Teaching and the Notion of Kata

upshot eucalyptus tree

The impossibility of simple

26th January 2019. Culling this blog, I enjoy revisiting some of the posts and ideas. Even though most of them are half-baked. They are junctions without signposts from crossroads walked in a time and space long gone. But the tracks are still there. Like footprints in the sand. What I learned, meaning made, knowledge gained, wisdom expanded, new adventures conquered, are all there–as echoes. They have become part of the landscape–Bildung als Lebenstätigkeit.** Tacit knowledge I believe is the term. My mentor calls me an unconscious expert. It is near to impossible to remember distinctions; songs have become an opera; the patterns weave, breathe, move, meander. How do I know that I know? –When I can answer your question? Or when I can answer my own?

This is not a quote, but an addendum with hindsight

The engagement with the topic came about when I wrote a book review for an book about creative learning. I found the notion of kata really interesting, particularly as it initially seems diametrically opposed to North/West European idea and maybe ideals of learning. Or is that so?

Matsunobu’s (2011) chapter on Creativity of Formulaic Learning in which he explains the creativity that is integral to kata. Where self-development happens through imitating and mastering a form (an art), and the ability to shape the art (katayaburí) can only manifest once true mastership is reached, rang true to me when reflecting on the art of teaching (Lupton, 2012).

When entering the life of teaching in higher education, there are certain forms, norms and expectations that need mastery—to negotiate performative institutional structure. In terms of assessment-free teaching there is more freedom. However, maybe more involuntarily than consciously do we mirror forms we experienced. An aspect highlighted by our module leader in the PG Cert: The first task in our first session last year was to think of someone—a significant person, or teacher—in our life who had in impact, who encouraged us to learn, or make learning fun, interesting, lasting.

My person was my granddad, he was a teacher in an agricultural college, he worked with young adults who came from troubled backgrounds and youth prison. His attitude was all about renegotiating identities—he never read his students’ ‘files’. He said: ‘You show me, who you are, not a piece of paper.’—handing over responsibility (what I would now call ownership and control), and acknowledging that making mistakes is part of the process not a dead-end road. Not making mistakes, means you are not doing it right, not trying hard enough.

In a way my kata, if I adopt the principle of the notion, is to mirror my granddad. In my very first formal teaching job, teaching English in a kindergarten, I would call him right after each session and on the way home talk about aspects that went well and aspects that did not go well. He would advice, on the art of teaching. Well, if this and this happens, you could have reacted in such and such a way, improving your art*. So I shaped my teacher-identity to the form, offered by my granddad. It was a comfortable form, that offered safety, trust, warmth.

However, I never stopped at imitation. Once it was successfully mastered. The art intrinsic, and reflection in action began to happen naturally, I would adapt, shape, and change the form, though always remain true to its principles. Eisner (1979) already stated that teaching can never be simply routine. So I am wondering if the aim of becoming a good teacher must always be katayaburí. This is probably the point where my considerations begin to meander away from the Japanese notion; then katayaburí is only something for a selected elite (elite in reference to outstanding abilities), whereas in terms of teaching it is necessity for a true mastership of this art.

-only a citation of inner monologue (the original post from 2014)

5 years later, I am not participating in the postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching in higher education anymore, I graduated. I am teaching on a similar program, and leading a couple of masters level courses. I have moved from teaching students, to teaching colleagues about teaching students. I know, it perfectly aligns with my love for meta-level, and the tendency to sit in thresholds of doors like the cats on our farm, to breathe the space of junctions without signposting. Everything is in flow, but without kata I would not be here.

*He would usually explain the psychology, or pedagogy behind the suggestions.

**An untranslatable venture. Bildung (education: but so much more) Lebenstätigkeit (vital activity the literal and completely wrong translation, life-agency, life-skill, life-activity …. a mix of all of these)

Radiography, Gallery of Modern Art & International Students

Iain Hamilton Finlay GOMA Glasgow

The Issue

I wanted my students, to take ownership of ‘how’ they use English in their presentations, instead of just focussing on bringing content across any-which-way. As master students the class are all professionals, used to present and speak in front of peers. However, translating this confidence into a different language is challenging—I am speaking from a ‘been there, done that’ place. So when planning this morning, I tried to find a way to enable my students to take control and ownership of presenting in English and explore mechanisms of the language.

We are lucky in Glasgow (Scotland) to have free access to all public museums. The Gallery of Modern Art currently runs a powerful exhibition by Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) featuring prints, some of which done for the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The prints are an interesting mix of language, forms and colours. It had the students intrigued.

BYOD and the Museum

Using BYOD strategy I told the students to use their mobile devices, all of them had cameras but not all had internet access, so I could not make the students tweet. I brought some clipboards and paper with guiding questions the students could use instead. I have to say, the clip boards were ignored and the mobile phone cameras went to work.

Students engage with art to develop their academic literacies

Seeing the students’ interaction with the art was amazing. Initially I was not sure if they would like it, but found that within 5 minutes, the group had dispersed into huddles around different artwork. After about 45 minutes we met up in the antechamber of the exhibition and debriefed on the experience. The artwork had the desired effect. My students engaged with language and its use.

One observation, from a student pointing to an abstract painting with dispersed blue letters all over, was that this painting did not make any sense. I asked if he had read the description next to the painting, which he of course denied. The statement offered a great prompt for me leading the discussion towards the importance of contextualizing content, and the different levels of context that need to be provided depending on the audience.

When the students wanted to know, if it would make sense, on occasion, to not give the context when presenting, I used the example from today’s session. I said: look you were wondering why we would meet in front of a museum, linking to how this engaged their curiosity and thinking about the purpose of the activity, that meant I had their attention. The students began focussing much more on rhetorical tools now. Discussion points involved the way of presenting information, some of the language that was used in the art work, and how all this relates back to the presentations the students are to give.

Thanks to my students for sharing the picture!

I am grateful for having students who are willing to embark on my somewhat unusual methods, and engage, with good humour and sincerity.

Learning Space—An Alpine Marmot

Thanks to Wikipedia I did not need to fly to the Alps and stalk marmots for days!

Learning Spaces

When you undertake a biggish research project, such as a PhD, there will be topics that are like Alpine Marmots. You technically know they are there. You know they can at random pop-up, unexpectedly, surprisingly, and twitch their little noses right in your face. However, these Alpine Marmot topics make only marginal appearances throughout your research project—until. Until they decide to have a big marmot party and you cannot ignore them anymore.

Learning Spaces was my Alpine Marmot

And because I never had the chance to explore it further, I am now picking up the topic where possible. Currently in my teaching planning. Museums are great learning spaces for all levels of education. It is simply a matter of how we think about them! Further, the idea is to link the physical spaces of museum and university with virtual space (VLE) via Bring your own device (BOYD).

Glasgow Museums

Scottish public museums are free for everyone, working in Glasgow I have free range of some frankly amazing museums. The closest one to our university is the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). Next month I am going to work with a group of international students, who need to prepare for presentations. The issue is that the students need to address diverse audiences so they need to pay close attention to their language, according to audience.

I thought if I would just provide the ‘normal’ presentation skills workshop, with some stronger focus on English for Academic Purposes, the learning experience would probably not be strong enough to convey the more or less subtle differences in language. I also would expect the students to focus too strongly on bringing the content across at all.

So this week during lunch I went to explore the current exhibitions in the GOMA. Low and behold, they are perfect for my teaching plan. The idea is, the first hour of our morning session, the students meet me at the gallery and then are to take photos with cameras or smart-phones (BYOD). Photos should focus on language. They are going to be given some focus points:

  • Are there formulations you like/dislike most?
  • Words or phrases you do not understand?
  • Words or phrases you find interesting, intriguing, ugly, beautiful?
  • Easy phrases vs difficult phrases

The rest of the morning we have a computer lab booked. Firstly I want the students to work in our VLE and share their photos, phrases and thoughts on language. Before transitioning these reflections into the presentation workshop. In the end linking it back to their professional content.


I am using a Bring your Own Device (BYOD) approach, I would prefer if I could use social media and have the students interact, while we are in the GOMA. However, I am not sure if the international students have UK mobile phone contracts so that could become expensive. Once we are in the classroom it will be more convenient to use the VLE. Any thoughts on BYOD always welcome! 

The Philosopher and I

Why working with a philosopher is equally challenging and rewarding.

On closer reflection about the Philosopher and I, and some bumps in our collaborative efforts, I have realised that I need to give semantics an increased significance. Working with the Philosopher my more or less careless ‘you know what I mean’ attitude became a constant source for challenge—because this is, what philosophers do.

The Philosopher always asks me questions, which answers to me are either blatantly obvious, or on occasion I had assumed I had already provided. These potholes of communication are much to my regret, down to semantics—which, I am learning to more carefully choose. The Philosopher forces me to rethink, to express more carefully and unambiguously the logic of my argument. As someone embracing ambiguity as ineluctable state of reality, punctilious logic is usually only something I entertain in verbal sparing matches or publications. However, the care I need to entertain in communicating with the Philosopher forces my cluttered mind to search for a clear form. Pre-emptively giving my language Gestalt, which it normally only gathers during a discussion.

Now as part of this rethinking process is, that I have grown uncomfortable with the terminology of ‘creative learning and teaching’ and meander more and more, and closer to German roots of speaking about creative pedagogy. I believe creative pedagogy, takes away the dichotomy between learner and teacher. Pedagogy I can understand better as the space where the teacher is not only the one who provides and the learner the one who receives, but integrates the teacher as learner and learner as teacher more comprehensively—purely from a semantic point of view. When using ‘creative learning and teaching’ as term I automatically create a bias of either the one or the other, while the term pedagogy offers the possibility of space.

Now this idea in itself is neither new, nor a personal earthshattering insight, but it demonstrates how working with the Philosopher impacts on challenging my assumed points of view and renegotiating these. Also I learned: if your thinking hits a wall, find yourself a philosopher to talk to.

Getting a Voice Make-Over

Voice Problems in Teaching

I am writing this post to share my experiment: ‘going to a voice coach’. Just in case you have similar issues to mine and may have wondered … However, if the topic sounds mind-numbingly boring, look at the following photo instead: Moon Moon is back!

For a year or so I have had problems with my voice—sometimes better, sometimes worse. Now after some research into the problem and related symptoms, I found that it is a common issue in teaching professions (and apparently with lawyers, too). Work does not offer any support. Therefore, I asked beloved Google for help, eventually stumbling across a voice coach. I decided to just book a session with a coach who appeared the most professional of all, and frankly her photo also looked really nice—as I found out later: good choice, I was first time lucky!

I learned so far:

  1. That it is really important to find someone I can feel comfortable with, because an essential part of the training was to relax and trust the teacher.
  2. It’s all in the breath
  3. Voice does not only relate to head and throat but to the whole body.

The session:

We began with a conversation, various breathing exercises, walking around while huffing and puffing, and eventually some singing (well kind of sort of singing), shaping mouth, making goggling eyes, and a not too little measure of physical display of attitude. From that we transitioned into speaking—and therein squawks the toad, literally! Apparently, I have a strong voice, but translating an easy use of this strength in ‘singing’ into using this strength in talking is at the moment near to impossible. Going through the ‘singing’ exercises I got to a point where I could actually feel that the sound came from a different place in the voice box than it did when speaking. The voice coach said that this is exactly what I want to achieve, having the sound coming from that place when speaking. Alas I have long way to go!

Risking to sound like a five-year old talking about her teacher: The voice coach also told me that she works with a lot of lecturers and teachers, and that voice damage is very common due to the wrong techniques. She even does attend lectures and observe at which point all the learning goes out of the window and why.

Voice Health Tips:

Drink at least 2 hours before teaching, it apparently takes 2 hours for the vocal cords (if I remember this right) to hydrate after drinking

If you have problems, inhaling over steaming water instantly hydrates the vocal cords (?–not entirely sure I remember the exact part of the voice apparatus here)

So that’s a first field report from going to a voice coach. So far I believe it is going to be really helpful.

A curious side-effect: I felt really relaxed all day after the training session.

Prevent students from developing bad habits.

Reflections on participating in our annual Learning & Teaching Showcase (you will find the poster on page two).

Assignment Meme I made for teaching
Assignment Meme

Prevent students from developing bad habits. That is pretty much the aim of my 1st year academic development module. For my poster I used the cliché of ‘long thin induction’. Clichés have the advantage that at least everyone within a prescribed cultural setting knows what you are talking about. So it saved a lot of text on the actual poster. In my paper I call the module ‘integrated sessions’, this is because I strongly align content with the course curriculum, so every single session is timed and aligned to the syllabus.

As the academic year progressed we covered topics from ‘learning to learn’, ‘note taking as exam preparation’, over ‘critical thinking’ to ‘developing arguments’ only to name a few. The pedagogy behind the approach is rooted in my PhD research, where I found that the most crucial parts for a successful learning experience are relevance and ownership of the learning process. This means the actual learning needs to make sense in the students’ realities. It needs to link to their experiences, establish a link between academic activities and professional development, and learning needs to have a ‘real life dimension’—e.i.: ‘Who has tried out New Year’s resolutions?’*

I aim on using learning and teaching strategies that encourage students to take ownership and control of their learning. For some students taking this ownership is sitting back, observe, think, while others virtually (and sometimes literally) roll up their sleeves and get involved in activities. Most of the activities I post in this blog are based on these principles.

My first attempt in gauging the impact of the first year academic development module, was with a standard course evaluation. Asking students about their perceptions, and felt confidence. Initially more than half the students felt lacking in confidence to some degree when it came to academic work; after the module most of the students felt the module had a positive impact on their studies. This is why I aim on a more thorough impact analysis this academic year.

The next page shows the poster I made about the module evaluation.

*This was to explain vague, unachievable goals versus ‘SMART’ goals using the smallest common denominator of why New Year’s resolutions don’t work. It also offers a conversation piece for students from different cultural backgrounds.

Exam Buffet for Exam Diet

Flyer advertising the drop in session
Flyer advertising the drop in session—I am no graphic designer

Exam Preparation and Coping with Stress

Living a bilingual life gives me the very annoying super-power to see beyond words, for instance: exam diet. Oxford English Dictionary explains that ‘diet’ describes activities ‘in which a person or group habitually engages’.* However, my superpower enables me to completely ignore the contextualised meaning and jump straight to the most obvious one: food!** Thus, emerged the idea for the exam buffet.

Exam Buffet

I designed the session as a one hour drop in. Students were invited to just come along, engage with the handouts I provided, and chat with one another. Initially I explained the different handouts belonging to the 4 courses. The key themes covered were: Unhealthy Foods (How to avoid bad habits, such as procrastination, flitting etc), Add Exercise (Stress coping strategies—based on a) sports for coping with stress but also b) relaxation and stress coping strategies need some training to become effective), Before the Diet (Learning and memory strategies) and Exam Snacks (Exam survival strategies, such as deconstructing questions, planning time etc.).

The Exam Preparation Session

The students were from different year groups and courses, which created a fantastic environment for exchanging experiences. Second year students telling first year students not to freak out too much, explaining tested learning strategies and knowledge of exam processes. I belief one of the most valuable tips was that coming to an exam early will provide time to fill in all the cover sheets without infringing on actual exam time. Something probably only students and exam invigilators are consciously aware of.

The session found a bit of resonance, I’ve never had that amount of email and 1-2-1 inquiries from students who could not make the time slots. Also the session ran 30 min over time with several students staying on, deep in discussion about coping strategies and how to survive an ‘All Nighter’***.

Fun fact

Apparently students have the issue of falling asleep when reading for their exams. It must be so common for students to fall asleep in the library that when the issue came up a student suggested: you would normally just ask someone close by to shake you awake when you fall asleep—obviously. I used this example to inform my students of a recent study that demonstrated improved cognition when learning outside. Now our students are lucky, Glasgow has a beautiful botanical garden with several green houses to frequent. So even rainy, stormy Scottish winters are no excuse for not learning outdoors (well semi-outdoors). An urban take on outdoor pedagogy, engagement with public space, and improving memory retention, all in one.

Glasgow, Victoria Park in Winter
Glasgow, Victoria Park in Winter


I should probably add, the handouts I prepared for the four courses are all based on research or counselling strategies, to let you know that a quirky form does not equate to poor quality content. If budget permits, I would suggest to print the handouts in colour and ‘menu’ related shapes. Alas I am direly restricted.


*    Now I belief habit contains an element of choice not so sure my students would agree
**  I am Saxon what do you expect, really?
***Which included explaining the term to international students

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