Playing With String
Author: Rachael Jones & Charlie Fripp
Format: Digital Video
Duration: 1’ 00”
Published: February 2020
“We reflect on action, thinking back on what we have done in order to discover how our knowing-in-action may have contributed to an unexpected outcome”. (Schön, 1983, p. 26)
Where academics are under increasing pressure to deliver neatly contained modules with the help of precise measurable Learning Outcomes, what is the value of adopting a playful approach to teaching and learning?
Is it important that academics, particularly those who are also creative practitioners, integrate play and experimentation into their practice and encourage the same behaviour in their students, and will this make them more effective teacher-practitioners?
In an environment where achievement is often measured by summative assessment, should practice through play be formally integrated into the curriculum or simply continue to exist in the margins to be picked up by designated experimental or arts-based practitioners?
Halfway through the academic year in 2018, Falmouth University lecturer-practitioners from the School of Film and Television, Rachael Jones and Charlie Fripp, made an experimental film about string called Ficelles de Mer (2018). The idea to collaborate followed discussions on different learning styles and methodologies covered during the PGCHE course they underwent together the previous year. One of the strands that came out of these discussions was the value of collaboration and creating space to experiment with new ways of making which could reinvigorate practice, and in turn, teaching. These discussions followed a plan to experiment, to see what could happen if space was created to learn through play.
This happened to coincide with another colleague’s annual 60 second film challenge, with the theme “string”, creating a goal and setting parameters for the project. The opportunity to support a fellow filmmaker-colleague by making a film for an event that students would participate in as a non-curricular activity, provided additional motivation. Here, students could see their lecturers as fellow practitioners who, working together, engage in playful experimental projects in order to develop new work and ideas. The value of collaboration and non-hierarchical learning can be crucial to both personal and institutional development, as Etienne Wenger argues,
“Learning… is a dynamic, two-way relationship between people and the social learning systems in which they participate. It combines personal transformation with the evolution of social structures.” (Wenger, 2000, p. 227)
The cycle of learning is an “iterative” process, meaning it is based on repetition that is continually moving towards development and improvement. Scales suggests, “reflective teachers are more likely to develop reflective learners” and that this needs to be embedded into practice in order for learners to develop (2013, p. 26). It therefore seems necessary to make space for exploration and self-reflection within the curriculum (Hall, Murphy and Soler, 2008).
Edited by James and Nerantzi, The Power of Play in Higher Education (2019) argues a space for play beyond early years education, which can be used to improve the university experience, freeing ideas and allowing challenges to be overcome. In art and design courses play and experimentation are considered essential elements for learning and, as a result, are integrated into teaching. Through various contributors, the edited book reveals a strong claim for play and exploration in all areas of tertiary learning, which is beneficial to researchers, students and managers alike, both in theory and practice (2019, p. xlv).
There is perhaps a need address what the priorities for Higher Education should be in order to enable students to become critical learners and make stronger, deeper connections in their work. Education theorist, Paul Ramsden suggests that too much assessed work can lead to superficial approaches. Rather, “deep approaches” through non-assessed work in learning should be encouraged and allowed time to be developed (2003, p. 182). In this light, the idea of “play” could simply mean introducing more non-assessed tasks where students focus on experimentation through process rather than concern themselves with the end result.
The idea to collaborate and make a film that prioritised playfulness and experimentation was in itself an experiment, or exercise in play, which needed to take place outside of academic responsibilities or industry expectations. Incorporating experimentation is key to Rachael Jones’ practice, who, in addition, is module leader on Experimental Filmmaking and Avant-garde Cinema. However, play and experimentation has been confined to that particular module as one that sits outside of traditional film industry practice. For filmmaker Charlie Fripp, whose factual television background is characterised by tight deadlines, the demands of which can mean risk adverse practices, experimental filmmaking was an entirely new approach.
Limited by time and other pressures, filming took two days with assistance from Faye, Cinematographer and Head of Television. Archive material from Pathé was used to intercut with the shot footage and the film was edited by Rachael Jones. The 1-minute film was shot underwater at Maenporth beach outside Falmouth, and studio shots filmed at the School of Film and Television.
Experimental filmmaking approaches situate themselves in opposition to the filmmaking industry and can relate more closely to fine art practice (O’Pray, 2003, p. 14). The emphasis is more on process rather than a final polished product. This places traditional film production values at odds with the approach, whose quick turnover, large crews and tight schedules can hamper rather than aid a more improvised attitude to production.
Although an understanding of industry practice is important, as lecturers at a creative institution we should be advocating space for exploration in order to promote learning and development. During the production of Ficelles, an exploratory approach and sense of play were instilled through the removal of expectations or planning. In addition, filming in an underwater environment released a sense of control and encouraged spontaneity. Both practitioners exercised open minds towards the process of filmmaking, collaborating and responding to what felt right in the moment.
When extended to learners, the production and final results of Ficelles de Mer are examples of what Paul Ramsden terms “learning by doing” (2003). It is important that as lecturers we continue to develop as learners, where,
“Approaches to teaching and actual teaching activities are influenced by the lecturer’s experiences of the context of teaching… The qualities of a teacher’s reflections on how his or her teaching is working affects the approach and the actions taken.” (2003, p. 114)
Finding time to bring academic collaborators together can be difficult, particularly when lecturers have competing and conflicting priorities. The approach necessitated flexibility, but also a certain level of conviction or faith in the project. For example, inviting Faye, Cinematographer and Head of Television to be involved in a rather loose production, at the time felt difficult to justify. That said, Faye was quick to understand the nature of the project and, with a sense of play and experimentation, added her own creative flair.
The fact that the project as an activity was not a “measurable” teaching strategy allowed a greater sense of improvised play in practice. However, on a psychological level the idea of introducing play as an activity that is not directly connected to teaching or a measurable output, carries with it a degree of insecurity and fear of invalidation. Proposing the idea that “play” should be integrated into a creative curriculum could bring about additional challenges where learning outcomes would need to be accounted for.
The small film project offered a chance to engage with colleagues in their practice, which is very different to watching completed films, particularly as it enables deeper learning through collaboration. The liberation from deadlines and a prescribed work flow enabled Charlie to learn by doing, where she could consequently encourage her students to take risks and try new filmmaking approaches. For Rachael, the project emphasised the importance of play in learning, and underlined the benefits of feeding play and experimentation into other areas of the curriculum, not just set aside for those 20 – 30 students who choose to enrol on the Experimental Film module for one term.
Removing the expectation of achievement and pressure to succeed of any kind is incredibly liberating and can produce rewarding outcomes. In addition, it allows the brain to make creative connections. As Nerantzi suggests,
“Playful learning is using play activities to immerse ourselves and learn, either on our own or with others in a space we feel safe. In playful learning it’s ok to make mistakes when experimenting with new ideas, when challenging ourselves and others and doing things we normally wouldn’t do – which can lead us to surprising discoveries.” (Nerantzi, 2016 [online]).
Nerantzi’s insight underlines the importance of instilling confidence by building a safe environment and space to play. Collaboration between colleagues can reaffirm this trust and confidence, which in turn can be reflected onto students. Providing space to play can eliminate a fear of failure, which is key to reducing anxiety and encouraging deeper learning. This can lead to rewarding insights that can aid the teacher/student/practitioner’s overall creative development.
This research project is the result of a two-day experiment and as such, although it exceeded any personal expectations, it was never intended to do more than trial a new experimental collaboration that could perhaps be replicated in the future. That said, it has been instrumental to both lecturer-researcher’s relationships with their practice and teaching. The fact that the project was never intended to be perfect, meant it could be carried out over a limited period of time outside of more rigid academic and industry expectations. The film in itself is a basic example of playful collaboration that could inspire students to undergo a similar experiment, which would hopefully promote creativity and engaged learning.
“Students need to play with thoughts as well as form (through making) to help discover new unusual connections, to gain new insights and to improve their skills.” (Loudon, cited in James and Nerantzi, 2019 [online]).
The project revealed that “learning by doing” (Ramsden 2003) for better informed teaching is key. Apart from the importance of seeing colleagues in action, for Charlie, the project resulted in building shorter exercises into her first-year documentary module to encourage students to step into unfamiliar territory without much discomfort. Such tasks involve recording interviews on mobile phones, where students use their own technology to engage more fluidly with learning, capturing content that is liberated from the need to be polished and perfect.
The film received a “Special Mention” at the 60 second film challenge, where it was screened at The Plaza Cinema in Truro, with a separate screening at Chapter Cinema in Cardiff. It was also part of a showcase screening at Aesthetica Film Festival in November 2018, where Falmouth University lecturer-practitioners discussed the application of artistic strategies to filmmaking.
While playful practice has not been officially integrated into the Film and Television courses, the recent re-validation of the Film degree means that second-year experimental film students and their practice student colleagues are situated in the same learning community for “master class” or panel lectures. Rachael was one of the first panel lecturers, speaking about experimental strategies in filmmaking alongside industry practitioners. She has since given her first seminar on experimental editing to second-year film students who have the option to choose experimental film as an assessment option. Overall, more opportunities are arising in the film course to extend techniques and ideals of experimental filmmaking.
At the School of Film and Television, students are increasingly encouraged to take part in non-assessed Learning Communities, where they can choose to play and express themselves creatively in order to develop their craft. Although deadlines still exist, students are free to use the time as they choose. Further research could involve looking into the long-term benefits of these periods of creativity in terms of both the students’ own well-being, where there could be an impact on stress reduction, and their long-term career prospects.
Finally, the significance of taking time out of working hours to make a short experimental film, where both practitioners felt a degree of self-indulgence, should not go unnoticed. Taking on this valuable project has not just instilled confidence to continue collaborating through play, but also encouraged further research that could eventually make itself visible within the curriculum. For the staff of the School of Film and Television, a designated “day of play” could be introduced quarterly. Here, tasks similar to the one Charlie and Rachael set themselves could be carried out among colleagues and supported by more formal research. These actions would shape and develop the social learning system of the department, encouraging students to perceive and mirror their tutors as practitioners who continue to make and learn for the joy of expressing themselves through their craft.
Hall, K., Murphy, P. and Soler, J. (2008) Pedagogy and Practice: Culture and Identities. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Higher Education Academy. (2015) ‘The Personal Learning Styles Pedagogy’. HEA [online]. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/personal-learning-styles-pedagogy [Accessed 03-04-19].
James, A. and Nerantzi, C., eds. (2019). The Power of Play in Higher Education: Creativity in Tertiary Learning. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Loudon, G. (2019) ‘Exploration: Experiences of Running a “Play and Creativity” Module in a School of Art & Design’. In: James, A. and Nerantzi, C., eds, The Power of Play in Higher Education: Creativity in Tertiary Learning. London: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 67-74.
Nerantzi, C. (2016) ‘Learning to play, playing to learn: the rise of playful learning in higher education’. Jisc [online]. Available from: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/news/learning-to-play-playing-to-learn-the-rise-of-playful-learning-in-he-25-feb-2016-inform [Accessed 03-04-19].
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All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement.
This submission to the Practice Pedagogies special issue explores the use of play in developing creative work. The film itself, which was a response to a brief about “string” for the 60-second film challenge, is charming, combining underwater filming of a piece of string as it makes its liquid journey, with footage of the silhouette of string and scissors contrapuntally snipping and disrupting the fluidity of the watery imagery in time to the score. But the research outcomes are less embedded in the resultant film, than concerned with the process itself and how it has informed the practitioners’ understanding of their own creative practice, and how this in turn will inform their teaching. The research statement clearly outlines how this experience has given new insights into the importance of creative play which often gets side-lined in the academic teaching of filmmaking practice, due to its frequent emphasis on industry conventions. The statement proposes that this can sometimes be at the expense of the learning that can take place in the context of creative risk-taking without fear of failure and proposes ways of incorporating play into the curriculum, not only in experimental modules, but into the ethos that underpins all teaching. The statement is well-grounded in appropriate academic references to pedagogic research (Loudon, Nerantzi, Schön).
Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
The film, Ficelles de Mer is a playful, formally experimental film. Whilst the film doesn’t clearly demonstrate practice as research (films which are contributing new knowledge to the field and expanding our understanding of filmmaking) in and of itself, the film can be framed as an interesting example of the results of a playful pedagogy. However, as a singular example, the film does not tell us much about the results of the authors collaboration and pedagogy in practice. The short running time of the film offers potential to view further work produced by students under this particular experiment. I would be keen to see a wider range of work produced to really understand how this particular playful pedagogy is experienced in practice.
The accompanying statement needs further development. There is a clear engagement with research in the area of play and creativity in learning, and some engagement with avant-garde form, but this research needs to be more fully integrated into their own argument. Quotations are often dropped into the middle of paragraphs without proper framing or signposting. Proper referencing standards are not always adhered to. O’Pray is cited, as is James and Nerantzi, but no page numbers are given, for example. The citations used in the context section read as though they have been thrown in as academic window dressing. It is not clear as to how these citations relate to what has come before.
The research questions are interesting and really important, especially in the field of film practice education, and other areas of creative practice. These questions don’t seem to be clearly answered or engaged with in the research statement, however.
The method section is quite descriptive – the approach to making the film is described, but there is no engagement with play as a method of creative practice or as a pedegalogical method, which is vital for this particular special issue. There is an emphasis on reflection, which is really interesting, but I don’t see how this reflection manifests in practice. There is a suggestion that ““play” should be integrated into a creative curriculum”, but there is no clear proposition as to how this might be achieved. The potential for further study, especially in relation to well-being and career prospects is incredibly valuable and much needed, but again, there is no clear suggestion or proposition as to exactly how the experiment could be taken further.
The statement leaves me with several practical questions. How many students participated in this programme of extra-curricular play? What were the results of their participation? How has this effected teaching and learning and informed their own practice and both educators and filmmakers?
I would really like to see or read clear examples of how students participated. The research statement needs a major rewrite in order to do this interesting and important project justice.