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Common Experience as a Source for the Dialogical Classroom

Abstract: This report describes two university instructors’ efforts to engage students in dialogue concerning the experience of a common action – walking around the block. Students were directed to walk around a block and develop representations of their experience. The subsequent student dialogue revealed instances of their insecurity, ambiguity, and revelations when students experienced mundane events. Seemingly, there are applications to pedagogies that use common experiences and dialogue as central activities.

Introduction

That humankind exists within environments is a statement that seemingly needs little contemplation. But despite this environmental ubiquity there is evidence that people regularly relegate their surroundings to insignificance. Bowers (1974) coined the term “taken-for-granted reality” (p. 4) to bring attention to the paradoxical power and dismissal of place. In short Bowers’ assumption is a directive to recognize the significance that environment, in all its manifestations, has over the individuals within it. Taken-for-grantedness is a symptom of the inability to critically know and understand one’s whereabouts; one’s situation in location and moment. Further Bowers calls for teachers to facilitate students’ understanding of the environment, albeit broadly construed:

Educators have a responsibility to assist students to understand their culture without being blind to its underlying assumptions and myths…. No aspect of the culture is to be taken-for-granted, but instead is to be brought to the level of conscious awareness and examined. (Bowers, 1974, p.5)

This paper describes how two university instructors encouraged preservice, education students to critically experience their environment. By promoting and linking actions of perception, awareness and response these teachers sought to foster students’ understanding of how the self, in and with an environment, share mutual internal and external influences. We try to capture in this paper how fostering a simple event, a walk around the block, resulted in recognizable personal processes of developing thought. Central to this account is the recognition that events were “experienced from the students’ side” (Bowers, 1974, p.21). This application of Bowers, creates a situation in which students inspect their beliefs and “involve[s] eliciting from the students a description (not an explanation that would generally represent something socially acquired) of personal space within the classroom, of the sense of space outside the classroom and eventually the community” (p.116).

Literature Review

This study uses the following assumptions on thinking and in a directly relatable way about learning: 1) Greeno (1989) on contextuality, 2) Gibson (1969) on perception, 3) Bowers (1974) on socialization and cultural literacy, 4) Goodman (1968) on world-making and 5) Bruner (1996) on metacognition.

In any discussion of mind it is necessary to initially associate the process of thinking with place. Greeno (1989) referred to place with the term contextuality. For Greeno knowing occurs when a linkage is made between the situatedness of objects, events and time with personal beliefs and an individual’s developmental readiness. Intrinsic to situated cognition is a willingness to reorganize thinking that has occurred within a certain context. This latter notion will be expanded with the work of Goodman later.

Gibson (1969) noted the significance and centrality of perception when engaged in tasks at hand. She suggested perception, a personal point of view, is “an abstracting process” (p.108), where one’s beliefs act as a filter to convert uncertainty into a more orderly state. Gibson also believed perception moves from a fixed to a more selective, but exploratory, activity. Humankind, it would seem, move from the abstract to the concrete when and how their personal assumptions about the nature of things directs.

Goodman (1968) extended acts of perception to concepts of world-making. Within his point of view individuals make and remake their personal world through successive meaning-filled contacts with the environment. Being in touch with the environment affords a participant to render and “re-render” personally held understandings of the elements of that time and place. Such making is not a simple act but involves effort, skill and care. To construct meaning from any interaction with the environment entails an orchestration of cognitive actions that includes: observation, impression, memory, story-making, picturing and noting. Subsequent to these actions a participant must delete, combine, deform, and reorganize visualizations so as to break through the stubborn stereotypes that fortify prevalent characterizations of the world (Goodman, 1991).

Acts that make sense of the world involve developing narratives of and about those interactions. Bruner (1996) shared, “… thinking about thinking has to be a principal ingredient of any empowering practice of education.” (p. 19). Greeno and Hall (1997) described the need for students to have the opportunity to share and clarify their perceptions to realize the potential they offer. Freire (1973, 1997) made special note of the value of dialog to this process. Reflecting on his writing of Pedagogy of the Oppressed he described the role that dialog with colleagues served as a process of marination (Freire, 1993). That is, the physical action of dialog permitted the very ideas and concepts that Freire held important to be moved from the silence of the mind into an arena of interchange. This activity permitted thought to be viewed and over time, reviewed, in the critical, yet comfortable, environment of collegial dialogue. In the same sense critical interaction can be operationalized in the classroom setting. This recognizes that students have something worthwhile to say and add to discussion. Clearly, such making of meaning by students happens in them rather than to them (Freire, 1973; Wittrock, 1993).

In short, the literature suggests that to be involved in making sense of one’s environment is complex. It is not a singular act. Neither is it a secluded or static event. Instead, making meaning of one’s place includes actions of perception, reflection, interpretation and reporting. Freire (1973) powerfully captured how the involvement with an environment is an action enmeshed in multiple tasks, “Integration with one’s context, as distinguished from adaptation, is a distinctively human activity. Integration results from the capacity to adapt oneself to reality plus the critical capacity to make choices and to transform that reality” (p.4). Actions that lead to understanding how one exists within a place and time ought not to be taken lightly, nor without responsibility.

Methods: A “Walk Around the Block”

This activity has been used with a variety of student populations. However, the particular group considered and reported here consisted of traditionally aged, pre-service, education students. The “Walk Around the Block” exercise was used during the initial class periods of the semester and thus served a curricular role intended to ground student’s in activity and reflection. The directions offered our students were simple and relatively straightforward. Students were asked to circumambulate a city block. To intensify this simple act students were requested to perform the task no less than three times. Students were not alerted to give attention to any particular characteristic of the block. Instead they were requested to be open to the potential that the experience would provide differing and personal conversation for each of the participants. Following the walk event the students were directed to produce a representation of their experience. Again, no clear directive was made to indicate a predisposition on the part of the instructors as to the nature of the representation’s media, form or content. The idea behind the activities was to “stimulate the student[s] to think dialectically where a tension emerges between the student’s analysis of historical developments and the existential questions that have emerged from the student’s activity of making explicit the cultural definitions of space impinging on his [sic] life” (Bowers, 1974, p.119).

At the surface the students’ representations served to describe their individual perceptions and recognition of the experience. At a deeper level the representations engaged the students in a critical reflection of their feelings and beliefs about the environment. Actions of experiencing, reflecting, making sense of and constructing revealed how students’ ambiguity was enmeshed in each event. As understandings occurred students were struck with the differentiation between their perceptions of the experience. Interestingly, students recognized the fluid nature of terminology like concrete and abstract. The representations produced were, as might be expected, diverse and varied and included: maps, poems, histographs, audiotapes, videotapes, graphs, charts, and collages.

Important to the varied images students created following their walk was the dialog that the members of the class engaged in. To promote dialog, we (the instructors) asked students to share their inferences. Goodman (1988) suggested that reflection is not only a recognition of belief but a consideration “for the meaning they give to their words, how these meanings may differ among a given group of individuals, and what experiences influence their ideas and actions” (p. 134). Our own recollections and notes were used from previous sessions to provide students the opportunity to respond, question and share both their understandings and concerns. It was now also possible to formulate new issues. We wanted the students to investigate their beliefs, both declared and silent. Students wrote two-page narratives about their ‘Walk Around the Block’ (WAB) and were asked to consider “How” and “Why” they constructed their representations (Bower, 1974; Goodman, 1968).

Results

This section discusses students’ reaction to WAB and uses comments from the students’ own written reflections to elaborate the points raised in the literature review. Student engagement was guided only by the directive, “…. Let the block ‘talk’ to you.”, thus the participants were encouraged to frame their own experience attention. Within these personally driven task parameters students came to see, sometimes with reticence, that they had control over both the activity and the outcome of their WAB experience.

Interestingly, within the apparent freedom of the walk scenario students recognized some personally held anxieties. Because the parameters of the engagement were mainly self-determined students experienced varying levels of ambiguity about and within the exercise. Initially, students shared concern for not knowing how to assign personal attention or even recognize pertinent features during their walk. More deeply was their felt need to respond to personal assumptions about what they had experienced during both the walking activity and their efforts to represent that experience.

Indeed, for some even the fact that they held assumptions was a revelation. It seemed as though the participants could distance, if not completely divorce the multiple elements of the present experience walking, a block, a neighborhood, a representation from any constructs of prior knowledge. The recognition, as simple as it may be that the students held, maintained and developed assumptions about the WAB task led to other, more significant realizations. Most students initially felt that they held no assumption about their walk experience, other than to meet those established by the instructors. Once into the experience these students recognized that their assumptions about the activity contained a point of view, a place of departure for how they would experience the walk. [Note: each of the following indented narratives represents an individual student’s own written reflection about aspects of their walk.]

I had become aware of representation this spring while reading an article “Cognition and Representation: A Way to Pursue the American Dream”. The author, Elliot W. Eisner (1997), was stressing that the process of thinking effects the way we think. By simply changing the representation, the end state, one would have to think differently about the problem (material, etc.). From this I decided to make a video of the city block as if it were thoughts.

Students’ prior experience formed a framework that subsequently permitted and/or constrained their present experience. Their point of view acted as a vantage point for each of the participants.

I didn’t purposely select images, music, and skits to be symbolic, but they can be viewed that way. The military presentation grabbed the attention of the audience and informed them of my plan. The motion scenes taped on my bike was symbolic of moving on. In addition, those scenes gave some sense of distance to the viewers. The music accompanying the images showed my impression of the image and what that image meant to me. The images were symbolic to each street on the block; on Starin it was the park, on Esterly it was nice homes with well groomed lawns, on Main it was the noise and traffic, and on Prairie it was college life with parking problems and disrespect for the land.

Relatedly, the perceived intensity of stimuli sensations also functioned to direct participants’ experience in the walk:

After walking around the block three times, and trying to be observant, I noticed that every time I walked around I saw something different than before. The more I looked, the more I noticed. Since this was the case, I had to decide how to represent my trips around the block, not the block itself. If I was to represent the block itself, I could never finish because every time I looked at it I would look at it differently.

Personal ability to be conversant in the language of a representational form provided a comfort factor for the participants to share their experience with their fellow students and the instructors. Interestingly, there was a significant amount of diversity in the production of representations. This fact could be related to the comfort zones that students held for their abilities as well as to the facility they held for producing images of their walking:

Without the presentation of the poster, I think it would have lost all of its meaning because if you did not know why I put specific pictures and phrases up and specifically why I associated them with certain sides of the block, the poster would have been a failure in the sense of not accurately representing what I noticed and picked up about the block that day.

Interestingly, when students attempted to read and then interpret others’ representations their own comfort zones came to bear through their beliefs that some representations were more abstract or concrete than others. It would seem, that the extent that a sign or symbol can be read is related to the feeling of one’s competence in literacy with that particular medium of communications:

When one creates a representation, one brings along some baggage with them in the form of experiences, personal beliefs and feelings at the time they are working on the project. All of these things combine to create a filter, or point of view. Now all of this seems a bit static, unchangeable, what good is it if we all know what we have this filter we are looking through when we observe the world. How do these filters come about? Can they be changed? The answer is yes, but only if we can think critically.

When we showed people our view we have opened up ourselves to an attack. If they agree, then your [sic] lucky you have found someone who thinks similarly to you. However, it is more likely that they will not totally agree with what you have presented. Now you are in a dilemma. It is this process of hammering out a compromise that I call critical thinking, and what comes out of critical thinking is a third point of view, previously unrealized. Hence we create knowledge out of the conflicts between two differing points of view.

Medawar’s (1996) illustrated the idea of contextuality [or metacognition] when he wrote “it is his [sic] imaginative grasp of what might be true (his emphasis) that provides the incentive for finding out, so far as he [sic] can, what is (his emphasis) true. Every advance in science is therefore the outcome of a speculative adventure, an excursion into the unknown” (p.63). Medawar continued to describe the tension of speculate adventure with “truth [also] resides in nature, and is to be got at only through the evidence of the senses; apprehension leads by a direct pathway to comprehension, and the scientist’s task is essentially one of discernment” (p.63):

I have revisited many of the thoughts, ideas and discussions involved in my representation project, and I have realized that words on a page may not do justice to the depth and emotion that I wish to portray. Ironically, I held many of these same feelings as I began to construct the initial project; in fact, it was these very feelings that shaped my representation into the final fork that was presented to the class. I fear that meaning may become lost or hidden behind structured sentences and elaborate vocabulary; in the same way, I worried that the essence of the people living in the neighborhood was disguised or trapped behind the house fronts.

Finally, it struck me. It is not simply an object that can convey a message, but the arrangement and relationship that the object has with the environment. Looking at a baseball will conjure up different thoughts in different people. How do I drive another’s imagination to the place I want them to go. Surround that baseball with a setting, give it a plot, then add background with other objects accessories. Put the baseball into the hands of people you want to reach.

Conclusion and Implications

The implications of this activity obviously hold significance for any person involved in actions of experiencing an environment. However, WAB may be especially important for those who foster such experiencing within teaching and learning settings. While WAB was especially organized so as to provide students a common experience from which they might corporately discuss and dialog about how they experienced their environments, the activity also holds strong implications for the practice of teaching. Seeming mundane activities and events can play an important part in how one engages with, knows and describes that situation when it can be used as a tool that fosters individual reflection. Teachers may not forget the depth and breadth of experience that students bring to the classroom. Students possess assumptions about the nature of the world and its parts. These assumptions about the felt environment of place in time are epistemological, they are personally organized and reflect socially derived constructs. Assumptions act to frame the ways that individuals approach, perceive and respond to the stimuli they experience. In the case of WAB one especially powerful assumption was the prevailing student belief that they needed the instructors’ permission to enter into the problem space of the new learning experience. The underlying assumption here was that the instructors’ held the appropriate vantage point from which to view and respond to the problem condition.

To be involved in any environment or event necessitates an acceptance of ideas and expectations. Typically these assumptions are set and even imposed by the participants themselves (Dewey, 1997). Similarly, the vitality and urgency within a problem space naturally acts to encourage students to seek the most efficient response pathway to resolve a problem condition. Often, unfortunately this can lead to stereotypic responses:

As I watched each representation of the block I realized their [sic] was a take home message in all the things we did. The way we as teachers decide to represent information and curriculum can greatly vary. The point is to not limit myself in the ways you represent information to students. Allowing myself to attack common curricular topics in a “no holds barred” manner can only benefit my teaching effectiveness.

Our representation of the block was a bit of art, constructed form, and a window on, our won thinking. Every person’s way of doing these kinds of thinks will be unique. That in itself is a most important consideration in how our students perceive and learn, how we teach, how we ourselves understand the world and, perhaps, enable others to grow in their own understandings of it.

What we wanted to say through it all were things like, “This is what we thought about the block. Does this mean anything to you? What does it mean? Can we have a dialogue where-in we find common ground for understanding each other? Understanding the block? Is it important that we do so?” It seems to me that this kind of dialogue is what we must also use when we learn with students, asking them to do the same in return. This kind of exchange is an art that empowers everyone, encouraging lots of real and exciting exploration of ourselves as well as the rest of the world. As in all arts, improvement requires openness and careful practice.

In my miniature block I depicted two reasons for learning. Esterly was responsible for this inspiration. Flowers dominate the landscape of most homes gathered along Esterly, and a single Macintosh tree was present. The flowers symbolized the enjoyment some people receive from filling their cerebrum with factoids. These few students are excited when they encounter information never before sensed. The apple, on the other hand symbolized learning information that can only be applied. Average high school students may find learning unpleasant unless it relates directly to their own lives. I think it is safe to say that not everything that is taught can be directly applied to a student’s life. How do I influence a student by learning through pure enjoyment of gathering knowledge?

The “Walk Around the Block”, although a seemingly mindless task, holds a number of important opportunities for teachers and learners. WAB has the potential to lead participants toward important engagement in understanding the nature of personal knowing. The arena of “Walk Around the Block” both in terms of the self and the varied environments through which one navigates. Moreover, for a student soon to be a teacher, it has the potential to frame a recognition that students have a right and privilege to pursue mind, their own mind (Rinaldi, 1994). Implicit with such knowing is not only the comprehension of the collection of physical objects within a certain space, but more importantly the ability to develop an understanding of the linkages that exist between the objects themselves, as well as the beholder and those objects. Students have, and need, the opportunity to define and represent how they are a part of the varied micro and macro environments within which they reside. Humankind’s sense of place calls for people to be equipped with the varied literacies needed to be aware, perceptive and responsive to those environments. Teachers have the responsibility to construct activities, including those that seem rather mundane, that engage students in reflective and critical acts that lead to understanding and representing their environment.

Works Cited:
Berger, P.L. and Luckman, T. (1967). The social construction of reality. Garden City, NJ: Anchor Books.
Bowers, C. (1974). Cultural literacy for freedom. Eugene, OR: Elan Publishers.
Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York City, NY: Touchstone.
Eisner, E.W. (1997). The promise and perils of alternative forms of data representation. Educational Researcher, 26(6): pp. 4-10.
Freire, P. (1973). Education for critical consciousness. New York City, NY: Continuum Publishing Company.
Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of hope. New York City, NY: Continuum Publishing Company.
Gibson, E.J. (1969). Principles of perceptual learning and development. New York City, NY: Meredith Corporation.
Glaser, B.G. and Strauss, A.L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing.
Greeno, J.G. (1989). A perspective on thinking. American Psychologist, 44(2), pp.134-141.
Greeno, J.G., & Hall, R.P. (1997). Practicing representation: Learning with and about representational forms. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(6), pp.361-367.
Goodman, J. (1988). Constructing a practical philosophy of teaching: A study of preservice teachers’ professional perspectives. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4(2), pp.121-137.
Goodman, N. (1968). Ways of worldmaking. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
Goodman, N. (1991). On capturing cities. The Journal of Aesthetic Education. 25(1), pp. 5-10.
Rinaldi, C. (1994). The emergent curriculum and social constructivism: An interview with Lella Gandini. In C. Edwars, L. Gandini, & G. Foreman (Eds.), The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (pp. 101-111) Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Wittrock, M.C. (1990). Generative processes of comprehension. Educational Psychologist, 24(4), pp. 345-376.

About the Authors:

William Chandler, Associate Professor of Art Education at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater. No longer the chair of the Art Department at UWW, William now has time to spend contemplating the mudane in actions and activites of the department of curriculum and instruction and the processes of teaching and learning.

Mike Nelson, Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. Mike enjoys walking his three Alaskan Malmutes on long walks. He is between postitions and is contemplating life as an independent scholar.

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