A Feast of Opportunity: Introducing Chinese lecturers to British art and design teaching practice

Abstract

At a time when many UK universities have embarked on a process of rapid internationalisation, this article argues that students working together in teams to solve problems could prove an effective way of overcoming some of the linguistic and cultural impediments to transnational education. The article reflects on a unit delivered to a largely international cohort of students on a newly-launched masters course in Digital Media. The approach adopted was largely a socially-constructivist one in which the aim was to foster an environment in which students were willing to learn through dialogue and participation with staff and each other. The teaching sessions were observed by visiting lecturers from China who were studying British approaches to creative education. One of these lecturers had several questions about teaching approach adopted which, in turn, led to a useful process of reflection. These questions took the form of an email exchange which forms the part of the article.

PUBLISHED ON 1st March 2021 | WRITTEN BY Charles Lambert | Photo by Scribbling Geek on Unsplash

Introduction

This article does not seek to answer the question ‘how do you teach creativity?’ but, rather, suggests ways in which an educator can foster an environment in which creativity might be allowed to thrive. As a journalist, I once interviewed the fine artist David Nash. Speaking about his own student experience, at Kingston School of Art, he said:

“They had an annex on an old farm in Kingston where the education department dumped their punch medicine balls, lots of chairs and desks and school equipment, blackboards and stuff. So I used it. Broken hula hoops, with which I made arches. Punctured medicine balls, with which I made shapes, cutting them up. It was just a feast of opportunity.” (Lambert, 2012)

For Nash, Kingston did not teach him to be creative; it did however give him “a feast of opportunity”.

Nash, in some respects, resembles Lev Vygotsky’s example of a six-year-old child left to their own devices in a home where there are a lot of books, newspapers and magazines and where the parents are keen readers (Gredler, 2008, p88). In this instance, it could be argued the environment is acting as an educator.

This paper looks at an attempt to create such an environment, drawing on Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. Most of the students involved in this project were from mainland China; most of them had no prior experience of UK education and some had fairly limited English language ability.

Theoretical Considerations

Students arrive on a Masters course with varied experience and skills from their undergraduate studies. Among the first cohort of students on MA Digital Media at the University for the Creative Arts, we had students who had undertaken BAs in subjects as diverse as Film and Animation, Surveying and Music Journalism. A key element of Vygotsky’s Sociocultural theory is that learning takes place in the “zone of proximal development” – i.e. just beyond the existing level of skill or knowledge that the learners have, so far, attained. On MA Digital Media, this zone will vary significantly between the different students given their varying prior experience. For example, most of the cohort had never attempted animation whereas one student had completed a bachelor’s degree in the subject.

A further complication is that Digital Media is, by definition, a very wide concept. The university website describes it as a practice-based course for students who wish to improve their employability in media roles:

“There is an increasing demand for digital content for both existing and emerging media. Content makers have to understand how to apply their creative skills and ideas across a range of platforms and media, and be adaptable to this fast-changing industry.” (UCA, 2020)

The Digital Storytelling unit, which is discussed in this paper, promises to introduce students to “Photography, video, graphics, typography, animation, sound, web design and writing content for online environments” (ibid). In this context, the notion of a single lecturer as all-knowledgeable and able to guide students through each and every subject area becomes unrealistic. Instead, it makes sense to draw on students’ own expertise to support their peers. Thus, a student who had significant experience of camera work became a more-knowledgeable-other when groups were out filming; a student with a first degree in journalism became a more-knowledgeable-other when groups were writing scripts. “Diverse groups of students teach themselves in different ways by showing, for example, different possibilities” (teacher quoted by Radclyffe-Thomas, 2011).

The appeal of using a socially constructivist approach was, therefore, that it saw social interactions as a significant benefit to learning rather than a distraction. Thinking back to my own postgraduate study, I am conscious that I learnt more from social interactions with my peers than from my own self-initiated study. This approach does, however, rely on the assumption that, having completed undergraduate degrees, all students have achieved a high level of competence in at least one discipline, i.e. that the peer-delivered advice is trustworthy.

The role of the lecturer in this scenario can be seen as a facilitator. Schwarz (2005) identified five common facilitation roles: facilitator, facilitative consultant, facilitative coach, facilitative trainer, and facilitative leader. He also noted (2002) that, at higher levels, the leader will not know everything about the subject which was certainly the case here, though we were lucky enough to be able to bring in experts in film, animation and creative advertising. Dineen and Collins (2005) have also written about tutors becoming facilitators which tends to happen in “student-centred classroom environments in which students are encouraged to take ownership of their work [and] to experiment”.

Central to Vygotsky’s thinking was the development of speech, a “specifically human capacity” (1978, p 28). One could certainly apply Vygotskian theory to the challenges of teaching and learning in a situation where a significant language barrier exists, as was the case between myself and many of the students on this unit. However, this would warrant a separate study of its own and, so, I have largely avoided mention of it in this article.

Institutional Context

The 15-week unit Digital Storytelling unit ran from September to the end of January with a short break at Christmas. I was assigned responsibility for delivering the unit at fairly short notice. I was assisted by audio and video technicians and three sessions were delivered by a specialist animator.

All courses at UCA are expected to engage with Education for Sustainable Development as encapsulated in the Future Fit framework (Sterling, 2012) and to look to engage with local communities. Upon taking over the course, I was keen that it should have very clear positive social purposes; students should be encouraged to consider the ethical implications of their projects.

As well as being the first year that MA Digital Media ran, this was also the first year that our School (Film, Media and the Performing Arts) had seen significant recruitment from China. The number of Chinese students at UK universities rose from 89,540 in 2014-15 to 120,385 in 2019 (Higher Education Statistics Agency, cited by Jeffreys 2020) with many British universities now reliant on fees income from China.

Two Chinese visiting lecturers attended all the taught sessions in the unit discussed in this paper with a view to learning more about teaching methods in a UK creative arts institution.

The Chinese Ministry of Education has identified “creativity” and “innovation” as qualities it wishes to introduce in schools (West-Knights, 2017) as it moves from ‘Made in China’ labels to ‘Created in China’ (Keane 2006) and this appears to be one reason why it is prepared to accommodate students and lecturers spending time at western universities.

The British cultural sector aspires to meet this need. Since the election of Tony Blair’s government in 1997, the UK’s creative industries have sought explicitly to present themselves as parts of a creative hub, though the roots of this assertion can be traced much further back. “London has a long history of attracting people from around the world to visit, live, work and study; a cosmopolitan city with 300 languages spoken” (Radclyffe-Thomas, 2011). The British Fashion Council in 2010 claimed the UK’s higher education system promotes “a world class environment for nurturing creativity and innovation” (cited in Radclyffe-Thomas, 2015). Two years later, this process of branding Britain reached its apogee at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics which referenced actors, artists, designers, scientists and musicians, including J. K Rowling, Tim Berner Lee, Rowan Atkinson and Paul Mc Cartney and reflected the multicultural nature of Britain (BBC, 2012).

The Approach

In line with the unit descriptor for Digital Storytelling, students were set three briefs over the course of the 15 weeks of unit. In devising the briefs, consideration was given to Reeves (2019)’s assertion that students “are more likely to learn when they are involved in meaningful activities” and to Sterling’s suggestion (2012) that educators “design imaginative assessments that can encourage [their] students to consider sustainability topics in their coursework.” For these reasons, each brief was designed with a distinct client or publisher in mind and the latter two both had socially beneficial outcomes:

  1. A New Farnham. Students were tasked with making news reports in the style of Channel Four News, chronicling the redevelopment of the Surrey town of Farnham where 1950s and 60s buildings are due to be replaced with a news shopping centre, housing and leisure facilities.
  2. Antibiotics. Students were tasked with producing a social media campaign for a Health Authority warning about the risks of overusing antibiotics. They were required to make content for several distinct demographic groups.
  3. Repair Cafe. The Repair Cafes are monthly events where volunteers with technical skills (eg sewing or knowledge of electronics) help members of the public repair broken or damaged items which are thus saved from landfill. In this task, the students had to produce a film and a poster designed to promote repair cafes or similar sustainable projects in their own countries. Volunteers and trustees were invited to a screening of the student films in the university of the end of the unit.

As an added source of motivation, the students were split into two teams and encouraged to compete against each other. External experts were brought in to judge the winner in each brief. This was to prove both effective and problematic.

The Conversation

As explained, the teaching sessions were observed by two visiting lecturers from a Chinese university. One, Dr Chai Qiaoxia, took a keen interest in this unit and emailed me to ask about the approaches adopted. This led me to reflect in more depth than I might have done otherwise on what I did and why I did it. I have, therefore, used our email exchange as the basis for this paper. While I have left my interlocutor’s questions largely unchanged and tried to retain something of the conversational nature of the exchange, I have edited my responses so they make more sense to readers who were not with us in the classroom and to avoid identifying individual students. In some places, I have used they/them pronouns for the same reason.

Question: How many projects will be designed in each course? How many projects in one semester?

Well, the semester runs for 15 weeks so three projects felt about right: five weeks each. There was a good pace to the unit, which we’d have lost if we’d had only two projects. And four projects would have been very intense. I also wanted to introduce a range of skills: film-making in the first one, animation in the second and social media and marketing in the third. That first term was supposed to be very busy – what we call a ‘boot camp’ in which we ask students to learn a lot in a short time.

The idea of a first term, or first year, being used as a boot camp is one that I’ve come across frequently at both my own and other universities. The idea behind this is that, once certain core skills become engrained, creators can “devote their attention to considering what particular effects, message or emotion they intend to depict, without bothering what overt actions to perform” (Ochse, 1990, cited by Burn, 2020). As new students come from a variety of different educational backgrounds, first term can also serve as an opportunity to level up the skills within a cohort. There are potential pitfalls: what happens to the student who doesn’t manage to acquire these skills? Will it stimulate the learner who already has all the requisite skills? These are discussed later.

In the second semester (when we start a new unit called ‘Industry-based Project’), there’ll be just one project and we’ll be expecting a much higher standard because the client setting the brief is an external company who we want to impress.

Question: How did you arrange the group members in one project? And what are the criteria?

I wanted to make sure both groups had at least one strong English speaker so I split up the two students who appeared to be the strongest speakers. I tried to achieve a mix of genders as I didn’t really want a girls’ group and a boys’ group. This may have been a mistake as, I sense, some of the male students didn’t trust their female peers with technical roles; perhaps, if there had been an all-female group they could have proved their capabilities more easily.

Later, I split up the students who were clearly the two best at filming and editing. But, when you first meet the students, you have to guess a bit. I wanted the two groups to have equal skills but that proved to be impossible because one student was clearly exceptionally able and hard-working so whichever team they were in would have a huge advantage. It’s good to keep friends together because you want students to work with people they like but be careful about situations where one student appears to be heavily dependent on another.

Next year, I plan to try to find out a bit more about the students and their prior achievements before I set up the groups. It is quite hard to find out what exactly Chinese students studied at undergraduate level; one student told me that this was because Chinese universities do not publish their curricula for fear another institution will copy them.

Question: How did you determine the content of these projects? Take the repair cafe for example, how did you find this topic? and is this a fixed topic of these projects ?

The course paperwork says that students are supposed to undertake a series of briefs (or assignments). But it’s up to me to find or create the assignments. All three assignments last term were ones UCA courses had used before: A New Farnham by BA Journalism, Antibiotics by BA Computer Animation Arts and Repair Café by BA Media & Communications. I do not think it matters that they were, previously, BA briefs; one can set the same brief and anticipate a higher standard of response.

What the projects have in common is that they each posed the students a problem which they had to sit down together and resolve. This process of creative problem-solving is commonly used at British arts universities (Albert & Runco 1999).

During the next few years, I know the course will require a lot of these projects so I am constantly on the look-out for more. When I was at the Repair Café, I spoke to a local councillor who put me in touch with a charity that we can work with. There’s a museum in Surrey which is interested in having some films made. And there’s a care home for elderly people that’s interested in an oral history idea. I use social media to find new partners. So, I’m collecting these projects. I’d like to have 6-10 projects that I can circulate and we’ll come back to every 2-3 years.

One thing that I’m really pleased with is the way that the Antibiotics and Repair Café stories both had social worth. They were challenges that asked students to think about global problems in the 21st Century. I would like to try to retain that in future years.

Sterling (op cit) talks about how important it is to “find allies” when trying to set up sustainability-based projects. In this regard, I am fortunate that I am a journalist and so know a lot of people and organisations in our local area. I’m also a trades union rep which gives me connections to people throughout the university beyond my immediate circle.

Question: How did you connect the external judges and the audiences? Are there any fees in connection?

No, there weren’t any fees. Professor Martin Charter, who runs Farnham Repair Cafe wanted some of the volunteers who work at the Repair Café and its trustees to see the films so I decided to invite them into the university and turn it into a bit of an event. That worked well because it came at the end of the unit so it felt quite special.

There’s a growing feeling that universities should undertake more “civic engagement” (Watson, Hollister, Stroud and Babcock, 2013); the film screening felt like a good example of that taking place.

The other briefs were judged by university colleagues who were doing me a favour. It wasn’t hard to persuade them because we’ve got a small number of students on the course. It might prove harder if I were to ask a fellow lecturer to review 30 films.

Reflections

Vygotsky recognised that students gain knowledge from peers as well as teachers; they could learn “under guidance [or] in collaboration” (1978, p87). Collaboration did occur on this unit, however, as will be seen, there were points where students preferred to complete a task themselves rather than share their expertise with a peer.

In this 15 week unit, students with technical video-making skills came together with students with story-telling ability to create something far stronger than either could have achieved on their own. While I had anticipated that students would pool their abilities to film, edit, animate and use social media, I was pleasantly surprised that one group member composed and performed music for one of the films. The technical sophistication of the moving image work was greater than I’d previously experienced at BA or MA level.

There were some interesting challenges. For example, when I explained the concept behind the Repair Cafe, one student objected that a similar scheme could never catch on in China because there are much lower levels of environmental awareness and because volunteering was far less common. (Of more than 1,500 repair cafes worldwide, there is just one in Hong Kong and none in the rest of China [Repair Cafe, 2020]). I explained that the idea of the brief was not to replicate the Repair Cafe in China but rather to think of a way in which the principles of a ‘circular economy’ could be applied in the country. One response to this was to propose a scheme whereby unwanted bicycles, which are plentiful in China, could be reconditioned for school children in neighbouring Nepal.

The Antibiotics task was the least successful. One sub-group made a film in which antibiotics were portrayed as a hooded, knife-wielding teenager attacking a family of bacteria. Our external judge concluded “absolutely juvenile, no awareness of sensibilities around knife crime”. This may have stemmed from asking students to address an audience they didn’t really understand.

A more serious challenge arose from the group dynamics and the dependence on peers to act as ‘more knowledgeable others’. Because of the pressures of time, some students were unwilling to allow less-experienced colleagues to take on the key roles of director, cinematographer and editor. This problem was accentuated by the competitive element that I had introduced to motivate the students. One student commented in feedback after the unit: “People in the groups wanted to do what they were already skilled at”. Those who were not already skilled at, say, video editing, had a choice. Either they had to learn very quickly and then demand greater involvement or they could simply choose to sit back and let others take the lead.

This may have arisen because, for some learners, the tasks were beyond their proximal zone of development. If a student has some knowledge of video editing then they might, with the right support, be able to capture the style of Channel Four News; if they have no knowledge of video editing then that is probably unrealistic. “If a teacher were to solve a problem in higher mathematics, the [5-7-year-old] child would not be able to understand the solution no matter how many times she imitated it” (Vygotsky, 1978, p88)

A further concern is that, as these students had not known each other previously, they were keen to impress each other not to admit gaps in their knowledge. “Ashamed to admit ignorance and, pretending to know already, [they] must learn through the…indirect means of observation and imitation” (Star,1998, p. 308):

Conclusion

A socio-cultural teaching model based around problem-solving and the pooling of knowledge among peers can clearly benefit diverse, multicultural learners and help them pick up new skills quickly. My interlocutor says she plans to attempt to use elements of this teaching style at her own university in China and said the students liked it because it allowed them “to treat the projects as work” (Qiaoxia, 2020)

However, to prepare a feast of opportunity, it is important to be aware of what ingredients are growing locally and of the tastes of the diners. To work effectively, the facilitator requires a good knowledge, both of the learners’ prior attainment and of what they hope to gain from the course. The facilitator may also need to intervene to ensure that more confident students do not become overly dominant, to encourage all students to take on new skills and to address underlying stereotypes such as the presumption that male students are better equipped for technical roles.

Acknowledgement

I am greatly indebted to Dr Chai Qiaoxia of the Hubei University School of Journalism and Communication, China, who, through her interest in my teaching methods inspired this article and who has graciously allowed me to reproduce her questions.


Charles Lambert is a Senior Lecturer on the Film and Television degree courses at the University for the Creative Arts. Charles worked as a broadcast journalist for 20 years for both BBC and ITV, working on programmes such as the BBC Six O’Clock News, BBC Breakfast, ITN News at Ten and BBC Radio Five Live’s Up All Night. His research interests centre on celebrity journalism and sports journalism, the rights of the media to report these areas, and the extent to which reporters are manipulated by managers, agents and the marketing industry.


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