You learn some, you win some

I recently attended a Salford Method event at the University of Salford where Suzanne Murray, an inclusion specialist, came to talk with us about the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896 –1934) on learning and development.  Unfortunately I didn’t have much to say in the session as to be honest; much of the philosophical debate went over my head.  Nonetheless, on reflection I can see how some of the discussions might be applied to some recent projects and tasks that I am on with.  What springs to mind immediately is a new skill I acquired recently (how to name a project) and also how I have learned over the last three years as a PhD student.

Firstly though, it’s worth introducing a bit of Vygotsky’s work (I’m not that familiar with his work so please forgive me if I don’t do it justice).  Vygotsky coined the term Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which, in a nutshell, covers the range of what a person can do on their own (independently) up to what they can achieve when they are provided with support.  The basic premise is that we learn more if we have skilled and experienced people around to aid learning and support us.  Another Vygotsky concept is scaffolding which is when those skilled and experienced people adjust their levels of support depending on the learner’s progress.  Vygotsky also emphasised the importance of dialogue and social interaction for learning.

So, how does this relate to what I’ve been doing at the mo?  Well, last week I learned a better, more effective way to a name a project, whether it be a research endeavour or an entrepreneurial venture.  Another PhD student and I are currently putting together a business plan to bring a project of ours to life.   For a while now we have been struggling to come up with a name for our business.  What’s in a name?  It’s all in the name – right? For the past few months we have been messing around with a few key words, texting and emailing suggestions to each other, and coming up (pretty much) blank or disagreeing!  What we had managed to do is narrow our focus to a limited number of closely related terms, which had stifled creativity altogether.

Lucky for us we have some experienced and skilled people around to help us out and expand our ZPD.  Blake Prime and Andrew North, from the Commercial & Technology Transfer team at the University of Salford set up and facilitated a creativity session for us to get over our naming hurdle.  In the session, we firmed up our concept by completing the matrix which I’ve recreated below:

Completing the matrix was a really useful exercise as it helped us get down on paper what the business is all about.  We then discussed the few names we had so far and it was really clear that none of them were quite right for what we had described in our matrix.  After the session, we went away having been asked to come up with 20 potential names (each!) for the business.  Using the matrix as a guide, we were advised to consider all the names we came up with no matter how silly; the weird and wonderful too.  One tip was to stay away from acronyms as they are too predictable – academics seem to like them for project names.  We were also told to stop obsessively checking to see if the domain names were available as this was another obstacle in the way of getting to the right name.    Although it is worth pointing out, in terms of costs for starting up a business, if the domain names are not being held on to by a domain name company, you can save a lot of pennies and hassle – and you also get one over on them!

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we did it (over 50 names were on the list!) and now we have a name that we both instantly liked (I’d love to tell you what it is but we have to trademark it first).   So, with a bit of support and expert guidance, and a bit of dialogue and social interaction, we’ve gone up and over the obstacle and learned a new way to name something.

What the matrix also provided was a much needed visual tool too.  Sat in the Salford Method event I realised that I had transferred this visual way of working to my PhD work without even realising I’d done it.  Recently my research focus has changed slightly because of my research findings and I was struggling to get my head around it.  I haven’t visualised or drawn out much along my PhD journey (tut tut) but I mapped my ‘refocus’ out. Here it is:

I won’t go into explaining my ‘refocus’ picture, as that’s not really why I’ve included it here.  It’s just to show that making things visual helped me understand my PhD research (and the business concept), and that with a little help and guidance you can achieve way more – winning all round!

To conclude, the take home message from the Salford Method event for me was that we need to rethink our ways of learning and doing across the board.  Most importantly, I think we need to use the expertise and support around us (there is lots of that within universities for sure) to progress, develop, achieve, and do more.  Now venturing into unfamiliar territory by pushing forward with the business idea, I am definitely going to work with, and talk with the people around me to learn how to make our business a success– I am still crossing my fingers too!


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