Close reading, PBL, and tensions

A tension that has arisen often in conversations between my co-instructor and myself as we prepared for an upcoming course in life science, gender, and race, texts… – by tension I don’t mean something that is a disagreement or even something that has to be resolved, indeed perhaps the essence of co-teaching is that there are tensions to be played out in real time. The tension is that she understands that we cannot assign hundreds of pages to be read each week and still follow the project-based learning (PBL) process of the course, yet she knows how much her scholarship and her teaching revolves around very close reading of texts. Read more of this post

On “Practice Research Networks” and critical thinking

“How do people have their thinking changed?” is the topic of the first Collaborative Exploration (CE) in my graduate critical thinking course this semester. The scenario reads:

There are many approaches to teaching or coaching, each of which aims to improve the knowledge or thinking of students or some other audience. In other words, each aims to change their thinking… We might ask how strong the basis is for any given approach to teaching or coaching. We could, in the spirit of critical thinking, scrutinize the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning behind the approach. In this case, we want you to do this scrutinizing for a teaching/coaching approach “X” (where you choose X…), but also to go further: …consider how to change the thinking of an exponent of X so that they think more critically about their approach.

The approach X I chose to examine is the Human Givens approach to therapy and mental health (HG). This approach has been developed in England since the late 1990s and has exponents in a few other countries, but very few in the United States. Read more of this post

Caveat lector (written as I orient myself to the audience for the next book I want to write)

The conceptual themes advanced in this book emerged from puzzling over the positions and propositions of others that did not, for me, fit together. I hope readers appreciate the coherence of the picture I paint, but, even more, that they become engaged in fresh directions of puzzle posing and probing. After all, to move beyond the gaps I identify in the study of variation and heredity requires a wide range of inquiries from people in many different areas… Nature-Nurture? No, 2014

…the book as a whole becomes an opening-up theme. The book does not provide a theory to explain unruly complexity in any specific field or situation, but opens up issues about addressing complexity in ways that point to further work that needs to be undertaken to deal with particular cases.  Unruly Complexity, 2005

A few years ago an experienced facilitator admonished me not to think too much about how to support the translation into everyday work and life of tools and processes [for collaboration and reflective practice] introduced in a workshop setting.  The advice was to the effect that tools and processes are taken up only if they are introduced in actual work settings. 2013

The conceptual themes advanced in this book emerged from puzzling over positions and propositions until they fitted together for me. I hope readers appreciate the coherence of the picture I paint, but, even more, that they become engaged in fresh directions of puzzle posing and probing.  However, I am well aware of the limitations of building from the conceptual side and writing not to a specific audience. Read more of this post

Home after 20 days of a learning road trip

The blog posts on the road trip can be followed in three ways:

  • Complete road trip: Start on Day 1 and follow the links at the end of each post forward to the next day or activity
  • Activities related to critical thinking & reflective practice: Start on Day 2 and follow links at top right of each post on this blog
  • Activities related to complexity & change in environment, biomedicine & society: Start on Day 1 and follow links at top right of each post on that blog

During the road trip I recalled an earlier learning road trip, in 1974-5, learning about various alternative communities and technologies in Australia.  I wrote about this in a weekly “Weary Feet” column for Lot’s Wife, the student newspaper at Monash University.  The column’s title referred to the poem of Bilbo [and later Frodo] in The Lord of the Rings:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager [weary] feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Another version ends:

But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

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.

Diagramming of Intersecting Processes (a teaching activity)

I want more people to think in terms of intersecting processes, which means being able to read the diagrams I present, appreciate the theoretical implications of the concept, start to make their own accounts and diagrammatic depictions, and teach others to do the same.  Thus this teaching activity.

Goals for students
1. to understand the development of biomedical and social phenomena in terms of linkages among processes of different kinds and scales that build up over time—genetics, treatment, family and immediate social context, social welfare systems and economics, wider cultural shifts, ….
2. to use graphic organizers to help them visualize such “intersecting processes” and to identify places where detail is missing and where further inquiry is needed.
3. [depending on level of students and prior preparation] to contrast the implications of thinking in terms of direct causation (like spokes going to a hub) with “heterogeneous construction.”

Pre-session reading:
Paul, D. (1997). Appendix 5. The history of newborn phenylketonuria screening in the U.S. Promoting Safe and Effective Genetic Testing in the United States. N. A. Holtzman and M. S. Watson. Washington, DC, NIH-DOE Working Group on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Human Genome Research: 137-159.

Excerpt from Taylor, P. J. (2001). Distributed agency within intersecting ecological, social, and scientific processes. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. S. Oyama, P. Griffiths and R. Gray. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press: 313-332 on The development of severe depression in a sample of working class women.

Phase A: Mini-lecture to introduce the ideas under goals 1 and 2 and the use of diagrams to identify missing detail (goal 2). Followed by Question & Answer.

Phase B: Following the procedure below, diagram Paul (1997) article with respect to either a) the life-course of a female with PKU detected by neo-natal screening for PKU; or b) the routinization of neo-natal screening for PKU in the United States. Followed by discussion of potential and limitations of the diagramming activity (for discussion among colleagues or for teaching).

a) the life-course of a female with PKU detected by neo-natal screening:
1. Identify important connections mentioned in the article (from p. 7ff) between things in the following categories or strands (open to adaptation): Condition of person with PKU; Diagnosis and care; Social support; and Wider social context.
2. Arrange the things as well as you can given the information available on parallel strands according to age of the person.

b) the routinization of neo-natal screening for PKU in the United States:
1. Identify important connections mentioned in the article between things in the following categories or strands (open to adaptation): Experience of persons with PKU (condition, care, social support); Advocacy (pro + con); State mandates & regulation; Research; and Wider social context.
2. Arrange the things as well as you can given the information available on parallel strands according to year (from 1930s to 1990s allowing more space for 1960 through 1980).

For both a) and b):
3. Draw dotted lines to show connections between things.
4. Identify connections about which you want to know more. Use the ideas under goal 3 as a checklist.
5. Note where these instructions were hard to put into practice.

Example of connection for a): mandated test (social support) and neo-natal initiation of special diet (diagnosis & care)
Example of connection for b): enthusiasm for biomedical prevention of mental retardation over education/social support/rehabilitation of retarded persons (wider social context) and promotion of PKU screening in advance of research on effects of diet (state mandates & regulation/ research)

Acknowledgement: This unit draws inspiration and some ideas from Matthew Puma’s adaptation of my teaching about intersecting processes in CrCrTh 640 during Spring 2002.

Draft 8 Feb 2004; revised 17 April 2005

Reflections on teaching activity

This activity is still under development. Some issues that have arisen:
1. What do arrows mean? Mechanisms, material connections; Increase in probability; Makes possible; or Makes significant
2. Some participants wanted to focus on explaining a specific outcome.
3. Technologies of representation, e.g., colors for countervailing processes
4. Are we representing an individual or a population or a generic individual + variation

Intersecting Processes, autobiographical note

As a student and environmental activist in the 1970s I developed an interest, which continues to this day, in ecological complexity as a challenge to conventional scientific ways of knowing. Although ecological and environmental researchers partition complex situations into well-bounded systems and backgrounded or hidden processes, such moves tend to be confounded by “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view, I concluded; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the “unruly” complexity.

As I developed this picture, my work in ecology and environmental studies opened out to interpretive studies of science and then to facilitation of critical, reflective practice. The integration of these three levels or angles is evident in my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005). This work not only examines the problematic boundaries of the complex situations studied by scientists, but also interprets their efforts to build social support for adopting explicit or implicit boundaries and studying what is inside. Similarly for the complex situations interpreted by sociologists, historians, and other scholars in the area now known as science and technology studies (STS). Moreover, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to examine self-consciously the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study. In recent years, I have transferred this three-level engagement with complexity from ecology to social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior.

See and for more detail.

Note: Blog posts will also address critical thinking and reflective practice in environment, biomedicine, and social change, but the picture of intersecting processes will usually be there in the background.

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