JOURNEYING to DEVELOP CRITICAL THINKING
In this 2001 think-piece Peter presents five passages in a pedagogical journey that led from teaching undergraduate science-in-society courses to running a graduate program in critical thinking and reflective practice for teachers and other mid-career professionals. These passages are shaped to expose some of his strugglesconceptual and practicalin learning to decenter pedagogy and to provide space and support for students to develop as critical thinkers. The key challenge highlighted is of helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge. In a self-exemplifying style, each passage raises some questions for further inquiry or discussion. The hope is that the think-piece as a whole stimulates readers to grapple with issues they were not aware they faced and to generate questions beyond those he presents.
We Know More Than We Are, at First, Prepared to Acknowledge
“The most important parts of any conversation are those that neither party could have imagined before starting.” William Isaacs (1999)
In the mid-1980s I was teaching science in its social context as a new faculty member at a non-traditional undergraduate college. I began an ecology course with a brief review of our place in space before I asked students to map their geographical positions and origins. One student, “K,” did not come back to earth with the rest of us, but remained off in her own thoughts. Some minutes later she raised her hand: “I always knew the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system, but do you mean to say...” K paused, then continued. “I'd never thought about the sun not being the center of the universe.” From K's tone, it was clear that she was not simply rehearsing a new piece of knowledge. She was also observing that she had not thought about the issue and yet now she saw as obvious that the universe was not sun-centered. What other retrospectively obvious questions had she not been asking? What other reconceptualizations might follow? These questions pointed her along the path I hoped my students would take as critical thinkersgrappling with issues they had not been aware they faced, generating questions beyond those I had presented, becoming open to reconceptualization, and accepting that their teacher should not be at the center of their learning.
My own pedagogical journey has led from teaching these undergraduate science-in-society courses to running a graduate program in critical thinking, creative thinking, and reflective practice for teachers and other mid-career professionals. (A parallel journey in ecological and environmental research is described elsewhere, Taylor 2005.) In this think-piece I present five passages from this journey. I have shaped these to expose some of my strugglesconceptual and practicalin learning to decenter my pedagogy and provide space and support for students to develop as critical thinkers. Each passage raises some questions that I leave open for further inquiry or discussion. I hope, moreover, that the passages and questions stimulate readers to grapple with issues you were not aware you faced and to generate questions beyond those I present.
Of course, reading about these passages cannot create for you the experience of participating in a classroom activity or semester-long process. Nor can you divert me from the steps ahead or inject other considerations. If you could, I expect some of you would slow me down to ask for more detail about the situations I describe or for more explication of my line of thinking in relation to that of other writers. Indeed, it is one of the central tensions of my teaching and writing that I want to open up questions and point to greater complexity of relevant considerations even when I know that some members of my audiences would prefer a tight analysis shaped to address their specific concerns and background.
1. Becoming aware of the forces that hold us or release us
Since star gazing as a child in rural Australia I had known about the sun's marginal place in the Milky Way, so I felt some superiority when K admitted that she had not realized this. To my chagrin, I subsequently discovered my own retrospectively obvious question about our place in space. I was reading Sally Ride's book on the space shuttle to my child, when I came to her description of astronauts regaining weight as they descended (Ride 1986). The idea she conveyed was that weightlessness was a result of distance from the earth. Yet the space shuttle orbits only 300 kilometers up where the earth's gravity is still 90% of its strength down on the surface. So I started thinking about how to explain weightlessness correctly in a children's book. Try thisthink of swinging an object around on the end of a piece of string. To make it go faster, you have to pull harder; if you do not hold on tight, the object flies off into the neighbor's yard. Astronauts travel around the earth fastat 7.5 kilometers per second. They feel weightless because all of the earth's gravitational attraction on them goes to keep them from flying off into space. The earth's pull on the astronauts is like your pulling on the stringbut, while you may let go, gravity never stops acting. When the space shuttle slows down on its return to earth, less of gravity's force goes to keeping the astronauts circling the earth and what is left over is experienced as weight regained.
After rehearsing this explanation a few times, another kind of weightlessness occurred to me. The sun's gravitational attraction is keeping me circling around itat 30 kilometers/second I figured out. On the earth I feel weightless with respect to the sun's gravity, but that force is acting nevertheless. I had never thought about this; I had considered myself a passenger on the earth, which the sun's gravity was keeping in orbit around it. I then realized that I am also zooming around the Milky Way galaxy, not as a passenger in the solar system, which the galaxy's gravitational attraction was keeping in orbit around it, but because the galaxy's gravity is keeping me orbiting around its center. It made me feel woozy to think of the sun and the rest of the galaxy “paying attention to me” all the time, keeping me circling at enormous speed through spaceat over 200 kilometers/second, I soon learned. I wondered if every molecule in the galaxy was attracting every molecule of my body every moment to have that effect. Or was there some other way to think about gravity? Perhaps a further radical reconceptualization awaited me, possibly involving wooziness-inducing Einsteinian concepts such as curved space-time.
In recent years I have started courses and workshops on critical thinking by relating the reconceptualizations that occurred to K and myself. I usually follow the story with an activity. My goal is to have people respond to story and bring insights to the surface about how people can generate questions about issues they were not aware they faced. The activity begins, therefore, with a Freewriting exercise (Elbow 1981) in which each of us writes for ten minutes starting from this lead off: “When I entertain the idea that I haven't been asking some 'obvious' questions that might have led to radical reconceptualizations, the thoughts/ feelings/ experiences that come to mind include...” After this writing, we pair up and describe situations in which we “saw something in a fresh way that made us wonder why we previously accepted what we had.” We then list on the board short phrases capturing what made the “re-seeing” possible. The factors mentioned differ from one time to the next, but they always represent a diverse mix of mental, emotional, situational, and relational items, e.g., “relaxed frame of mind,” “annoyed with this culture,” “forgetting,” "using a different vocabulary," and so on. I conclude this Think-Pair-Share activity by simply noting the challenge, which is common to many other questions in education, of acknowledging and mobilizing the diversity inherent in any group (see Taking Initiative In and Through Relationships). Now that I have lists from several occasions, I have started to wonder whether the factors could be synthesized into general directions. But would future audiences gain from my cutting through the diversity and just presenting the synthesisor does this run against the grain of facilitating thinking about re-seeing?
2. Critical thinking as journeying
A few years ago I taught for the first time a general course on critical thinking. The students were mostly mid-career teachers and other professionals. This was also the occasion of my first telling of the place-in-space story and running the re-seeing activity. Some of the students construed the story as a science lesson; evidently, I had to clarify the delivery and message. Later in the semester I had a chance to do that when we revisited the activity to practice lesson-plan remodeling. What emerged from the class discussion was that it mattered little to me whether students understood my weightlessness explanation. I only wanted them to puzzle over the general conundrum of how questions that retrospectively seem obvious ever occurred to them and to consider their susceptibility to recurrent reconceptualizations. During this clarification process the image occurred to me that when one's development as a critical thinker is like a personal journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas. Both involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, require support, yields personal change, and so on. This journeying metaphor differs markedly from the conventional philosophical view of critical thinking as scrutinizing the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims (Ennis 1987, Anon, n.d.). Instead of the usual connotations of “critical” with judgement and finding fault according to some standards (Williams 1983, 84ff), journeying draws attention to the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of people developing their thinking.
In retrospect, the immediate impetus for my re-seeing critical thinking as journeying seemed to have been the life-course of students during that fifteen-week semester. Early in the course many students expressed dependency on my co-instructor and me: “Aren't small group discussions an exercise in 'mutually shared ignorance'?” “Could the class be smaller?we want more direct interaction with you.” “I was never taught this at collegeI'm not a critical thinking kind of person.” Some students were uncomfortable with dialogues my co-instructor and I would have in front of the class in order to expose tensions among different perspectives. They asked for clear definitions of and procedures for critical thinking and for particular assignments and activities. Their anxieties were most evident when they looked ahead to a new end-of-semester Manifesto assignment, in which we asked for “a synthesis of elements from the course selected and organized so as to inspire and inform your efforts in extending critical thinking beyond the course.” We responded to students' concerns with some mini-lectures, handouts, and a sample Manifesto. Yet we also persisted in conducting activities, promoting journaling, and assigning think-pieces through which students might develop their own working approaches to critical thinking. By mid-semester students who had been quiet or lacked confidence in their critical-thinking abilities started to articulate connections with their work as teachers and professionals.
We had reassured those who worried about the manifesto assignment that they would have something to say, but we were surprised by how true that turned out to be. For example, the student who was not the “critical thinking kind” began her manifesto with perceptive advice:
“If there is one basic rule to critical thinking that I, as a novice, have learned it is
DON'T BE AFRAID!”
She continued: “Don't be afraid to ask questions and test ideas, ponder and wonder... Don't be afraid to have a voice and use it!... Don't be afraid to consider other perspectives... Don't be afraid to utilize help...” She finished, “Above all, approach life as an explorer looking to capture all the information possible about the well known, little known and unknown and keep an open mind to what you uncover.” Another student wrote a long letter to her seven year old: “To give you a few words of advice, yes, but mostly to remind me of what I believe I should practice in order to assist you with your growth.” These manifestos displayed admirable self-awareness. To arrive there the students had taken risks and opened up questions, had experienced more than they were able at first to integrate, had sought support, and ended up seeing themselves differently (Taylor 2001a).
In retrospect, the students' confidence had begun to rise during classes involving various approaches to empathy and listening (Elbow 1986, Gallo 1994, Ross 1994, Stanfield 1997). I suspect that listening well helps students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind, it is difficult to motivate and undertake scrutiny of one's own evidence, assumptions, and logic, or of those of others. Being listened to seems to help students access their intelligence (in a broad sense of the term)to bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense (Weissglass 1990). The resulting knowledge seems all the more powerful because it is not externally dictated (Freire 1970, Weissglass 1990). These are conjecturesI look forward to opportunities for more systematic exploration of the ways different people experience listening and being listened to in relation to their critical thinking.
3. Understanding by placing things in tension with alternatives
A colleague recently challenged me by asking why, although the critical thinking course ended positively, the student had been afraid in the first place. The force of this question led me to another: Had I been scared about my ability to bridge the gaps between my own thought processes and those of different students? Had I composed mini-lectures and handouts as if to say to students, “I have written down the lessons clearly, now it is your responsibility to understand the material”? Once fear was raised as an issue that teachers should consider, I began to realize that it is a deep one. However, I want to leave that issue hovering in the background and instead take up the other thought about making lessons explicit.
Whatever I say about the power of students coming to their own reconceptualizations, I find myself still tempted by the more conventional approach for inducing re-seeing, namely, for me to spell out critiques of dominant views. I have written, for example, about the consequences of using natural selection to explain the evolution of organisms' adaptations to the environment. One consequence has been that the dynamics of the development and ecology of organisms get squeezed out (Taylor 1998). When I taught undergraduates in a program on biology in its social context, I led them through this and other critiques. (This was in the 1990s before I moved into the graduate education program, so I am going backwards in time here.) The first few times around there would be a few evaluations that claimed my course required students to accept the “dogma according to Taylor.” These accusations disappeared, however, when I reframed the purpose of raising alternative ideas. I started to ask students not to accept the alternative ideas, but to consider them in contrast to standard ideas so as to check that they understood those ideas clearly (Taylor 2003). For example, people often talk about DNA as a “blueprint” “coding for” an organism's traits. I would ask students to explore metaphors for the development of organisms that do not assume some central controlling molecule. After playing around with ideas such as improvisional dance, cheese making, and a casual conversation in an elevator, they saw the need to be more careful or precise about the biology of DNA and what it does.
The pedagogical shiftfrom critiquing dominant views to raising alternativesled me in 1995 to compose the following view of students' developing as critical thinkers:
In a sense subscribed to by all teachers, critical thinking means that students are bright and engaged, ask questions, and think about the course materials until they understand well established knowledge and competing approaches. This becomes more significant when students develop their own processes of active inquiry, which they can employ in new situations, beyond the bounds of our particular classes, indeed, beyond their time as students. My sense of critical thinking is, however, more specific; it depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. I want students to see that they understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives (Taylor 1995a).
The pivotal role of reframing the pedagogical role of alternatives is evident in the way this paragraph continued:
Critical thinking at this level should not depend on students rejecting conventional accounts, but they do have to move through uncertainty. Their knowledge is, at least for a time, destabilized; what has been established cannot be taken for granted. Students can no longer expect that if they just wait long enough the teacher will provide complete and tidy conclusions; instead they have to take a great deal of responsibility for their own learning. Anxieties inevitably arise for students when they have to respond to new situations knowing that the teacher will not act as the final arbiter of their success. A high level of critical thinking is possible when students explore such anxieties and gain the confidence to face uncertainty and ambiguity (Taylor 1995a).
Let me make some observations about my own journey before returning to the idea of understanding ideas by placing them in tension with alternatives. Retrospectively, I can see that the journeying metaphor for critical thinking was already forming four years before it occurred to me. It seems that reconceptualization is preceded by a phase in which the person on the journey has, so to speak, shot rolls of film, but the photos have not yet been processed and printed. The next paragraph of the 1995 account of critical thinking began:
There are few models for teaching critical thinking, especially about science... Just as I expect of my students, I have experimented, taken risks, and through experience am building up a set of tools that work for me. Moreover, I have adapted these teaching tools to cope with the different ways that students in each class respond when I invite them to address alternatives and uncertainty, and when I require them to take more responsibility for learning (Taylor 1995a).
Indeed looking back, I see that writing the statement of my teaching philosophy from which these excerpts have been drawn precipitated a phase of self-conscious pedagogical exploration and identity formation. This exploration led three years ago to my moving to a graduate education program and has continued in this new position (Taylor 2001b). In 1999, as a participant in a faculty seminar on “Becoming a teacher-researcher,” I focused on a graduate course in which students undertake their own research projects, usually directed towards some educational change. Let me describe this teacher research because it extends the idea of understanding by placing in tension with alternatives.
I encourage considerable intra- and inter-personal exploration in defining and refining research direction and questions. An important part of this exploration comes through written and spoken Dialogue around Written Work and successive revisions. I want students to see Dialogue around Written Work as an important part of defining and refining research direction and questions. However, students are familiar with the conventional system: submit a product, receive a grade, check that assignment off the to-do list, then move on to the next one. They know that they have to expose their submissions to the instructor, but are uncomfortable about subjecting their work to dialogue. My challenge, then, has been to get students into the swing of an unfamiliar system as quickly as possible so they can begin to experience its benefits.
I chose to focus on this challenge when I participated in a faculty seminar on “Becoming a teacher-researcher” during my second year teaching students in the graduate program (Taylor 1999). My teacher research began a month into semester with students in the research and writing course completing a survey about their expectations and concerns in working under what they called the “revise and resubmit” process. The participants in the faculty seminar then reviewed all the students' responses and brainstormed about qualities of an improved system and experience. We wrote suggestions on large Post-its, which we grouped and gave names to. Five categories or themes emerged: “negotiate power/standards,” “horizontal community,” “develop autonomy,” “acknowledge affect,” and “be here now.”
Five themes about improving the experience of Dialogue around Written Work. (A sixth theme, “explore difference,” was added later.)
In the following class I initiated discussion with the students around their responses and the themes generated by the faculty seminar. We clarified the meaning of the themes and explored the tensions between them (conveyed by the connecting lines in the figure above). For example, “develop autonomy” stood for digesting comments and making something for oneself—neither treating comments as dictates nor insulating oneself by keeping writing from the eyes of others. Yet, “negotiate power/standards” recognized that students made assumptions about my ultimate power over grades, which translated into their thinking that I expected them to take up my suggestions. These assumptions about the “vertical” relationship between instructor and student do have to be aired and addressed, but, as captured by “horizontal community,” the students need to put effort into building other kinds of relationship.
During the rest of the semester, class discussions continued to refer to the themes and tensions. We applied them to the whole set of Phases of Research and Engagement, not only to Dialogue around Written Work. I looked for a substitute for “autonomy” after some students construed this word as going their own way and not responding to comments of others, including their instructors. When “taking initiative” was suggested by my wife, I realized that it applied to all five themes. I emailed my students: “[The challenge is to] take initiative in building horizontal relationships, in negotiating power/standards, in acknowledging that affect is involved in what you're doing and not doing (and in how others respond to that), in clearing away distractions from other sources (present and past) so you can be here now.” Don't wait for the instructor to tell you how to solve an expository problem, what must be read and covered in a literature review, or what was meant by some comment you don't understand. Don't put off giving your writing to the instructor or to other readers and avoid talking to them because you're worried that they don't see things the same way as you do.
A longer phrase soon emerged: Taking Initiative In and Through Relationships. That is, don't expect to learn or change on one's own. Build relationships with others; interact with them. This doesn't mean bowing down to their views, but take them in and work them into your own reflective inquiry until you can convey more powerfully to them what you are about (which may or may not have changed as a result of the reflective inquiry). Finally, do not expect learning or change to happen without jostling among the five themes-in-tension. The themes do not always pull you in the same direction, so your focus might move from one to another, rather than trying to attend to all of them simultaneously.
Of course, laying out this “mandala” did not specify how to teach and support students to take progressively more initiative. Nevertheless, I believe that talking about the five points helped the students recognize themselves and take more initiative in their learning relationships. Since then I have presented the insights from the original group to new cohorts—often adding “explore difference” as a sixth theme.
(Presenting an analysis or action plan developed by a previous group is never as powerful as a group creating its own. Given this, I have asked each new cohort in the research and writing course to contribute to ongoing teacher research around the question: “By what means can the group function as a support and coaching structure to get most students to finish their reports by the end of the semester?” see Support and Coaching Structure.)
4. Opening up questionsThe research-project course was a suitable venue for encouraging students to be more self-conscious about learning relationships. In other critical thinking courses I have had less time to explore the tensions captured by the mandala. Like most teachers, I feel the pressure of “content,” that is, of moving through the relevant body of material. (This is true, even though the content of my current courses involves activities that place ideas in tension with alternatives, not pre-formulated critiques.) Let me introduce a tension in the content side of my teaching (one I also wrestle with in my contributions to environmental research Taylor 1999b ) that extends the theme of the previous passage, namely, that understanding comes by placing things in tension with alternatives.
The tension I have in mind is between presenting simple accounts versus attending to complexity and particularity. On the complex side, in the early 1980s I adopted the anthropologist Eric Wolf's image of structuresin his case, societies or culturesas contingent outcomes of Intersecting Processes that involve diverse components and span a range of spatial and temporal scales (Wolf 1982, 385-391). Not surprisingly, I was attracted to the research emerging in the late 1980s that explained cases of environmental degradation, such as soil erosion or deforestation, in terms of processes that linked changes in local agro-ecologies, labor supply and the organization of production, and wider political-economic conditions (Watts and Peet 1993). During the same period I was stimulated by sociologists of science who highlighted scientists' heterogeneous resources and encompassed many activities within the concept of scientific work (Latour 1987; see also citations in Taylor 1995b). On the simple side, however, I was impressed by the rhetorical impact of simple environmental themes, such as “Natural resources need to be privatized, because resources held in common are inevitably degraded” and “Population growth will lead to environmental degradation.” Similarly, simple themes about the process of science, such as “Convince others of what is really going on” have more impact than, say, “Unpack the heterogeneity of resources that different researchers, oneself included, mobilize to establish and apply knowledge.”
My current response to this simple-complex tension has emerged from developing activities for interdisciplinary courses in which material must be accessible to a wide range of students. For example, in environmental courses I have students play out a scenario involving two countries. Each country has the same amount and quality of arable land, population size, level of technical capacity, and 3% annual population growth rate. I ask students to look ahead at the declining land area per household and decide what they would do in that situation. Their answers usually revolve around reducing consumption or using contraception. Then I tell them that country A has a relatively equal land distribution, while country B has a typical 1970s Central American land distribution: 2% of the people own 60% of the land; 28% own 38%, which leaves just 2% of the land for the poorest 70%. When the figures are calculated, it turns out that five generations before anyone is malnourished in A, all of the poorest class in B would already beunless they act to change their situation. I divide the students into the wealthy, middle, and poor classes of country B and ask them again what they would do. Linking their impending food shortages to inequity in land distribution, the poor often propose taking over the underutilized land of the wealthy. The wealthy, anticipating this possibility, sometimes propose paramilitary operations that target leaders of campaigns for land reform. The middle class suggest investing in factories that employ the land-starved poor, or promoting population control policies for the poor. And so on. Although students are not being taught the details of political, economic, or sociological analysis, the activity teaches them that the crises to which actual people have to respond come well before and in different forms from the crises predicted on the basis of aggregate population growth rates (Taylor 1997).
This simple, two countries scenario points to the need for more complex analyses of the dynamics among particular people who contribute differentially to environmental problems. As I make explicit to students, the scenario invites us to consider that the analysis of causes and the implications of the analysis would change if uniform units were replaced by unequal units, subject to further differentiation as a result of their linked economic, social, and political dynamics. I call this kind of proposition an opening up themesimple to convey, but always pointing to the greater complexity of particular cases and to further work needed to study them. Instead of resolving the simple-complex tension, it seeks to render it productive (Taylor 1999b; see also Alternatives Thinking).
Opening up themes are simple to dictate to students and to demonstrate to other teachers. However, I am not sure how readily students and teachers add the themes to their toolbox and apply them to open up questions in other areas. I used to fret about this, but now see that I should not expect fast-track reconceptualization. My current, more modest pedagogical rationale is that tools placed in a tool box may get buried for some time, but can eventually be reached for. Helping this happen I suspect is a matter of patience and persistencelistening to, acknowledging, and supporting the diversity of students' thinking about particularity and complexity.
5. Translocal knowledge in participatory settings
“We did make a terrible lot of mistakes... So we had a little self-criticism, and we said, what we know, the solutions we have, are for the problems that people don't have. And we're trying to solve their problems by saying they have the problems that we have the solutions for. That's academia, so it won't work.
So what we've got to do is to unlearn much of what we've learned, and then try to learn how to learn from the people.” Myles Horton (1983)
My essay's final passage concerns a variant of the simple-complex tension. In the previous passages my ideal student or audience member appears to be a person who would be stimulated by my critical thinking activities to seek more complexity in their own understandings of the world. A contrasting image, however, is of people who can make good use of more straightforward knowledge, as long as that can be brought to the surface. This tension has run through my environmental research, but only recently have I articulated it in the terms to follow.
I have long been inspired by participatory action researchers, such as the late Myles Horton and the Highlander Center, who shape their inquiries through ongoing work with and empowerment of the people most affected by some social issue (Greenwood and Levin 1998, Taylor 2002). Yet my own environmental research has drawn primarily on specialist skills in quantitative modeling and analysis. For example, in a formative experience at the end of the 1970s, I was contracted by a government agency to undertake a detailed analysis of the economic future of a salt-affected Kerang irrigation region in south-eastern Australia. I completed this at a distanceboth geographically and institutionallyfrom those most directly affected by the region's problems. The sponsors homed in on a finding in the final report that confirmed their preconception that the price charged for irrigation water could be increased. (As it turned out, they were unable to implement this change and nothing more resulted from the study; Taylor 1995b.)
In contrast, let me draw some material from the phase of pedagogical exploration since 1995 mentioned earlier. Part of this has involved training in group facilitation with the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA). ICA's techniques have been developed through several decades of “facilitating a culture of participation” in community and institutional development. Their work anticipated and now exemplifies the post-Cold War emphasis on a vigorous civil society, that is, of institutions between the individual and, on one hand, the state and, on the other hand, the large corporation. ICA planning workshops elicit participation in ways that bring insights to the surface and ensure the full range of participants are invested in collaborating to bring the resulting plan to fruition (Burbidge 1997, Spencer 1989, Stanfied 1997, Taylor 2000).
Such participant buy-in was evident, for example, after a community-wide planning process in the West Nipissing region of Ontario, 300 kilometers north of Toronto. In 1992, when the regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC) enlisted ICA to facilitate the process, industry closings had increased the traditionally high unemployment to crisis levels. Although the projects resulting from the planning process are too numerous to detail, an evaluation five years later found that they could not simply check off plans that had been realized. The initial projects had spawned many others and the community now saw itself as responsible for these initiatives and developments, eclipsing the initial catalytic role of the EDC-ICA planning process. Still, the EDC appreciated the importance of that process and initiated a new round of facilitated community-planning in 1999 (West Nipissing Economic Development Corporation 1993, 1999). (This case is described further in the think-piece in Part 4 on Action Research and Participation.)
When I learned about the West Nipissing case, I could not help contrasting it with my own experience in the Kerang study. Detailed scientific or social scientific analyses were not needed for West Nipissing residents to build a plan. The plan built instead from straightforward knowledge that the varied community members had been able to express through the facilitated participatory process. The process was repeated, which presumably allowed them to factor in changes and contingencies, such as the start of the North American Free Trade Association and the declining exchange rate of the Canadian dollar. And, most importantly, the ICA-facilitated planning process led the community members to become invested in carrying out their plans and had enhanced their capacity to participate outside of that process in shaping their own future.
A difficult question has been opened up by the contrast between scientifically detailed analysis and participatory planning. Could a role in participatory planning remain for researchers to insert the translocal, that is, their analysis of dynamics that arise beyond the local region or at a larger scale than the local? (Harvey 1995) For example, if I had moved to the Kerang region and participated directly in shaping its future, I would still have known about the government ministry's policy-making efforts, the data and models used in the economic analysis, and so on. Indeed, the local for a professional knowledge-maker cannot be as place-based or fixed as it would be for most community members. I wonder what would it mean, then, to take seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation, but not to appeal to researchers to “go local” and focus all their efforts on one place.
Recently I have seen something analogous to this longstanding tension in my research when I have tried to extend students' critical thinking into reflective practice. Experiences such as those reflected in this essay lead me to assume that students know more than they are prepared, at first, to acknowledge. Facilitation training leads me to assume also that students will become more invested in the process and the outcomes when insights emerge from themselves. On the other hand, when I explicitly adopt a facilitator's role, should I keep quiet if I see that a crucial insight is not emerging? How much will it stifle the group process if I, the teacher, contribute as well? In any case, even if I put on a facilitator's hat and keep quiet, I cannot ensure that I am perceived simply as a non-directive supporter of their process (Taylor 2000). I cannot completely erase the students' sense of me as a teacher with whom they need to “negotiate power and standards.” Decentered pedagogy cannot avoid active, charged, and changing relationships among all concerned.
The tension between facilitating and being more directive is evident not only in my teaching, but in the writing of this essay. I have tried to evoke a continuing pedagogical journey that “involves risk, opens up questions, creates more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, requires support, and yields personal change.” I decided to tease out multiple strands, rather than hold onto one thread, hoping that each reader would find at least a few of the strands helpful to pull on during their own journeys (see also Taylor 2001c). I have exposed tensionswhile not the path of maximum comfort, this is one way to model a process of keeping tensions active and productive. These various attempts to keep matters open, even ambiguous, led me to choose the epigraph about dialogue “that neither party could have imagined before starting.” Yet, as author, I have spoken first and set many terms of any discussion that ensues. Rather than play down this tension, let me present a summary of this essay's themes in both a didactic and a dialogic spirit. The themes to follow, I would propose, need to be addressed in order to provide space and support for others in their critical thinking journeys. At the same time, I hope readers draw me into discussion that leads to new ways of addressing and conceptualizing the challenges I have been opening up.
The central challenge addressed in the think-piece is to help people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge. Some related challenges for the teacher/facilitator are to:
Help students to generate questions about issues they were not aware they faced.
Acknowledge and mobilize the diversity inherent in any group, including the diversity of mental, emotional, situational, and relational factors that people identify as making re-seeing possible.
Help students clear mental space so that thoughts about an issue in question can emerge that had been below the surface of their attention
Teach students to listen well. (Listening well seemed to help students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind scrutiny of one's own evidence, assumptions and logic, or of those of others is difficult to motivate or carry out; see also point i, below. Being listened to, in turn, seems to help students access their intelligenceto bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense.)
Support students on their journeys into unfamiliar or unknown areas. (Support is needed because these journeys involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, and yield personal change.)
Encourage students to Take Initiative In and Through Relationships, which can be thought of in terms of themes that are in some tension with each other: “negotiate power/standards,” “horizontal community,” “develop autonomy,” “acknowledge affect,” “be here now,” and “explore difference.” Address fear felt by students and by oneself as their teacher. Have confidence and patience that students will become more invested in the process and the outcomes when insights emerge from themselves. Raise Alternatives. (Critical thinking depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. People understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives.)
Introduce and motivate opening up themes, that is, propositions that are simple to convey, but always point to the greater complexity of particular cases and to further work needed to study those cases. Be patient and persistent about students taking up the alternatives, opening up themes, and other tools and applying them to open up questions in other areas. (Experiment and experience are needed for students to build up a set of tools that work for them.)
Take seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation, while still allowing space for researchers to insert the translocal, that is, their analysis of changes that arise beyond the local region or at a larger scale than the local.
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