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The Origins of Brainware

archaeological digTwenty years after completing my full-time education I embarked on a part-time research PhD. This project quickly introduced me to a completely new kind of learning experience, one that I now refer to as 'Brainware creative learning'. It was a learning experience in which I was in the driving seat, nobody was standing over me and I was totally and enthusiastically involved. Indeed, I developed such a rapport with my work that I had the amazing reciprocal feeling that while I was part of my research project, my research project was part of me. Such an intensity of feeling may be routinely familiar to the seasoned academic, but for me this novel learning and research experience was energising and unbelievably fascinating!

As I approached the end of my PhD I was wondering why many undergraduates do not experience a similar kind of excitement about their learning. And so this brought me to a second question: would it be possible to find some way of transmuting my positive PhD experiences to the somewhat differing undergraduate learning situation?

Brainware Creative Learning Workshops

At this time (1985) I was working in the Computing Services of the University of Edinburgh. And so, with the agreement of the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Centre, I decided to test out my ideas by running a one-hour workshop during Freshers' Week. The objective was to help students to make a satisfactory adjustment to university during the crucial first days - and to have some fun in a congenial and supportive environment! The four ingredients of the workshop were:

  • Various relaxation techniques, including loosening-up exercises, attention to breathing and posture and the use of baroque music. Many new students feel anxious and overwhelmed when they arrive at university, and so my priority was to create a totally non-threatening, relaxed atmosphere from the start.
  • A juggling demonstration, presenting it as a metaphor for academic learning. Significant elements identified were: motivation, problem-solving, learning from failure, being relaxed and having fun ... plus we can all do it!
  • A brief personality test, measuring students' position on the introversion-extraversion scale. We explored the relevance of this to Freshers' Week and the special stress that introverts feel from all the socialising and meeting people, plus suggested remedies.
  • The use of mind-mapping for representing key information and getting 'the big picture'. We developed a 'Freshers' Mind Map' to help students orientate themselves.

This workshop proved to be popular, and so it encouraged me to take Brainware further. In due course I introduced additional workshops, including a series of four for students generally and then four more designed for postgraduate PhD students. To view a flyer for an early Brainware workshop, click here.

Within each workshop I created a learning environment and a learning engagement which were deeply holistic and experiential. Seats were arranged in horseshoe formation, emphasising that the proceedings were to be learner-centred, rather than teacher-centred. Baroque music was played as the students arrived and occasionally during workshops, to help them feel relaxed, but alert. Students were supplied with coloured pens, juggling bags and other items needed for the experiential exercises. There was a break with light refreshments during the workshop, and every attempt was made throughout the workshop to establish a pleasant, non-threatening atmosphere.

Brainware Society Membership CardStudents' comments on the various workshop programmes are available at Freshers' Workshops, Workshops and PhD Workshops. Students who had attended the workshops went on to create a university Brainware Society.

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Page last modified: 10 July 2005
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