Scaffolding versus externally imposed internalised rules

I am beginning the see the idea of “scaffolding” as providing an alternative to the idea of externally imposed rules that are internalised by participants in a workshop or learning experience. Read more of this post

Parker Palmer at home (Day 16 of Learning road trip)

Before leaving Madison for our return east, we spent a couple of hours with Parker Palmer.  As I described to him in an email, during the spring I had started to invoke his theme of “letting your life speak” to the mid-career/mid-life adults who join the Master’s program I direct called Critical & Creative Thinking. In CCT, we support/coach/teach the students to “take themselves seriously”-to pursue aspirations submerged in their previous work (and get clear about what those aspirations are) and to adopt/adapt tools for thinking, connecting, reflecting, evaluating, and writing while they are doing that. I thought that he and I could spend a valuable hour or so sharing notes about the development of non-traditional learning institutions and the personal development that’s gone along with that.

The discussion ranged widely, including Shenk’s account of Lincoln’s struggles with depression as a source of his strength as a leader of a divided nation, to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, to the Dalai Lama’s dictum, “Be kind.”  Parker Palmer also described the development of his work since Let Your Life Speak was published in 1999.  In the middle ’90s the Fetzer Institute in Michigan had sponsored a pilot project in which Palmer convened a two-year series of eight retreats with a single group of teachers.  Palmer wasn’t interested in any one-shot event or retreat, after which participants, however much they were inspired, were left on their own to put new insights into practice.  The pilot gave rise to the Center for Teacher Formation, which then expanded beyond the field of education to become the Center for Courage and Renewal (as described in A Hidden Wholeness, 2004).  Thousands of people have participated in the two-year series of retreats with the goal not of changing this or that aspect of society, but of each participant coming to make a “soul-deep decision” about the path they will take.  In recent years Palmer has extended the retreats so as to foster the creation of Circles of Change, groups of citizens who have the creativity and courage to revitalize democracy without suppressing difference and conflicts.  This endeavor is described in his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy.

After the discussion I played around with what an eight-retreat series for CCT or the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change would look like.  I am also keen to use one of Palmer’s tools. During a retreat, participants are asked to write a letter to themself, then seal it in an envelope and hand it over to the organizers.  At some point in the future, say a month later, the organizers mail the letters to the participants.  They are reminded by their own words about what they wanted to keep mindful of.

(back to Start of road trip; forward to Day 17)

Vertical/unity and Horizontal/change

Ben Schwendener, a musician, composer, teacher of music and composing, began teaching a graduate Seminar on Creativity online May 31.  As director of the Program (Critical & Creative Thinking) I was invited to listen in and even participate as a student.  The project I decided to develop during the course is the Collaborative for Exploration of Scientific and Political Change.  The posts to follow will show the unfolding of my thinking.

1 June 2011
Vertical/unity and Horizontal/change
My current understanding of Ben’s critique of method is that to work from method is to pursue the horizontal without attention to the vertical unity of elements upon which change flows naturally. An example of this problem might be a curriculum that says topics A-H must be covered, in contrast to identifying the six themes that underlie the subject matter (as proposed by science educator Paul Jablon, Lesley University) or my 4R’s (Respect->Risk->Revelation->Re-engagement) of developing as a collaborator or the many Rs of developing as a Reflective Practitioner during the CCT program of studies. Another way of stating this example is to consider the desired outcome. The student who has taken the required subjects is assumed to be able to draw on the knowledge (subject to an inevitable decay if the knowledge is not used), but a student who appreciates the six themes approach has a coherent, integrated perspective from which to address future areas of learning.

What doesn’t yet fit in this understanding of the Vertical/unity and Horizontal/change are the themes that emerge from Strategic Planning or the Future Ideal Retrospective activities. These themes are the names given to clusters of brainstormed items and, in my teaching, the names should denote movement or change—how this cluster of items speaks to moving us towards the future ideal. I wonder, could these movement-change themes be elements of a vertical unity (even though change, as I understand it, is supposed to be associated with the horizontal)?

  • B.S. 6/14 email: -yes. Consider as ‘Supra-Vertical’ or Formal Elements functioning as active components of the whole.

For the Collaborative, the elements might be the tools and processes used in PBL and the connections made through addressing the PBL scenarios when these tools, processes, and connections produce participants who can take them into new situations. (I call this flexible engagement: “An ideal in which researchers in any knowledge-making situation are able to connect quickly with others who are almost ready—either formally or otherwise—to foster participatory processes and, through the experience such processes provide their participants, contribute to enhancing the capacity of others to do likewise.” [Unruly Complexity (2005, p. 225)].) This is in contrast to thinking of change as referring to any real-world issue contained in the PBL scenario. Although PBL could be designed for a group that is prepared to act, CESPOC stays clear of claiming to convene or be the basis for such groups. Instead, it is learning and developing support for learning that would go into CESPOC’s still-to-be-clarified vertical unity.

(I wonder if this last distinction is like Parker Palmer’s realization that he was a teacher more than a social change activist [Let Your Life Speak, 2000]. His do-ing is to teach clarifying practices that others might use to prepare themselves to do something to change education or, more broadly, society.)

Engaging with—and within—diverse adults

A theme “let your life speak” emerged clearly during a session on “Engaging with diverse adult populations,” for which three graduates of the Critical & Creative Thinking Program were asked to reflect on the development since they graduated of their work and thinking around the theme of the session.  The outward-looking theme—engaging with people who are different from you—turned out to be paired with the inward-looking theme of finding an authentic path for oneself.  Before trying to make sense of this outward-inward connection, let me set the scene with some notes from the session.

The first speaker, a community-college professor of English as a Second Language, described the evolution of his doctoral research project, which aims to shed light on the divergent post-secondary educational paths of Sudanese refugees in the Boston area.  A colleague challenged him to explain what he will give back to the Sudanese community through this research.  The speaker admitted to having been taken aback by this question.  I thought the question was appropriate; indeed it is a standard question to ask of any researcher going out into the field to study other groups.  Yet the speaker’s response made sense to me when he said, “I’ve always worked with refugees.”  He has a long record of committed teaching and service at his College.  He knows where his heart is, even if it took the probing question to make him articulate that.

The second speaker revisited experiences growing up and in jobs before starting the CCT Program that involved disability access, international dot.com startups, and adult education.  He explained that his time in the Program had allowed him to understand that he wasn’t happy unless he was involved in looking a the deeper qualities of people, ones that might not be obvious or might not be obviously relevant to the ostensible task at hand, but would turn out to be meaningful.  Meaningful for people especially in the sense of enabling them to be present—to get to a place where their voices could at least be heard.  That might involve disability access that is not limited to the minimal standards prescribed by ADA regulations, or recognition by American managers that “non-compliance” to their guidelines by their foreign associates is more a matter of cultural style than shirking of work.

The third speaker, a Diversity officer at a Boston-area college, spoke of strategic partnering—collaboration, facilitation, dialogue—to keep colleagues working across difference and to support students in their differences (gender, racial/ethnic, disability, etc.) so they were less likely to drop out.  A key reflective question for partnering, the speaker noted, is what is key to who we connect with and who we don’t.  Acknowledging what was key was something he associated with his CCT experience.  The Program had been a “studio” for him to experiment with the things he was passionate about—that was OK in CCT where it had been hard in his education and upbringing.  The result was, quoting Parker Palmer’s Quaker dictum, he was able to advocate letting your life speak.

My hypothesis about the integration of inward and outward angles of view that emerged in the session on engaging with diverse adult populations follows in the next post.

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