session at BACA
A starting point for the final major project
When beginning a research study, students may be in lack of methods and a plan to carry out what they would like to learn about. It is the role of their tutors to give them a basic structure through which to start investigating inventively, what I would call a ‘structured experimentation’. In this context, I developed a thirty minutes activity that enabled students to organise and represent visually the messy information they had in mind while trying to make sense of it. Nothing new was invented as brainstorming, concept maps and photo elicitation methods as well as statements and research questions formulation are widely implemented in design, education and social research fields, but it was the way to combine them in a short activity that worked effectively, as part of the first reflexive session that pre-degree students needed to begin their final major project. Therefore, participants of this study are all Chinese, most of them older than seventeen years old, who spend nine months preparing high standards projects in an Art and Design Foundation at BACA, the Beijing Academy of Creative Arts, thereafter expecting to obtain a bachelor position in renowned British universities. From the fifty students that participated in this activity, there were thirty-six young women and fourteen young men; eighteen were from the visual communication pathway, twenty-three from the fashion and textile pathway and nine from the 3D pathway. The aim of this report is to arrive at detailed descriptions of the session to explain how it was conceived and experienced to pursue its development and enable transferability to other situations.
Figure 1: Set up of the activity.
For a successful one-to-one session with each student, a small closed space was necessary to get enough privacy that would later lead to deep reflection. Students entered in that space alone with a pen and some research already undertaken. As facilitator of the activity, I explained to them that we will do three exercises and I read the instructions of the first exercise. They were all asked to answer the question ‘what would you like to explore in this project?’ by writing down words and linking them to categories and subcategories to then create a concept map, a well-known sense-making tool. They were shown what the result of associating concepts could look like and they were given examples of categories to think about (personal interests, social problems, contexts, etc.), in case they would not know what to write. Although communication was done in English, some students had to use their phone to translate complex words from Chinese. Further, as the concept map was adapted to brainstorming, which means freer in form, the expected result was different than the ‘concept map’ pictured by Novak and Cañas (2008). Concepts were thus simply written down connected by lines or arrows without linking words, because of students’ limited understanding of their own project at its first stages. Concepts could be underlined, circled or erased as there was not a right way to proceed. Most of students came with one broad topic in mind, some would come without any domain of knowledge, others with two topics, which would separate the map in two, and few of them would completely reinvent the concept map by creating lists. Concept mapping is ‘powerful for the facilitation of meaningful learning’ as it serves ‘as a kind of template or scaffold to help to organise knowledge and to structure it, even though the structure must be built up piece by piece with small units of interacting concept and propositional frameworks’ (ibid: 7).
Students had to develop their concept map alone for four minutes as that was an intimate reflection that could only be done in silence. At first, I hesitated whether to stay aside or to leave the room avoiding disturbing them with my presence, and the latter option resulted beneficiary for both, as I could take that short break to complete the previous student’s feedback sheet, drink my coffee, stretch my legs, let my mind go blank by looking out the window before entering next student’s complex system of thoughts. Their concepts maps were generally dense, and I would start asking them questions about the meaning and choice of the words written, which would enable conversation. While students were talking, I would note down the meaningful insights that I could possibly extract, allowing us to improve together the map. Far from being finished, students had to continue working on the relations between concepts later on while starting their research, translating them into a well-planned mind map, mood board or incident board. But that first concept map created in fifteen minutes would be the starting point on which to build on further knowledge. Maps could be done intuitively with some students while it would be difficult for others to express any meaningful statement from the associations made. In either case, the second exercise of the session was more than welcome by inserting images as a stimulus to turn that whole unconventional interview in a more playful reflection. Triangulation, or collecting data through more than one method, was definitely necessary here to assure a variety of angles of approach to the same concepts.
Figure 2: The concept map was started by the student and completed
by the tutor while the former was explaining his thoughts.
The second exercise consisted in asking students to choose three to five images in my collection of conceptual photographs, previously printed and cut out. Once chosen, students had to paste them on the worksheet and explain the reason behind their choices, allowing me to write down their comments next to each image. When defining ‘photo elicitation’ as a visual method, Douglas Harper (2002: 20) explains that it ‘may overcome the difficulties posed by in-depth interviewing because it is anchored in an image that is understood, at least in part, by both parties’, facilitating collaboration by ‘trying to figure out something together’ (ibid: 23). Photo elicitation would thus enable conversation based on mutual understanding between researcher and research subject, or tutor and student, and in this context, it would confirm the concept map started before, bringing complementary information and leading to an understanding of what the student’s project is about. It would evoke ‘information, feelings and memories’ (ibid: 13), but also intentions regarding the student’s project. At times, it would also enable a pause for both parties in case the concept map wasn't getting anywhere, allowing the student to rethink the topic visually rather than just with words. Most of the time, images would come to visualise the words written before as well as bringing new concepts, but it could also happen that the images chosen would suggest another topic, which would bring confusion as that would explicitly say that the student had not a clear starting point. However, these were few cases, as each person could perfectly make sense of their own project through images, from abstract feelings to even details of what could be their future design. Further, it is always striking to see in this type of exercise how different individuals have their own interpretation or appreciation of the same images. Even if students were taken to study the same topic, their projects would produce outcomes of different natures as their own personal experience and understanding of the world makes the difference for which they will be valued for.
Figure 3: The photo elicitation exercise on the left and two of its results on the right.
While students were choosing their images for the second exercise, I had more or less two minutes to think about the third and last exercise, in formulating the project’s statement in one sentence before converting it into research questions that could stimulate research around the topic, rather than formalising it as professional qualitative researchers would do. Thus, when starting this final part, I would annotate my thoughts on a notebook and ask students whether my understanding of the statement was theirs too, some would suggest changes, and I would finally write down the statement followed by a series of questions on the bottom of their worksheet. From the many words and images used in the first two exercises, basic statements and analytic questions, as sub components of the statement, could be defined, leading to propositions to investigate if the session’s outcomes were later considered. In other words, while the first two exercises were used to collect data, the third one was used to analyse it, to interpret the linguistic, what was written and said, and visual material gathered before, to then make sense of it. The capacity to synthetise someone else’s thoughts in only few minutes was a rather complex exercise that needed practice. Although most of students were willing to collaborate for the sake of their own project, the level of abstractness of their topic could affect the quality of the session as when, for instance, almost a third of the students interviewed chose emotional issues as a starting point. As interpreter or translator of data, my role was to transfer students’ thoughts into paper without interfering with their ideas, although there could still be a gap between my interpretation of their project and theirs. I believe that would be the role of their pathway tutor to later judge whether the topic was convenient and the project feasible in terms of time and skills. Further follow-up of this first session would be to know whether students have really used the session as a starting point to their research and it could also serve to evaluate constancy by knowing whether their topic of study has changed or not after two weeks and at the end of the project two months later.
Figure 4: Two examples of statements and research questions
being formulated at the end of the session.
Therefore, when reflecting back to that worksheet and its three parts, here is a performing tool to structure open conversation and to shape a project’s foundations in less than half an hour. In the post-session phase, I decided to analyse each student’s outcomes in an evaluation sheet while giving a list to the pathways’ tutors with the name of their students followed by keywords that would broadly define their topic of study. Outcomes had to be clearly presented as they were not only useful to the students but also to my colleagues. At last, I would recommend to other teachers who would like to reproduce the activity not to take more than eight students in a day as we, artists, designers or researchers, are not therapists that can deal easily with those students that aim to study their own fears and social pressures, rather than the outside world. Nonetheless, patience, attentiveness and reaction time to what students say are required to conduct such sessions, to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information produced. Self-evaluation is also essential for the person conducting the session, as a human instrument who collects data, who will certainly become more and more reliable through training and practice. Finally, research on what other field specialists have studied might also support one’s own practice in context. In my case, Merriam and Tisdell’s book on qualitative research (2016) as well as Martin and Hanington’s compilation of universal methods of design (2012) were of great help in selecting approaches to create the worksheet. Further readings and testing will certainly improve the development of this individual brainstorming session in future endeavours.