Dr Alison James, University of the Arts London

Keynote address: Creativity, imagination and play: their contribution to excellent teaching

Alison JamesAs a sector, the word creativity has become increasingly popular in terms of defining how we want people to think, perform their roles, approach challenges and explore ideas. Linked to creativity, staff and students are often exhorted to be imaginative in their approach to study and research in the disciplines, although whether imagination means the same thing in archaeology, performance, history, engineering or curation studies may be debated. Innovation, too, is widely aspired to, however play as part of a higher education experience appears to be a more problematic proposition. 

While 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 a higher education setting. In this talk I will explore what we understand creativity, imagination and play to be in our pedagogic practice: the ways in which we adopt alternative means of motivating learning and engagement with our subjects, as opposed to the traditional or expected. I will share examples of creative approaches which foster excellent teaching, covering content design and delivery, reflection and evaluation, staff development and pedagogic research. These examples will be underpinned by theories of pedagogy and play (among others) and will include my experiences using Lego, materials and spaces to wrestle with complex topics. 

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.


Research interests

Theories of auto/biography, identity and narrative construction in creative arts education. Pedagogic research: critical reflection, PPD, personal development planning, the emotions in learning.


Dr Alison James is Associate Dean, Learning and Teaching, at the London College of Fashion and in November 2013 became UAL’s first Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her academic interests span teaching and research, with forays into other domains: her PhD thesis (University of Southampton, 2007) was a biographical analysis of the life and art of the Royal Academician Dod Procter, resulting in a monograph on the artist, entitled A Singular Vision: Dod Procter 1890 - 1972. Alison was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship by the Higher Education Academy in 2014. 

Student identity image in LegoHer pedagogic research interests encompass creative and multisensory approaches to learning, personal and professional development (PPD) and enhancing reflective capacity by using alternative approaches to writing. Other studies include: an investigation of student adoption of communities of practice theory (during a UAL collaboration with Etienne Wenger); High Fliers, Deep Swimmers, an exploration of the perceptions of high achieving students as to their learning experiences in three UK arts universities; and collaboration on employability attributes with the Centre of Personal Construct Pyschology at the University of Hertfordshire. 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. In 2013 she launched LegoLab, a UAL community of practice to take forward the use of LSP for research, education and practice and won a UAL Excellent Teaching Award for using LSP to enhance student learning and staff and educational development.

Created by Mary Jacob on 19/05/2015
Translated into en by Mary Jacob on 19/05/2015
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