Subscribe Today
Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Descriptive Inquiry as Contemplative Practice

by Kathleen Kesson, Cecelia Traugh & Felix Perez III - 2006

This article draws upon and integrates a number of distinct but overlapping areas of inquiry in the literature on teaching: teacher inquiry, reflective practice, spirituality and education, and contemplative practice. In it, we examine the implementation of a particular phenomenological form of teacher inquiry, the Descriptive Review, in an urban teacher preparation program. The authors participated in a longitudinal study of graduates of the program and are engaged in the continual examination of student work to assess the efficacy of the inquiry process in helping students overcome bias and habitual thinking, become more mindful of the basis of their professional judgments, and develop a moral framework that might help them resist dehumanizing and ineffective policies and imposed practices. The article includes the authors' autobiographical reflections about what brought them to this form of practice, a description of the theory and practice of the Descriptive Review as it is carried out in their teacher preparation graduate programs, a description of the urban context in which the work takes place, and a student narrative of practice, which is analyzed in relation to the theory of phenomenological inquiry. The conclusions are tentative; although the efficacy of the method is clearly demonstrated in the narratives that students produce about their inquiries into practice, the complex and challenging environments that new urban teachers are facing are problematic in terms of the capacity to develop contemplative practice.


The gift of vision . . . through which observing lays claim to its fullest possibilities, requires exercise to realize its power or it relapses into a kind of blindness, in which the things in the world are perceived only as objects-of-use; that is, in terms of personal needs. In its most benign form, habituated perception is reassuring and indeed useful. . . . But, there are limitations and implicit dangers in habituated perception. . . . When habituated perception is carried to an extreme of circumstance (e.g., extreme physical need), or through a failure to exercise the gift of vision (e.g., ordinary busy-ness), the world may come to be seen only from the frame of reference of personal need. Then both the viewer and viewed are impoverished, detachment replaces interest, and the world loses its power for calling forth meaning [italics added]. (Carini, 1979, p. 11)

These words of Carini highlight the importance of seeing clearly, in order not to fall into a form of habitual perception, thinking, and action that at its best serves to maintain the status quo, but at its worst creates a sort of mindless nihilism. Habitual thinking is especially dangerous under the current regime of "technical-rationality," or the standardized management paradigm, a bureaucratic approach to education in which decisions are top-down, and teachers are expected to implement other peoples ideas (Henderson & Kesson, 2004, p. 205). Habitual thinking lends itself to an uncritical acceptance of policies and practices that operate not necessarily in the interest of the child, but in the interest of maintaining an efficient system. Habitual thinking dulls the imagination, and the capacity to reimagine education is crucial if we are to create more just, caring, and effective learning communities. The capacity to reimagine education, according to curriculum scholar and theologian Dwayne Huebner, means having a different view of people, of our educational spaces and resources, of what we do and what we saya view that will enable us to critique the embodied images, see obstacles, and recognize alternatives (Hillis, 1999, p. 402).

In this article, we discuss a form of phenomenological inquiry that is designed to disrupt the habitual thinking patterns of teachers, enabling them to see aspects of their teaching practice more clearly. In this approach, learning to suspend judgment, bias, conditioned responses, and hasty interpretation allows for more fluid and open perception, guiding the practitioner into forms of inquiry closely akin to Polanyis tacit knowing (1962), Schons reflection-in-action (1983), and Millers contemplative practice (1994). It is our premise that such disciplined perception, the exercise of the gift of vision, works to broaden the range of pedagogical actions and responses and allows for deeper layers of meaning to emerge from classroom events.

The discourse of critique and envisioning that Huebner refers to has been overshadowed in recent years by the discourse of standards, tests, and accountability. New teachers, themselves likely having been educated under the current regime of technical-rationality, find it difficult to imagine that things could be otherwise. Scripted curricula, high-stakes tests, and the absence of the arts are seen as just the way it is. These conditions are exacerbated in schools located in poor inner-city neighborhoods. Despite the overpowering nature of the current paradigm in education, our work with teachers in such schools has shown us that most of them experience emotional dissonance when confronted with a pedagogical environment that dictates practices that are at odds with what they perceive as serving the best interests of their students. Further, most of the teachers we work with hold an idea of best interests that encompasses not just the academic advancement of the children, but their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being as well. The emotional dissonance they experience provides a fertile ground for advancing a form of teacher research called Descriptive Inquiry, in which teachers observe and document dimensions of their students learning and their own teaching practice, including their own phenomenological, or deeply felt, responses to what is going on in the classroom. We believe that this approach to inquiry, which we describe in more detail below, is a contemplative practice, not in the sense of a meditative practice that is connected to a particular religion or spirituality, but in the sense of an active attunement to the many layers of meaning in unfolding events. Such an attunement is essentially a practice guided by "spirit," but we use this term here in a broad, secular sense, hearkening to Huebners notion that to have spirit is to be in touch with forces or aspects of life that make possible something new and give hope and expectations. Spirit refers to the possible and the unimaginedto the possibility of new ways, new knowledge, new relationships, new awareness (Hillis, 1999, pp. 343-344).

To be open to what is not yet imagined, however, requires the deconstruction of habitual patterns of perception and action. It is our hope that connecting the acts of systematic observation and description to phenomenological reflection on both inner and outer events makes this sort of clear seeing possible, providing the ground from which teachers can begin to make informed moral judgments about what is in the best interest of their students.

In this article, we first share a bit of our personal journeys toward our own engagement with descriptive processes. We then explicate the theoretical grounding of the Descriptive Review process and describe the urban teacher education program in which this work is carried out. Concluding the article, we ground this theoretical frame in the lived experience of teachers, interweaving some of the core concepts of phenomenological inquiry with a narrative of practice related by a teacher who graduated from both our undergraduate teacher education program and from our masters program in literacy. In this way, we hope to show how his initiation into Descriptive Review processes provided him with a moral framework for his work as a new teacher in a difficult environment, a framework that allowed for the viewer and viewed to be enriched, for detachment to be replaced by interest, and for meaning to be called forth.


Autobiography enables us to trace our public commitments from our private experiences (Pinar, 2004), and our stories hold us responsible for the embodiment of our theoretical perspectives in our speech and our actions. This is especially important when one is promoting a practice that involves self-knowledge oriented toward the transformation of practice. We would be remiss in asking that our students engage in this inner and outer journey, this "currere," if we did not do so ourselves. Pinar, a pioneer of the method of autobiography in education, explained the meaning of the word currere in terms of the relationship between self-knowledge and the transformation of ones lived reality:

The method of currerethe infinitive form of curriculumpromises no quick fixes . . . this autobiographical method asks us to slow down, to remember even reenter the past, and to meditatively imagine the future. Then slowly and in ones own terms, one analyzes ones experience of the past and fantasies of the future in order to understand more fully, with more complexity and subtlety, ones submergence in the present. The method of currere is not a matter of psychic survival, but one of subjective risk and social reconstruction, the achievement of selfhood and society in the age to come. (p. 4)

In much the same way that currere has both a private and a public dimension, so too do descriptive processes. Our students embark on an inward journey that is oriented toward the transformation of their teaching practice.

We (the authors) come to this work from different, yet similar, personal backgrounds. Both of us have a spiritual practice that we value, which to some extent shapes our worldview and our philosophies of teaching and learning. We will briefly describe these practices here in order to show our personal connections to the teacher education journey that we will describe in this article.

I (Kathleen) have long been interested in spirituality. As an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I minored in comparative religion and philosophy, with an emphasis on non-Western forms of spiritual practice: "Eastern" traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism and various Native American traditions (Kesson, 2002). I had never been particularly drawn to the dominant monotheistic religions of my culture, resisting doctrine and dogma in favor of a more experiential approach to matters of the spirit. I discovered Paramahansa Yoganandas Autobiography of a Yogi (1946/1979) when working on a movie set in the mid-1960s, which sparked my interest in both meditation and the exploration of the nature of consciousness. I still practice a form of yogic meditation, though not as diligently as I did when I was younger. For me, my contemplative practice helps me keep a balanced perspective and gain a somewhat wider vision on the turmoil of events that constitute daily life. It is hard to explain exactly how this works, but I think that the balance comes from the practice of assuming a witnessing role in relation to ones emotions, learning to observe the ebb and flow of feelings rather than being subsumed by them. This seems to carry over into relations with the wider world as well. The capacity for wider vision is perhaps related to coming to understand yourself as an infinitesimal but meaningful part of a much larger whole, which seems for many people to be a byproduct of contemplative practice. This part/whole hermeneutic seems to enlarge the capacity for understanding ones lived experience within larger historical, social, and cultural processes.

I appreciate the capacity for metacognition that is so essential to my meditation practice; when engaged in meditation, one learns to watch ones thoughts and ones emotions, with the idea that by gaining awareness of our thought processes, we are less likely to be dominated by habituated thinking and more likely to engage in freer, exploratory, or creative thinking. I find that yoga and meditation do not conflict in any way with reason or rationality, but complement my logical thinking by making a space for intuition and compassion.

I think that it is my contemplative practice that has led me to value the dignity and worth of every human being, as well as our fundamental equality, and my philosophy of education has developed alongside this practice. I do believe that there is a spark of divinity in everyone and that education at its best would be a drawing forth (from the Latin educare) of this infinite potential. This belief might classify me as a sort of Romantic educator in the spirit of Rousseau, if it were not for my academic background in critical theory, which tempers my commitment to the individual with a strong sense of social and economic justice. Taken together, these two commitmentslets call them self-realization and radical democracyconstitute the core of my educational vision.

My (Cecelia) development of mindful educational practice began to gain depth and purpose when I came to work as an administrator with Vito Perrone at the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of North Dakota. My first job in teacher education had introduced me to the life of an academic framed as an individualistic quest to gain tenure and promotion. My work with Perrone and his intense focus on the large moral purposes of education recentered me on these purposesfor example, creating democratic community and recognizing the wholeness and complexity of what it means to be human. Finding ways to enact these values in my day-to-day work with colleagues and students became a mission.

Through my work with Vito Perrone, I learned about and eventually joined the work of Patricia Carini and the Prospect Center. Through this long-term relationship, I came to make Prospects phenomenological descriptive processes central to the way I attempt to mindfully enact the core values of humanness of the educational process and democratic community. The Prospect descriptive processes have a dimension of mindfulness that comes from their focus on observing and describing, a slow collaborative looking that moves participants beyond surface interpretation and habituated seeing to fuller and deeper perspectives, to being aware of what is there but not evident at first glance.

The third major influence on my becoming a mindful educator was being the director of a middle school within a Quaker school. Friends (Quakers) have a long tradition of silent meeting for worship out of which arose their testimonies of peace, community, equality, and simplicity, and a knowledge of that of God or the Inward Light in everyone. Many Friends have a contemplative spiritual practice that involves centering through the normal distractions of the self and world in order to be present with that divine spark at each moment. Quakerism has sometimes been described as group mysticism. This group worship provides a communal sharing and mindfulness that brings Friends to deeper response and awareness than they could reach individually. From this experience, Friends seek an active engagement with the world in order to create a more just and equal community and world.

The Prospect processes proved to be a methodology that allowed me to put Quaker values into action in educational settings, their slow, deep ways of looking both consonant with Quaker ways of working and capable of making students and educational issues visible in new ways. The collaborative nature of the processes, like Friends communal worship, enables a deeper understanding and response than could be reached individually. By becoming aware of and knowing a studentor an educational issuein this way, teachers became mindful in a deeper way of the individual student, of the possibility of knowing each student in this way, and of the worth of every student as a unique person. Finally, both Friends worship and the Prospect processes typically create a stronger community united in acting together for the values that they share.

As this brief telling indicates, educational mindfulness, in my view, intertwines three elements: a focus on strong human values, a life of the spirit, and a commitment to putting into practice human and spiritual values in my day-to-day work, whether with colleagues at the university or with teachers in schools.

We admire the efforts of educators, some of whom you will become acquainted with in the pages of this issue, who have found a way to bring their personal spiritual practices into their teaching and research. Our story describes developing mindful practice from another vantage point. It is about how we have worked to develop contemplative habits of mind in teachers through integrating descriptive inquiry process as a core strand of the masters program. We have chosen this avenue to developing mindfulness in teachers for several reasons. We are educating teachers who are or will be working under some of the harshest educational conditions in this country, conditions that seem to value mindlessness over mindfulness. Through learning descriptive inquiry process, we hope to help teachers have a practice that over their professional lives can help them focus purposefully on their students and their teaching practice by taking a mindful inquiry stance toward their work. A second reason is that many of our students have traditional religious backgrounds and would not always welcome the inclusion of a specifically "spiritual" practice that is not consistent with their religious commitments. The mindfulness supported by descriptive inquiry can sit alongside and sometimes draw productively on students religious values. Third, we have no room in our program for electives in which students might volunteer for a more experimental program, such as two courses that Kathleen had in graduate schoolone called Transpersonal Human Development and the other called Altered States of Consciousness in Education, both taught by the wonderful Dr. Joseph Pearl, who began each class with 20 minutes of meditation. Given these context-specific issues, our challenge is a hermeneutic one, requiring us to move back and forth between the secular and the sacred, the whole and the part, the public and the private, the contemplative and the critical, in the context of an institution that is dedicated to the preparation of teachers for work in urban public schools.


Descriptive Review (Himley, 2000) is a phenomenological approach to child study designed to awaken teachers to see beyond their habituated perception, and in so doing, become steadily more mindful of individual children, classroom dynamics, and their teaching practices. Phenomenological study is, as Van Manen (2001) noted,

systematic in that it uses specially practiced modes of questioning, reflecting, focusing, intuiting, etc. . . . . [It] is explicit in that it attempts to articulate, through the content and form of text, the structures of meaning embedded in lived experience. . . . [It] is self-critical in the sense that it continually examines its own goals and methods in an attempt to come to terms with the strengths and shortcomings of its approach and achievements. . . . It is intersubjective in that the human science researcher needs the other (for example, the reader) in order to develop a dialogic relation with the phenomenon, and thus validate the phenomenon as described. (p. 11)

Phenomenological educational inquiry focuses on the act of perception, and the detailed description of that perception. It is, according to Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, and Taubman (1994), a disciplined, rigorous effort to understand experience profoundly and authentically (p. 405). Distinct from forms of inquiry that depend on quantifiable logic and empiricism, the phenomenological investigator questions how phenomenathe things themselvespresent themselves in the lived experience of the individual, especially as they present themselves in lived time (p. 405). Description is the core methodology of the phenomenological inquiry that we are discussing here. It is through taking a descriptive stance that inquirers using this method engage in a form of contemplative observation, seeing what is rather than seeing what our experiences have conditioned us to see:

Describing I pause, and pausing, attend. Describing requires that I stand back and consider. Describing requires that I not rush to judgment or conclude before I have looked. Describing makes room for something to fully present. Describing is slow, particular work. I have to set aside familiar categories for classifying or generalizing. I have to stay with the subject of my attention. I have to give it time to speak, to show itself. (Carini, 2001, p. 163)

As this passage and the epigraph of this article suggest, engaging mindfully in description requires several things of the investigator. One is positioning herself on the borders of her taken-for-granted reality in order to become aware of her own perceptions and preconceived notions about these perceptions and to work to meet the thing described in its own terms. Another is resistingor being aware of and stepping aside fromdefinitive judgments and instead remaining open to further experiences that generate possibilities and new understandings. A third is recognizing that moving from the particular to the general does not mean making an abstract generalization, but instead means seeing connections between different particulars that enables a deeper, more nuanced understanding. These are all aspects of the discipline of descriptive inquiry.


In our redesigned teacher preparation program at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University, three courses in Descriptive Review are at the heart of our graduate program, and one such course is required of undergraduates. The intention of this inquiry-oriented restructuring is to educate teachers to be more mindful of what is happening in the classroom on cognitive, emotional, and social levels, to learn to set aside their biases and assumptions in order to see the child in all his or her complexity, and to gain confidence in their own abilities to construct pedagogic knowledge.

Faculty in the Department of Teaching and Learning are involved in a longitudinal study of graduates of both the graduate and the undergraduate teacher preparation programs to assess the long-term consequences of preparing teachers with this conceptual foundation. We struggle with the tensions between a programmatic focus on the development of new teachers toward a more mindful pedagogical stance and the need to transmit content and methods to these struggling teachers working in difficult urban sitessites that, in many cases, do not value inquiry and offer little scope for the exercise of professional judgment. Our rationale for this approach, against the grain as it is, grows out of a concern for the retention of qualified teachers in urban schools who are from the communities they teach in, who hold a moral vision of teaching, and who are committed to more progressive, humane pedagogy than is currently supported in New York City public schools.

A majority of our students live and teach in the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, and Fort Greene, which are three of the most disadvantaged communities in the country, and an overwhelming majority of them are from low-income working families. Eighty percent of the students in the program are people of color, 51% of African descent, 82% are women, and many are recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Russia, China, Korea, South America, and elsewhere. Many are bidialectal or bilingual. Eighty-five percent of the programs graduate students are uncertified teachers working in city schools, and many of them are working in low-performing schools, or schools under review. The program has been designed to capitalize on the cultural and linguistic strengths that the students bring with them to the task of teaching in urban environments.

Given the power of the technical/rational, or standardized/management paradigms, one of the most difficult tasks for the teacher educators in our program, working with beginning phenomenological inquirers, is to help them frame questions that are not instrumental questions, but questions oriented toward understanding. For example, given the stresses and pressures that they work under, many of our students want to ask, how can I get the children to learn this material? or how can I better control my students behavior? We reorient them to instead ask such questions as what is the nature of the experience of my students learning? or how can I better understand the essence of my students behaviors?questions that might better lend themselves to phenomenological inquiry and to thoughtful practice.

Students carry out two different kinds of studies throughout the course of their program. The first is a Descriptive Review of the Child, in which they carefully observe one child and develop a full and thoughtful description of such aspects of the child as her physical presence and gesture, disposition and temperament, relations and connections with others, strong interests and preferences, and modes of thinking and learning. The methodology for this approach has been carefully worked out over many years through the work of Pat Carini and her colleagues at the Prospect School in Vermont and is well articulated in the book From Another Angle, edited by Margaret Himley, with Pat Carini (2000).

The second study that our students carry out is a Descriptive Review of a Teaching Practice, in which they spend two semesters inquiring into one of their own practices. For this, we again draw on the work of the Prospect Center and Van Manens methodology for "doing" phenomenology (1984). First, we orient students toward a "phenomenon," then work with them to develop a question and tease out their biases and preconceptions about the question. Then we steer them toward the gathering of different sorts of "data"including their own recollections of the topic from childhood, observations of relevant experiences, in-depth descriptions of student work, tracing etymological sources, and detailed descriptions of context (physical, historical, personal, institutional). We then ask them to examine their data for the structural elements contained within the descriptionrecurring themes and patterns. They then weave these themes into a narrative that seeks to uncover the meanings in the experiences that they have documented. It is only at the end of their investigations, after we have led them, we hope, to trust in their own capacities to generate knowledge that they turn to the ideas of others about their topic, carrying out a modified literature review that might inform their question.

Teachers capacities to respond authentically to children have been clouded over by a contemporary public school discourse that is dominated by the language of labeling, standardized accountability, zero tolerance, scripted teaching, and the management of student learning and behavior. In significant ways, the paradigm of the educational world they teach in and the paradigm of our teacher preparation program are in conflict. We focus on the valuing of difference and inclusion rather than labeling and division; authentic curriculum and assessment as opposed to standardized accountability; social justice rather than zero tolerance; the cultivation of mindful judgment as opposed to the mindless implementation of an external curriculum; and the observation and understanding of, rather than the management of, student learning and behavior. These tensions cause our students no end of anxiety, as one might imagine.


Felix Perez III is a graduate of the undergraduate LIU Urban Childhood teacher education program and our Literacy Masters program. He grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, the area in which he currently teaches. At the time of the work we describe below, he was a second-year teacher at the Cypress Hills Child Care Center, a program that is part of NYs universal prekindergarten program. The community is largely working-class Hispanic. The children who attend the school mainly come from single-parent families. Felix taught the 4-year-olds. There were 20 children, mostly Hispanic, with a few from the Caribbean and 1 Asian child.

One of the stories Felix tells is about a child in his first class, a boy with whom he was struggling. The little boy had become very disruptive to the group and was doing things that Felix did not know what to do with. He decided to do a Descriptive Review of this child at our new teachers inquiry group. He wanted to figure out how he could help the child become part of the class community. J felt to Felix like an outsider; he never wanted to be part of the group. Felix asked the inquiry group leader, Linette Moorman, to visit his class and observe this child, and Linette gave him a couple of insights that helped focus his observations. Through the review, Felix got some ideas about how to work with the child and the adults who were important in creating the environment in which this child was living.

Eckhart Tolle, in Practicing the Power of Now (2001), described being mindful through remaining in the present moment, and he pointed to the relationship between mindfulness and action:

Focus your attention on the now and tell me what problems you have at this moment. I am not getting any answer because it is impossible to have a problem when your attention is fully in the Now. A situation needs to be either dealt with or accepted. Why make it into a problem? . . . . "Problem" means that you are dwelling on a situation mentally without there being a true intention or possibility of taking action now. (p. 41)

In the following story, Felix illustrates how observing and describing J, staying in the now with this child, helped him, his colleagues, and Js parents get beyond seeing J as a "problem" and to find ways to act mindfully in the present. As he documented his observation for the Review, one of the insights Felix came to was that

some of the teachers attitudes toward him [J] were making it impossible for him to behave in the way he wanted to. Some of the things they said to him were terrible. When anything happened in the classroom, the first thing that was said was, did J do that?" "Did J hit you?" "Did J call you a name? No one was saying, What happened to you? Everyone was just saying, Did J do this?

One day J brought a toy. He showed me the toy, and I told him, Oh, thats a good toy. When its time for choice time, you can play with it.

But, I was in someone elses classroom at the beginning of last year, and the teachers there didnt want toys in the classroom, and I didnt know that. So, I told him to put it away. You can play with it later. The other teachers practically attacked him. They were holding him down. One was taking the toy out of his pocket.

At first I didnt see things like that. I was sort of blind. When Linette came and told me how some of the teachers were talking to him and what they were doing to him, I started to notice the things that were going on in the classroom. I was upset with things like that.

Thoughtfulness, said Van Manen (2001), characterizes phenomenology more aptly than any other word. In the words of the great phenomenologist, thoughtfulness is described as a minding, a heeding, a caring attunement a heedful mindful wondering about the project of life, of living, of what it means to live a life (p. 12). Doing a Descriptive Review under the guidance of an experienced teacher, Felix began to notice patterns of behavior that he had not noticed before. Noticing led to thoughtfulness, a more caring attunement.

But, it was not only the teachers. It was the parents as well. The parents would come to school and tell me things like, Oh, my god. I cant believe my son. I dont know what Im going to do with him. He is forever abusing my other kids. I always punish him. I realized that J gets it from school, and he gets it from home. I knew there was no way that he was going to be able to function in a classroom and at home the way that he probably wanted to. Everyone thought of him as the bad boy. I began to think that maybe he is behaving the way he is because everyone already thinks he is bad.

The phenomenological reduction or epoche brackets our convictions and prejudices so that we may examine the world in its primordialness, as it gives itself to consciousness. The epoche is designed to cleanse the field of consciousness so that we may see, feel, imagine the essential form of a thing (Grumet, 1992, p. 38). Felix begins here to see the relationship between habitual thinking and patterned behavior, and the way that conditioned expectations create lived realities. Setting aside the preconceived ideas that his teaching environment had socialized him to, he generated an alternative explanation for Js behavior that contained the seeds of more positive interactions.

That is when I decided that I had to take some actions. I kept observing him and writing things down that happened in the classroom that I knew werent helping him. When I saw that I had enough of a body of information, I decided to have a meeting with the teachers in the class. I showed them what I was seeing in the classroom. I gave everyone a copy of my notes, and we talked them through. I explained to them that I felt he would be much, much better in his learning, in his behavior if we decided as a group that we would try not to judge J. That was one of the main things that I wanted them not to do. I wanted them to not judge him and not treat him like he was the bad boy.

For van Manen, such tactfulness is not so much a body of knowledge one possesses but rather a knowing body, a way of being with students that recognizes the pedagogical actions that are appropriate in a given moment with a particular child (Brown, 1992, p. 56). Felix developed a deep understanding of J that was grounded in careful observation, description, and intuition. This embodied form of knowing provided him with the moral conviction to challenge the status quo at his school.

We started to change our attitudes. We started to ask, what happened? instead of asking what J had done. At the beginning it was hard for them. They kept doing what they were used to doing, and every time I heard them say it, I would cough, and they switched their wordsWhat happened? That was the main thing in the beginningnot to use J as the scapegoat for everything that happened.

After they started to change their language, I started to tell them about their actions toward him. I told them that if he had a toy, and I told him he could bring it, they shouldnt take it from him. Choice time is choice time. Children could play with what they want. I had to explain this to them because we were moving into our own room, and two of the teachers were going to be coming with me. I wanted them to know what was going to happen in my classroom.

Phenomenology is a

philosophy of action well suited to radically reforming educational practice. . . because of its ontologically oriented methodology, [it] provokes serious and original thinking about the world. . . . A deeper understanding of the lifeworld of the student through phenomenological research precipitates a greater likelihood of one actively articulating questions and dissent concerning ideas and programs that violate the good of the student. (Brown, 1992, pp. 57-58)

The entry above clearly shows the forms of action that emerged from Felixs careful attention to the details of Js behavior. His moral conviction, grounded as it was in his deep understanding of the lifeworld of the student, enabled him to act as an advocate for the best interests of the child.

After I talked to the teachers, and we started to work it out, I started to talk to the parents. The parents were really close with me. They came to me when they were having problems at home. I knew the way they were talking to him at home was not how I was talking to him in class. So, I spoke to them about how they talk to him. Everyday he came to school angry, and when I asked why he was angry, he would tell me, Oh, my father or Oh, my mother. Everyday it was something. They punished me. They did this; they did that. I was asking myself, Why am I trying so hard if they are going to do it at home? In January, at the parent-teacher conferences, I explained to Js parents how we were changing here at school and how we needed them to change at home. I didnt want him to have a loving classroom environment and then go home and have to deal with an environment where everyone was still mean to him. I didnt want him to feel his home was a place he didnt want to go. He always wanted to stay in school. When it was time to go home, he was crying. Instead of Hi mommy, he was crying. I thought, No. That cant happen. Thats your family. You are going to be with them more than you are going to be with me.

In Van Manens (2001) words,

From a phenomenological point of view, to do research is always to question the way we experience the world, to want to know the world in which we live as human beings. And since to know the world is profoundly to be in the world in a certain way, the act of researching questioningtheorizing is the intentional act of attaching ourselves to the world, to become more fully part of it. (p. 5)

The act of inquiry, for Felix, became inseparable from the desire to immerse himself more fully in the lives of Js family. Knowing and being become fused in the moment when one commits to attaching oneself to the world, with all the attendant risks of disappointment and disillusionment.

So, we started. The parents changed too after a while. It took them a long, long time before they could realize how to deal with him when he behaved the way he did, to not punish him but to talk to him instead. It took a little while but they started to do it. We made a plan for J for what we would do when something happened. With the parents, we came up with ideas. I didnt want to put it in their heads that this is what they had to do. I wanted them to be able to tell me what they think they could do. I am not his parent. I dont know what he does at home and what they could do for him at home. I wanted them to tell me. And, they came up with some good ideas. I did make some suggestions. For example, they never ate dinner together in a group. They would send the children to their room to eat and they would go to their room. J is only 4.I said, you need to eat dinner with him. You need to talk to him. So, they started to have dinner with him. They started to talk to him more. They started to explain to him how to talk instead of fighting.

According to Van Manen (2001),

The end of human science research for educators is a critical pedagogical competence: knowing how to act tactfully in pedagogic situations on the basis of a carefully edified thoughtfulness. To that end hermeneutic phenomenological research integrates part and whole, the contingent and the essential, value and desire. It encourages a certain attentive awareness to the details and seemingly trivial dimensions of our everyday educational lives. It makes us thoughtfully aware of the consequential in the inconsequential, the significant in the taken-for-granted. (p. 8)

Felix displayed great tact in his interactions with Js parents. He engaged with them in a generous spirit, not demeaning their actions, but gently reinforcing better parenting. His attention to the seemingly trivial dimensions of Js lived experience, such as the importance of eating dinner with his family, led to significant change in the childs life.

That was the main problem. He used to fight a lot. Whenever someone did something, it was fist first and then Ill talk to you. We tried to get that to be opposite. And, we did a good job. By May he was really good at speaking about what was going on rather than hitting. I think that between May and August he only hit somebody once. He would either talk to the child or to the teacher instead of fighting. And, he would ask me, Listen. They hit me. Can you tell them something?

And, at home it was the same thing. The mother told me that he and his sister had a better relationship. He played with the sister more at home instead of hitting her. His sister was only two and the parents had been scared that he as a big boy was going to hurt her one day.

They would always punish him and put him in his room and things like that. But, little by little, he started to play at home with her, with blocks, even with dolls. He would tell me he played with his sisters dolls yesterday.

When he got a baby brother, he came into school saying, Im a big brother. I told the father I thought that was good. The parents let him hold the baby, and so he started to feel like a brother. So, everyone started to change. J changed. His parents changed. I changed. The other teachers changed. It was a big circle for everyone involved in it.

His change and our change helped the whole class because J became able to function in our group. He became part of our classroom. It was no longer us and J. It was all of us, so it became better in the classroom. More children played with J. More children would ask him to be their partner. Things in the classroom got better because we did that one review on that one child.

According to Van Manen (2001),

In doing research we question the worlds very secrets and intimacies which are constitutive of the world, and which bring the world as world into being for us and in us. Then research is a caring act: we want to know that which is most essential to being. . . . And if our love is strong enough, we not only will learn much about life, we will also come face to face with its mystery. (pp. 5-6)

What is the mystery revealed here? If we can be so bold as to attempt to demystify a mystery, it seems to be the subtle ways in which the transformation of a social situation is brought about. Felix began with a simple ethic of care, which inspired him to look more closely at a situation and document what he saw. Through modest interventions, small changes were brought about that had a synergetic effect.

Phenomenological research has, as its ultimate aim, the fulfillment of our human nature: to become more fully who we are (Van Manen, 2001, p. 12). Stories are most compelling when they contain some universalizing characteristics. To us, this particular narrative is a story of how one young boy was helped to become more fully who he was. Embedded in this assertion is an assumption of human goodness, a commitment to the notion that people have some innate tendency toward sociability. The researcher, in this case a beginning teacher, began with this assumption of goodness, then directed his attention and his energy to the task of making this goodness more visible. Through exercising his gift of vision, and acting with tact, he was a catalyst for the transformation of a difficult classroom situation.


We struggle against the desires that our students have for clarity and precision in this research endeavorfor preset categories into which they might fit their observations, and a clearly delineated research track that might yield certain outcomes, something more like "action-research" that might more clearly point toward more effective roles and behaviors. Speaking of these more measurable formulations, Aoki (1992) reminds us that these portrayals, although correct, although illuminating, are all distanced seeing in the images of abstract conceptual schemes that are idealizations, somewhat removed, missing the preconceptual, pretheoretical fleshy, familiar, very concrete world of teachers and students (p. 19).

To ask our students to attune themselves to their lifeworld is, in many cases, to ask them to bear close witness to painful realitiesrealities of hunger and homelessness and violence and neglect and deprivation and injustice. Many of them do not dwell in institutions that support inquiryor for that matter, innovation, creativity, caring, joy, or experimentation, characteristics that enliven the practice of teaching. They are relieved just to make it through each day. To ask them to adopt a metacognitive stance, to ask that they distance themselves from their experiences in order to come closer to them, to be both in the midst of things and apart from them, and to document the small everyday details of their classrooms is almost more than they can shoulder. And yet they do it, and many of them do it well; their work attests to the stunning transformations that can occur when one engages deeply and intently in open-minded inquiry. For the phenomenologist, said Grumet (1992), knowledge of the world requires knowledge of self-as-knower-of-the-world (p. 30). Lionel, a Caribbean man who works with emotionally and behaviorally labeled "boys" and is a graduate of our masters program, writes of this growth process,

Today, at the very end of the program, I look back on what I consider to have been a journey into self-discovery. A long time ago I came to understand that teaching would be my lifelong pursuit. I did not have to be convinced of this, and, as a result, there was an almost matter of fact approach to my teaching. I was a teacher and did not care to be anything else. This posture began to be challenged from the very first day of my sojourn at LIU. From the outset I began to realize that I would have to take a look at myself the teacher, and to engage some critical questions as to who and what and why I was a teacher. As the program developed my questions became many. What is my motivation? What is my purpose? What role do I fill in society? What contribution am I to make to the development of my students and my society?

Students such as Felix and Lionel, who open themselves up to this phenomenological process and who give themselves over to deep inquiry, reawaken themselves to matters of meaning by reawakening themselves to the basic experience of the world. They have become contemplative in the sense that contemplation is a state of being in which one is fully present and attuned to the world, bracketing thinking, judging, and analyzing, while trying to see clearly. As Van Manen (1984) might say of them, they have awakened to the reality that knowledge as understanding is geistiga matter of the depth of the soul, spirit, embodied knowing and being (p. 14).


Aoki, T. T. (1992). Layered voices of teaching: The uncannily correct and the elusively true. In W. F. Pinar & W. M. Reynolds (Eds.), Understanding curriculum as phenomenological and deconstructed text (pp. 17-27). New York: Teachers College Press.

Brown, R. K. (1992). Max van Manen and pedagogical human science research. In W. F. Pinar & W. M. Reynolds (Eds.), Understanding curriculum as phenomenological and deconstructed text (pp. 44-63). New York: Teachers College Press.

Carini, P. (1979). The art of seeing and the visibility of the person. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota, North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation.

Carini, P. (2001). Starting strong: A different look at children, schools, and standards. New York: Teachers College Press.

Grumet, M. R. (1992). Existential and phenomenological foundations of autobiographical methods. In W. F. Pinar & W. M. Reynolds (Eds.), Understanding curriculum as phenomenological and deconstructed text (pp. 28-43). New York: Teachers College Press.

Henderson, J. G., & Kesson, K. R. (2004). Curriculum wisdom: Educational decisions in democratic societies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall.

Hillis, V. (1999). The lure of the transcendent: Collected essays by Dwayne E. Huebner. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Himley, M. (with Carini, P.) (Ed.). (2000). From another angle: Childrens strengths and school standards. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kesson, K. (2002). Tantra: The quest for the ecstatic mind. In J. Miller (Ed.), Nurturing our wholeness (pp. 30-47). Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal.

Miller, J. P. (1994). The contemplative practitioner: Meditation in education and the professions. West-port, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Pinar, W. F. (2004). What is curriculum theory? Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pinar, W. F., Reynolds, W. M., Slattery, P., & Taubman, P. M. (1994). Understanding curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.

Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schon, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Tolle, E. (2001). Practicing the power of now: Essential teachings, meditations, and exercises from The Power of Now. Novato, CA: New World Library.

van Manen, M. (1984). Doing phenomenological research and writing: An introduction. Curriculum Praxis Monograph Series, 7. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: University of Alberta, Faculty of Education, Department of Secondary Education.

van Manen, M. (2001). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. London, Ontario, Canada: The Althouse Press.

Yogananda, P. (1979). Autobiography of a yogi. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship. (Original work published 1946).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 9, 2006, p. 1862-1880
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12685, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 10:25:45 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Kathleen Kesson
    Long Island University
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN KESSON is professor of Urban Childhood Education, Long Island University, Brooklyn, where she works with preservice and in-service urban teachers to develop their inquiry capacities through classroom-based research, and teaches the foundations of education. Her interests are in the areas of democratic education, spirituality, and the arts, and the relationships between and among these discourses and practices. She is the coauthor of Defending Public Schools: Teaching for a Democratic Society (with E. Wayne Ross) and Curriculum Wisdom: Educational Decisions in Democratic Societies (with Jim Henderson).
  • Cecelia Traugh
    Long Island University
    CECELIA TRAUGH is the dean of the School of Education, Long Island University, Brooklyn, and director of the Center for Urban Educators. Throughout her career, she has combined her roles as a teacher, administrator, and researcher in pursuit of the kind of education that grows out of a valuing of the capacities of children, parents, and teachers. She has worked collaboratively with parents, teachers, and administrators to make classrooms and schools more supportive of children’s and teachers’ growth, thinking, and learning. Some of her areas of concentration are descriptive school-based inquiry, curriculum development and evaluation, and the preparation of teachers for urban schools.
  • Felix Perez III
    Blessed Sacrament Church

Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue