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Embracing Uncertainty: 'Exquisite Corpses' (Part 2)

Guest posts

Category: Teaching and research

30 April 2019

One of the most important elements of design thinking methodology is to spend time examining ‘What is’ the problem.

As I described in my first blog, this first phase took almost four weeks in which uncertainty slowly became our friend, both in the process of defining the problem but also in the way in which we were activating the teaching and learning experience. Indeed, this ‘controlled chaos’, as one of the participants called it, is truly a change from the traditional educational experience. Participants also embraced the spirit of collaboration and co-creation of the module. Dollinger, Lodge and Coates (2018: 210) define co-creation as the “process of students’ feedback, opinions, and other resources such as their intellectual capabilities and personalities, integrated alongside institutional resources, which can offer mutual value to both students and institutions.”  In our interpretation, we kept a dialogue with the participants, with the purpose of building empathy and responding to the dynamics of the group, and that took time.

This slow process yielded fruit when we approached the second phase of ‘What if’ or ideation. Here imagination, playfulness, and the absurd are encouraged in order to expand the range of potential answers to the problem-situation. The way we planned this session was crucial, as we held our session in MakeSpace in Cambridge, a complex of studios and workshops that literally made us think outside the classroom box. Frankly, our classrooms are not suitable spaces for creativity, their spatial and architectural outlook are already tired, replicating the power structure of a lecturer feeding into passive students. As Foucault explained, these are disciplining spaces: factories, schools, offices… all designed to exert power, curtail individual expression and creativity. Participants actually remarked on the impact of this change of space, and the workshop environment of MakeSpace helped the brainstorming session. This session rained with options from science fiction solutions to more business oriented options, and playing around without judging. For more on the importance of space in learning, see Middleton (2018).

We have been also using a wide range of creative-based methodologies, borrowed, developed or adapted from drama, painting, drawing, art and music, in the form of ‘warm up’ exercises for the participants to grasp the spirit of each of the phases. For example, for the brainstorm phase (What if) we adapted the surrealist game of the Exquisite Corpse (See Gooding, 1995) in which each participant starts a drawing and after a few minutes they have to pass it on with specific instructions of how to complete it: either by improving it, destroying it, restoring it, making it cute or sinister (for the links between cute and sinister see May, 2019). We also used an improvisation routine called the ‘trash gift’ in which we start with an unwanted gift but when giving it to others it is transformed into the ‘treasure gift’, hence developing transformation, imagination and playfulness. In all, the idea has been to take ‘learning by doing’ into ‘learning by playing’, hence activating pleasure and creativity into learning process (Acevedo and Johnson, 2014).

Playfulness and ‘serious fun’ are the main principles of this strategic project and we are really grateful to the Centre for Innovation in Higher Education (CIHE) for giving us the opportunity to experiment and bring different elements, within certain parameters obviously, but with an incredible creative freedom and trust in the process. This is the only way to really develop something innovative in higher education. We hope to add both to the discussion of creativity in different forums throughout the year but also in the revolutionary process of the active curriculum, the Ruskin Modules and the integration of employability, strategies at the heart of our education mission.

By Dr Beatriz Acevedo


Acevedo, B. and Johnson, S. (2013) ‘Sustainability in Practice’, Chapter 8 in Enhancing Education for sustainable development in Business and Management, Hospitality, Leisure, Marketing and Tourism. Edited by Richard Atfield and Patsy Kemp. Higher Education Academy.

Dollinger, M.,  Lodge, J.  and  Coates, H. (2018) Co-creation in higher education: towards a conceptual model, Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 28:2, 210-231.

Foucault, M. (1991) (original 1975) Discipline and Punish. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Penguin. London.

Gooding, M. (1995) A book of surrealist games. Shambhala Publications Inc.

May, M. (2019) The Power of Cute. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ.

Middleton, A. (2018) Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave Learning and Teaching. London.


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