Engaging Imagination: How (and Why) Creativity and Play Are Essential to University Learning


  • Alison James




creativity, critical thinking, active learning, reflective practice


In the higher education sector, the word ââ¬Åcreativityââ¬Â has become increasingly popular in terms of defining how we want people to think, perform their roles, approach challenges, and explore ideas. How we investigate and expand our creativity may be using methods and approaches that originate with the arts or by importing others from various domains: business, sociology, psychology, and many more. There is therefore a multidirectional flow of traffic around and between the disciplines in terms of where pedagogic practices have come from.

While creativity and innovation may be terms that we aspire to and are comfortable with in our different subject areas, a closely-allied notionââ¬âthat of playââ¬âappears to be more problematic. Some of us are persuaded that play is vital to human learning and discovery at any age; others believe it to be too trivial or childish for tertiary level-study.

In this talk, I will focus on my use of creative, playful, and three-dimensional approaches to wrestle with complex topics presented by learning, teaching, and research issues and professional relationships/structures. Examples will include critical reflection, threshold concepts in the discipline, student exchanges, doctoral research, corporate strategy, team identity, functioning, and many others. I will argue that our conceptions of play within a tertiary setting must be broadened and deepened, while the contribution of creative, imaginative, and playful pedagogies across the disciplines needs to be better understood. This dual goal is essential not only to motivate and engage our students but to re-invigorate our practice as teachers.

Read and download the paper Innovating in the Creative Arts with LEGO

Author Biography

Alison James

Dr. Alison James is currently the Head of Learning & Teaching and Deputy DIrector of Academic Quality and Development at the University of Winchester. She is the former Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching, at the London College of Fashion. She is also a National Teaching Fellow (2014) and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her academic interests span teaching and research, with forays into other domains, including the topic of her PhD thesis (University of Southampton, 2007). This was a biographical analysis of the life and art of the Royal Academician Dod Procter: part of her research was published a monograph on the artist entitled A Singular Vision: Dod Procter 1890-1972.

Her pedagogic research interests encompass creative and multisensory approaches to learning, personal and professional development (PPD) and alternatives to writing which embody critical reflection. She has undertaken research inquiries into a range of topics, including communities of practice theory, a UAL venture with Etienne Wenger High Fliers, Deep Swimmers explored the perceptions of high achieving students as to their learning experiences in three UK arts universities. With the Centre of Personal Construct Pyschology at the University of Hertfordshire she explored employability attributes in fashion.

She is co-author, with Professor Stephen Brookfield, of Engaging Imagination: helping students become creative and reflective thinkers (Jossey-Bass, April 2014). She is an accredited Lego Serious Play (LSP) facilitator, working in Europe as well as the UK. She works extensively with Lego, including in her internal network Legolab and in external collaborations. She has won a UAL Excellent Teaching Award for using LSP to enhance student learning and staff and educational development.





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