Of story telling, coaching, and teaching in HE

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis

I had a storyteller as coach

Remember a while back my peer reviewer said that PowerPoint doesn’t work well for me because I am a storyteller? The problem with being a storyteller who has to rely on a linearly structured aid is that sometimes it works very well and sometimes not at all.

So I decided to ask a professional storyteller, the lovely Wendy Woolfson for help. Trying to find strategies that would afford me more consistency in my storytelling. Here are some of the insights.

Storytelling and teaching

One of the key issues that emerged from the session is trust. Trust in what I give the students. Confidence to acknowledge, if something is not working, the story doesn’t ring through, and change it on the spot. Similar to storytelling, teaching as performing, is aesthetic responsibility. The responsibility to engage the learner in an active negotiation of identities, to encourage aesthetic experience (Fuchs, 2011). And the responsibility to create drama.

Have trust in your story.

Storytelling, Teaching and Drama

In the great opening key-note at this year’s ‘University of Glasgow Learning and Teaching Conference’ Prof Duke highlighted the significance of friction—drama: within the frame of thinking about teaching as storytelling—in the learning process. A point also made by Fuchs (2011) when discussing the characteristics and significance of aesthetics in education, he points out that learning and negativity belong together (p.16). So there is some confirmation for my approach of throwing the students into the proverbial cold water.

There is space for failure and struggle.

Storytellers have Paraphernalia

Another thing I learned was that story tellers carry their paraphernalia with them at all times. While, I do have the boxes with Playdough, and cups, and sticky notes, and balloons, it is not feasible to drag those along to sessions with more than a hundred students. So I began to create my digital portmanteau on Prezi. It is very limited as of yet, and part of my growing list of summer projects. However, this way I can react easily to a group, when topics emerge that were not planned for the session. I can then confidently change direction on the spot, change the story to one that has meaning to the students.

Stories are told eye to eye,
mind to mind,
and heart to heart.

Scottish Travelers Proverb

Storytelling and PowerPoint

One of the things I never did with presenting with PowerPoint was to give time to let the students acknowledge that a slide had changed. Mainly, because I was always fighting too hard against the restrictive linearity, that pushing through it, had become my defense mechanism. So consciously acknowledging the change, and taking a break is becoming part of my newly formed habits now—well, let’s say I try to make it so.

Embrace the tools.

Bottom Line

My somewhat disjointed insights from a coaching session with a professional storyteller, and slightly deliberated reflections on it (we are talking about months here), demonstrate how complex and multi-layered the ideas of performance in teaching, aesthetics, and storytelling are. I hardly scratched the surface of any of those. Nevertheless, I thought sharing might give you some ideas or incentives to explore.

It is fine to repeat stories.

Playdough is not just for kindergarten!

On Friday I had the first group of master engineering students for a morning session on writing their dissertation reports. Now, I am new to this college and the students so I needed a way to understand, how far the students were with their projects and how thought-out the process. Further, I needed an icebreaker.

Design your Research Project in Playdough

The programme coordinator told me that one of the key issues his students are facing is the ability to communicate their projects effectively. Which lead to me thinking: about the smallest common denominator of aero-space and mechanical engineers … doing stuff! So, how do you do stuff, in a highly intensive session, buying material out of your own pocket? Play-dough! I knew the session would be intensive and I wanted my students to have some fun. Besides, who doesn’t like play-dough?

Okay pedagogical reasoning: 

I’ve said it before: The learning strategies I use are student-centered, guided by the concept of creative learning, which promotes ownership, control and relevance in the learning process, aiming for innovation. Innovation can be as ‘simple’ as applying knowledge in new contexts. Play-dough, is definitely a new context when talking about solar energy, drones, computer games, or intelligent artificial limbs. The exercise draws on the students’ experience, it asks to demonstrate what their research means to them and encourages the students to re-contextualize, think about the language and the symbols used in communication.

Aims for my students:

  • focus on the session
  • take a step back from project and think about it
  • icebreaker
  • talk to classmates

Aims for me:

  • understand where students are with their projects
  • see how well they are presenting
  • getting students to focus on: what it’s all about

The Task

Create your research project in play-dough. Present the project, using your play-dough model, to the rest of the class in one minute.*

I put some guiding questions into the PowerPoint. Suggesting possible focus points.
I put some guiding questions into the PowerPoint. Suggesting possible focus points.


Some of The Models


These are just some of the students’ really interesting projects. My favourite model, was a model that looked like a yellow crescent with pimples, but was an Xbox controller.

The Implementation

While the students were busy finding a way of showcasing their projects, I observed them. Having been told by colleagues, that the core issue is a lack of communication. I thought. We’ll see. After watching my students for 5 minutes showing incredible skills of flexibility in reaching for different coloured play-dough pieces, one student hogging the blue as if life depended on it, and one trying to figure out where the blue had gone, I began laughing; highlighting to my students that they could ask one-another to make their life easier. One of the students began laughing and told me that engineers are just very competitive.

The students all presented their projects very well and stuck to the one minute instruction. Kudos. And even the most abstract models made sense in the end. The exercise definitely encouraged communication. It helped me to understand where to focus during the rest of the session, and unveil possible problem areas. However, an insight I had not planned to gain from this exercise was to learn how little aware the students were of context. Not only did the students not introduce themselves when beginning their presentation, they also did not name their actual programme, or the title of the project. All jumped right into describing their play-dough models. This provided a good talking point about the significance of context and setting the scene when giving a presentation.


The feedback for the session was very good. One of the points mentioned by every single student was that they liked the interactive aspects of the workshop. Slowly my body of anecdotal evidence shows a strong pattern of success of transitioning creative learning strategies into higher education. The research project I am currently undertaking, even indicates improvement in student marks.


*The one minute pitch is almost like the infamous elevator pitch. If a student is able to present his or her project concisely in one minute, they demonstrate in the least the gist of the project is clear, in the best a comprehensive understanding of their project. It depends on what and how each student relays the information.

The accidental Guerrilla researcher …

Rambling insights from trying to write up my research project—stumbling into Guerrilla research

Of being a sheep with style

The accidental Guerrilla research project—I think

We were tasked to conduct an action research project, exploring the impact or effect or benefits or outputs a new teaching strategy or method has on our students. This was the rough task provided within the framework of the PG Cert course. Another task set by senior management is to prove the impact the Learning Development Centre within which I work has on the overall performance and achievement of the students. Now a small project like mine cannot possibly establish the overall impact, a task, which in itself seems very unlikely to be fulfilled, due to the complexity of learning experiences. At most we can establish correlations and patterns that may (or may not) indicate our impact. The actuality of impact lies all within perception: our colleagues’ and students’ perception of their interaction and engagement with our pedagogies and us. Therein sits, in my opinion, our impact, the one we can at least to some degree measure and explore.

Now I aimed initially to explore the impact the first year integrated module has on the students. Alas, I cannot force my students to participate, most permitted me to use the activities and their products from the various sessions, but no one wanted to participate in interviews or group discussions. So according to the methods proposed for action research (i.e. focus groups, interviews, evaluation forms etc.) I had a meager amount of data, and to make the project worthwhile needed to explore more pathways. When I came across Guerrilla Research Methods, which are mostly ad hoc, imply participants’ co-creation of knowledge.

Guerrilla research approach, works under the remit of action research, the aim is change and improvement. Co-creation of knowledge as a key-focus aligns closely with the activities I undertook with my students throughout the sessions. Such as the students developing evaluation questions for the standard course evaluation, creating and feedbacking on balloon academy participants, exploring the meaning of fortune cookies, trying to analyse white plastic cups, and write reflective essays or blogs about their experiences. The data can be triangulated with standard evaluation forms and interviews from my colleagues who experienced the students’ feedback in their roles as module leaders. Guerrilla methods may not be rigorous and definitely cannot replace a comprehensive and thorough research project. However, they draw from the fluid nature of educational space and its participants. As researcher I place myself within the realm of participant who co-created knowledge about her own pedagogy in collaboration with the students and their formal as well as informal feedback. Guerrilla research methods contain ethnographic elements and so this project was not only focussing on my first year UG and first year PGT students but it also became a journey of becoming.

On Writing Paragraphs

In my other work-place we work closely with a Writing Fellow: The lovely Katie Grant. Who generously agreed to have a meeting, so I could understand her role and have a chat about writing. This post briefly reflects on her tips for paragraph-writing, and I have her permission to share her paragraph-matrix with you.

Building the bridge between academic writing and non-academic writing

I always wondered about the view professional writers take on academic writing. Today, I had the chance to hear an opinion. I asked Katie if she had any tips from the perspective of a writer. She told me that writing, and particularly academic writing, is a technical exercise. A perspective I do not fully appreciate. I always understood writing as a different form of cognition—of thinking things through.

Skye Bridge

After some deliberation, I came to understand that writing as a technical exercise can work as a bridge for students to access academic writing in general, and structures, and style in particular. One of the key aspects in academic writing is building paragraphs. The traditional way of teaching paragraph writing is to tell the students, the most common structure of a paragraph is:

  1. Opening (or Topic) Sentence
  2. Main Part (or Supporting Sentences)
  3. Closing or Linking Sentence (sometimes called Conclusion)

There is actually a rather useful Wiki with some downloadable templates you can refer to.

Tips from the Writing Fellow

Here is what Katie developed instead and coined the paragraph matrix:

  • Assertion
  • Evidence (for instance, i.e. …)
  • Discussion/Analysis (however, …)
  • Punchline (How does this relate to your Essay Title?)
  • Link-Line

Katie Grant, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow (30/03/3014)

Opening the paragraph with an assertion that lets the reader know, what is to come, what argument the writer wants to make. This is then backed up with evidence, critiqued and eventually contextualized (punchline). The punchline should, so Katie’s advice, link back to the assignment title.

When I talked to a colleague about the punchline, we were wondering, if we wouldn’t be overdoing it, having one in each paragraph. We eventually came to the conclusion that it is probably more about context and ensuring that the paragraph actually contributes to the overall discussion. The punchline is (in my understanding) the ‘So What?’ of the paragraph. It is the why do you provide this information? How does it contribute to the overall argument and theme of the assignment?

I am going to adopt this ‘paragraph matrix’ as a way of teaching paragraphs. It provides more clarity and structure, particularly for the ‘main part’ of the paragraph, and I can see this version being especially helpful to international students.

(originally published on Medium)

Of Peer Learning and Being Filmed Teaching

Being filmed when teaching …

and other peer review tools


I was not so much thrown by my colleague’s presence in the seminar room, but by the video camera. Normally teaching is fleeting; it is a fluid, temporal, and private space, where my students and I create meaning, interact, laugh, banter, and discuss. However, being filmed creates a permanent space for and an entity of this process. My colleague said that I can always delete the file again, but its mere existence extends the transient temporality of my teaching. That digital video file generates an object out of a process, changing the remit of this process in its entirety, creating a completely different reality. This reality subsequently necessitates a conscious act of deleting a time and space, that otherwise would not have existed in physicality beyond the realm of the session.

So having the camera in the room, suddenly made my teaching more real, more tangible, and manifested mistakes that else would have been simply merged into the flow of the session, rescued by my reaction to them—now frozen in time to be reiterated by pressing ‘Play’. Exactly these reservations about being filmed, made me think about the impact of teaching again, resulting in a new appreciation of my teaching role.p>

Peer Feedback from a Colleague

If the colleague providing your peer-feedback is a highly analytical mathematician, you can be sure to get a very structured and clear feedback session, from which some really good ideas and tips emerged. One point I found particularly interesting was that my colleague said to me the PowerPoint slides actually hindered my teaching instead of supporting it. She was right I create the PowerPoints merely for my students, I don’t need them. My colleague called me a storyteller, and I should look for other tools to use instead of PowerPoint. Her suggestions were to either use mind-maps or draw/write a story-board for my seminars and lectures and play around with the storyline until it makes sense. I am going to try storyboards next, and have began transferring sessions into mind-maps.

Story Board

So I engaged the search engine, and picked some results for story board templates, that seem interesting:


In terms of MindMaps, I am using iMindMap7 and I love it! Particularly as I can create 3D mind-maps, run it in presentation mode and all sort of other interesting features. It is however very expensive. It also is going to take a lot of time to create new lectures and seminars in mind-maps.


I have been using Prezi for a while and began to put up the instructions for some of the exercises I use online. This way I can run sessions completely student led and only need to draw up appropriate exercises depending on the questions and issues the students pose during the sessions.

HEA & Professional Values


I mentioned several times that I am undertaking this additional qualification, part of the qualification is to engage with professional values that are part of the Professional Standards Framework (Higher Education Academy). These values are notoriously difficult, and my ‘homework’ lacks the integration of the practical dimension for those. However, I thought in the interest of inter-cultural sharing I put up my last homework anyway. The first part of the reflective process was participating in a blog. The second part was to condense these blog posts in a reflective assignment.

Professional Values and Blogging—Part One

The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education provides three dimensions as scaffold: Areas of Activity, Core Knowledge and Professional Values (Higher Education Academy, 2012). The framework suggests four professional values, which were subject to reflection and discussions on the course blog. The values are defined as:

  • ‘V1 Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities,
  • V2 Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners
  • V3 Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development
  • V4 Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice’ (Higher Education Academy, 2012, p. 3)

My difficulties reflecting on Professional Values originated in the vagueness of the value descriptors, and in the prescriptive nature of the discourse we are obliged to follow. The four values are prudent in providing a positive and successful learning experience for the students. The system of higher education, our career progression as academics however, does not take into consideration how good we are as teachers, how much we ensure there is for instance respect between the students and us. The focus is on bringing in funding, and publishing, teaching is still treated as marginal aspect for career progression, instead of being an integral part of it.

I am inserting segments of my reflection on each value as they stand on the blog. The core learning incidents for each of the values was bridging the cultural gap between my German liberal arts upbringing, and experiencing postgraduate studies, turned academic in Scotland.

Professional Value One (PV1)

‘Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities’ (Higher Education Academy, 2012, p. 3)

A kind of respect

Why do we equate respect with catering for the learners learning styles or exciting classroom activities? I keep making that assumption and keep wondering why it always pops up—Despite my best intention to nip it in the bud. Funny enough the side-remark to chivalry in the Wikipedia article made me wonder about the wider context for respect as fitting into the values and norms (culture) (Geertz, 2000) we act in.

[…] What do learner needs mean? Does it mean to provide accessibility, support additional needs, and offer information in various ways on various platforms? Or does respect mean the learner has to be happy at all times within a learning environment?

I try to teach student centred, engaging the students in communication and even disputes. That does not mean the students always agree with me or like what I am doing […]. My aim is to encourage the students to engage with the subject matter, with the idea, the principle of what I try to convey, then take it up and reshape it into their own knowledge. Short: make them think. For me this is respect. For me there is nothing more prudent (important—little lost in translation here) I could give to my students than the ability to be critical, make educated choices and be aware of how the systems they act in impact on their engagement with them. …

Respect as fundamental component in teaching, could be considered axiomatic, if there would be a concise understanding of respect. However, respect’s forms of expression are culturally dependent (Thomas, Kinast, & Schroll-Machl, 2005); to come to a consensus about respect it might be valuable to refer to Kant’s ‘respect-for-persons’ understanding people as an end in itself and not a means. Second, it is not human beings per se but the ‘Humanity’ in human beings that we must treat as an end in itself. (Johnson, 2013) This understanding justifies my student centred pedagogy that aims at scaffolding learning experiences that enable the students to take ownership and control of their learning (Jeffrey, 2006). Continuously being involved in discussions with colleagues, and keeping my reflective diaries and blog about my pedagogy, will help to keep this value in perspective.

Professional Value Two (PV2)

‘Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners.’ (Higher Education Academy, 2012, p. 3)

Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast

I had to quote Goethe here, I think Dr Faustus struggle between, what I would for all intents and purposes translate into the struggle between systemic restrictions and open access to knowledge seems very suitable—or totally out there not sure, which one you would agree with. I am going to elaborate a bit:

The German system assigns a high status to apprenticeships, guilds and guild masters as well as social recognition, I cannot understand that drive for herding everyone into higher education in the UK and USA. It seems as if here professions such as car mechanics, photographer, hairdresser are nothing to be proud off. The public discourse seems to emphasise the need for having a university degree to be successful. On the other hand, having undertaken research in the UK with children who have never learned possibility thinking, for whom even a job was an unlikely future, I very much value the widening participation activities as way of providing possibilities and creating access. Very much in line with bettering one self and bettering ones future.

I think my job is all about lowering thresholds, building confidence and being a gatekeeper for bridging social capital (Field, 2007), enabling students to access and negotiate within the institution university, learning the language and using it to achieve their goals.

The CPD I am undertaking in consideration of this value, is participating in seminars and workshops, as well as being active in our team’s biweekly policy working group. Example: Yesterday (27th January 2014) I attended the launch of GCU’s College Connect strategy, and have become aware that I need to inform myself in greater detail about the Recognition for Prior Learning and other pathways and policies that now enable non-traditional learners access to Higher Education.

Professional Value Three (PV3)

Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development (Higher Education Academy, 2012, p. 3)

PV3 Reflecting on Evidence

[…] I find this topic particularly difficult, because I am feeling utterly disjoined from research at the moment. Most of the last 2 years were spend recovering financially from the PhD and trying to get any job at all. While, I love teaching, and in fact all my teaching is informed by research I conducted, or discourse in the field (attending conferences, reading research papers etc) I feel like missing a limp not being involved in research in my field at the moment—can you actually crave data analysis? I lost confidence in my professionalism, because I am so busy chasing money and feeling financially secure that I could not focus on research. So all I can come up with is whining a little on this blog […]

I belief research is fundamental to a successful pedagogy. My aim this year is to get involved in educational research again, subsequently I am currently collaborating on three different funding applications. I am also privately paying for coaching to develop my career, which has reached an impasse in my current role.

Professional Value Four (PV4)

Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice’ (Higher Education Academy, 2012, p. 3)

PV4 Wider Context

  • There could be a much wider and comprehensive linkage between universities and public and private sector. Unfortunately a lot of these communities, community groups, small businesses and companies who would benefit from collaborating with university on a much wider scale, don’t make for prestigious media worthy projects. Most would not even have the £5000 match founding for the innovation voucher scheme, because they are desperately trying to get to that point. Projects like Bobbies or mine (currently involved in a local historical group trying to help them jump from interest group to earning money as a SCIO, last year I initiated a pupil exchange programme) re much needed in austerity ridden communities.
  • Another side of wider context is the benefit of research (and I will under no circumstances go into the whole open access debacle.) but why are we doing what we are doing when we conduct research? Does it benefit the greater good?
  • Leaving the academic realm to engage with the public seems to be even more of a hurdle considering work-load and related tunnel vision. Using social media could be a vehicle for such engagement but does not solve the time issue…and then again, who is really going to follow? Mostly other academics as it appears (see Alison’s post on blogging academics).
  • Widening participation is a whole other story. I am not sure if it fits under wider context or is a theme all in itself.

The significance of wider context has become integral part to my professional identity, as early as my undergraduate studies. I always worked next to undertaking my degrees and therefore continuously had the opportunity to link my academic experiences with diverse context and various sectors. Two of the projects I am currently involved in links not only different sectors but also work across countries. Further, I was just elected member of the UCU Scotland Education Committee and will be able to develop my professionalism and understanding of the wider context in this role.

Fortune Cookie Reflections

Reflective Writing

felt fortune cookies

The students in Health and Life Sciences have to learn reflective writing; contemplating their placement experiences. One of the biggest problems most students have is linking their experience to theory and research. That problem places writing sometimes into the category: deliberations in a teenage-diary. The students are not happy with their writing, and often express frustration that they sound corny, cheesy, and repetitive. Expecting the students to use the Gibb’s cycle for reflection, just makes the matter worse, not at least because this model redefines ‘evaluation’ and ‘analysis’. Analysis—as commonly defined—the: establishing of ‘What is?’ should come before ‘evaluation’ the value-judgement of ‘What is?’. So besides the messy terminology, the six steps make the model very mechanistic and most students become stuck in the actualities of dealing with the model instead of focussing on their actual reflection.

Filling the Fortune Cookies

Now I devised a group-work activity that should address the issue of linking reflection and theorising. I made fortune cookies from four different coloured felt pieces. The first colour I am going to fill with poor reflective writing (52% mark), the second colour will have somewhat better writing, third colour will contain writing from a strong student paper (78% mark) and the final colour contains excerpts from journal articles referring to the different scenarios.

The Activity

The students have to read their fortune cookie and then find the class-mates with the suitably fitting fortune cookies: combining the appropriate scenario, reflection and theories. Subsequently, the students have to share which scenario they used, how they reformulated the crude reflection, and link it to the journal article excerpts (which I will choose so that various combinations are possible). After this we are going to discuss the issues that emerged from the exercise.

Fortune Cookies Close-Up

As usual I will post how the session went, and if it worked the way I thought. The instructions for the fortune cookies I got from Curlybirds website.

Reflection on the Session

I have used this exercise with both groups in the first year programme.

First group: I asked the group not to find the right colour but to find the scenario, reflection and possible literature that would fit to their piece of writing. This was too much for first years students and they were very insecure and confused about the task. So we spend a long time going through the different examples and discussing the strengths and weaknesses.

Second group: To make it easier I used the same quotes but colour coded it, asking the students to have all the yellows, oranges etc coming together. Read all the quotes and decided on the quality of the writing. This was still to demanding for my first years’. I was a bit worried to learn that most of the students had difficulties discerning between the poor quality writing and actual journal article quotes.

So the conclusion for this exercise is that my students would have needed much stronger scaffolding of the exercise and I need to find a better way for them to focus on the different levels of language.

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