Skip to main content

Fleas in a Jar

Naomi de la Tour

I am sitting in a circle with my students in a black box studio on campus as we listen to a mathematician talk about how he imagines four or more dimensions. As a co-convenor of this module, Applied Imagination, this is the second time I have heard Dave Wood talk about this topic. When we began the module I told students that it had been deliberately designed so that there were weeks in which they were likely to feel comfortable with the ideas and epistemic roots of discussions, and weeks when they felt adrift, bemused and even frustrated. For some students here - students from maths, physics or philosophy, for example - I can see in the way they are sitting that this is the week in which they feel most relaxed, most at home. Others, like me, are wearing their confusion clearly on their faces. This, I told the students at the start of this workshop, is the week in which I most feel like my brain is bleeding from my ears.

There are innumerable ways in which our thinking is unknowingly shaped or restricted that can make it difficult for us to step outside the well-worn pathways in our thinking towards making divergent connections between ideas or even to experience a sense of ownership or permission to engage fully with playing with ideas. This is also a challenge faced by students. Implicit biases, both individual and structural, can unknowingly fundamentally affect the way we think. The internalised epistemic underpinnings of our disciplines, the way we believe the world does or should work, power hierarchies, expectations, boundaries, autonomy and trust all impact on those ideas it is easier for us to engage with, the ones that glide smoothly along the synapses, and those which snag, catch or (in my case, when trying to imagine more than four dimensions) tear at the brain. It’s in building opportunities for students to work towards developing a transdisciplinary understanding of imagination, by opening up chances to see and experience the ways in which their thinking or imagination is shaped by their backgrounds, their experiences, the environment and such, that we can open up ways of playing with what is possible.

My conclusion this year, as I sit and listen to Dave’s engaging and fascinating description, is that my difficulty in conceptualising more than four dimensions (and no, I was told last year the fourth one isn’t time) is perhaps not after all down to any lack of intrinsic ability on the part of my brain, but might be caused by a restricted concept of what the imagination is. The imagination is linked to senses or ideas and I access those either bodily or through language. Mathematicians have developed a language that opens up areas of the imagination which for me, with such limited understanding of the syntax and grammar they speak, is currently inaccessible. It isn’t that I can’t imagine the fourth dimension; it’s that I don’t have access to the language which would allow me to bridge the gap between my brain and the concept Dave is describing.

For me, working in interdisciplinary contexts, an important aim of my teaching is to help students develop the insight and understanding to see those things which are shaping their thinking and when it is useful to challenge the things that impinge on their freedoms and to develop the tools to do so. Your concerns will be different. For all of us, teachers and students, our imaginations or ability to play with ideas is being constrained and shaped. Of course, play can potentially reinforce as well as undermine power structures, hierarchies, boundaries and constraints. Identifying the ways in which ways you wish students to interact differently with some of the inhibitors to their freedom is important before choosing your tasks.

First, though, to make it possible to develop techniques to challenge the barriers or hierarchies to our learning, to find ways of undermining them, we must find ways of seeing them. There is a Playstation advert which shows fleas which have been kept in a jar. After a while the jar is removed. The fleas, however, continue to jump in such a way that they don’t hit the glass jar, therefore not discovering the absence of the jar. As a metaphor, it is a powerful way of understanding how established behaviour or expectations can act as a constraint on us even when the original barriers have been removed.

Later, when I log into my emails, I find Dave has copied me into a response he has sent to an email from the student who had been most exasperated and argumentative with his attempts to help her to understand more than four dimensions. It turns out, she says, to have been one of the most important learning experiences she’s ever had at university. In response Dave has written '"That's what I love about IATL modules; they give you a glimpse into other worlds that you may not encounter otherwise.” Not encountering other perspectives, not having the chance to play with different ways of seeing and understanding, perhaps not even knowing that they are there, is possibly one of the biggest constraints to learning we face.

There are a number of ways of using play to make constraints or hierarchies visible and once they can be seen, it is becomes more possible to change, challenge or shape them. Potentially, one of the best resources in the room for showing the effect of hierarchy is you as the teacher. Inevitably, due to your position in the classroom and the nature of education there is some implicit hierarchy present. See ‘student-led play’ for an example of how this can be explored in a classroom context.