Collaborative explorations, an update

A pilot version of what is now called a Collaborative Exploration (CE) of science in a changing world was carried out using a private wiki and a diigo group (CESPOC). In due course a paper summarizing the experience may be posted, but, for the time being, some of what was learned about process and product is reflected in the Prospectus below, Expectations of participants, Sequence of a CE.

Prospectus for Collaborative Explorations (CEs)
Draft, 29 July ’11
Note: This draft does not address governance issues—who gets to decide on the name, goals, scenarios, process, participants, evaluation, etc. This issues should be clarified and formalized before going beyond the initial pilot CEs.
The first pilot run, which explored a deeper rationale for developing PBL in and beyond the graduate classroom, was held in June and July; see
Collaborative Explorations (CEs), hosted by the Science in a Changing World graduate track at UMass Boston, provide opportunities for participants to re-engage with ourselves as avid learners and inquirers. What makes this re-engagement possible is a combination of:

  • the tools and processes used for inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and collaboration;
  • the connections we make among the different participants who bring diverse interests, skills, knowledge, experience, and aspirations to the CE; and
  • our contributions to the topic laid out in the scenario on which the CE is based.

CEs are an extension of Problem- or Project-Based Learning (PBL) and related approaches to education in which students address a scenario or case in ways that allow them to shape their own directions of inquiry and develop their skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in the broadest sense of the word). CE scenarios involve real issues, not simulations, but there is no assumption that participants will form a group that pursues the case beyond the limited time period of the CE.

The hope is that the tangible learning and experience of the CE stimulates subsequent changes:

  • in our own inquiries and teaching-learning interactions;
  • in the ways that we support inquiries of others;
  • in other practices of critical intellectual exchange and cooperation; and
  • in our abilities and motivation to challenge the barriers of expertise, gender, race, class, and place that normally restrict access to, understanding of, and influence on the production of scientific knowledge and technologies.

This said, the measure of a CE lies not in demonstrable results in these realms. Indeed, given the short-term and pick-up-team nature of CEs, we cannot expect too much in the way of participants following up on the tools, processes, connections, and contributions from any given CE. What is aimed for is that, in the here and now of the CE, participants have the kinds of interactions and insights that we aspire to in these other realms. After all, if we want to go on to push for change and challenge barriers in the wider world, each of us had best dismantle the barriers that keep us from avid learning and inquiring.

In thinking about how CEs can provide “opportunities for participants to re-engage with ourselves as avid learners and inquirers,” I (Peter Taylor) draw inspiration from a number of sources:
1) Students in science-in-society graduate courses that use PBL (example ):

  • This course provides a structure for me to learn about what really interests me.
  • This course is a gift – the chance to be open – open-ended in design, open to process, open to other perspectives, open to changing your ideas, and open to sharing. Of course this means it’s risky too – you won’t always know when you’re coming from or where you are going – you might think you aren’t sufficiently grounded by the course. But you have the freedom to change that – and being on the other side of it now, I see it works out beautifully. The attention to process provides you the tools to grow and by the end you’re riding the wave of your earlier work – just choose an area of science and/or feminist/anti-racist criticism and run with it.

2) The “4Rs” framework of Taylor et al. (2011) for what gives power to a workshop experience:

  • Build Respect for each others’ diversity and our own diverse strands, which make it more likely for little Risks in which participants in the activities stretch beyond the customary and for little Revelations to affirm these Risks. The steady experience of these Revelations or insights leads to Re-engagement in the realms of our customary work.

3) Vivian Paley’s writing about play, story-telling, and kindness among young school-children.

  • In The Girl with the Brown Crayon (p, 47), Paley says to her assistant Nisha: “Isn’t it a great feeling tying together all these stories?” Nisha: “Yes, but it doesn’t feel as if I’m tying things up. No, it’s more like opening up, or maybe even discovering things I’ve forgotten.”
  • In The Boy on the Beach (p.24), Paley writes, paraphrasing a 1924 essay by V. Woolf: “[T]he teacher must get in touch with the children by putting before them something they recognize, which therefore stimulates their imaginations and makes them willing to cooperate in the business of intimacy.” (To translate this into CEs: replace “children” by “participants” and read “intimacy” as exposing vulnerabilities, aspirations, unformed ideas to each other.)
  • In the same book, a colleague writing to Paley remarks (p. 25): “When [children] solve one problem, they create another to act on. By proving they are necessary and useful in a story, they demonstrate that they have a reason to exist, to be here with others.”

4) Michael White’s narrative practice (in family therapy and community work):

  • It is one thing to know that people are not passive recipients of life forces. But it is another thing to identify [people’s multiplicity of] initiatives, and to contribute to a context that is favorable to their endurance…. [I]t is another thing to identify initiatives that might provide a point of entry to the sort of rich story development that brings with it more positive identity conclusions and new options for action in the world.

Paley, V. G. (1997). The Girl with the Brown Crayon. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Paley, V. G. (2010). The Boy on the Beach: Building Community by Play. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, P. J., S. J. Fifield, C. Young (2011). “Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop.” Science as Culture 20(1): 89-105 ( )
White, M. (2011). Narrative Practice: Continuing the Conversation. New York, London.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

2 Responses to Collaborative explorations, an update

  1. Pingback: Critical, Creative and Reflective Practice: Contents of a possible booklet « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  2. Pingback: Towards moderately open online collaborative learning « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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