I in a new understanding of my confusion.

Questioning in Broken Images

Questioning in broken images

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.

Trusting his clear images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my broken images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question the facts.

When the facts fail him, he questions his senses;
When the facts fail me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

- Robert Graves

On Questions

Here, where I am surrounded by an enormous landscape, which the winds move across as they come from the seas, here I feel that there is no one anywhere who can answer for you those questions and feelings which, in their depths, have a life of their own….
I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

- Rainer Maria Rilke

What started as a political awareness of the need to challenge student teacher perceptions soon became an even more complex undertaking as I tried to incorporate some of the classroom insights I had gained from foregrounding learning and the learner rather than teaching and the teacher.

I had a vision of helping the future mathematics teachers in my classes develop the ability to set aside their own preconceived ideas about learning mathematics, which were inevitably based on their own school experiences, and to begin with the assumption that each learner relied on their own – perfectly adequate – form of logic when tackling problems. I wanted each student teacher’s mind to become flexible enough to move to a place where they could understand that logic and the way in which the learner applied it.

I soon met a seemingly impenetrable wall of resistance. Each member of my class appeared to depend on the certainty of their own lived experience, seeing their job as being one of helping (forcing?) pupils to follow their own rules and algorithms for problem-solving.

My focus moved away from the mathematics itself as I tried to find ways of sensitising my student teacher class to the rather fixed and unhelpful certainties that had been passed on to them by their parents and teachers. I started taking classes and attending workshops on a range of topics. One of these was a drama workshop run by Dorothy  Heathcote that inspired the creation of Mr Smith.

I would arrive in class wearing an academic gown in my role as Mr Smith. After introducing myself, I (or rather, Mr Smith) would set the class an open-ended test to ‘see who the stupid ones were in the class.’ Mr Smith would invigilate in a brutal manner and storm out after haranguing most of the class. Then we would debrief, and the stories would flow…

Ideas from sources such as Tai Chi and Al Huang, circle dancing and improvised theatre found their way into my classroom as I got better at disrupting taken-for-granted assumptions. I was beginning to know which exercises had the most impact and had started to develop a variety of different ways of showing up that maximised the discomfort and reflective learning of my student teachers. I asked them to share their experiences with each other and invited them to find their own path to a new way of being in the world. Soon I began requiring that they keep reflective journals, shocking my academic colleagues (this was around 1987!) by insisting that these reflections be valued through the academic currency of marks.

For many years, the theoretical foundations on which these offerings were based appeared shaky to outsiders, especially many of my colleagues. I knew that what I was doing worked, but I was not able to point to a sound academic theory to underpin it or give it credibility. So it was with great relief that I found a section on enactivism in the book Teaching Mathematics: Towards a Sound Alternative by Brent Davis (1996). Enactivism, which is at the core of Maturana and Varela’s Santiago Theory of Cognition, made total sense to me as it matched my classroom transformation experiences.

My main resonance with enactivism is the idea that each of us has our own structure, which is based on both our genetics and lived experiences; we are very attached to this structure and prefer it not to be challenged. The teacher’s job is to perturbate a learner’s structure so that the learner is encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity to reframe their structure. At the time, which coincided with the introduction of (what I considered to be very flawed) outcomes-based education in South Africa, I particularly appreciated Maturana and Varela’s belief that the teacher cannot force learning to happen. Instead, they maintain that each student makes their own decision about what they learn based on their own structure.

And so it was that my transformative methodology became based on trying to perfect the art of perturbation!

My main resonance with enactivism is the idea that each of us has our own structure, which is based on both our genetics and lived experiences; we are very attached to this structure and prefer it not to be challenged. The teacher’s job is to perturbate a learner’s structure so that the learner is encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity to reframe their structure. At the time, which coincided with the introduction of (what I considered to be very flawed) outcomes-based education in South Africa, I particularly appreciated Maturana and Varela’s belief that the teacher cannot force learning to happen. Instead, they maintain that each student makes their own decision about what they learn based on their own structure.

And so it was that my transformative methodology became based on trying to perfect the art of perturbation!

My methodology evolved as I tried to set up real-life, real-time classroom experiences that could act as a laboratory for providing in-the-moment opportunities to challenge each student’s taken-for-granted assumptions. These initial sessions involved my using a range of different provocative persona. Those used to showing off their knowledge were confused when this was not rewarded.

To balance this perturbating focus, I worked at developing the ability to hold a place of safety for the class on the edge of this precipice of uncertainty. I had to be ready to gently pick up anyone who stumbled and help them back to their feet – and back to the edge of the precipice. This required me to have a strong grounded presence (I supported myself in developing this by taking a course in mindfulness) and enough awareness to allow me to explore the learning potential of each incident without being triggered myself.

My attempts at the impossible dream of reaching each participant has resulted in my treading a fine line between pure foolishness and deep courage in my acts of classroom. I try to judge when the learner is ready to learn and am sometimes hopelessly wrong in my assessment and my actions have in some of these cases become exaggerated into local folklore.

Fortunately, I have been reassured over the years that so many of those who initially resisted or complained the most, ended up the most alive and willing to explore the material. I have also come to reluctantly accept that I can do nothing for those who refuse to consider it possible that they are mistaken in their certainties.

On Questions

Here, where I am surrounded by an enormous landscape, which the winds move across as they come from the seas, here I feel that there is no one anywhere who can answer for you those questions and feelings which, in their depths, have a life of their own….
I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

- Rainer Maria Rilke

My biggest public failure occurred when I agreed to give a plenary workshop at a gathering of three business schools from different countries at Ashridge Business School. I somewhat foolishly attempted to offer a quick taster of a perturbation activity to a few volunteers to demonstrate the power of the methodology. Unfortunately, one of the volunteers was the Head of the other visiting business school. He fell into the trap and beautifully demonstrated our general inability to think intelligently under pressure. However, my successful role-play of ramping up the decision-making pressure resulted in the focus moving away from my intended lessons on our reduced awareness and intelligence when under pressure. Instead, the talk of the conference was about this crass and arrogant white male South African who had disrespected an important guest! Fortunately, I was able to persevere with this same community by contributing a very well-received chapter on my approach in the book that emerged from the conference.

I think the closest I have come to explaining the subtle interplay of perturbation, theory, and transformation in my teaching appears in an article that was published in Thinking Classrooms.

 

In recent years, I have added another somewhat radical innovation to my teaching methodology which has its roots in my training as a Biodanza facilitator. In a Biodanza session (a ‘vivencia), participants are asked to remain silent throughout the approximately 90-minute session while they undertake about 13 – 14 different movement activities accompanied by specifically selected music. The requirement of participant silence means that the mind has to become silent and the deep wisdom of the heart and body becomes foregrounded.  where focused movement takes place to carefully selected music. The reduced/absent role of the mind means that one of the major defences preventing honest learning in resistant students is removed! I use this model to deepen learning by introducing embodied learning activities as appropriately early as possible in my sessions.

This approach reaches its climax in my last session with the Executive MBA students. I offer a voluntary 90-minute movement session for the last 2 hours of my five-module work with them. I make the session voluntary so that the experience is not spoilt by those who determinedly continue kick and scream to the end to avoid opening up. Most of the class courageously choose to participate in this closing vivencia. There was a deep drawing-in of breath when my most recent session ended, and this was followed by an eruption of excited energy as the class moved around the room greeting and hugging each other joyfully! (You can still see some of that joy in the spontaneous photograph of a group of them that heads the Personal Leadership page on this website).

cross