“The best way to learn is to teach.” (Richard Feynman)
I usually introduce myself as an animation researcher and storyteller. Animation is the field I am most passionate about, as it combines both art and science. Art manifests itself through drawing, sculpting, designing characters and worlds as well as storytelling, theatre and character arcs. Science combines mathematics, programming as well as elements of physics, like optics and mechanics. My teaching philosophy thus starts from a point of infinite curiosity for how the world is connected from both a rational (science) and a spiritual (art) perspective.
My current role is as unit leader for two units on the BSc Computer Animation and Visual Effects course at Manchester Metropolitan University. The units are 3D Character Development for Level 5 students and Character Animation Techniques for Level 6 students. Before this lecturing post, I undertook an Engineering Doctorate research role with the Centre for Digital Entertainment at The University of Bath. There my research in the field of computer animation was combined with lab tutoring in adjacent subjects. I also taught one year on the aforementioned units before becoming unit leader.
Teaching in Higher Education (HE)
To facilitate learning in higher education (HE) I believe the most important factors are to have a passion for the subjects being taught and to share knowledge adaptively, regarding students with empathy and respect for their individual traits. A passion for learning is essential for refreshing the material, encouraging multiple perspectives (Jonassen 1991) and increasing students’ retention though a plethora of resources (Black and William 2009).
Being able to adapt the information difficulty level to the audience members is a technique for improving learners’ retention (Campbell 2020). Learners’ retention can be further enhanced by the three tier model described in Sundqvist et. al (2019), where support is adapted to the students’ needs. Tier one represents general support, available to all students, followed by tier two of intensified support for smaller groups and finally tier three of special support for individuals that need more detailed explanations.
Also, by including a level of empathy in the delivery method, information becomes relevant to the individual, rather than a set of abstract concepts. This is linked to inclusive practice through understanding and getting to know students as individuals. This practice has been shown to create a sense of safety and belonging among groups of students (Hockings et al 2012). Furthermore, empathy allows the material to be made relevant to the learning orientation of each student (Entwistle and Peterson 2004), leading to a deeper understanding of the subject.
An influential piece of reading for me was Illeris (2018) because it summarized the most popular learning theories from the past century. The learning theory proposed by the author also resonated well with my teaching methods. Considering content, incentive and interaction dimensions when designing and delivering a course allows me to offer a holistic learning experience. The incentive dimension has the highest priority in my opinion, followed by content and finally the interaction dimension.
Incentive comprises motivation, emotion and volition (Illeris 2018) and is linked to the “why” metaphor described by Simon Sinek (TED Talk 2010) and to the learning orientation described by Entwistle and Peterson (2004). I believe the reason why people learn is due to an inner drive, that ignites their curiosity both academically and vocationally (Entwistle and Peterson 2004). This can be linked to personal beliefs, innate talents or discovered passions and career goals. This “inner spark” then leads to content acquisition and the desire to meet learners with similar interests. Although useful to some extent, external motivators like marks and positive praise are used sparingly as this type of behaviourist approach to learning can lead to negative, competitive effects (Palmer 2005).
Regarding the content dimension, there are a few theories that influence my teaching. I relate to constructivism theories proposed by authors like Piaget (1926/1959), Jonassen (1991) and Palmer (2005) where knowledge is cumulated from previous experiences and is context, sometimes motivation driven. Before a student can reach mastery, however, cognitivism approaches (Ertmer and Newby 2013) help shape the introductory stages of knowledge (Jonassen 1991).
The method I use frequently to organize content is to find the building blocks that compose a complex piece of knowledge and to rebuild the latter using both logical scaffolding (Bruner 2002) and storytelling (narrative) methods. A data visualization pipeline, for example, can be explained through a story of a pirate using a map to look for treasure.
My teaching process usually starts with a holistic view (Pask 1988) of the broader picture, identifying patterns and analysing their component parts or building blocks. A serialist procedure (Pask 1988) then follows to further refine understanding of each component and how it fits into the overall structure of the piece of knowledge we wish to understand. Both theoretical and practical or experiential learning (Kolb 1984) are used to achieve this.
Afterwards, I like to bend the structures created by breaking and making new patterns (De Bono 1970), allowing students to view theory and practice from multiple angles (Jonassen 1991). Both lateral and vertical thinking (De Bono 1970) are thus employed to shape the knowledge concepts. The building blocks of knowledge can then be repeated in the design, delivery and assessment steps using constructive alignment techniques (Biggs and Tang, 2011) to consolidate the information.
It is important for me that students go beyond memorizing information and strive to analyse, create and find different applications for it (Bloom, 1956, Anderson 2000). Although previously learnt concepts influence the acquisition of new content (Hockings et al 2012), I also believe the brain can form new patterns due to its plasticity (Amen 2011), when employing a growth mindset.
Allowing students to reach beyond the facts and into a deeper understanding is a combination of individual motivation (Palmer 2005) and creating a safe and encouraging environment for learning. The latter implies interaction with peers and the teacher, who can influence each student’s experience, since learning is both an individual and a relational process (Murphy and Brown 2012).
Learning by Playing
A safe, inclusive environment for learning starts by viewing diversity of skills, knowledge and background as strengths (Thomas and May 2010). Each student should be given equal opportunities to express and share their opinions through diverse means (eg. text, speech, images). Some of the techniques I use to encourage students to collaborate are taken from improvised theatre (Johnstone 1999), where play is used for learning and connecting with others.
An example of an improv technique is endowment, or playing to each other’s strengths, which is great for group projects. To end, I would like to quote Dr Karin Purvis’ professional opinion on play, to show that accurate theoretical concepts, should always be combined with a fresh, personal and playful approach to knowledge:
“Scientists have recently determined that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain – unless it is done with play, in which case, it takes between 10 – 20 repetitions.” (Dr Karin Purvis)
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- Biggs, J. B., and Tang, C. S.-K. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student does. [Philadelphia, Pa.], McGraw-Hill/Society for Research into Higher Education.
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- Bruner, J. (2002). Making stories: Law, literature, life. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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- Illeris, Knud. (2018). An overview of the history of learning theory. European Journal of Education. Research, Development and Policy, 53 (2018), pp. 86-101
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- Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- McLeod, S. A. (2020, March 20). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
- Murphy, Mark. and Brown, Tony. (2012). Learning as relational: intersubjectivity and pedagogy in higher education. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 31:5, 643-654, DOI: 10.1080/02601370.2012.700648
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- Piaget, J. (1926/1959). The Psychology of Intelligence. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Sundqvist, Christel & Björk-Åman, Camilla & Ström, K. (2019). The three-tiered support system and the special education teachers’ role in Swedish-speaking schools in Finland. European Journal of Special Needs Education. 34. 1-16. 10.1080/08856257.2019.1572094.
- TED Talks. (2010). How Great Leaders Inspire Action | Simon Sinek. [Accessed 29/10/2020] [Link here]
- The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. (2019). Inclusive Teaching Through Active Learning. Brown University.
- Thomas, L and May, H. (2010). Inclusive Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. The Higher Education Academy.