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What’s the big cheese?

(read time 2 min) That’s right. The sketches on the post it notes in the photo all represent the same object. They don’t look the same?? Well that’s what happens when you only know something second hand. They were the visual interpretation of a single verbal description of the object. This week we were exploring the importance and impact of clear communication, and I started us off with a ‘bad’ example to show just how things could go awry, and the result was these adorable cheeses.

How many times have we had to say, ‘no- that’s not what I meant…’ even in a casual conversation? Clarity becomes all the more poignant when professional interaction relies on being able to communicate well. For me, as a teacher, I am aware that communication and the descriptions that introduce students to new things and ideas – as if showing them shadows of what they will later experience as reflections, and then embody in their actions – can be the first step in their own understanding, and if this is presented with clarity that students can use it as a tool to move forward, but if it is vague then the resulting interpretations can be as varied as our cheeses.

Everyone took a turn explaining and the importance of feedback and ‘checking up’ along the way was easily demonstrated, even when the explanations seemed clear, the results could be a bit wonky if we didn’t communicate along the way…

Exhibit A: The broccoli, explained by 10 people collaboratively, but without viewing the progress – only the result. We thought this broccoli might be called Sponge Bob.


For our purposes, the concept of clarity and communication was translated into musical explanations – as often, in the beginning stages of learning, students don’t know what they are doing until they have done it.


You know that phrase… I hear what you’re saying… yes, but do you understand?

A piece of the story…

Photo CC licensed: (read time 2 minutes, watch time 3:40)

I received an invitation for my students and me to take part in a project – an externalisation of people’s individual masterpiece for their lives.

WHOA…. that sounds heavy, but really valid and exciting. The idea was that these students in California were questioning their lives and sharing dreams in an effort to find a way to make them happen. or something like that. They asked me to share something – music, images, words, video, anything that held part of my story.

They asked:

How did you get to where you are today?

Where are you going?

What is your masterpiece (dream)?

I passed this request all on to my students and some of them will be sharing and sending bits and pieces. Someone has already sent along a video of them performing some music, and more is in the pipeline. I love to think, and reflection is essential for me, both personally and professionally, so I am game. I believe in teaching it is really important to lead by example, even when that presents a challenge. So last week after cycling home (I often think on the bike. It is when I clear my head and sort things out.) I thought, and sat down and made this piece. It took me a few days to go back and watch it — I wasn’t sure if I dared or not — but I did. and here it is, unedited. It is certainly not my whole story, but in that cycle ride, this is the fragment that I thought I’d share.

Your story of where you’re at or how you got there may be a story, a factual chain of accomplishments, or a description of geographical moves – that is up to you. I think however you interpret it, it is a good question, and worth asking.

In the alphabet soup of life

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This morning I was inspired by Gardner Campbell’s Downstream Deliverables, where he reflected on two things: the impact of what we say, and the convergence of people who impact or have impacted him. When I read his post I had so much to say I decided it was too much for a comment and that I would write about it –

Firstly words. Words are so, so important – especially when they come from teachers. We have all heard about the pink elephant, or the white bear. No? Well, you probably just imagined one. Wegner, Schneider, Carter & White (1987) first presented the effects of asking people NOT to think of something. I love that. Teachers (and everyday people) do this all the time.

Don’t colour outside of the lines. Don’t be late. Don’t forget to do your homework.

For all of these, we must first think of doing it wrong before we can imagine doing it right.

Another one that gets me- and is possibly my favourite ‘faux-pas’ of all time is the word TRY.

How the heck can you try to do something? Seriously, have you ever tried to make your lunch or tried to teach a class? No. No, you have not. You have either done it or not done it. The magic here is that we do. We choose to do, and sometimes the things we do are partly completed – because we hit a roadblock and need help, or need to learn more before we can complete that task – and other times we do things and fail. That said, it is no bad thing to do and fail – as long as you (like my teacher used to say) get back on that horse. Trying was perhaps the first generation of the very nasty phrase that unfortunately gets used in real school settings nowadays ‘deferred success’. ouch. Personally, I would rather fail and get back on that horse.

I know it is a bit cliché, but no less potent because it came from a film. (Did ‘there is no try’ actually come from this film??? I would love to know because I have quoted it in the draft typescript of my book Fostering Self-efficacy in Higher Education Students and if there is another source, I would love to get that right!)  

The other point that Gardner made was about the impact of people, their words, and actions –  and really completing the circle, the cycle, that what flows from one may come back one day. That touched me and I thought YES! I know !!! You are so right!

I had a teacher who touched lives and taught his students to think for themselves and to believe in themselves, and he gave more than he had to give, and in turn the students gave back more than they knew they had. A year ago, 60 of this teacher’s students (past and present) came together as a giant cello family to make music together. We recorded the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony – and it is being prepared for release on cd. That event was a meeting of people who have had positive marks left by this one teacher – and we came from across the globe and had many different professional destinations. Each person had grown into their own musician, but we all had that ‘familial’ influence of the same teacher. I cannot really describe how powerful that was in the space of a paragraph.

When in that moment – when downstream and the gathering and culmination of various experiences and paths is delivered to you, – for me that gave me a certain clarity, to perceive the convergence and soak it in. I took from it a perspective on the impact of my teacher, but also of myself- where I had been and where I had come. …and that river is still flowing. That is amazing. Hope to meet you down stream.

That is not really finished, but I hope you’ll agree that was too long to put as a comment.

It is Saturday morning and time for breakfast. I’m off to make waffles.


“JUST DO IT. (NIKE)” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Those beautiful books

I wake up happy. Yesterday on twitter, an acquaintance from an educational course encouraged me to share my experience with writing a first book – I have just finished the first complete draft – and that was the most lovely extended hand of an invitation. Haven’t blogged for a while, as there has been just too much typing to do, so I thought I’d ease myself back in with a story. I love stories, and this one is short, true, and lovely.

Last night at around the table there was the usual lively discussion. Grandparents were hearing the news of the week from different grandchildren and there were happy sounds of eating and drinking. It was a good family meal. At one point, a teenage child disappeared and reappeared with a large book, nearly two feet long, hardback – I thought it was an artist’s sketch book to show to people, but it wasn’t. Any guesses what this exciting book was?

The atlas

It was an atlas – found at a charity sale in the village. It cost 20p.

The book was laid out on the floor with great respect. – It is so beautiful; I just have to keep seeing its pages. I want to put them on my walls, and look at them all the time – even the cover is beautiful.

It was a completely genuine display, and and it made quite an impression on me. To the older generation around the table it was an atlas- a very nice one, but an atlas all the same. As someone said – yes, and there was one of those books in every school desk, too. But for this teenager who has grown up in a world of Googlemaps, these pages were fresh and displayed the aspects of terrain and contour so beautifully. I want to have those eyes that see things with beauty and adore the unique contribution they can make.

…so a pause to look at the early morning stars now that everyone is up (before the dawn). I said that I didn’t recognise any of them… and I was told – the summer triangle is rising, Vega, the tail of Scorpius… -and if you’re ancient of days that’s how you know spring is coming. Those are the summer stars rising.

I am distracted now, but that was really the whole story. ‘Just a book’ was actually inspiring and beautiful, but somehow that was easy to miss. I’m not saying that every book is inspiring and beautiful, but I am sure there are things around us everyday that are and that we miss.

On that note, I am off to watch the night sky fade as the sun comes up over the fields.

I will compile thoughts on the experience of writing a book, but that’s a story for another day.

night and morning

This week I learned to stop.

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It’s sort of that time of year- lots going on, lots of activity, lots of lots. We went away. Not away from the people, in fact we’ve been a sea of people, but away from the routine, away from the habit, away from mountain of lots to do, and

I learned to stop.

There is always something on the go, and sometimes I wake up before I go to sleep, or dream solutions to problems, and throughout the year one of the things I have been learning is to meet myself and that has enriched the meetings with others. There is time and that is now. So that’s where I’m at, sitting in a little bit of paradise, overlooking misty mountains on the morning before I go back to my world.

The question for me now is will I be able to blend it all. How do the learners I teach do it? I want to make it so the learning is also their now and not in a separate world. When we find a bit of that magical peace where there is time to think and finally get enough sleep, and wake up to fresh bread (because there is nothing like that- especially if you don’t have to get up three hours earlier to bake it), and there is time to notice shadows and find wild ponies on walks – and bring that home without slipping into what can easily become that mountain of things to do – because it really is not a different world after all, or is it?Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 07.44.35

Ask me again after the flight lands tonight, or maybe next week after I finish my grading – but I think because of learning to stop that I’ll be bringing that mountain air with me this time instead of leaving it behind. At some point in the many Connected Courses webinars, Gardner and Howard spoke of the ebb and flow of a website, or a course- and as with most fundamentals, there is transference. I think the reality of that threshold concept has sunk in for me, and I am glad to have had the time and space to reflect.

Peace and many connections for the New Year: with people, with ourselves, and with our dreams.



Walking in their shoes

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(1 min read)

Today I had spent the afternoon assessing: 20 music students performed contrasting songs to show their work and progress this term and I tippity-tapped away on the laptop while sitting behind a desk with another examiner. We make it as fun an experience as it can be, but it is an assessment and I am not sure I would call my experience with formal assessments fun.

In the morning I was doing something completely different. I was the student –  and it was the last time I would see my teacher before it was my turn to sit a singing performance exam this Saturday.

While writing comments for the first year students today I was aware just how strange performance assessment can be. In a concert setting you know the audience has come to hear and see you. There is still plenty of occasion for nerves, but it is different. They smile at you, clap, and go with you on the musical journey. That is not to say I wasn’t right there with the students today, but when assessing there is a different perspective. The students do received applause, but they also know there will be comments, feedback that will be partially positive as well as having critical comments about how they can improve, and … a grade. That is a very different experience than simply having an audience applaud. As assessors we cannot shout BRAVO! and then look uninspired for another performer. There is an air of neutrality and it makes it tough for the students. They have to really go for it, even when they don’t get much in return.

So I thought of that while I was typing, that it is a strange situation – and doing that it is hard. Somehow I think it is important that the people behind the desk don’t forget what it’s like to be in the position of doing what we ask of students. It’s my turn Saturday, and then I really will know what it is like to walk in those shoes.

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Grow your PLN? Hmmm… thoughts on connecting

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A short reply that is longer than a tweet.

This morning I did like every morning, and indulged in an hour of reading – blogs, tweets, articles. It sounds like a long time, but I promise it’s not – I can type (nearly) as fast as I read. So looking through the #ccourses tagged tweets I noticed that Lisa Lane was talking about the daily topic set for the current unit Putting it into Practice. So this led me to look up the topic for today:

How might you create your own Personal Learning Network on the open web to provide you with support?

I did what any good student would do. I looked it up, and I am still looking. Without formally engineering connections, Connected Courses has opened a door for all of the people involved.

Consider: I am a cellist. I teach music. You don’t know who I am. I think you are interesting and would like to connect. I drop you an email or a message.

Then what?

If I am lucky and you are not swamped, you might reply.

Somehow being under the same umbrella of Connected Courses has made me braver – I have ventured a dozen connections through DM, email, or a comment and they have produced results from no reply (even in the best settings it happens- and you still have to try!) to the birth of concrete projects. That makes it so worth while. The thing that has been so valuable is that initial permission to connect and to already have a seed of commonality – I don’t want to be pegged as a musician. Music is my language but what I do is communicate, and that is not confined to one type of people. The best ideas come when the ingredients are mixed – sometimes blending well and other times sitting separately, side-by-side. Either way they reveal something about the other and then we grow.

So back to the question, how do you grow your own PLN on the open web to provide you with support? My guess is that it involves knocking on the door and seeing if someone answers. -and if someone knocks on your door, to open it, or at the very least have a little look through the keyhole.


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#Phonar. yes, this was very very very …

I love teaching spaces that make me smile even before anything happens. When I walked into the Disruptive Media Learning Laboratory teaching space at Coventry University,

WAIT. I didn’t walk into it. I carried (with help from two fantastic gentlemen) an orchestra of string instruments from the van to the third floor of the building, and we entered an absolute teaching haven. Imagine minecraft becomes real, and there is a 3-leveled terrace of 1-meter blocks covered in SYNTHETIC GRASS!!!!! and there were beanbags bigger than my kitchen table!!! Oh My Days! I had gone to heaven early!

First, I had the task of getting through to the students in a very short space of time- figuratively and literally.

Everyone was surprised. They thought that they had arrived to present their final submissions for the term.

Last month, Jonathan and I had hatched a plan… and I said, sure I can come and teach them all to play.

Could I really do that?!?! Well, yes and no. I knew what I wanted to get across, and I knew what I needed.

Help from them.

In the short hour that I had, I needed to have each and every one of those students be actively engaged.

Need is a tricky thing.

Good for me, the students were up for it.

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Ok. the back story. My friend Duane Padilla had done a fantastic solo violin version of a pop song called ‘Secrets’  by One Republic and basically he did it using a very cool tool that lets you build layers into the music. (This is also available as an app TC Helicon Voice Jam, which is superbly inexpensive) I said to Jonathan that I could get the students to play it … well approximate it !

The way the (fab) room was laid out meant that everything was hidden from sight until the students came around the corner, and there was a lovely look of surprise on their faces as they were confronted by a room full of instruments all prepared and positioned for them.

I dug in.

Then Duane turned up – from Honalulu via skype to wish us well on this crazy venture! It was after 11pm for him and he had just finished playing with his band… Back to the class…

These students were great. They began reluctant and one by one they somehow found that little bit of courage to do that thing they had never done before. It was magic to see the smiles and watch the way they were paying attention to different things – non-verbal cues, listening, and watching in ways that they certainly weren’t aware of earlier that day. In the space of 45 very short minutes, we did play a version of the piece, and there were a few moments in the middle when it all clicked and that was just like sitting on a cloud – like we were all on a cloud together. Magic.


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Sure people fell off, and they got back on, and they kept going. I loved that. See, after that first bit of courage, it wasn’t so bad, and actually they wanted to learn, and best of all they were doing it together. There were 7 different parts going on at the same time. (I think we were officially on a floor of a library – making a huge racket. Yes, that was excellent, and I mean that in the most polite and creatively positive way possible.)

Ok. this is verging on TLDR, so I am going to call it a night. A very good night. I am in excellent company and my thoughts are filled with music.

I hope yours are too.



The end before the beginning- What’s up with that?

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There is talk of ccourses being over, winding down, lack of tweets… and the last, seemingly most how-to unit has not even begun.


I really don’t get it. From what I can see the last one is the how-to. It’s like we have been identifying an object from the outside, looking, learning, examining, always finding out more, and now the cover is lifted off. Why would something end before that??

In a community of learning, inquiry, colleagues there doesn’t need to necessarily be a formalised plan that we all follow. There do need to be common underlying goals and aims, but we already have that in teaching. I may be way to idealistic, in thinking that we all will just do things-  but from what (little) I can see there is a HUGE body of emerging work and learning coming out of this. There are always going to be problems with getting people to actively participate – and that can be paralleled to any classroom, or to getting kids to do chores, or getting us to do something – if we see the point and want to then it gets done. Tacky as it sounds, there really is no try. We do. We fail. and We do again, better. Sometimes we succeed. actually, a lot of the time we succeed and sometimes we notice it. The talk of disintegration sounds to me a bit like the kind of talk that comes from not seeing that success.

It all takes time and a huge effort to keep things outwardly going. I have been running my connected course, in my back-garden way – I am not very tech savvy, and haven’t hosted it in a fancy way, don’t have lots of bandwidth to upload and download, but I think it has gone ok. First time and 900 visits this term. That’s ok? That’s how Phonar started… I was hoping to get to 1000, but heck, the course is about creating a curriculum in music and that’s pretty obscure… but it has cool makes like ‘cross-dress a melody’ that should appeal more widely to creative types, so I just need to figure out more how to connect and put things out there. I have huge optimism, just because that’s what makes me tick. I’ve been writing a book too (Fostering Self-efficacy in Higher Education Students)- manuscript is due at the publishers on Feb.2 and man, I have never done anything like that before – way more work than writing a PhD thesis. way. more. And the thing is – the thing I value most about Ccourses is that community. Most of the innovation, the new stuff is done on a limb – slightly alone. Nobody directly around me has time to look at it – not really even to look at the course pages that I have done, so without the gentle and constructive feedback from you lot, I would be a lot more in the dark.

I don’t think that there needs to be a curriculum and a structure to continuing #ccourses  – besides, we all need a break sometimes, and if it picks up again in a year, then Blamo! We don’t want Christmas, Diwali, or the 4th of July *every day* and the holidays are worth waiting for. Let it be special, but lets keep together – and have a medium for communication. I know that the hashtag is my way to be seen for the people who don’t follow me – or aren’t in my circle (don’t really understand G+ circles.. so I have about 2 in my circles, might even be just me…) and without the hashtag I drop off the radar.

Perhaps it’s time to throw the dog a bone with one last round of Daily Connects that include a sign up for keeping in touch. What do you think?

There are more than just 6 of us, and it is worth more than the analytics can show.

Off to bake cookies, or we don’t get treats in our lunches, and to teach and type – the end of my book won’t write itself!

Happy Monday and Happy December !15733401648_c3bc2d98a3_z

p.s. that’s what I’m making. If you would like the recipe, COMMENT! ;) and I’ll happily post it.

A breath of fresh air

Jonathan Class 1
(1 min read) Yesterday I welcomed a guest for the day. We had both studied at Northwestern University a lifetime ago and we passed many times in the hallways of the practice building, went to each other’s recitals, and even had classes with each other’s teachers.

Jonathan is a professional tuba player. He took the day off from his job playing for the West End show Scottsboro Boys to come down to Chichester for the day. At first, by MA students looked slightly surprised when I said that I had arranged a class with a tuba player. There are pianists, singers, violin, guitar, but none of them are brass players. It was fantastic. Jonathan also spent time hearing and talking with the undergraduate low brass players.

We all learned. There was laughter. The music and the learning was reinforced and students were given permission to think and believe in what they were doing. It is relevant not only to tuba players, not only to string players, not only to musicians, but to all learners.

My favourite exchange was between one of the brass students and Jonathan, where the student demonstrated how a student thinks sometimes – with years of training in following instructions. The student was playing and stopped and said:


Jonathan: Why are you saying sorry?

Student: I didn’t breathe when you told me.

Jonathan: But you don’t have to do what you’re told. What I say is right for me, but I’m me and you’re you. That’s why you go away and sing it and figure out what’s right for you. – You’re only as good as the work you put into it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play it today, or tomorrow, or next week, but if you can take it apart and work on bits and you know you are getting a bit better then that’s ok. You’ve got to push yourself, but not destroy your confidence. It’s about balance. Music is a doing word. You’ve got to do it.

I loved that. It is relevant if you are a musician, and if not, replace the word ‘music’ and ‘breathe’ with ‘learning’ and it is relevant to you too.

Thank you Jonathan for sharing your day with me and with my students.

Jonathan Class 2