Tag Archives: formative experiences

Shaping the mind during COVID-19

Books on a window sillIf you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’.  It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  Although it is  short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it.  However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology.  Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness.  Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’.  It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations.  I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.


Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press)


Preparing for winter

I had been queueing slowly up the steps to board a plane thinking about nothing in particular when, as I stepped into the plane, one of cabin staff said to me ‘Are you getting ready for winter?’  I looked at her somewhat perplexed because it was only September, and she pointed to the book that I was holding ready to read on the flight home.  It was ‘Winter’ by Ali Smith.  It is a novel with much to say on many issues.

One of the central characters in the novel, Art writes a blog and someone challenges him to write about a real thing, something that he remembers happening and not a blog thing.  He describes a real childhood memory and when it is suggested that he should write about it, his response is he could never put something like that on-line because ‘it’s way to real’.  I have some empathy with Art, because it can be difficult writing about your thoughts and memories for anyone to read.  However, I have noticed that the readership of the blog goes up when I do write about such things [see for example ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018 or ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018].  So, if people are interested  perhaps I should do it more often.

Another passage that resonated with me was about age.  The narrator is her sixties, which I will be soon, and comments that ‘You never stop being yourself on the inside whatever age people think you are by looking at you from the outside.’  I think that this is true but perhaps difficult to reconcile with consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [see ‘Is there a real ‘you’ or ‘I’‘ on March 6th, 2019]

Source: Ali Smith, Winter, London: Penguin Books, 2018 (see pages 188-9 for Art recalling his childhood memory and page 251 for discussion about being in your sixties).

Experiences in the lecture theatre

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about cycling students around Honey and Mumford’s learning modes [See ‘So how do people learn?‘ on June 20th 2018] without explaining how this might be achieved in a lecture course.  The first step in the cycle is having an experience, which is difficult for a student in a lecture theatre with dozens of other people.  A demonstration by the lecturer does not achieve it because the student is not doing and feeling.

So, how can the first step be achieved in a traditional engineering lecture course?  Well one answer, for introductory courses, is to exploit the everyday experiences of the students by choosing something that they will have done for themselves, preferably more than once.  It can be useful to perform a demonstration at the start of the lecture to engage the students and remind them about their own experience.  All of the lesson plans provided on this blog start with this kind of activity [https://realizeengineering.blog/everyday-engineering-examples/].

The lecture can proceed to reviewing the experience and building a new context around it, i.e. the engineering principles that are being taught.  It might necessary to review the experience in several different ways and make a series of connections to it.  I recommend that the third step: concluding from the experience, should be a student activity guided by the instructor – perhaps a piece of homework that leads the student to take the fourth step on their own, becoming a Pragmatist by planning their next steps.

Doris Lessing, Nobel Laureate for Literature, in ‘The Four-gated City‘ wrote ‘That is what learning is.  You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.’  Understanding an everyday experience a new [engineering] way is what we are trying to achieve.


CALE #4 [Creating A Learning Environment: a series of posts based on a workshop given periodically by Pat Campbell and Eann Patterson in the USA supported by NSF and the UK supported by HEA]

Formative experiences

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how we all arrive in the classroom with different experiences that are strongly influenced by the conditions in our formative years.  When I talk about this process in workshops on teaching, I invite attendees to tell us about something that has influenced their approach to learning.  However, I kick-off by sharing one of mine: I joined the Royal Navy straight from school and so I arrived at University having painted the white line down the centre of the flight deck of an aircraft carrier but also having flown a jet.  This meant that my experience of dynamics was somewhat different to most of my peers.  It’s amazing the life experiences that are revealed when we go around the room at these workshops.  Feel free to share your experiences and how they influence your learning using the comments section below.

CALE #2 [Creating A Learning Environment: a series of posts based on a workshop given periodically by Pat Campbell and Eann Patterson in the USA supported by NSF and the UK supported by HEA]

Photo by Pedro Aragao [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported]