We Know More Than We Are, At First, Prepared To Acknowledge

We Know More Than We Are, At First, Prepared To Acknowledge: Journeying to Develop Critical Thinking, a paper from 2002, is now available at http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cct_ccrp/1/. Read more of this post

Uptake and application of participation and collaboration skills (Day 4 of Learning road trip)

Discussion with Duncan Holmes and Jo Nelson at ICA Canada along the lines of “what have we learned about conditions that influence uptake and application of participation and collaboration skills learned in facilitated workshops.”

Reframed question: What makes people want to go through learning of tools and processes?

1.  People are frustrated and cynical about what has happened in the past.  Ask: Why?  What do you want?

2. Curiousity + playfulness

Other ICA developments noted in the discussion:

  • ICA asks a facilitator to define the rational and experiential aims of the process.  Rational is synonymous with knowing, i.e., what will be learned.  Experiential is synonymous with existential—how will the process affect your way of being.
  • Grouping or clustering of post-its in Strategic planning is looking for the gestalt.  The process is like doing a jigsaw puzzle.  The pieces (post-its) are a mess at the start.  You begin by finding edges, then pieces that fit together, then you start seeing what the jigsaw puzzle is a picture of.  If you find a piece is left out, you work to see where it fits in.
  • Strategic Participatory Planning has been carried out over a year at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and is now happening in the Education College at Brock University.  The picture of the process is no longer on the OISE website, but see here for a link to the outcome.

(Start of road trip; forward to Day 5 morning)

Effective collaborators: Structural conditions vs. personal development

An exchange with a colleague leads me to note a contrasting “structural” approach on the issue of effective collaborators to the one presented in a recent series of posts, where I noted:

An effective collaborator draws on many skills and dispositions [listed in the posts].  We can cultivate these skills and dispositions through participation in suitable activities and through creative habits, such as always taking stock of what we did (and did not do) and planning ways to improve. Participants who cultivate themselves as collaborators can bring their skills and dispositions to any collaboration (or workshop, group process, etc.) they get involved in. To the extent that participants in a collaboration have been cultivating themselves as collaborators, the people organizing or facilitating the collaboration can expect their efforts to be more fruitful.

In contrast, a facilitator could create the conditions (or rules or structure or process) for collaboration, which facilitates participants being more collaborative without asking them to change their behavior—or having to draw explicit attention to the cultivation of collaborators.  There is a “which comes first, chicken or egg?” aspect to this, given that rules or structure or process work better when there are at least some participants who already have developed the skills and dispositions I list.  At the same time, one way to cultivate those skills and dispositions is through well-facilitated demonstration or real-life activities.

Nevertheless, people who write books on group process and facilitation, e.g., Senge et al. 5th Discipline Fieldbook, do not give much emphasis to the cultivation of collaborators.  Most weight is put on creating the conditions for collaboration among whoever signs up for or is roped into the group process a facilitator is leading.  (Readers should point me to works that disturb this assertion of mine.)  If a facilitator has confidence in handling all-comers, then it is simpler to set a small set of guiding themes, such as balance advocacy with inquiry, or start from concrete observables and don’t climb quickly up the ladder of inference.  My longer listing of skills and dispositions of effective collaborators would then seem unnecessarily complicated.  Let me just say, however, that I want some more eggs with my chickens.

Alternating between teacher and facilitator

Workshop at the meetings of the International Association of Facilitators, Toronto, Canada, April 27 – 30, 2000

Participation in a group process or workshop is easily stifled when participants perceive a facilitator to prefer some ideas and outcomes over others. When insights emerge from the participants themselves, they become more invested in the process and the outcomes. But what should teachers who use facilitation techniques some of the time in their classes do to be perceived as facilitating not directing the class. Conversely, what should facilitators of any kind of group do when they see that a crucial insight is not emerging? This article describes the design of a workshop in which the participants — including myself — can learn from each other’s experiences and insights regarding the tension between facilitating and “teaching” and the difficulties alternating between the two roles. The workshop consists of a series of activities for group interaction and intrapersonal reflection that should bring the experience and insight of teacher-facilitators to the surface. References are provided so that readers can explore the activities further in their own work.

An Exploratory Workshop

Participation in a group process or workshop is easily stifled when participants perceive a facilitator to prefer some ideas and outcomes over others. When insights emerge from the participants themselves, they become more invested in the process and the outcomes. But what should teachers who use facilitation techniques some of the time in their classes do to be perceived as facilitating neutrally, not directing the class. Conversely, what should facilitators of any kind of group do when they see that a crucial insight is not emerging?

I have designed my IAF 2000 workshop so that the participants — including myself — can learn from each other’s experiences and insights regarding the tension between facilitating and teaching (broadly construed), and the difficulties alternating between the two roles. The workshop consists of a series of activities for group interaction and intrapersonal reflection that should bring the experience and insight of teacher-facilitators to the surface. (A secondary aim of the workshop is that participants in their own work will explore further the interaction and reflection activities used during the workshop that were new to them.)

There are two phases to the workshop. The first phase is a case in which I alternate between teacher and facilitator. As teacher I present a mini-lecture on the topic of population and environment. This is a topic of general interest selected because I can, in a short time using slides and audience participation, introduce some non-standard perspectives about the role of scientific knowledge in shaping what counts as an environmental problem and for whom it is a problem (Taylor 1999). Then as facilitator I will lead a focused conversation (Stanfield 1997). This is designed so participants learn what other participants have observed and experienced regarding the topic of population and environment and move from separate impressions to a dialogue on implications of the lecture.

The second phase moves the workshop from presentation of a case of alternating between teacher and facilitator to eliciting participants’ insights on that issue. To effect a clear transition between the two phases, I will lead participants in ten minutes guided freewriting (Elbow 1981). Each participant will start writing with the unfinished sentence: “In this case it wasn’t I who tried to shift between teaching and facilitating, but the thoughts/ feelings/ experiences that come to mind about trying to do this in my own work include…” The freewriting should expose thoughts about the topic that had been below the surface of their attention.

Primed by the freewriting, participants will then complete a questionnaire on a) the essence of their own approach to the tensions between facilitating and teaching, plus contextual information (see b-f below). This questionnaire is based on the “Sense-Making” approach to information seeking and use developed by Brenda Dervin, in the Department of Communication at Ohio State (Derwin 1999). One finding from Sense-Making research is that people make much better sense of seminar presentations and other scholarly contributions when these are accompanied by contextual information along the following lines:

b) The reason(s) I took this road is (are)…
c) The best of what I have achieved is…
d) What has been particularly helpful to me in this endeavor has been…
e) What has hindered me, what I have struggled with has been…
f) What would help me now is…
Volunteers will then be invited to speak for two minutes, presenting one or two highlights from their responses and any additions they make while listening to the speakers who go before them.

Finally, as a “closing circle” and a workshop evaluation, every participant in the workshop will be asked to state one thing from the workshop that they plan to explore further in their own work, and one thing that could be developed further or done differently in a future workshop on this issue. A summary of the closing circle responses and of the questionnaires will be sent by email to all participants, to digest and make use of in their own work.

Facilitation Philosophy

The different interaction and reflection activities in the workshop share the same basic premises I see in the various workshop processes developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs. They are intended to keep participants listening actively to each other, to foster mutual respect and elicit more insight. What comes out of a well facilitated group process is very likely to be larger and more durable than what any one person came in with; the more so, the more voices that are brought out by the process. Notwithstanding any initial impressions to the contrary, everyone has insight and everyone’s insight is needed for the wisest result. Moreover, there is insight in every response. When a person is heard, they can better hear others which disturbs decisions made in advance about what the other people are like, what they are and are not capable of. And they can better “hear” themselves — each of us knows more than we are, at first, prepared or able to acknowledge.

Personal Contextualization

A little personal contextualization should help readers appreciate the motivation for this workshop and the activities employed. I have been a college teacher of critical thinking about science and society since 1986. Although I have let myself be stretched into arenas beyond science, the central goal of my teaching and writing is to show that placing developments in science and technology in their social context can enliven and enrich science education, science popularization, and citizen activism. Since about 1994 I have made time to learn from others about writing through the curriculum, designing opportunities for co-operative, experiential, and project-based learning, and fostering students’ different learning preferences (Taylor 1997). In 1997-98 I participated in three ICA facilitation training workshops in Toronto. In 1998 I took up a position in a College of Education. Increasingly, I find myself using ICA facilitation tools in my teaching and training others to use them in their own teaching and other professional work. Feedback from the ICA Canada listserv (enrol c/o melich@fhs.csu.mcmaster.ca) has been invaluable in this endeavor and, in order to continue to learn from more experienced facilitators, I decided to attend IAF 2000.


Dervin, B. (1999). “Chaos, order, and sense-making: A proposed theory for information design,” in Robert Jacobson (ed.) Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Also available (as of 21 May 1996) at http://edfu.lis.uiuc.edu/allerton/95/s5/dervin.draft.html.

Elbow, P. (1981). Writing with Power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stanfield, B. (Ed.) (1997). The Art of Focused Conversation. Toronto: Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs. Available via www.icacan.ca.

Taylor, P. J. (1997). “Making connections and respecting differences: Reconciling schemas for learning and group process.” Connexions (Newsletter of International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives)(March & July). Also available at http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/connexions.html

Taylor, P. J. (1999). “How do we know we have a population-environment problem?” http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/popdialogue.html

Why do participants become more invested in a facilitated process and the outcomes when their voice is heard?

During a workshop on “Open Spaces for Changing Science and Society,” I came across a proto-blog entry of mine from 9 years ago:

5 May 02
Facilitation training teaches one that participants become more invested in the process and the outcomes when insights emerge from themselves, when their voice is heard. (One of the outcomes, is an interest in participating in further group process.) I extend this principle about group process to reflection processes, such as freewriting, that allow a person to bring to the surface insights that they were not, at first, prepared to acknowledge. (See http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/journey.html)

Q1: What is it about being a person that makes this the case?

This question might make more sense if we ask another question, Q2: why can’t a person become just as invested in a well-thought out plan that others with more experience and knowledge had produced?

One answer to Q2 is that there is often a backlash against innovations and change, a backlash that reveals people’s fear.

Q3: What leads to people having fear that gets in the way of their intelligence?

One answer to Q3 depends on noting that people have a backlog of fear that they haven’t processed from previous experiences (see Weissglass, “Constructivist Listening,” 1990) and are constantly operating on top of this, keeping it suppressed. If anything starts to open that Pandora’s box, it is scary and it feels safer to close it again.

One kind of answer to Q1 then is that in well-facilitated participation the person is getting more in touch with their intelligence, seeing how a web of support can be built, and noticing what that feels like before fear has a chance to get in the way.

Q4: What kind of group process could we invent that would build a support structure for each individual as they try to make changes (that is, not only when they participate in group processes such as participatory planning)?

One answer is the circle of elders in which say 6 people listen to a person’s problem of the moment and then the person listens to the responses, which are not supposed to take the form of direct advice. (Does anyone have a source for this?)

Others? Or adaptations of this?


Weissglass, J. (1990). “Constructivist listening for empowerment and change.” The Educational Forum 54(4): 351-370

Teacher-Student-Subject interactions (schema)

Teacher-Student-Subject interactions (schema in development in 1997-98)


Collective project

      = “course” or “subject”
    + supporting each other to maximum yield, i.e., the best work in the circumstances


  • establishes some parameters
    • assessment & grading system [note]
    • course is a collective project in addition to individual projects
    • core case studies & activities
    • proposes ideal sequence to final paper/ report/ product
    • expectations
    • framing, e.g., courses with PT are high in abstract conceptualization
  • provides resources from experience
    • case studies [note]
    • critical heuristics/ angles of illumination [note]
    • other tools, e.g.,
      • writing
        • freewriting
        • direct writing
      • sharing & responding
      • mapping
    • binders
      • newspaper clippings
      • assignments of previous students
      • previous reports
    • websites
    • bibliographic suggestions, website addresses & contacts
  • reads & listens, i.e., is an audience
  • models
    • critical thinking
    • reciprocal animation
    • heterogeneous re/construction
    • learning, listening, facilitating, providing resources
  • learns, i.e, is a student also
    • current issues include…
    • on-going issues include….
    • conducts course evaluations that are useful for learning
  • facilitates
    • switches hats from teacher role
      to allow student insights to emerge & synergize

last updated 24 june 1998

“a chasm between a world others had built for him and his own not yet formed. It is this gap which mentors often serve to bridge.” Common Fire, p. 89.

Example of assessment scheme from a workshop research course

“Sense-making” to contextualize or to respond to written and spoken work

Brief reasons for experiencing/ experimenting with a structured planning process in a seminar course
Basic propositions of the ICA workshop process

Journeying to develop critical thinking 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)

The final passage in this series of posts 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 2002b). 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 distance—both geographically and institutionally—from 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. They were, however, 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).

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 professional knowledge-makers 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 conclude that researchers should “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. I cannot completely erase the students’ sense of me as a teacher with whom they need to negotiate power and standards (Taylor 2000). Decentered pedagogy cannot avoid active, charged, and changing relationships among all concerned.


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