This activity takes as its starting place the practice of theory building, which is one of the pedagogic techniques developed by the Open Space Learning project at the University of Warwick. Theory building involves giving 12 - 15 images to small groups of participants, and asking them to develop a theory of a particular topic from these images, which they then set out as a gallery of ideas for the other groups to visit (for more information on theory building, see the OSL website). By the nature of the activity the participants are required to engage deeply with the subject, and make creative connections between ideas. (NB: IATL funded a Pedagogic Intervention project (‘Engaging postgraduate students in mixed methods: the use of a novel activity to teach data integration and synthesis’) in which the Warwick Medical School uses the practice of theory building; they are expected to publish on this topic in the near future.)
We suggest a twist on this activity: to use theory building for planning and creating events (such as conferences and workshops), with the aim of generating creative and surprising experiences for the participants. An added benefit is that the event planners may well find that they gain new insights into the subject of the event along the way.
The event planners are in the rather unusual position of being both participants and facilitators. To facilitate the activity (as you will see in the detailed description below) you will need to select a suite of images and quotations; we suggest that each planner supplies a few each, and then the whole group chooses the final set of 12 - 15 images together.
Taking a playful approach to the planning of an event means that the event planners will encounter and engage with substantial key questions relating to the topic in hand, therefore allowing them to create an event which tackles these questions consciously. Below you’ll see that we suggest an second phase to this activity, which is to ask session leaders and speakers at the event to use one of the images as a starting point for their session, so that they also share in the benefits of this playful approach.
A room with a large table or open floor space is a good place to assemble your theory, as you’ll have scope to move your images around in different combinations.
You will need a suite of images to discuss. We suggest that 12 - 15 is a manageable number. It’s ideal if you laminate them so that they’re more robust. Scaffolding and anchoring
It might be useful to ask participants to familiarise themselves with the practice of theory building by reading the OSL webpage beforehand.
It’s important to establish some practical parameters for your event, into which the ideas generated by the activity can fit. For example, how long do you have for sessions? What is the overall aim of the event you’re planning? What kind of space will you be using?
The Dark Would team used theory building as a tool to create The Dark Would event (for more information, see TDW website). We used a suite of images and quotations to develop a “theory” for the event; that is, we generated the form and content of the event from a series of images. We used the images we selected to structure the programme, and to guide the session leaders when developing their sessions (you can see the final event programme here).
The images and quotations that we chose encapsulated some of the key principles of The Dark Would: chiefly, wonder and curiosity, and the hypothesis that wonder and curiosity enhance education and pedagogy at all levels. For example, the panda-ant, plant man, and the deer slipping away between the trees all suggested to us a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity (is a ‘panda-ant’ named so because it’s the size of a panda? The image gives no clue as to scale), wonder and awe (the plant man is eerie and fascinating, begging for a closer look and repelling us simultaneously), and greyness, liminality, the edge of things (the deer is at once visible and invisible, as if vanishing into the twilight).
All of these ideas are central to The Dark Would, so we wanted them to imbue the event as well.
We also gave images and quotations to each of the session leaders to use as a starting point for their session. For example, we chose a quotation from The Divine Comedy as the starting point for a session on the importance of failure and trying again in education and pedagogy:
Midway upon the road of life
I found myself within a dark wood
for the right way had been missed...
The Divine Comedy, 'Inferno', Canto 1.1-3
The connection between failure and the protagonist of the Inferno being lost is simple; but in order to embody our key values of wonder and curiosity we didn’t provide any further information to attendees to help them choose which session to attend.
First, choose your images. We suggest that each planner chooses a few, and that the event team chooses the final set of images together. We used text and pictures, but you could choose to use just one or the other. We chose images based on pictures that inspired us or somehow captured our ideas, but the tangential, implicit images were the most useful as they open up rather than limit avenues of exploration. You could try using randomly selected images, but this might make your task unnecessarily difficult.
Second, build your theory. How can you connect the images into a narrative, or a constellation of ideas, that captures your ideas?
Third, extend this theory out into your event. You can break this down into three questions to ask yourself:
Do the images that you have selected, and the connections you have made, suggest a particular form?
For example, the images we selected all captured a sense of wonder and curiosity, so we left the event programme vague, thus gently inviting the participants to explore the programme consciously and thoughtfully, perhaps trying something new rather than choosing the type of session they would always attend. We also asked workshop leaders to offer sessions that were interactive, and perhaps unsettling, again embodying the principles of surprise and ambiguity. Perhaps the images that you have selected suggest collectiveness or collaboration, in which case you might want to shape your event around an un-conference; perhaps your images suggest playfulness and a childlike approach, in which case you might want to build play into the programme, and even into the way you advertise the event. For example, the theory building we did before the event led to us producing a booklet which was surprising and playful, unfolding, unfolding further, and unfolding again into unexpected shapes.
What do the images that you have selected, and the connections you have made, tell you about the topics you should cover in the event? You may have discovered something you didn’t expect while playing with these ideas which you realise should be part of the event; or perhaps you have encountered a different approach to a familiar topic.
How can you combine what you have discovered about the form and content of your event? For example, when planning the TDW event we realised that we needed to introduce attendees to ideas with solid academic underpinnings (the content) through interactive, challenging, exciting sessions (the form) which embodied the key principles of TDW.
These tasks aren’t only useful for planning events: what would happen if you used this technique to plan a teaching session, or a whole module? What if you asked students to design a session with you, through theory building? It’s worth being conscious that throughout the activity you might not (probably won’t!) know where you’re going to end up, so we’d encourage you to reflect equally on the process and the outcome; though of course your ability to do that will depend on the freedom (time, space, permission) you have to elevate process to the same status as outcome.This page has no content yet.