Learning design: heroic goal in a held space

What was I trying to do in my talk to the Solstice conference 2016?

In the talk, I analysed learning using metaphors of

  • “Held space” (Plett 2015),
  • The romantic or heroic quest (Wikipedia for summaries)
  • And “heartwork” (Hogan 2011) or the concept of “emotional labour” (Koster2011).

I wanted these to be seen in the light of the Solstice 2016 conference themes:

  • The role and use of online classrooms, MOOCS and developments in online course structures,
  • Creative deployment of technologies for assessment and feedback: summative and formative
  • Approaches to enhancement of learning, teaching and assessment underpinned with academic multimedia and digital literacy.

And, more broadly apply these to the understanding of and design for learning in our own practice. It may be every teacher’s’ journey.

In Solstice 2014, I suggested that in online learning designs, like all learning designs, the teacher is one who holds space for learning (Francis and Roberts 2014; Roberts 2014). And that the held space is one of uncertainty, liminality and vulnerability.I suggested that to hold this space required some degree of authenticity, constituting “heartwork” or “emotional labour” (Hogan 2011; Koster 2011):wellbeing and emotional literacy if you will. I thought I could usefully illustrate or at least ground my arguments on some examples from practice (FSLT, TOOC, Digital Leadership).

Held space

The idea of holding space arises from drama, ritual or magic. Held spaces contain a liminal moment and a liminal object. As a moment the space is “out of time”, suspended, balanced at a point in an arc, spiral or cycle. Liminal objects may be the holy grails of learning outcomes or degree awards, licences to practise, jobs or professions and careers. Learning and learning technologies themselves may be liminal objects of a held space.

Romantic quest cycle (heroic journey)

Within the held space a quest cycle is acted out that recapitulates, parallels or shadows the romantic or heroic quest cycle. The processes and structures of the quest in education include:

  • Invitation/Admission
  • Fellow travellers
  • Trust/Consent/Acceptance
  • The Unknown
  • Trials
  • Wounding
  • Surrender/Death/Ecstasy
  • Return

I prefer to think of arcs, trajectories (with ricochets), gyres or spirals rather than cycles (circles) of learning. Or if the ordinary, known appears to be a cycle (the Wheel of Samsara, or Dharma, project and programme management or Kolb’s Learning cycle, for instance), I prefer to consider where the cycle breaks, where a leap must be made to catch the receding point across the broken or imperfect gap, where the learning cycle becomes a helical whorl.

As a teacher, people will pass through the space you hold for them at some point on their broader life trajectories.

Within your held space or spaces, for a time you put on a drama and a ritual within which examples are enacted as “scenes” in a “play”: courses, modules, lectures, flipped classes, readings, assignments, exams, degrees.

The drama, or ritual, or “learning design” has sequences of activities which exemplify parts in a wider whole, some of which remain unknown. The wider whole is maybe the “aim” of the course, a disciplinary or professional community or practice.

Seen this way the ritual or drama or learning design/event is a model: a structured reduction of complexity. What is held in these spaces of learning is a representation or plan of the wider whole: the world as it might or should be. As Bauman says:

To measure the life ‘as it is’ by a life as it should be … is a defining, constitutive feature of humanity… Human life is propelled and kept on course by the urge for transcendence. Transcendence – transgression – is the modality of human being in the world… The urge to transcend is the most stubbornly present … attribute of human existence. This [-] cannot be said of its articulation into ‘projects’ – that is into cohesive and comprehensive programmes of change, complete with a vision of the life that the change is hoped to bring about. (Bauman 2002, 222-23)

In teaching we are engaged by students, individuals and communities, parents, employers, government and society to do just that: measure the world (or people) as it is (they are) by the rod of a world that might be, to help envisage or manifest the liminal object (goal, aim, objective, outcome) within the liminal space of a design forlearning.

Activities in a design for learning understood as a romantic or heroic journey can be analysed using the idea of stages.


At the start an invitation is made or admission sought through physical and digital representations of institution and individual by way of prospectuses and application forms. Maybe there is individual correspondence.

Branding, colours, fonts devices and logos are important – often on shields and crests. These serve as signposts on a wider journey. At the invitation stage we share maps and plans: programme curricula and personal aims. They are maps and show the wider territory. Consistency is important, not only for the Consumer Markets Authority.

Personal address is important and might be tested as an indicator of positive experiences and outcomes. I suggest that designs in line with the mythic journey, at this phase:

  • Identify facilitators (teachers)
  • Address people by name
  • Use first-person singular whenever possible
    • I welcome you
    • Bracket on behalf of the community/institution
  • Do not write people out of the story

Fellow travellers

Trust consent and acceptance must be gained from the fellow travellers: other students and colleagues.

  • Social media profiles
  • VLE profiles
  • Pictures
  • Icebreakers
  • How much revelation
    is enough?
  • Obligations to others
  • Ground rules, protocols,

The unknown

It was said in discussion that if one wasn’t willing to step into the unknown why were they going to university? There are unintended outcome, unexpressed outcomes, off-platform conversations, lurkers and maybe stalkers: surveillance, investigation and espionage at many levels. We try to get a handle on these through many tools and learning devices: what Fairclough (2001) calls “discourse technologies” ranging from the democratic to the authoritarian.


As teachers we engineer trials for the learner as activity design. We provide curriculum maps: here be dragons and X marks the spot. These are represented to students as constructively aligned assessment schemes. The trials are all assessment for learning. Among the trials group work is often the hardest especially if it is assessed.


In the course of trials there will be wounding. This was perhaps the most challenging point of the discussion, raising as it does embodiment and feeling. Gender studies was an example of one “place” where wounding was revealed. Others may include any diversity initiative or simply assessment: exam panic. We had to discuss the question of to what extent might wounding be intentional and a general assent was murmured when I asked if we had any scars from our own learning journeys. We see lost souls wounded in academic pursuit (Pirsig 1974). How do we account for the possibility of wounding in our designs?

This has implications for the provision of pastoral care and academic advising in online learning environments. It may go as far as providing financial or emotional or counselling and legal support as for “embodied” learners.

Surrender and death

In the heroic cycle the hero can only emerge through surrender and (at least symbolic) death. This might be described as giving up the ego brought about by overcoming failure, or by having previously cherished beliefs overturned by evidence, argument or investigation. Or simply taking a safe leap of trust to submit an assignment, whether or not it is “perfect”.

The return

Ultimately the learner returns to a point on their wider journey having completed the tour of the held space. They return to the world equipped with credentials and
Micro-credentials, transcripts, certificates, badges/backpacks and portfolios.

Final questions

In conclusion I raised questions

  • Whether technology itself might be a “teacher” holding space for learning?
  • Whether institutions or spaces themselves could be teachers?

I concluded reflecting on Stephen Ehrman’s assertion that Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles held true regardless of the mode of delivery

Many questions remain. Thank you Lawrie Phipps and Mark Childs for careful challenging of the ideas and methods.


Bauman, Zygmunt. 2002. Society under Siege. Cambridge: Polity.

Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and Power, second edition (Vol. 2). Harlow: Pearson.

Francis, R., & Roberts, G. (2014). Where is the new blended learning? Whispering corners of the forum. Brookes Electronic Journal of Learning and Teaching (BeJLT), 6(1). Retrieved from http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/paper/where-is-the-new-blended-learning-whispering-corners-of-the-forum/

Hogan, P. (2011). Response to Mark Fettes’ Review of The New Significance of Learning: Imagination’s Heartwork. Studies in Philosophy & Education, 30(3), 323–325.

Koster, S. (2011). The self-managed heart: teaching gender and doing emotional labour in a higher education institution. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 19(1), 61–77.

Pirsig, R. (1974). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: an inquiry into values.

Roberts, G. (2014). The new blended learning? Presented at the SOLSTICE, Edge Hill University. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/georgeroberts/the-new-blended-learning-36413209

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