Reconstructing and Reorganizing Experience: Weaving a Living Philosophy
by Carol R. Rodgers, Marti Anderson, Beverley Burkett , Sean Conley, Claire Stanley & Leslie Turpin - 2021
Background/Context: This study contributes to ongoing work in professional learning communities, self-study, and reflection. It offers a structure and a process rooted in a philosophy of practice grounded in various thinkers like Dewey (1916), Rogers (1957; 1980), Curran (1978), Freire (1970), Gattegno (1987), Greene (1978), and Carini (2001, 2010).
Purpose/Objective: The purpose of this study is to explore the process of one teacher educator inquiry group that has lasted nearly 30 years, and which has sought to enact Dewey’s (1916) notion of education, “that reconstruction or reorganization of experience that adds meaning to experience and increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience.”
Research Design: Our research design mirrors the reflective inquiry process of our group, that is, how we researched is simultaneously what we researched. The process itself follows a structure for reflection outlined by Dewey (1933) in Rodgers (2002). It begins with recollected experiences, descriptions of those experiences, and is followed by a “harvesting of themes,” through analysis and interpretation, to possible modes of “intelligent action.” The process is iterative and continuous.
Conclusions: Our conclusions go beyond mere descriptions of our process. We come to the realization that, as Greene writes, being “wide-awake” to the particularities of our lives and work; to live intentionally, deliberately, and morally; and to be aware of who and why we are, and are to each other, is essential to a democratic society.
Education is that reconstruction or reorganization of experience that adds meaning to experience and increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience.John Dewey, 1916
The purpose of this study is to describe and understand the process of one teacher educator inquiry group that has lasted nearly 30 years, and which has, we believe, enacted Deweys notion of education. The group has served as a touchstone that has enabled us to counteract the current culture of accountability in teacher education, K12 schools, and positivist notions of research as outcome-based. It has also allowed us to attend to our own wellbeing and growth in our roles as teacher educators, family members, and leaders. We believe that self-care and rigorous understanding of our learning translates to care for and deeper understanding of our students and others, and contributes to the knowledge base of reflection. The group has functioned as a place where the creation and re-creation of a philosophy particular to our personal and professional lives has served to ground us, sparing us the pain of feeling without anchor, adrift, bereft, playthings of fate (Carini, 2010). What we have learned in the process of researching and writing this paper, however, has taken us beyond description of an effective process and into an exploration of what lies beneath the processor perhaps permeates itthe ineffable dark matter that has held our small universe together for nearly three decades.
Although our learning process is simple and easily replicable by any group that commits to spending time learning to be present to each other, this paper does not provide a how-to protocol for others to follow. We believe each group must find its own path, built on the bricks of its own common understandings and values. Our purpose is not to draw straight lines between our learning together and actions we may have taken, or any direct impact on our lives or work. In fact, our being together is a stance against the commodification of learning that requires every learning experience to have an output that is tangible, measurable, or assessable. The tangible outcome of our work is that it satisfies a yearning in each of us and makes us feel less alone and more whole. Each time we meet, we feel connected, and we glimpse what it means to be present to each other. This has created a centripetal forcea desire which keeps bringing us back to each other to seek deeper meaningand a centrifugal force that pulls us out into the world seeking such connection. Some might find nothing new here. And that would be true. Instead, we see our work as reclaiming what has become increasingly lost. In a world where meaningful connection seems to be eroding, particularly across our gaping differences and in the midst of a pandemic, committing to the simple and ancient act of telling and listening to each others stories feels both essential and strangely, radically new. Yet, this paper does not attempt to prove that or anything else. Rather, we hope it will serve as a guide for teachers, teacher educators, and others who wish to reflect systematically on their own work and lives, finding meaning therein and connections to each other and those whom they serve. It provides guidance to interested readers in the formation of their own inquiry groups with a mind toward how and why they can work (or fail).
The structure of the paper is somewhat unconventional. We begin with our theoretical underpinnings, which include our history as a group and the origins of these underpinnings. We then move to our inquiry process, which, in our case, mirrors our research process. Thus, we describe our inquiry group and research processes separately with the caveat that they closely echo each other. We then move to what we learned in the course of researching our group process, starting with initial insights and moving outward to a larger set of insights about the broader and deeper significance of this kind of work. Throughout, we reference what we call the groups dark mattera set of stances that, while not necessarily visible or provable, have been essential to our longevity.
In our exploration, we have been guided by two concepts: Deweys (1916) definition of education and his concept of reflection, both explored below (Dewey, 1933; Rodgers, 2002a,b). We use these to frame both our process as an inquiry group and our research method (more on this mirroring of process and method further on). In fact, the twoDeweys definition of education and his concept of reflectionmap onto each other (see Fig. 1).
DEWEYS DEFINITION OF EDUCATION
In Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey defined education as that reconstruction or reorganization of experience that adds meaning to experience and increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience (p. 82). We see our work as an embodiment of this definition.
Deweys statement provides an outline of our inquiry group processour learning processas well as a trajectory of our groups development over time. A close reading of this statement reveals the following: Education, or learningwhat Dewey refers to as growth or life itselfis the result of the reconstruction or reorganization of experience. Both of these words, reconstruction and reorganization, suggest doing: building and arranging, but building and arranging again (and perhaps again and again), that is, after an experience has been had. It involves looking back and considering the elements of the experiences had, the connections among them, and their connections with other experiences.
What is important here is the centrality of experience, a word that appears three times in Deweys definition. Experience is where learning must start. Otherwise there is nothing to reconstruct or reorganize. But experiences in and of themselves have little value. They are, to use Poincarés (1905) metaphor, as useful as a pile of stones. It is the arranging of those stonesthose experiencesinto a stable structure that makes them valuable. In other words, it is the process of reconstruction and reorganization that gives shape and meaning to ones experiences that makes them meaningful.
This meaning, once wrought, then becomes a tool put to use in directing the course of subsequent experiences. That is, it gives the learner perspective and allows them to choose the way forward deliberately, intelligently, rather than being subject to impulse and the whims of contexta plaything of fate, to use Carinis words. As such, as ones knowledge, awareness, and sense of meaning grow, so does the individual (or group) grow. Or, as Dewey (1916) put it in his chapter, Education as Growth:
It is essentially the ability to learn from experience; the power to retain from one experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a later situation. This means power to modify actions on the basis of the results of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions (italics in original, p. 49).
OUR DARK MATTER, SKILLS, AND STANCES
Dewey conceived of dispositions as essential to developing habits of mind that lead outward towards growth: a continuous openness and capacity to respond intelligently, rather than routinely and mindlessly, to the world. Over the course of the study of our process, we realized that there was more to it than the steps we took and the routines we developed. As we reflected in a disciplined way on our process, we began to name these habits of mind (and heart) and realized they were essential to how we functioned. We came to think of them as our dark matter: invisible neutrinoslittle whisps of almost nothingthat, in interaction with the particles of our process, throw off light and hold our tiny universe together.1 They are ellusive, but we have named several. They include acceptance, respect, not-knowing, compassion, presence, openness, valuing imperfection, an awareness of impermanence, power with (versus power over), and intentionality. While difficult to point to in any given moment, they are nonetheless deeply felt. In Figure 1, these are represented by large asterisks. In addition, throughout the text we have signaled their presence through asterisks after the words as they arise.
A second set of essential aspects of our process, which we are calling skills and stances, have a different origin. They appear in the center of Figure 1. Their genesis has a history and is located in the Master of Arts in Teaching program where we all first met. This history follows below under the section titled Our Roots.
Figure 1. A picture of reflection, Deweys definition of education, and our reflective process.
DEWEYS CONCEPT OF REFLECTION
The definition of education above is simultaneously a definition of reflection. Deweys notion of reflection rests upon the assumption that all learning begins with experience, and that reflection on experience gives what would otherwise be isolated episodes a connectedness, an arc of meaning, resulting in growth.
Within this overarching frame of reflection, we draw upon four criteria articulated by Dewey (Rodgers, 2002a; 2020). (For the purposes of this study, and in accordance with Dewey, no distinction is made between inquiry and reflection.)
Reflection is a meaning-making process that moves a learner from one experience into the next with deeper understanding of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas. It is the thread that makes continuity of learning possible and ensures the progress of the individual and, ultimately, society. It is a means to essentially moral ends.
Reflection is a systematic, rigorous, disciplined way of thinking, with its roots in scientific inquiry.
Although reflection also happens inside the individual, it needs community, interaction with others, to reach its fullness.
Reflection requires attitudes that value the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and of others. (Rodgers, 2002a, p. 845)
In alignment with criterion #2 above, we have used a structured four-phase, iterative process that begins with experience, individual or shared, and moves systematically through description of that experience (reconstruction), analysis (reorganization) and interpretation of the experience (adding meaning), and intelligent action (an increased ability to direct the course of subsequent experience) (see Figure 2). Put differently, the four phases might be understood as 1) the lived experience, 2) the story of that experience, 3) meaning made, 4) meaning acted upon. This sequence provides a frame for our process. We have created ways of doing each phase of the process, which we outline below after giving some background on the history and origins of these skills and stances.
Figure 2. The process of reflection correlated with Deweys definition of education and our process.
The skills and stances indicated at the center of the graphic (Figure 1) are central to our work. They grow out of shared philosophical roots cultivated over years as both students and teachers at the same Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. The institutions vision of learning was (and remains) highly experiential, with reflection and cross-cultural awareness at its core. The programs practices and principles were transformative for all of us and remain core to our own practice as teachers and teacher educators. There were several thinkers, including Charles Curran, Earl Stevick, Carl Rogers, Caleb Gattegno, and David Kolb, whose work profoundly shaped the program and its curriculum. Principles of practice developed by Curran, Rogers, and Gattegno in particular have shaped our inquiry work with each other.
Skills and Stances
Unconditional positive regard and deep (active) listening. These stances, as explained by psychologist Carl Rogers, are at the core of our process. He described unconditional positive regard as the will to accept people as you find them, appreciating them for who they are rather than focusing on who you wish them to be. Rogers (1980) wrote:
People are just as wonderful as sunsets if I can let them be. In fact, perhaps the reason we can truly appreciate a sunset, is that we cannot control it. When I look at a sunset...I dont find myself saying, Soften the orange a bit on the right-hand corner.... I don't try to control a sunset. I watch it with awe as it unfolds (p. 22, emphasis in original).
This is not merely an internal stance, but a gesture, a warmth, that is intentionally conveyed.
The act of deep or active listening embodies Rogers attitude of unconditional positive regard. Rogers used active listening in his work with clients and described this particular mode of attending this way:
From my point of view as a therapist, I am not trying to reflect feelings. I am trying to determine whether my understanding of the clients inner world is correctwhether I am seeing it as s/he is experiencing it at this moment. Each response of mine contains the unspoken question, Is this the way it is in you? Am I catching just the colour and texture and flavour of the personal meaning you are experiencing right now? If not, I wish to bring my perception in line with yours.2
The principle of understanding, developed by Father Charles Curran (1978), a student of Carl Rogers and creator of a teaching approach called Community Language Learning, held that people needed to feel understood in order to learn. Currans approach to teaching foreign languages listens for both the speakers linguistic intentions and their affective state. The approach relies upon a teachers understanding response to students attempts to express themselves in the new languageher (the teachers) accurate translation of their words and intentions. In other words, the understanding response attempted to capture the students cognitive and affective meanings. The MAT program adopted the use of the understanding response in language teaching and also in other contexts, including teacher education classes, meetings, even personal relationships. It was most intentionally used in response to feedback from students. (See more about feedback below.)
These stances and skillsdeep listening, understanding responses, unconditional positive regardremain central to our group process and the holding space we seek to create (Drago-Severson, 2004; Plett, 2015). As Rogers & Farson (1957) wrote, being listened to carefully by others encourages people to listen more attentively to themselves:
When people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking. Group members tend to listen more to each other, to become less argumentative, more ready to incorporate other points of view. Because listening reduces the threat of having ones ideas criticized, the person is better able to see them for what they are and is more likely to feel that his contributions are worthwhile.3
The subordination of teaching to learning, educating awareness, and feedback. Caleb Gattegno developed approaches to teaching foreign languages, math, and literacy based on the stance that teaching should be guided by and subordinated to students learning. He called this stance the subordination of teaching to learning. Key to it was the belief that only awareness is educable, which suggests that something is learned only when it belongs to the learner. No one can learn for someone else. All the telling in the world will not matter; only ones own sense-making constitutes learning that lasts. This guides our process in that advice plays no role. We are not there to help one another. We value and accept that awareness and change belong to the learner.
Gattegno was committed to the notion that a teacher needed to gather reflective feedback from her learners. The feedback dialogue seeks to understand a learners experience beyond what is observable by the teacher. In other words, it asks learners to articulate what has helped and hindered their learning, how they know they have learned something, and how they feel about their experience. Usually feedback is understood as something a teacher gives to a student, an evaluative assessment of their work or behavior. But Gattegno turned feedback on its head. While learners do not evaluate the teacher, they give the teacher information by which she may evaluate herself and make appropriate adjustments. The use of feedback overlaps with Currans notion of the understanding response in that, as teachers listen to students feedback, they need to check their understanding of it, getting the learners meaning: What I hear you saying is Is that right? The use of feedback is also integral to our inquiry group process; each meeting ends with feedback on the session from each of us. Instead of feedback being given to a teacher, the recipients are one another.
Gattegno, Curran, and Rogers ideas are grounded in profound notions of what it means to be humanto be and feel seen, to have a say in what happens, to be granted the choice, agency, and the freedom and capacity to make sense of and name ones world. (Although Friere  was not integral to our early history, his work is deeply meaningful for many of us, particularly his stances of a humanizing pedagogy, a praxis grounded in love, naming the world, actionreflection, and freedom.)
Each of these stances and skills has influenced us profoundly, partly because they are not pat, there was no perfecting or completely understanding themwe keep practicing, and reconstructing and reorganizing them. What it means to be human and how to support the extension of that humanness for our students are questions that inspire us to keep inquiring.
The Groups History
Our first coming together as an inquiry group happened in the early 1990s, when one of us was assigned as mentor to a small group of new faculty. Rather than conduct traditional one-on-one mentoring, the group determined that we could collectively inquire into our own teaching. We gathered evidence of our practicejournals and tape-recordings of our teaching, feedback from students, comments we made on students work, and so forth. In our meetings, we employed a rough approximation of the process we currently use, including documenting the meetings and circulating the document for further reflection.
Over the next two decades, group membership was fluid, though all participants had ties to the program in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, most of us had moved on to other jobs (though still in education) in various corners of the world. As we found ourselves in new circumstances, we yearned for the kind of colleagueship we had so benefited from in the MAT program. In 2011, spurred by the question of how to implement experiential learning online, the group reconvened with this question at the center. As time and our experiences evolved, our questions also changed. At this point, we met in person and via Skype from South Africa, Thailand, the U.S., and elsewhere, depending on travel commitments. Today we remain scattered around the globe. Recently, because of the pandemic and technological advances, we meet fully online via Zoom.
METHOD AND PROCESS
As we embark on a description of our research methods, we are caught in a bit of a tangle because how we researched is simultaneously what we researched. That is, our inquiry group process was at once the subject of our research and embodied our research method. Or, as Turpin put it, our inquiry process into our inquiry process is our inquiry process, a pretzel-like, but accurate, description of our work. In order to clearly convey our method, we need to take a long pause here to describe the inquiry group process itself and then circle back to the story of our research.
WEAVING MEANING: THE FRAME, THE WARP, AND THE WEFT
We use the metaphor of weaving to illustrate our process. We imagine a weaving whose threads are not uniform. They comprise a riot of material, color, texture, thickness, and strength. Some threads appear once and never again. Others are old friends, appearing again and again. Some appear now and then, others are continuous. Others might walk past this weaving or wonder why its given a spot on the wall. There are holes and gaps and mismatched colors. It is unfinished and yet simultaneously whole and, to us, a bit of a wonder.
The Frame: Reflection
Weavings must be anchored by either a frame (often wooden, metal, or plastic) or two fixed bodies (e.g. a tree and a human body). For us, the anchor is the reflective process, as defined above and illustrated in Figure 1. We move intentionally through all four phasesexperience, description, analysis and interpretation, and intelligent action. Though the form and substance of those phases have changed, the phases themselves have remained stable and proven both durable and reliable over our decades together.
The Warp or Vertical Threads
While the frame remains the same, the warp, or vertical threads, have refined and strengthened with time and practice. They represent our structure (processes described below), skills, stances, and that dark matter, all of which enable the process of making meaning from the threads of our lives. Our sessions, which run for two hours once a month, have been held in school settings, conference rooms, offices, around kitchen tables, and on Zoom, or a blend of these. Each session is structured by three main processes: Check-in, Lead Explorer, and Feedback (described in detail below). These vertical threads are often fine, plain, and not what grabs the eye, and yet the weaving itself could not exist without them.
The Weft, or Horizontal Threads: Our Stories
The horizontal threads, the ones that draw the eye, are various in their color, texture, thickness, length, and strength. As described above, they weave independently and together, differing in density, intensity, color, and complexity. But together there is a sense of direction, of moving forward and of composition, or, perhaps more accurately, composing. For us, these threads are the stories of our lives, what Mary Catherine Bateson (1989) called composing a life.
We are an inquiry group, but our inquiry does not focus on a particular topic, although it sometimes does this (like the nature of experiential online learning). Rather, we seek to bring awareness to our everyday lives as persons in multiple rolesteacher educator, teacher, leader, parent, consultantand with multiple challenges, from memory impairment to work in sexist institutions. In the words of Maxine Greene (1978), we seek to remain wide awake, elevating our lives through conscious endeavor to live deliberately (p. 120). To do this, we rely on the three processes named above: check-in, lead explorer, and feedback.
OUR PROCESSES: CHECK-IN, LEAD EXPLORER, AND FEEDBACK
Anchored by our reflective frame with fine but sturdy warp threads to hold our weaving in place, we begin each session with a check-in. Early on in our history, we became aware of the importance of including life in our discussions of practice. Several of us were new parents trying to balance work and parenthood, and were brimming with curiosity about our own childrens learning. Recognizing that this sharing needed to be honored, we intentionally built in 15 minutes for schmooze time. Years later, this sharing became structured check-ins, and an essential aspect of our work. Each check-in begins with a pause*a few minutes of reflective writingto review our lives and gather our thoughts since the last time we met, deciding what might be useful to share. We then go around our circle (the table and/or the Zoom screen), sharing uninterrupted while others attend to (are present to*) what is being shared. There is no crosstalk or comment, but there are expressions of listening*un-huhs, mmms, oh-nos!, wows, and eye contact (yes, even on Zoom).
We devote a little under an hour to this phase. Check-ins can, and often do, refer to our teaching, to issues at work, things we are working on, and things that are working on us. These latter two have become standard prompts for our check-ins. The former, things we are working on, can range from work projects, to writing, to packing up belongings and moving. Things that are working on us tend towards events that force us to pay attention, that capture our attention: challenges at work, family issues, an urge to explore a question. For example, Turpin, quite apart from her work as director of the MAT program, is captivated by the nature of memory. A box of her German grandparents letters beckons from her attic, as do the novels (in French) of author Patrick Modiano which explore memory and its vagaries, and objects from her late mothers life. Things that are working on us also include the inner work of maintaining equanimity in the face of challenge and change: impending retirement, moving across the planet to our country of birth, losing our capacity to remember and to track our days, supporting the transitions and crises facing our grown children and ourselves, including divorce, the aging and death of parents, care-taking. The first round of our check-in is devoid of analysis. As Burkett once remarked, calling upon an Afrikaans maxim, What your heart is full of overflows from the mouth. (Wat die hart van vol is, loop die mond van oor.) The particulars of our lives spill out.
Following the reflective cycle, our sharing is a descriptive narrative of particular pieces of our lives (our experiences) since we last met. In discussing what we might share in this paper as evidence from our check-insstories we could sharewe realized that they included many intensely private, intimate accounts that we were uncomfortable sharing publicly. It was the trust present in the group that made the stories both tellable to each other and untellable to others.
After each person has shared (although sharing is always optional, it is rare that anyone passes), we take time to see what we see in our collection of stories. We each have taken notes (in our own idiosyncratic ways) during the sharing and now have a chance both to respond to what we have heard and to step back to see what universal themes these particulars might hold. It is a time both to be with* (to understand, in Currans words) and to step back and begin to make meaning. It is from this second go round that recurrent leitmotifs of our work have emerged. These have included themes of liminality, loss, impermanence, and memory. Other recurring themes appear as metaphors: home, riding the wave of change, and standing like a tree in the face of challenges. Especially as many of us face transition in our jobs, our physical homes, and our relationships, as well as shifts in the world around usbe it a pandemic, a deepening awareness of racial trauma, or the fragility of democracies around the worldthese named themes help us both to understand our experiences and to cope with them. In other words, meaning emerges from the filaments and fragments that, woven together, compose a life (Bateson, 1989), our individual lives, the life of the group, and now the collective life of a nation and world in trauma and turmoil. Put differently, we move from description to analysis and interpretation.
At the same time that meaning is made, it is also incomplete. Like dangling threads in the weaving, nothing has been tied up. In talking about our process for this paper, we contemplated the intentionality of such imperfectionnot a lack of rigor but rather an embrace of the truth of becomingits imperfection, uncertainty, and lack of clarity. We embrace a disposition of openness*knowing that even in things we think we know very well, even in areas where we feel very knowledgeable and clear, there are always gaps in our knowledge and limits to what we are able to perceive. What we know and what we are able to do with what we know are always incomplete* and in process.4 We have discovered that in the spaces between conversations and explorations, there is a fruitful space. We have learned to value sitting in the in-between spaces including the in-between, liminal space of the pandemic.
The second part of our meetings, slightly less than an hour, is given over to anyone who wants the groups input on something on which they are actively working. We came to the idea of Lead Explorer out of a need to distinguish the groups raison dêtre from a mere support group. Several, though not all of us, have participated as lead explorers. We have shared the development of a research paper on feedback in K5 settings; the development of theories coming out of Liz Lermans (2003) Critical Response Process; a co-led exploration of leader as hero and leader as host (Wheatly, 2006); planning for a presentation on memory and the literary work of Patrick Modiano; and a close reading of a passage from Thich Nhat Hanh (1999). The process for the lead explorer is up to that person, though time for reflection is built in. We dive into the experience provided by the explorer (e.g. a portion of a workshop in planning; an outline for a paper; a reading; a new protocol) and then step back, reconstructing and reorganizing the experience, offering our individual perspectives and possibilities for next steps. The explorer then takes the groups reflections and integrates what is useful into their plan for intelligent action.
If no one is prepared to serve as Lead Explorer, we extend the check-in time to about an hour and 45 minutes, following the same reflective process with multiple rounds, and ending with feedback on the session.
The final portion of the session, feedback, usually lasting about 15 minutes, is a reflection on our two hours together. We take about a minute or two to gather our thoughts in writing and then, once again, go around the circle offering what we have learned, what we appreciated, what we are leaving thinking about. This practice, as described earlier, comes from our years of work in the MAT program, and is a deeply familiar one. Understood is its non-judgmental* and non-evaluative* nature, its focus on our own experience, and speaking from I rather than assuming knowledge of the quality of others experience. Feedback brings closure to our time together, allows for gratitude for the lead explorers offering, the work of the facilitators, and the generosity of the hosts (if we are meeting in person).
A Note about Leadership
Up until a few years ago, leadership of the group was on a who-is-willing basis, adding a layer of stress and potential resentment that was not useful. Ultimately, this was not sustainable, and threatened the continuation of the group. We were all busy, and many of us traveled around the world for work, making it difficult to commit to a regular, reliable schedule. Coming to terms with this reality meant that someone had to be willing to take on the leadership role. Ultimately, two (and recently three) of us, agreed that we would serve as co-facilitators for the foreseeable future. We all agreed that certain things would be built into the Check-in / Lead Explorer / Feedback process: reflective writing, visual aids as much as possible, interaction with material (versus just talk) in the Lead Explorer portion, and shared responsibility for monitoring time.
To facilitate is not hard, especially with a group that practically facilitates itself, but it does put one in a different position. It requires a different kind of listening and participation, one that is listening for broad themes, aware of time, aware of whats next, aware of others experience as well as ones own, aware of administrative needs like planning, and holding all of thispresence* writ large. The role does not allow for a full sitting back, relaxing too far into a thought or emotion. Even shared facilitation (a mode of power with*) requires subtle communication and in-the-moment decision-making between facilitators, as well as conversations before and after meetings. Additionally, no matter how skilled a group is, there is a need for someone, or someones, to hold the wholeto keep track of time, to notify the group of the next meeting, or to (gently) cut someone off if necessary. One thing we wanted to guard against was taking this role for granted, so we intentionally added appreciations to the feedback process.
We now return to the story of our research on those processes, the research structure, and what we have learned.
METHODS, REDUX: THE STORY OF OUR RESEARCH
In considering how we would research our process, we came to see that our process of reflectiondescribing our experiences, identifying themes and metaphors to illuminate and frame them, and then taking these awarenesses back into our livescould be replicated in our research. We would, in other words, use the process to understand the process. Our collective experiences of participating in the group, our notes (held in 100s of pages of notebooks), recordings from cassette tapes and Zoom recordings, and our memories, spanning 30 years, would comprise our data. Description of these data, through a reconstruction of our individual notes and memories, and the identification of themes through a reorganization and analysis of those data via repeated rounds of shared meaning making, would comprise our method. The reflective process would be the same, but was now also an object of reflection itself. This added layer of reflectionresearchhas increased our awareness and, in the very midst of sharing, the deliberateness and intentionality* with which we continue to work together, and has further strengthened the group itself.
Our approach resembles an approach in the field of psychology called organic inquiry, in that it focuses on story. Organic inquiry is defined as,
listening to and telling stories. In resonance with heuristic and narrative inquiry, it is a method that includes an invitation for transformation on the part of not only the participants and readers, but of the researcher as well.5
But it differs in that organic inquiry is intentionally aimed at the unconscious and uses dance, guided imagery, meditation, important dreams, shamanic journeys, journaling, and active imagination, among others (ibid). Organic inquiry grows out of research in psychology with its roots in transpersonal psychology, feminist theory, and spirituality. Our approach, though certainly organic with elements of transformation and even the sacred, grows out of Deweys work in education. Our work is also based almost solely in language, including story and poetryalthough it also embraces metaphor and image.
We began our research by agreeing that each of us would go back through our years of notes and memories, dating back as far as 1991, and enter these on a shared Google doc in columns representing six preliminary themes outlined in a paper proposal written for the 2020 AERA6 annual conference. These initial themes emerged from writing the proposal, an iterative group effort and our first swipe at an analysis of our collective experience as a group.
Once we learned the paper had been accepted, we committed to examining our data in more depth. We met once a month, and then more frequently, to share our findings from these individual archeological digs into the past. Using the reflective cycle, we described in successive rounds our individual experiences of unearthing the particulars (our data): what we saw in our notes, papers we had written, images we had saved, tapes we listened to, and what we had culled from our memories. Between rounds we took breaks to write down our reflections on what we had heard. This was followed by additional go rounds in which we gathered themes, insights, and questions, and searched for language and metaphor to reframe them.
Our written data came in several forms. Rodgers, who has acted as facilitator for much of our time together, had a stack of notebooks, as did Anderson. Rodgerss notes were two-column entries that captured stories as they unfolded in one column, and running reflections on those stories (identifying themes) in a second column. Anderson took open notes, documenting some things, though not all.
Turpins notes were impressionistic, fragmented shards of conversation, capturing deeper themes with metaphor and image. Stanleys notes captured what had been said, but pertained to what had made a personal impact. They were scattered in various folders, now packed in boxes as she and her spouse moved from their apartment to a new abode. Burkett and Conley reported that the absence of their notes (locked in computers at previous work sites, in storage sheds, or shipping containers) mirrored and further illuminated the feelings of transition and liminality that had, due to life events and moves, become themes for them and others in many of our meetings. So, while our data adds up to piles of folders and notebooks and other artifacts, it has been more like identifying potsherds, or long-forgotten threads, than complete, coherent artifacts.
We noted that our data represented the incompleteness of memory itself, even documented memory. Grappling with the evidence, the lack of evidence, the symbolism in the notes or in their absence was a first step. What did we notice? What questions did it raise? What counted as evidence? How do we remember? What will demonstrate what we have learned, as well as what weve forgotten? It helped to see that our individual relationships to our evidence and its form reflected each of our ways of knowing, which were multiple and various.
The Google doc assignment was an important first step, though it simultaneously suggested the need for a different research path. Learning often happened outside of our time together; meetings served as sparks that ignited and illuminated life events and vice versa. While our collection of evidence focused on combing through artifacts of our time together, it failed to capture the fullness and complexity of the learning that we each took away or worked with or which was working on us outside of our sessions. It became evident that there was more going on than could be captured by the material data. There was too much glue that held the shards together that we had not articulated and could not necessarily point to and yet our collective memory told us was there. Rodgers referred to this invisible element as the dark matter that held our shared universe together. Conley further elaborated on the entanglement of our life experiences and our sessions. Entanglement, in fact, is another quantum metaphor, whereby entangled atomic particles remain connected so that actions performed on one affect the other, even when separated by great distances.7 This captured another aspect of our work: a sense of connectedness even as we inhabited distant corners of the globe. These insights and metaphors raised another set of questions. What was it that held us together and made our work productive, beyond what we had already identified? What were all these metaphors standing in for? What were they capturing that descriptive language seemed unable to? This question became another line of inquiry for us.
Starting at the beginning of the research process, we recorded our discussions on Zoom. At one point, one of us missed a session and so listened to the Zoom recording. She reported that she could hear the nature of our deep listening in the recording. We then decided we would all listen to the recording and share our observations at the next meeting. At the end of the following session, we agreed that this had been a particularly rich two hours and that it would be valuable for each of us to listen to the recording of that session, too, and then reconvene in two weeks. Again, we pulled themes and articulated what we heard in (or under) each others individual and cumulative renderings. These sessions were different in the attention we paid to what was not said that lay beneath what was said. These recordings became a further data set for us to observe and reflect on. We spent the first hour of our sessions doing our regular check-in, and the second hour engaging in what we had noticed in the recordings (and later the paper drafts, where our writing process is one and the same as our research process).
This focus on the experience of the meetings themselves was new for us and required a new way of thinking about researching something which continues to unfold and grow as we investigate it.
This glimpse into our methodology is a further example of our enactment of Deweys phrase: Education is that reconstruction or reorganization of experience that adds meaning to experience and increases the ability to direct the course of subsequent experience (p. 82).
Our methodology is a simple process that relies on (and honors) the skills of working together that we have cultivated and nurtured for 30 years as we deliberately supported each other in creating a philosophy of living/teaching. The process reflects our slow, organic, collaborative learning and posits that a research methodology that emerges from such an intentional and collaborative process, over time, is a valid one, and perhaps the only one that will be able to make sense of experience. We say more about the insights we came to below.
In the course of our analysis, we came to several awarenesses. We begin with our preliminary insights.
Our conversations were like conversations, but the iterative structure of reflection forced a way of seeing the ordinary from an extraordinary perspective. We found the universal in the particular. For example, the fact that so many of us were in transition to different roles, different contexts, and shifts in relationships, while mundane on one level, evoked the themes of liminality, impermanence, and the meaning of home after successive rounds of reflection. It is the meaning we wove from these ordinary threads that transformed them into golden threads, as it were, or what was gold to us. These larger themes then became available for other experiences as well. (Recall Deweys ability to direct the course of subsequent experience.) It is because of the solidity of the frame (the process of reflection) that the uncertainties related to content (a stance of not-knowing*) could be embraced and allowed to come to resolution on their own terms in their own time (or not at all). Half-formed thoughts, surprise, new feelings, doubts, and questionsthe particulars of our personal and professional liveswere handled, witnessed, and had a place to go, and because we kept track, a place we could all return to. It made possible the naming of our worlds (Freire 2011) and provided tools for moving forward into stories yet to be lived.
We are committed to learning and growingin a word, to education. What lifts our conversations above chit-chat is this intention* and a commitment to each others growth. We, like Dewey, believe that learning begins with experience. The fact that we embody what we are learningthat these are our stories, the text of our experiencemakes the meaning we weave, even from our human messinessperhaps especially from that messinessmeaningful. We are present* to each other as we are right now. We are not learning about ourselves. We are constructing ourselves, opening and preventing our own contraction. We value the stance of not-knowing*conveyed through metaphor and poetryand view the academic conspiracy of certainty (McDonald, 1992) with skepticism.
The structure/s of our meetingsCheck-ins, Lead Explorer, and Feedbackand shared normseveryone gets a turn, no interruptions, collaborative meaning makingcreate a clean and well-lit, vibrant holding space that conveys trust and invites risk. As Turpin put it, We go around and around and get somewhere. These structures and clear norms make our work possible. Groups can easily become derailed when structures and norms are rickety, or conversely, inflexible. Our constant feedback and reflection on process seek to surface weaknesses in the structure and reinforce strengths. In addition, this holding space seems to create timethere is never a rushwhich makes deep listening possible. It may, in fact, be the deep listening which creates the sensation that there is always enough time.
Over the course of many years, we have developed a shared view of the purposes of education that reaches beyond the particulars of our lives, to ask So what? How does this work serve more than just me or the six of us? The rest of this paper attempts to answer that question. Even though the preliminary insights outlined above seem true, Turpin noted that there is more that these insights do not capture; this more feels, in her words, like traces in the sand, difficult to discern.
We are helped in our effort to make sense of our learning by something that Patricia Carini wrote in her essay, Making and doing philosophy in a school (2010).
[A philosophic attitude is] a distinguishing characteristic of humans everywhere since time immemorialor there would be no myths of origin and struggle, no philosophies of knowledge, no metaphysical philosophies in search of ultimate answers, and so on. And, equally, returning again to daily life, there would be no philosophies particular to our personal livesthe values and creeds by which we live, tested and retested in experiencewithout which, or should they fail us, we suffer the pain of being without anchor, adrift, bereft, a plaything of fate. (p. 156)
In our final meeting before the initial submission deadline for this paper, we again reflected on the draft in our usual fashion. Here, we seemed to break through to some deeper insights that got us closer to identifying the philosophies particular to our personal lives. We also began to name some of that dark matterthe philosophies particular to our personal and professional lives.
In her 1977 and 1978 essays on wide-awakeness and the moral life, Maxine Greene quotes Henry David Thoreau at length. He wrote of the connection between being aware, conscious, and intentional about ones life, and living a moral life:
Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. (1963, pp. 6667)
A closer look at Thoreaus words reveals a hopefulness and a trust in lifes purpose captured in the phrase an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. Dawn reliably comes with its light and promise of a future. Today, especially, these words offer comfort that a tomorrow worth living for will always come. Greene, in her essay, goes on to explore the moral imperative of wide-awakeness to the continuity of our existence. She reflects on Camuss entreaty to not wake up at the end of ones lifewondering, with weariness tinged with amazement, suddenly, why? What has it all been for? What has it all been? Why did I not wake up earlier?suddenly realizing that one has not seized and acted upon their freedom as human beings, and allowing, instead, the current of lifes exigencies to carry them along. Greene argues that to preempt such a situation, careful attention must be paid to the experiences [we] are having day by day. This keeps us from the fate of powerlessness, being without anchor, adrift, bereft, a plaything of fate (Carini, 2001). Greene writes,
[Feelings of powerlessness] can to a large degree be overcome through conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them [and where they in turn dominate], to interpret the experiences they are having day to day. Only as they learn to make sense of what is happening, can they feel themselves to be autonomous. Only then can they develop the sense of agency required for living a moral life. (p. 2)
What mattered in our group was not the particularities of our daily lives, which constituted both our check-ins and our lead explorer sessions. What mattered was that we strived to bring to awareness the meanings beneath them. To be awake in the day-to-day-ness of living is to signify ones lifeto seek to live a meaningful life.
This meaning-making evokes Freire (2011). To exist, he writes, is to name the world, but making meaning is only a prerequisite for action. The point is to make a difference: Human beings are not built in silence, he writes, but in word, in work, in action-reflection (p. 88), or praxis. Deweys notion of reflection does not end in analysis and interpretation; it continues into action, but intelligent action, born of conscious considerationwide-awakeness. He writes about the attitude of responsibility, a sort of Deweyan notion of karma, that what we do and think now has consequences down the road for the selves we create, for others, for society, and for our planet. As Greene, writing of children, says: each one must himself or herself perceive the consequences of the acts he or she performs. Mustering their own resources, each one must embark, through choice or action, as Dewey put it, upon the formation of a self (p. 4). The same is surely true of adults. This self acts in the world, and here we come to the importance of our work to a democracy.
As Greene puts it, there is a compelling connection between wide-awakeness, cognitive clarity, and existential concern (p. 3). In our inquiry group work, we submit our everyday experiences, what Dewey calls all the contacts of life, to close examination. Recent events have now become part of our everyday experiencesour privilege has come at the expense of others suffering; our democracy depends not on institutions alone but on us; the isolation imposed by the pandemic underscores the imperative of human contact. What meaning do we make of all of this?
In his last chapter of Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey writes that Interest in learning from all contacts of life is the essential moral interest (emphasis added, p. 370). It may be that in times like ours, living deliberately matters more than ever. Dewey scholar David Hansen (2006) writes, individuals leading a moral life give their best imagination, their best hopes, their best creativity, their best listening, their best responsiveness, to all the contacts of life. Hansen goes on,
If persons are mutually engaged with one anothers ideas, actions, and hopes, their selves widen and deepen in insight, knowledge, sensitivity, and capacity to grow in communicative and expressive ways. In so doing, persons constantly position themselves to expand their learning through each successive interaction, in a dynamic spiral of give-and-take. They lose and find their selves. They lose limited horizons and perceptions and find broader ones, however microscopically the change may be on each occasion. At the same time, society itself becomes transformed through such interactions. (Hansen, p. 178)
This larger view of the significance of our workthat we set out to bring the everyday to conscious awareness*, asking what it means not just to ourselves but the worldis where we have, for now, arrived. The last part of Deweys definition of education, to direct the course of subsequent experience, suggests a widening, increasingly rich and complex engagement with the world. Quite simply, to make the world a better place. Or, as Freire (2011) put it more boldly, Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it (p. 79).
We started this study with Deweys definition of education and his concept of reflectionboth fairly neutral processes, at least on the surface. But we end in a much less neutral place, and one that is frankly much closer to what Dewey conceived of as the moral purposes of both processes: to live a wide-awake lifeto live intentionally, deliberately, morally; to be aware of who and why we are, and are to each otherborn of a dialogue based, in Freires words, upon love, humility, and faith (2011, p, 91). We believe that the survival of our democracy depends on this kind of reflection and upon the difficult-to-grasp but essential dark matter of peaceful co-existence. We feel this more acutely now than ever. Freire (2011) wrote, Hope is rooted in [our] incompletion, from which [we] move out in constant searcha search which can be carried out only in communion with others (p. 91). Our hope is that our story might be of use to others.
We would like to acknowledge the silent presence of Jack Millett in this paper. His wisdom, spirit, and love permeate the ideas and shared experiences we have conveyed.
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