beware the shoehorn – #researchfunding

For the last five years, I’ve directed a research development centre for the Arts and Social Sciences. I’ve just finished that job and am thinking about what I’ve learnt. This is one of the things that I’ve worried about.

The dictionary tells me that the verb ‘to shoehorn’ means to force something into an inadequate space. It’s a verb which is derived from an actual shoehorn, a device used to help you get your heel into a tight fitting shoe or boot. Like – well, you know the story of Cinderella. Her happy-ever-after depended on a slipper fitting her foot exactly and no one else’s – all her rivals had to be shoehorned into her fairy-made bespoke footwear.

Now what’s all this talk of shoehorning got to do with research bids, I hear you ask. Well, shoehorning is what some people try to do with their research bids. And its usually a sure-fire recipe for lack of success. Let me explain why.

These days, certainly in the northern hemisphere, a lot of research funding is subject to particular research calls. A funder declares a particular topic or theme and asks for research bids in response. It might be the EU or a charity or a government funded agency. So, for example, the Research Councils in the UK currently have a call for bids which respond to the theme ‘building resilience’.

The call is described in this way – As part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the UK research councils are taking a leadership role in generating interdisciplinary research and communities which can address the issue of ‘Building Resilience’.

The call is elaborated further to signal exactly what the funder is interested in.

Building resilience rests on the ability to take a holistic approach which encompasses environmental knowledge, socio-economics, infrastructure, governance, and the history and culture of a community or region that is affected. It will require new inter-disciplinary research and recognition of the importance of engaging with local actors to understand what knowledge is required and how it can be implemented to design solutions that help all parts of society. The call is open to proposals addressing resilience to natural and man-made environmental hazards in a range of developing world contexts. The focus is on how to build resilience in relation to both sudden and slow-onset environmental hazards (eg land-degradation, deforestation, drought, hurricanes, climate change) taking into account the intersections and relationships with other contexts such as conflict and fragility, poverty and famine, urbanisation, economics and health / disease risks.

These paragraphs are fairly typical of a themed call. The text outlines a BIG social problem – how people adjust to environmental hazards and disasters. It then sets out some parameters for the research – it must be located in a particular place and work with local partners; it must be interdisciplinary. Some of the disciplines that might be involved are flagged up – geography, politics, economics, history, health, perhaps archeology, languages, psychology, sociology or education. But there is also a lot of scope for researchers to shape their own project, arguing why their specific focus is significant, and why their approach is appropriate.  Overall, researchers must argue why the aspect of the call they’ve chosen to address is the most crucial, the most credible, and the most fundable.


For researchers who already work on this agenda, this kind of call is a god send. There is a good match between what they do and what is wanted. These researchers already know the field(s) intimately, they understand the theoretical and methodological debates, frontiers, and challenges. They know the literatures. Indeed, they may well have a project they have really wanted to do forever, if only there were a big enough pot of money available. They know other people who they can work with. These are researchers who are well positioned to put together a bid. The funding shoe fits.

Then there are researchers who can see how their research might contribute significantly to a bid in the area of the call. They might get together, or be encouraged by their institution(s) to come together with others, to develop a bid. A new team, usually with support of mentoring, time and perhaps someone to do some literature work and/or writing, can devise a project and work plan. This new project not only fits the call, but draws on the extensive track records of a community of scholars who may not have worked together before. In the particular call from RCUK, this may indeed be just what the funders want – they want new research groups to emerge. The researchers come together to make a new foot which the shoe will fit.

The problem comes when a researcher or research team sees the call and decides to try to make their research fit into it. They work in a related area and have an ongoing research agenda. They think they can see a way to bring the two together. But… They don’t design a new project from scratch. They don’t get their heads around the concerns of those making the funding call. They don’t make sure they know the methodological and knowledge issues beyond their existing frame. Instead, they try to push the next logical step for their own research agenda into the framework specified. This researcher/research team does not alter their foot at all – they simply try to shoehorn themselves and their work into the call.

The problem is that shoehorning is usually pretty obvious. A reviewer can see the various mismatches in literature, methods, projects. They can read the multiple ways in which the overall warrant for the research struggles and strains to fit the call. They can see the gaps in the track record. The researcher/research team hasn’t done enough work on the new framing. They’ve simply tried to bend their own work around, write it in a new way, adopt a bit of the call’s language and assert the commonality of their concerns with the theme. And, like Cinderella’s sisters who amputated their heels and toes to try to make the slipper fit, the shoehorning researcher often omits the very aspects of their own research that make it compelling. The end result is a research rationale and research design that is ill-fitting. Shoehorning produces an un-fundable bid.

In times of research funding scarcity, it’s always tempting when the big calls come out to try to do the shoehorning thing. After all, when else are you going to get a crack at some big money that might allow you to make a step change in your research? Better do this now or else there might not be another chance.

But unless there is already a good fit between your research and the call, or unless you are prepared to do the work necessary to meet the call  – often with others –  then simply shoehorning really isn’t a good use of your time. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably a waste of the time you might have spent writing a more modest bid for less prescriptive funding.

The shoehorned research bid is rarely successful. It’s something to avoid. It hurts when you’re writing it, as you have to contort your own concerns, and it hurts when it’s rejected.

My message? Save the shoehorn for the stretchy leather boots.



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enough of the critique, at least some of the time? 

It’s holiday season. I’m away and having a tiny pause, a little reflect. Apologies to those of you who are seeking writing about writing. I sometimes do other things. Writing about writing will be back soon. 

This week I’m musing. 

How do we manage critique in these times? No I don’t mean how to do it, that’s an easy question to answer. I mean how do we live a life of critique? As the world hurtles further into an appalling and terrifying mess, bearing out the sociological  theories of risk society, runaway world and liquid modernity, I find myself perhaps paradoxically questioning critique. 

How  to continually focus on all of the things that are ghastly, frightening, inequitable and unjust about the world? We social scientists can’t ignore it. But it’s just that I feel, and this may be just me, that I can’t keep doing critique all the time. And I don’t know how to maintain a sense of optimism in the face of all the wicked and evil goings on. Nor am I sure, any longer, about how not to get worn out by the sheer  scale of the things to get angry about. 

How to critique and not feel enervated, profoundly powerless? 

Photo credit:  Ze’ev Barkan

I’m clearly not the of the same makeup as, for instance, a restaurant critic.

Jay Rayner’s justification for his evening of music and gags “My dining hell” is that people just prefer the negative to the positive. Audiences would never come to a show called ”My dining heaven” he argues.

For those of you who don’t know Jay Rayner, he’s the food critic for The Observer and well known for his biting reviews. He can’t bear restaurants that pay more attention to the décor than the food, that seem to care more about the menu descriptors than the food, where the waiting staff pester unnecessarily. Raynor can’t abide food on slates and cocktails in jam jars. And if food chicanerie is accompanied by high prices, then Sunday morning may well see a restauranteur waking up to a story which says something like…

Ten minutes into our lunch at Tapas 37, the new restaurant inside the Ecclestone Square Hotel in London’s Pimlico, the fire alarm went off. It was a vast hacking noise like a goose with bronchitis. Our sweet, eager waitress ran down the narrow dining room flapping her hands while bellowing “It’s just a test” and rolling her eyes with a theatrical shrug, as if to say “What can you do?” Some might wonder why a hotel which has invested money in a new restaurant, including hiring a chef with some big restaurant action on his CV, would then schedule a fire alarm test for the lunch service. Personally, I can’t help but fantasise about how much better a day it would have been for all involved, had the fire alarm been real.

Raynor has just compiled a book of his bad restaurant reviews, also called My Dining Hell.  Why this title? Well, according to Raynor, we all love to read bad things. He says

.. nobody would want to read a bunch of my positive appraisals. But give them write-ups which compare the food to faecal matter, the decor to an S&M chamber and the service to something the staff of a Russian gulag would reject for being too severe, and then readers are interested.

Raynor argues that reading bad restaurant reviews is highly cathartic –  we readers can see that Rayner has been able to take revenge for all of the bad and over-priced meals and crap service that not only he – but also we- have endured. A bad review? He is simply doing it for us, Rayner suggests. But, of course, he also develops through both bad and good reviews a view of what a restaurant should do – serve food that is reasonably priced for what it is, in pleasant surroundings, with good service.

Rayner also observes that writing a negative review is easier than writing a good one – bad experiences are simply funnier, the vocabulary of the awful much wider. What’s more, he says, negative reviews are as much fun to read as they are to write. The critical is simply more entertaining all round. That’s because, he argues, people just like the negative more than the positive…it’s a human characteristic. 

Really? It’s our ‘nature’ to prefer the negative? It’s universal? The same for everything?

Of course the difference between Raynor’s world, and the one that we social scientists turn our critical attention to, is that the world we work on and write about actually is really awful.  And just a bit more significant than a dire night out in the company of the appalling three course meal.

My own research agenda focuses on education systems that humiliate and exclude. Pedagogies that marginalise and penalise. Lives and opportunities thwarted and reduced as a result. The systems have to be named, called out and challenged. But now, this agenda is overtaken by global crises and catastrophes. The often awfulness of mainstream education pales besides the killings of people, species and land/water/air.

But I recently re-read some words from Brian Massumi. He writes about the differences between critique and what he calls writing that is inventive, that adds to the positive of and in the world. He says:

It is not that critique is wrong. As is usual, it is not a question of right and wrong – nothing important ever is. Rather it is a question of dosage. It is simply that when you are busy critiquing you are less busy augmenting. You are that much less fostering. There are times when debunking is necessary. But, if applied, in a blanket manner, adopted as general operating principle, it is counter-productive. Foster or debunk. It’s a strategic question. Like all strategic questions, it is basically a question of timing and proportion. Nothing to do with morals or moralising. Just pragmatic. ( p 13).

Balance critique with augmenting. Deconstruct and reconstruct. Argue against and also offer an alternative. Keep reservoirs of hope alive. Sometimes of course, rage must be forefront and maintained. But sometimes it’s also good to consider what might be done differently. Use the critique to augment. Well that’s Brian’s theory. 

And I think mine,  most of the time.

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tate summer school – Friday

IMG_0381Throughout the school we have been extensively documenting our activities, then projecting, hanging and displaying the results.

Sometimes this has been by ‘arranging’ the actual objects, at other times, by filming images, filming filming, filming performances, filming exercises, filming films.

Projections have become semi-permanent displays, looped films shown on multiple screens around our work space. Friday saw the emphasis of work shift further to the question of display.



After watching our analog films, a few pieces of which had sadly not quite developed well enough,  the now regular Wake and Shake was a badge making exercise in which two people stood back to back.  One person described an object using technical terms only, while the other person drew. The pair then reversed the process and the resulting drawings were made into badges. This exercise was like the Wake and Shake on Monday, providing  symmetry to the week’s activities.


The remainder of the day was devoted to exhibition making. Family, Tate staff and passing public would be invited into our space at 4pm to see what we had done during the week.

Some rules were applied to exhibiting – no new work, no blue tack, no fishing line, no sticky fixes, no click frames (unless they were ironic). The group was asked to think curatorially about:

  • the selection, juxtaposition, clustering and repetition of materials. Rhythm and pacing were to be anticipated through the way the display was put together.
  • the architecture of the space –  including perspective, sightline, height, framing, flow, repetition, point of view, zoning.

We had to consider the pedagogy of display – hanging low forces people to bend down and become more intimate with a piece, hanging high requires requires viewers to look upward in a more reverent manner. We were assured that there was no standard display and that we should consider how to build in both the unexpected, a surprise, and moments of reflection.


A trip to the gallery was included in the morning’s activities, so that we could see the ways in which moving images and static objects were displayed in the same space in the permanent Tate collection.

People worked in self selected groups as on the previous day. Two of the groups chose to include a performance in their display.

There was a brief 1o minute speed writing evaluation, part of which will go towards our “research” – some writing about what people will take from the week. A discussion on the topic “How can we resist” concluded the formal proceedings.

One of the participants, Jon, has already blogged his response to the school and his thoughts on how the summer school might influence his teaching next year.

Pedagogic points:

  • make and display provides an incentive and reason to care about making and about the work. It does not elevate product over process. It may suggest that making is not always private and is intended for showing, for communicating, for response.
  • make and display plus ‘crit’ is immediate, formative evaluative feedback. It provides an opportunity for the teacher to model and for students to practice reflective thinking, questioning and invitational propositions – what if, I wonder about, I really liked because…
  • display requires the artist/student to make the point of view of the audience concurrent with their own desire to communicate something in particular – to consider the material architecture and visual grammar of communication.
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tate summer school – Thursday

Today was Analog Day with artist Bill Leslie. Bill is currently doing a PhD at Kingston asking the question “How do sculptures change when they are filmed or photographed?”

We began the day hand colouring a strip of 16 ml film using marker pens.. This wake and sake exercise allowed us to see action and projection immediately – we drew, the film was shown. Our collective marks became translucent, changed size and in relation to each other.

hand colouring 16 mll film

hand colouring 16 mll film

We watched some of Bill’s work and then spent most of the day working in small groups on a  film. Bill had brought with him a Bolex – a hand cranked camera.Working with this kind of camera requires measuring the distance between the lens and the physical material to be filmed – no auto focus here.

Every person had one run of the crank – or 20 seconds to work with. Each group was of variable size and had available to them the sum total of cranks of people in the group.

The groups were to work with the ideas and materials that had been generated in the summer school on previous days, although these could of course be modified/transf0rmed.

After lunch we went off into the gallery to see a video installation by Gustav Metzger which had been produced by projecting crystallisation and decomposition of crystals – what he called  ‘auto destructive’ art.

watching Gustav Metzger

watching Gustav Metzger – auto-destructive’ art.

The bulk of the day however was spent making.

Once again people had to think about how to bring their individual ideas together with a group project.

There was also time at the end of the day for a group discussion around the question of “Does talking change it?” and the ‘usual’ badge making.

Each group got to film, but this took a bit longer than expected (doesn’t it always?), so the manual processing of the film occurred in the evening. Not everyone was able to stay, although many did. The film will dry overnight, and be shown first thing on Friday.

There is also now a Tate Summer School 16 tumblr which is accumulating photos, and the films that we have made.

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tate summer school – Wednesday


There was no Wednesday. Well, there was, of course, but I wasn’t at it. I had to go to a meeting in Manchester so I couldn’t be in both places at once.

Having to miss a day of field work, especially when it only happens once a year, is awful. But missing out on some of the action in your chosen site is often unavoidable. That is why I’ve chosen to mark my non-research day with a post.

Why absent? Sometimes it happens you are unwell and can’t be out and about infecting other people in the name of generating data. However, in my case I clearly had a choice about whether to attend a meeting two hours away on the train or not. I decided to go because the meeting was also a once a year event, and it was with a funder… need I say more? And because this was my fifth summer school and I felt that maybe it wasn’t completely crucial. We shall see…

But not-being-there, being away from having around creates a problem for the researcher, and I guess, a simultaneous opportunity. How will I find out what happened on Wednesday? I have the timetable. But that is really just a starting point…


Well, I have to ask of course.

But I also have to look at the group – are they talking differently, relating differently. working in different groups? I also need to find the traces of their activity – objects, films – to see what has changed since Tuesday. I have to find out what has happened to some of the ongoing discussions – is it art, is what we’re doing art, how do the one and the many come together when making. I have to see what further complexities have been added to the play-with-formal-shapes (Monday) and the practices of performance and camera that we were immersed in (Tuesday). And I know that Anna and Alex want the group to start to direct action in the latter half of the week so Wednesday was an important transition. What did this look like?

So Thursday will be just a little bit frantic as I try to catch up, attempt to get some sense of what went on – as well as engage fully with the programme.

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tate summer school – Tuesday

Today’s focus was on performance and the camera. The day began with a viewing of the two sets of moving images that were made yesterday. These were screened side by side. We discussed elements of the film that seemed to “work well” together.



Wake and Shake followed:

  • Everyone had to make a hole in a corrugated cardboard sheet.
  • We conducted two short experiments with the cards with holes and a camera mounted on the rotating table. Yesterday the camera “looked in” at objects on the table, today the camera was on the table and “looked out”. We first of all simply all randomly placed our cards with their variously shaped  holes in front of the slowly rotating camera. The second experiment was more structured. Half of the group held their cards together and walked in a circle. The other half of the group walked in the opposite direction. Glimpses of the second group and their cards could be seen through the holes in the inner circle. We repeated this exercise refining the movements the second time around

We then watched the two films straight away, discussing the qualities of the film as well as the way the exercise felt as a performance. Improvisation, rehearsal, refinement were key ideas.

Next, we went into the gallery with our cards with holes. We walked until Alex rang a bell and then we froze for a few seconds. Because we were doing this in public, we rapidly became an object of interest. Some people wanted to join in. A couple of the summer school participants handed over their cards and holes to people who really wanted to participate. We “ performed” this piece on the second floor and in one of The Tanks.

Move Freeze in the gallery

Move Freeze in the gallery

On returning to our own space in the Exchange we debriefed. We noted that:

  • because we all had a card with a hole we appeared to be a collective
  • because we acted together, and were in Tate, the public seemed to assume that what we were doing was, and had the status of, ‘art’
  • very few of us felt embarrassed
  • the activity seemed to be invitational
  • the activity could be seen as an institutional critique- a parody of audience behavior – but alternatively at a personal level, it was play in the gallery

One of the group thought that this would be a great exercise to do in school at breaktime – it would be surprising, a simple disruption to the regular routine.

After lunch it was time for Alongside Making, and people again worked to instructions, making images and objects.

Tracking - objects two rows of holes

Tracking – objects two rows of holes

We then returned to a Tracking exercise. This was a more complex moving image construction with two concentric circles of cards with holes and objects. This time, the aim was to create movement in around the through the holes. The resulting film was uploaded and screened.


Alex makes badges

The penultimate activity of the day was small group discussion to the question What is it? The group that I was in took the ‘it’ to be the process of making images and discussion roved around the ways in which people felt attuned to, or confused by the activity we had been engaged in during the day.As there had been all day, some of our conversation focused on individual making and creativity, versus collective creativity and making. I later heard that another group took the ‘it’ to be art, and spent time discussing what counted as art and what didn’t.

As on Monday people doodled during discussion and badges were made from the doodles.

The final activity was a visit to a gallery again in small groups to discuss an aspect of art education or a work.

Pedagogic points:

  • Extend an exercise through multiple variations, each adding further complexity and refinement.
  • Use immediate viewing of product as ‘evidence’ to stimulate group reflection. The discussion will then influence the next iteration.
  • If an interesting idea appears, modify the initial plan. Improvisation is integral to creating meaning-making opportunities.
  • Expect everyone to participate, but accommodate different approaches to the task and even those who choose not to participate.



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tate summer school: Monday

Health warning – this week I am using my blog as part of ethnographic research at Tate. This is the fifth summer school I have attended as a participant researcher. The posts represent a first “cut” of notes taken during the day. The posts are intended to stand as a record of activities but also have some preliminary ideas about “what is going on” (the research question). All but one of the participants have voluntarily signed ethics and photo consent forms. The posts are immediately available to participants and they become part of the summer school process. This is “live” method. Because the posts are written rapidly, they are unpolished and may contain typos!

Tate Summer School is being run by practitioners Anna Lucas and Alex Schady who have, we were told, both artist and teacher selves. Both are important to the Summer School. Anna and Alex also both work with moving and still image, and this is the focus for the week’s programme.

The participants, 24 in total, are from primary and secondary schools, colleges, universities and galleries. They work/ed in Russia, Singapore, Spain, Israel, Hong Kong and the UK. Most came to “get inspired” and a few to “get ideas to take back to school.” There are also Tate staff in the school, one is experiencing it as a full participant. And of course me, the researcher who hangs around.

Summer School is being held in the new Tate Exchange room, on the fifth floor of the Switchhouse. It’s a magnificent learning space which allows for different activity zones – eating, chatting, meeting, watching, making. There is ample room for everyone to spread out, to chat in small groups, and work as one big school. The scape of the city of London and Southbank/Southwark are always in sight.


learning zones on left, concepts for the day on right

Our first day began not with introductions but with a shared activity – one person described the formal elements of a chosen image (on a postcard) without actually naming what was on it – to another person. The second person the listener then had to write a sentence summing up what had been said. This activity was repeated four times. Everyone had a couple of goes at describing and summarising. The group had to talk about shape, colour, texture and line and so on in order to complete the task.

This was an exercise which showed that the image is incapable of being made into a limited range of words. However it was also an exercise which created a shared experience among the group about the theme of the day (formal images), and brought into the room the kinds of language resources that we would use in the day’s talking, thinking and making.


clay objects made during introductions

The next exercise – still no introductions, was to work in small groups to sequence a set of five images, and then to add more to join all of the groups together. We had to negotiate amongst ourselves what “join” would mean. The joins between the images were photographed with an ipad, and the result was made into a film which showed all day, on one of the several screens around the space.

Then the introductions. Everyone was also given a small piece of clay and asked to make, at the same time as listening, a small geometric shape. This led into a discussion about the summer school focus on formality – no figures, no narratives, we were told. The words for the day were “Ball, block and blank”.

If there are restrictive rules applied to a learning/making task, this is not necessarily a problem, Anna and Alex said, because that forced us to think more creatively about how to move within restrictions.

We discovered that each day would follow a similar pattern – an introductory “wake and shake” exercise, group work, visiting works in the gallery and responding to them, individual making and a concluding discussion. We would work individually, in small groups and as a whole. Sometimes the activities would be rapid fire, at other times slowed down to create an “art room atmosphere”. There would be lots of making.



Bind Movie Drawing

And indeed there was. After our work with images and clay, we made “pointers” and “plinths”, and took them to a new gallery showing a range of objects (largely lines and cubes. We had to take a photo of a work with the object we had made. We were also invited to do “blind movie drawing” using a pencil and two facing sheets of carbon paper to draw (no figures or narratives) while we watched a video made by Joan Jonas.

The images of both of these gallery-based activities are to be photographed and filmed and will be available on Tuesday.

Shared lunch in the Exchange space allowed smaller groups to come together to chat socially, an important part of the summer school experience, but not subject to any pedagogical steerage.


Leaning Tower of Pisa snap: plinth

Immediately after lunch Anna and Alex introduced their own work. Alex showed his use of instagram as a kind of sketch book, and as a catalogue. Anna showed two films she had made, one “Loose Parts” is an introduction to a family resource pack accompanying the current programme at The Serpentine.

Alex and Anna haven’t worked together a lot, and their work is very different. But because we saw their images projected side by side, we could see some of the connections and commonalities in the ideas they explored. (This was an exercise like the one with which we had begun the day – finding/seeing connections between images.)

The pattern of making something, making an image of it, and then displaying it was maintained throughout the day. The afternoon involved a protracted period of individual making in response to instructions. I chose to select an image and take at least three photos of it. Other people worked with making collages of images, making holes in images that could be used to look through, covering parts of images with black ink…   each person then chose one image and an object to put, in turn, onto a revolving table. Anna used a mounted camera to produce a visual montage of the whole group’s afternoon.


deeply absorbed in making

The final activity was a group discussion about the value of the arts. People were given a pen and a small piece of coloured paper and asked to draw – no figures, no narratives – during the discussion. Not everyone spoke today – perhaps only the bravest or the most familiar with summer school?

Art education was said to be valuable because:

  • it allowed students to make connections between other subjects, and between important parts of their lives
  • it offered all students an alternative way to express themselves. This was particularly important for those young people who otherwise experienced failure at school
  • it brought students together and it also brought them together with their communities
  • it had “no right or wrong” but relied on students bringing and working through their own ideas
  • it was in everything
  • the thinking process used was helpful across the curriculum and was of benefit to everyone, regardless of what they wanted to do in the future
  • it developed systematic thinking, ideas and making skills at the same time
  • it was unpredictable, creative and required ongoing problem solving – the 21st century skill set.

There was discussion about how much art ought to be concerned with vocational ends, and also about the possibilities of resistance to the narrowing of the curriculum and the focus on assessable predetermined outcomes – a theme that is to continue. Some differences between sectors, and countries and schools also began to emerge.

In the spirit of “No mind maps” and “No lists of action points”, the discussion concluded with each person having their meeting doodle-drawing made into a badge. The badge was pinned onto a banner which had the day’s question – what is the value – on it. The banner and badges were evidence that the discussion had occurred, Alex said, but also that its value was in the moment, in the doing and listening.

Pedagogic points:

  1. establish shared experience and vocabulary before beginning discussion
  2. use what participants bring as shared resource
  3. establish learning zones
  4. offer a limited number of learning activities as a routine (consider the sequencing and pacing)
  5. offer the same task in multiple ways – practice what is important e.g. finding connections between formal images; make, take and displays
  6. offer opportunity for critical meta discussion about shared practice



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