I often do random things. I don’t mean leaving my keys in the ’fridge or flushing my phone down the toilet (although both of these have been known to happen). I’m talking about those times when I purposefully make room for randomness in my teaching and development work.
When I want students or colleagues to engage in new ways with a familiar concept: for example learning or teacher, I present them with a random collection of postcard images and invite them to “pick a card, any card.” Then I encourage them to make connections. “What does this image say to you about learning?” “In what ways do you as a teacher resemble this image? In what ways are you different from it?” Time and again I am surprised and delighted by the richness and diversity of their responses. The random images seem to stimulate their meaning making and encourage them to break out of familiar ways of thinking. When one lecturer looked at the picture of Elvis that she had chosen, she became painfully aware of her deep needs for recognition that had been put aside in her cultivation of the “facilitator” persona who fades into the background to allow the student centre-stage (Loads, 2009).
Another favourite activity is collage. I pose a question, such as “What does teaching mean to you?” and invite participants to represent their responses by sticking together pictures torn from magazines. Having reflected on their artwork and following feedback from other members of the group, they often notice unexpected juxtapositions or telling details that they had previously overlooked. One colleague was taken aback when it was pointed out to her that the image she had chosen to represent her way up to the mountains of her teaching aspirations was a tiny, rickety step-ladder; there was a long pause while she sat in contemplation of the implications. (Loads, 2009) Again, it is the seemingly random elements that give rise to insight.
What is happening here is the opposite of the randomised control trial, where research participants are chosen by a computer programme so as to rule out human biases, conscious or unconscious. Here, the randomisation makes room for human creativity and meaning making.
As academics we are trained to find pattern and create order in a chaotic world. This is as it should be, but just sometimes it’s good to let a little randomness into the mix. In the words of Bateson (1979),
“Without the random there can be no new thing.”