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Co-designing film theory learning with students: a PgCert case study

Interview with Jack Perry, Specialist Technician for Film and Video, Wimbledon College of Arts 

The self-initiated project (SIP)* is the final unit on the UAL PgCert (find more information about this unit in our previous post).  This week we spoke to Jack Perry about his SIP research project, where he set up a series of extra-curricular film theory seminars for students at Wimbledon College of Arts. 

*From January 2022 this will become Unit 3: Action Research Project

Where did the idea for your project come from? 

At UAL there is flexibility around the technician role, depending on the type and size of course we support, but we’re not necessarily fully included in the planning of teaching and learning. I wanted to move beyond the narrow, functional view of the role focused on delivering practical skills and think about what else I could contribute. 

Through my interactions with students I identified a need for film theory teaching across both Fine Art and Theatre and Screen courses. Students from different disciplines would ask technical questions about using equipment, but also wanted to know why they might choose to use, for example, a particular lens or camera movement in their creative work.  They were asking about both the effects that they could achieve and the context for those in wider film and cinema practice and history.  This led me to set up the film theory seminars. 

What teaching and learning theory influenced your project? 

My SIP project was entitled “To what extent can students effectively co-design a series of extra-curricular teaching sessions?” During the PgCert I had been reading about curriculum design and the challenge of creating independent, self-reflexive learners. At the same time critical pedagogy “challenges the continued teaching of accepted forms of knowledge and encourages students and staff to collaborate in creating new forms of knowledge from their own experiences, in order to question existing views of the world.” (Giroux, 1981) 

With these theories in mind, I designed these extra-curricular discussions to explore the co-creation of learning with students.  I had no idea if it would work in practice, but I wanted to encourage and experiment with collaboration. 

What format did the sessions take? 

Rather than screening entire films, I decided on a standard session format of four clips (of c3-10mins each).  This allowed both more time for talking as well as direct comparison and contrast to trigger discussion each week.  

I curated the first evening, but thereafter I was guided by students suggesting films, actors, genres and directors that they wanted to explore with the group.  I prepared each session carefully, researching the requested themes and selecting clips, but deliberately did not provide any more context or materials to the students to direct any debate.  Nor did I give my interpretations immediately in the discussion either, I wanted students’ views to be at the forefront.  It was really satisfying when the group picked up on links or themes I had alluded to in the choice of clips, but often they then took it further and I learned as much from their input, which was humbling. 

I initially set up the group with around 8 students who had shown interest. Attendance was on average 20 and peaked at 34 students, with representation from across the two schools at Wimbledon and from all courses.   

What surprised you? 

The co-design element worked really well, with about 80% of the group making suggestions for future sessions. The diversity of references and interests that students brought to the sessions was also immediate.  There was a real desire to explore East Asian cinema, Black directors and female directors, for example.  And we deliberately didn’t avoid problematic representations elsewhere either, for example in classic Italian film, but used it as a counterpoint in positive debate.  In this respect the ability to tailor the sessions rapidly in response to feedback and the fact we didn’t have any pre-existing reference lists to dismantle was definitely an advantage. 

How did you measure the success of the project? 

For the purposes of my SIP studies, the feedback on the project was collected after an initial 3 week period, via questionnaires to participants and focus groups. In terms of benefits to students, the sessions have now continued for the rest of the academic year. 

The sessions were relaxed and informal, and students fed back that they saw it as a benefit to be outside of the official curriculum.  From the questionnaire, 100% of students strongly agreed the sessions taught them something new, which is obviously positive! They were likewise unanimous in agreeing they had learned something new from their peers too. The focus group also commented that they valued the exposure to different perspectives, both from those on different pathways (Fine Art vs Theatre and Screen) and from different nationalities who might have very different experiences and expectations of cinema.  

How did lockdown affect the way the sessions ran later in the year? 

Inevitably the move online changed the dynamics of the conversation, from something very organic and personal to a more awkward mediation using the technology.  The attendance was still high and although we heard from fewer verbal contributors the text chat helped, where the ‘liking’ of comments still allowed for immediate peer feedback and encouragement. 

I’m conscious also of the advantages of the technology, allowing us to record and listen back to sessions.  Potentially being online allows a wider group to access the discussion too, and for it to be consumed differently: perhaps watched live cast onto a TV, or later as a type of podcast whilst a student is cooking dinner, for example. Whilst these students won’t be actively contributing to the sessions it doesn’t mean they can’t learn from them. 

Where to next? The conundrum of success 

I recognise there are some tensions within what I achieved with this group and its possibilities going forward.  The fact of the seminar series being outside the curriculum provides some of the ingredients for success, but at the same time I think more students would benefit from such discussions and learning.   

In my view I identified a gap in the curriculum, but the students found it an advantage to be outside the formal course structures: 

  • Students could contribute freely without worrying about outcomes or grades.  
  • The topics covered were not prescribed and entirely at the students’ choice.   
  • The voluntary nature of the sessions meant the group sizes were small enough to have everyone contribute to the discussion.   

Likewise, it would likely be impossible to schedule these sessions across a whole multi-programme cohort, but the early evening timeslot possibly privileges who can attend (such as students without other commitments). 

Now that the project has run for a full year I aim to collate my findings and co-present them to the academic teams at Wimbledon. 

Want to know more? 

Read more about the PgCert and MA Academic Practice in Art Design and Communication at UAL.  To study with us from January 2021 remember to apply by 25 September!  

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Giroux, H.A. (1981). “Hegemony, resistance and the paradox of educational reform,” in H.A. Giroux, A.N. Penna, and W.F. Pinar (Eds.), Curriculum and instruction alternatives in education, (pp. 407–429), Berkeley: McCutchen Publishing. 

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