Teaching as a Healing Art

Teaching as a healing art or a healing craft?

Denkanstoß—Food for Thought

A couple of months ago, during a meeting with my mentor, he was critiquing the way I wrote my promotion application. He said the first draft read as if I was just happy to have put something in a box—which it pretty much was. But then he asked me crucial questions. He asked: What makes you roll? What is important to you? What is the one thing you try to do?
Now I have two answers to that. First, the official one:

1. I want to translate creative pedagogies (as described in various previous blog posts) into higher education. And yes I am very passionate about this.

BUT then there is the true answer. The answer I was until now too embarrassed to speak about, because, quite frankly it sounds a bit esoteric for a scholar in learning and teaching. Or does it?

2. I believe that teaching (and ultimately learning) is a healing art.

Well, I told him, exactly that. I said: “To be honest, I believe that teaching is a healing art, but I can hardly write this into my academic practice statement. Can I?” The answer was a definite no, and the decision to focus on answer one, was made. I think if I ever want to be able to use this as a proper answer, without the esoteric flair, I will have to establish some serious evidence. An initial search brought up this article by J.P. Palmer about teacher identity and integrity. One theme that seems to emerge when talking about teaching as a healing art is that of weaving. Weaving of identities, realities, in conversation with our students into a shared tapestry of our mutual selves.

Good teachers join self, subject, and students in the fabric of life because they teach from an integral and undivided self; they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their students, a “capacity for connectedness.” (Palmer, 1997)
Can we afford to put this quote aside as a romantic notion of teaching?
To some degree this quote reflects one of the key findings from my doctoral research project, which was all about the importance of relevance. I found if there was no relevance of the learning content to the learners’ lives and their selves, then they displayed disengagement—even disciplinary issues. And until reading Palmer, I had thought about this particular finding in a very linear way. If there is no relevance, then there is disengagement. But now I am wondering if there is more to it, than this simple causality. Granted my data did not permit me conclusions beyond this, and in subsequent years when I rigorously applied this principle to my pedagogy, I could observe the positive impact, even obtained data, and feedback on its success.
Now this leads me back to the conversation with my mentor. He asked me if, whatever it is I do with the students*, could be undertaken by anyone, and if so, how so? He was questioning the simplicity of my argument about the if-then relationship between relevance and engagement.
Do I indeed do more? Unconsciously in the moment?

In essence, this work is […] allowing readers to witness how I am weaving together various strands of myself including the personal, emotional, professional, intellectual, and spiritual. (Villanueva, 2013)

Maybe the answer to this in somewhere in there?

I agree on all points made by Villanueva. However, how would this be quantifiable? We imply it in our postgraduate diploma. We ask the participants, who are all in one way teaching at university, to write an account of professional practice, and in this account we asked them, to some degree, to reflect on their teacher identity. We also refer to the UKPSF, our professional standard framework here in the UK. The framework is split into three sections: Activities, Knowledge, and Values. The values speak about respect for learners, equality and diversity, but also using evidence informed approaches and acknowledging the wider higher education context. Now you could question the intrinsic value in acknowledging the higher education context. But you could also just look at it more closely and realize it reflects the elements of weaving Villanueva is writing about—professional, and scholarship refers to intellectual, CPD to personal. So mapping these philosophical, maybe romantic, notions of teaching to more tangible constructs could be a way towards quantifying the less tangible dimensions of teaching.

Another way to approach this topic is through exploring teacher identities. I very much associate with the below quote, and think somewhere in there is how we build the previously mentioned connections with our students. It makes me wonder how much ones self-awareness is related to creating a connected teacher identity.

Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials. (Palmer, 1997)

However, identity negotiations are much more complex than that. In a comprehensive literature review Lankveld (2016) and colleagues identified this sense of connectedness as one of the psychological processes of teachers’ identity negotiation in higher education. The other aspects seem to link back to the above mentioned UKPSF. So it seems this might be a reasonable way to think about exploring teaching as a healing art. If our identities and integrity reflect our wounds, shadows, fears, and this is woven into our interaction with students it could be equally healing or destructive.
Five psychological processes were found to be involved in the development of a teacher identity: a sense of appreciation, a sense of connectedness, a sense of competence, a sense of commitment, and imagining a future career trajectory. (Lankveld et al., 2016)
*His perception is that of some sort of carrot and stick approach
  • Thea van Lankveld, Judith Schoonenboom, Monique Volman, Gerda Croiset & Jos Beishuizen (2016) Developing a teacher identity in the university context: a systematic review of the literature, Higher Education Research & Development, 36:2, 325-342, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2016.1208154

The Power of Reflective Practice

Account of Professional Practice

I am currently writing a so-called Account of Professional Practice, which led to some serious reminiscence:

We all start somewhere

When I held my first actual teaching job—teaching English in Kindergarten—I was lucky enough to be able to call my granddad after each of the double sessions. My granddad at this point was a retired educator with over 25 years of experience. He had his coffee and cake at the ready, waiting with the phone next to him for my call. Granny at some point told me that despite his cancer these bi-weekly conversations gave him a boost of motivation, because as a teacher he always rejoiced in the ability to nurture and mentor.

Be viciously honest with yourself

Without judgement we would reflect and talk about all the things that went well, all the things I did struggle with, or felt I had screwed up.
So he had his cake, I had my speakerphone, and on my drive back home we would reflect for half an hour or so. I could be viciously honest about my feelings of anger, embarrassment, joy, helplessness, pride, and happiness. All the things that come with the responsibilities of teaching. The premise of no-judgement is something I try to instill when I am teaching the introductory sessions for our Graduate Teaching Assistants.

We are all human.

I learned so much during these conversations, and the importance of honesty with myself, for growth, and developing as a teacher (educator, if you do not like the label teacher) still echoes today. Today, years after I have lost my granddad, I am having these imagined conversations in a reflective diary, with colleagues, other family members, and sometimes my students (learners). These conversations are still crucial, the reflective exercises are still my strongest weapon.

Reflective Practice: my Greatest Tool

I believe granddad would have thoroughly enjoyed following the trials and tribulations of becoming a teacher in Higher Education, all the stories from my students, finding my feet, becoming a teacher of teachers, and he would have put his hands over his head with all that tech stuff.

Unpack your ADHD

So there are a couple of reasons for this post.

1: The first is that our manager found the following definition of an inclusive work-environment in the Microsoft eLesson Unconscious Bias Resource:

What does an inclusive culture look like?
People are respected, valued, and seen
People can be their authentic selves. There’s no need to hide elements of one’s identity to fit in.
People are heard and feel safe sharing their ideas.
Each person is able to bring leadership, influence, and knowledge.
An inclusive environment allows everyone to bring their ideas and contribute their best work.

2: Working in a team where not being neuro-normal is normal. Within the few months of working together,  idiosyncrasies have become normalised. We are not generously and graciously given permission to be ‘other’, but just given space to be who we are, and be able to do our work without being told to do it the way someone else envisages it that doesn’t make sense to us.

3: #DisabilityConfidence I saw this hashtag and remembered being put on the spot during an exam board. I was covering for a colleague. I had oodles of these admin forms and tick boxes in front of me. Now, if I see a form, all I see is noise, lots of noise and I start getting anxiety attacks, because I cannot hear words in the noise of the forms. The structures usually do not make sense, and it takes me hours to get into the linear expression of one form, let alone a whole pile of them. A large part of this is that these forms are noisy and boring, so keeping with it till the end of a sentence costs a massive effort.

Anyway, I struggled to make heads and tails of a form, which I saw the first time during the meeting, and was put on the spot by the chair of the board to answer a process question I was not yet familiar with. I desperately scrambled for the answer, and my colleague said it’s in the footnote. Yeah … dense point 8 text of quarter a page length, and I needed to find a tiny piece of information in all of this. All I remember from the meeting was noise, racket. I looked at my colleague and said:  ‘I cannot read this right now. I cannot read this.’ The chair was entirely oblivious to my struggle. All the time the paper screamed at me, the darn wall-clock was ticking like a time-bomb, and the erratic colour coding in the tables looked like a printer had vomited all over the documents, making the noise worse. Someone was smoking outside the window, my colleagues were stressed because of earlier arguments, the chair was chewing his pen, and you could have cut the tension in the room with a knife.

4: I stumbled across a blog-post: Unpacking your ADHD and it made me wonder if I should give it a shot, because it focuses on the good things too.



The good thing about hyperfocus is that I can go through thousands of data sets in a short amount of time. I am not kidding I worked for a consulting company during my summer holiday and in 4 weeks time I went through 4 times the amount of data sets, my predecessor took half a year for. During my PhD I could get up at 5 and by 9 I would have written 3.000 to 5.000 words. Okay after I would have a cognitive hangover for a couple of days…


During my undergraduate degree I was working on an assignment. My roomie called and said she would be home in half an hour, would I mind to start the pasta-water she was hungry. I put the pot on the stove (it was a three liter pot, we both did lots of sports and would easily eat 500gr of pasta). I went back to just finish this one paragraph. Perceived 5 minutes later a flatmate knocked on our door and asked if the orange glowing pot in the kitchen was ours. The water had evaporated and the heat had began to make the stainless steel glow orange. Needless to say my friend had bumped into another friend on her way home and ended up chatting and I had entirely sunk into my assignment.


My brain can do the splits. If I manage to find the right amount of ‘drown out’ entertainment for the back of my brain, such as audiobooks, movies I know, or the right music, then the front of my brain can focus on something else—basically the audience who constantly shout out interesting things to contemplate or do, is busy watching a play.



I read in a book description that this surround-sound awareness was actually important for hunters, before farming appeared as a favourable way of life. So I do notice things. I will notice slight shifts in behaviour, face expression, tone of voice. I see disturbances in patterns of behaviour, data, and logic. Actually I see patterns full stop. I am creative, there is a constant flow of output and creation. I can cook really well, usually once I ate a dish I can cook it, unless there is an ingredient I have never encountered before. I find everything fascinating from how a motor works, to a butterfly sitting on a flower, so tell me your hobby and I will truly think it’s awesome.


Meetings are so boring that they are physically painful, anxiety inducing. People speak sooooooo slowly. What is it with not finishing a sentence. It’s like driving behind someone who drives with 20 mph in a 40 zone. Impatience. Why do people always have the need to state truisms and tautologies? Is it not enough to say something once and omit the obvious? To walk the same distance can take me 15 minutes or an hour.


My students regularly tell me, that I am really patient, and that I do have a calming influence. Yeah I know! Beats me, too. I have not yet figured this one out. Maybe it has to do with the complexity of the issues the students usually posed in our meetings. Or my little ‘pre-meeting a troubled person ritual‘.



It makes for really good stories, and stand-up jokes. So, I am going to a Halloween Party, only knowing one person there. Didn’t see that there were a couple of steps down into the room. Fell flat on my face in front of everyone. Did some elaborate stage bows and courtesies. Was a great icebreaker. I hated weeding as a child, really did, it was so boring, so I intentionally pulled out a couple of carrots, and granny never even suspected a rouse to get me out of weeding.

PS: I apologized to the baby carrots and put them back in.


Breaking all my favourite dishes, loosing jewellery, constantly being covered in bruises and cuts, or burns. Literally running (as in walking) over people, I am tallish, I didn’t see them. Food-stains—I know all the really good stain removers and household hacks! If you need tips, ask me. (I guess this is a pro?)


I make my own clothes, and knit, and if I put my mind to it I can play with ancient artifacts and not break anything at all (but am exhausted after and my heart-rate goes up.)



I love stories, and you can tell me your life-stories over and over again and I will find them awesome. It prevents the CPU from overheating. Sometimes it works in my favour, less energy spend on something I should not prioritize anyway. A friend and colleague always describes me as highly organized—yeah that’s just self-defense.


Forgetting to check emails, forgetting to … I forgot. Lunches sitting in the fridge so long that they’ve become out of date.


I forget your name, what your subject or research interest was, or where you are from, but I remember that you were really sad when your dog died, and I brought you that book I thought might be helpful for something in your work or life at the moment. And by the way, while I still can’t remember your name, I see that you struggle with something right now. Do you want to go for a coffee?

Impact Pedagogy–A principle for teaching

A reflection on action.

A couple of weeks back I had a conversation with a friend who is—by trade—a psychologist. Said friend explained that I am an unconscious expert, to help me identify how to talk about the rational and concepts underlying my pedagogical models and approaches. Because I struggled to enable a smooth hand-over of some of the projects. So here is one of the scenarios I tried to dissect:

The case

One day after a workshop in radiography programme, the class-head came to me and asked what I had done to her students. You might remember the post about Balloon academy; part of the assessment for students was to write a personal development exercise. This exercise was only due by the end of the semester. Although, neither me nor the students mentioned that exercise even once in our session, in the following session with their class-head the students cued to ask her how to get started with the exercise. Normally the students would only begin thinking about it two weeks before hand-in.

So what had I actually done?

Reflection on Action

I went back to analyse my learning and teaching strategies, and I know that most of it is based on the principles of creative pedagogy I wrote about on numerous occasions: relevance, ownership, control and innovation. But when I had a closer look at my pedagogical approach, I realised there is another principle I am using every single time in teaching:


This is based on Dewey’s paradigm that everything newly learned should be linked or built onto something the students already know. So creating a real-life context of the principles of the object (object as in a social constructivism), something tangible (like the balloons, or the white cups) and then after the experience of the principles, link it back to subject content. It is effectively: learning in principle, applying in the subject (or object as above). So this is a topic I need to explore further, as it links into a variety of learning theories, to bring myself back onto a conscious level.

Lernen im Prinzip—Anwenden im Gegenstand



Safe space for Failure

Triadic Reciprocal Causation

I forgot to publish this so this is still a work in progress, and for various reasons I cannot go into detail. However, I hope it still makes some sense. The last project in my old role:

Discussions about resilience of students and the rise of mental health issues have been on the agenda for some years now. When I was approached to develop a concept for students who were permitted to repeat a year and hopefully get back onto an honours track degree route, I began to search for a model that would scaffold my pedagogy. Considering that my credo is to help our students to help themselves, and I seek to find strategies that are easy to ‘take away’ and adapt to their needs, as well as impacting across and beyond the students’ life cycle, I did not want a deficit model.

‘So back to basics.’; I thought. And one sunny Sunday afternoon—in the park with my coffee and pastries (hey this is important background information for creating a successful work environment)—I read for the first time in a decade a textbook again. It’s been a long time since I engaged with social and developmental psychology, was happy to find—or rediscover—a model created by one of my all-time-favourites: Bandura … the triadic reciprocal causation.

This model considers: personal characteristics, behaviour patterns, and environmental factors.

adapted from Snowman, McCown & Biehler (2009)

I particularly like that there is an emphasis on meta-cognitive knowledge, highlighting the importance of analysing, planning and monitoring ones behaviour. This affords the learner agency of the learning process and initiates control and ownership of this learning process. Incidentally, some of the attributes of creative learning and teaching (Jeffrey & Woods, 2009) I used during my postgraduate research.

During my time working with students in the School of Health and Life Sciences (Glasgow Caledonian University) I had the impression that students who engage in regular reflective writing activities, displayed much stronger academic practice (criticality, writing style, analysis) than students who did not engage in reflective writing activities. There is a limited body of research supporting this experience. I coached the students through the writing process, which took one, one-to-one meeting, and then reading and commenting on their scripts. There were only a couple of students I had to call in for a second meeting. The importance for the goal setting part of the reflective writing was to set skill-based goals rather than task-based goals.
So for instance, if a student would write: I am going to attend every lecture. You, and I, and the student knows this is not going to happen. A skill-based goal would be, I will obtain notes from all lectures, and identify questions to either ask in tutorials, labs, or my peers to help me understand the subject matter. This also introduced elements of self-observation and -evaluation.

The next point I thought would be significant in my approach was how students develop their concept of self-efficacy, and what I could do to have a positive impact on this perception. Self-efficacy is a crucial part of learner identities, and I used this to measure the development of the students’ progress throughout the year. More details will follow after the final analysis but so far there seems to have been a positive impact from this approach. So much so that talks have been given as various college committees to see if this could be translated and scaled up to different cohorts. The social and physical environment: was addressed by setting up institutional structures and processes, as well as strong communication from senior academics in the school, as well as introducing peer-coaching to create an environment of support.

Blooming Taxonomies


Catching up and refreshing my knowledge about all kinds of educational theory and research–it was inevitable to stumble across Bloom’s Taxonomy again–The University of Iowa ‘s CELT has developed a really nice model. I am still not convinced. But I am supposed to teach it.

So how do you teach something that you consider at best not functional and worst inhibiting and restricting learning and teaching experiences, if not causing damage to both?

The most interesting and challenging part of my work in education is the quest to understand, how we make sense of the world. How does this thinking thing work? Why do some learning strategies work for one student but not another? How do non-neurotypical learners compensate, and sometimes outperform neuro-typical learners?

Learning is identity-negotiation; it is a personal, social, and cognitive process. Learning constantly challenges our place in the world. What we know. How we form our interaction with the environment (social, physical, virtual). Cognition and neurosciences (e.i.: Neisser, 2014, Schäfer, 2005Marcel, 1983) have highlighted that even a simple act of perception is already an interpretation process of the brain. So identifying primary colours is much more than a simple ‘retrieval from long-term memory’ (CETL, 2012as implied in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

What pops into your mind when I say yellow?

The smell of lemon meringue pie, maybe? The texture of lemons? The sun? As drawn by little kids, with timber like beams? A dress your mom wore when young? A rubber ducky? The humongous rubber duck making the round on social media? A company logo? Horrible teeth? Autumn leaves? As we identify yellow, our brain allocates it within associative networks. We already learned that about 18 years ago in educational psychology. [For a really interesting history on neuronal networks check out this paper: Buckner & Krienen, 2013] So I am already stumbling over the very first lowest stepping stone of Bloom’s revised Taxonomy. Because effectively nothing is ‘just’ remembering.

And then of course is the problem of differentiation in vocabulary. Claudia Stanny has gone through some considerable lengths to identify if various institutions actually agree on the verbs (which was the first hurdle she encountered not everyone actually used verbs) and if these verbs then are assigned by different institutions to the same categories. It is almost needless to say: they were not. Surprisingly she found that a majority of verbs were all assigned to the same category. Language is context- and culture-dependent. Would a physicist writing learning objectives define ‘analysis’ the same as a sociologist? Would a bilingual academic?

I have not yet found–so please if you have, post the link into the comments–any research that actually maps cognitive processes to the various verbs, after establishing a strict definition to their meaning, and then links this to real life learning. The Taxonomy is a construct based on knowledge of cognition sciences in the 50s (yes, it was updated but the principles pretty much remained the same). It might be useful to develop an understanding of various forms of thinking, for someone who has not yet engaged with the topic.


Learning does not work in a linear way. Depending on what you are teaching you might want to start with creating. A learner might easily jump straight into so called higher level thinking based on prior experiences. If learning content is not relevant to the learner, e.i.: the learners experiences, their lives, their realities, they might not engage. Then what do you do? Their lack of understanding is not based on the lack of remembering.

So are you trying to keep them going through memory exercises over and over again? This will not actually bring the learner onto the proposed next level, which seems to be implied in the structure of this taxonomy.  It is in this regard a deficit model. If I go strictly by a linear progression model, in terms of asking the learner to prove each of the stages, I might find my learners are not able to provide evidence of each of the levels. I might also become discouraged because a learner who in one task displayed higher level skills, suddenly is back to basics, in a different task covering the same knowledge.

The heuristic spiral of learning, the character of learning as three steps ahead and two steps back, with a little side tap and a twirl, the importance of relevance and context of all learning content all of these are not shown in the model. I do not think any model can actually show this. I tried really hard during my PhD and was told that I came up with a fairly eclectic theoretical model, but this is the nature of trying to understand learning.

The fallacy is maybe not so much in Bloom’s Taxonomy itself–it can be a useful framework to scaffold assessments (and I am not going into performative cultures here), but more in the assumption that using it, provides a comprehensive overview and an applicable way of structuring learning. The fallacy is in an axoimatic way of teaching the model to aspiring teachers, in an almost dogmatic way of this is how we expect you to plan your learning and teaching activities.

Any learning model–particularly linear ones–cannot be but reductionist, over-simplified, and thus flawed from get go. To develop a functioning model that includes all aspects of learning: psychological, cognitive, personal, emotional, cultural, and social is near to impossible. So maybe a more differentiated approach to teaching this model is a way for engagement.

11 ADD (ADHD) Frustrations

With Heart, Mind, and Soul

1 Spills

When you covered half the house in towels to dye your hair
And the dye finds 10 uncovered square inches to drip onto and stain for ever

Why can I not just be clean and tidy? It’s not that difficult! Come on.

2 Bruises

When you ram full force into the edge of a wooden bench adding to innumerable bruises on your legs

Why did I not see that? What’s the problem with me?

3 Time

When you don’t know why it took you 1,5 hours to walk half a mile and what happened.

By the way: time–what’s all that about anyway?!

When you check your watch every two minutes on the way to an important meeting and arrive half an hour early.

This is just embarrassing.

4 Forgetting

When you just forget TICK to moisturize, check your emails, that apple in your bag, where your coffee cup…

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