowed all members to draw on their own experiences of living in or near Brighton. For the in-class Big Build, which was only 2 hours long, I had pre-developed the following scenario in the interest of time: ‘Brighton in 2050 is a self-sustaining, hospitable and generous city. Its environmental footprint is minimal, it is welcoming of diversity and provides all of its residents with a decent quality of life.’  Tables had been set up around three specific topics that corresponded to themes studied throughout the term:  sustainable infrastructures, deep governance and radical conviviality. Each group had their own brief, further specifying their vision through guiding what-if questions and providing examples as starting points for their scenario journey.

Once students had further developed their visions, they were prompted to think about concrete ways through which to realize it, beginning with a brainstorming session. In parallel students started building prototypes of their scenarios with the materials at hand. Their emerging visions included tried and tested ideas, such as taking Brighton’s well-known status as a sanctuary city as a point of departure to create spaces where refugees could obtain homes, food and skills and be integrated with fellow urban residents through living with them and working in cafes and shops. Environmental visions included solar panels, bike stands, community gardens and a public assembly place. More far-reaching proposals were to build a mega-greenhouse and a free tram line. Most radically, one group proposed to repurpose Brighton’s famous Royal Pavilion as a communal food hall. None of these ideas were blue-sky or totally new, but that was not the point of the activities. What was remarkable was how the students brought together different domains in their scenario creations: their own experiences as Brighton residents, theoretical knowledge gained in class discussions, inspirations from other initiatives they knew about as well as practical making. Collectively, they built plausible scenarios that were materializing alternative urban futures that were desirable to them, while considering the rights and needs of diverse groups.

Prototyping an urban alternative future (notice the knight 🙂

Although because of time restrictions the groups did not reach the final stage of the exercise, which would have involved thinking through the specific actors, institutions and measures involved in realizing their alternative futures, they clearly enjoyed the creativity of the workshops and learned from it. This was evident in their comments that were collected in questionnaires and some follow-up interviews. Students wrote about encountering ‘a new way to think (not just words),’ which speaks to ideas of whole-person learning and hand knowledge I am developing in the book. Comments such as ‘how to involve different backgrounds into development’ and ‘a more open way of thinking outside the modules’ showed how spaces for possible actions and connections were opened up. One student wrote that they realized ‘that there are 100 ways to work‘ and another commented that ‘the workshop highlighted the complexities of designing and implementing solutions and the contradictions and huge interlinked challenges,’ which shows that ideas about change itself had broadened. Many students also expressed how they enjoyed engaging with fellow students in a more practical, hands-on and fun way. And for some, the workshops had ‘reestablished hope and encouragement for the future [through] more hands-on learning, not just [learning about] theory not working.’ This comment speaks to the potential of creative learning that incorporates an open-ended, experimental approach based on asking questions, developing possible responses through collaborative learning and then prototyping visions for alternative futures.