Dr. Judith M. Newman



constructing Explanations

A response following class. As I was reading through the reflections I was brought back to some of the issues raised in the correspondence during the Schön On-Line conference where Jack Whitehead (University of Bath in England) and I exchanged some thoughts.
Jack wrote:

“I'm fascinated by Judith's point:

"I have little or no control over how someone else will interpret my actions -- that I may be intending my words and actions to have one meaning but others may read my intentions quite differently. What I came to realize was that in a group situation I should expect that some folks' interpretations of my words/actions will be close to what I intend; others will be quite different. That was when I understood I needed to engage in 'action research' while I was teaching or chairing meetings so that I could discover who was responding in what ways. Always aware that my interpretations of their words and actions might be quite different from theirs!"

This seems to have profound implications for the way we construct explanations for our educational influence on others. As a teacher-educator and action researcher this is a concern of mine. I was wondering Judith, whether it is important for you to construct explanations for your 'educative'/'management' influence on others and if this is part of your enquiry how do you take account of the voices of others in showing your influence? Jack.

I replied:

Jack, I've been struggling with this for more than twenty years. I began getting a handle on the ambiguity of language/communication as a literacy researcher, specifically exploring how reading and writing are learned and how we might teach kids/people to be more strategic as readers and writers.

I was what we literacy folks call a "kid-watcher" from early on. That is, I found myself being taught how to teach somebody by that person him or herself. I discovered that I needed to do what Gordon Wells calls "leading from behind." Trying something to see what kind of reaction I got, how the learner responded, and then continue to support what the learner was attempting to do. That's relatively easy to do in a one-on-one exchange. You have a single learner to work with, you can observe and make inferences and test them out by asking questions, watching for reactions, noting connections, etc.

I began to realize this was a lot more complicated when you have a class or a meeting room full of people. Following folks' lead, building on their input, keeping the agenda fluid and moving along, is a lot more difficult with a group of people because they're all responding differently. They're all bringing their 'histories' to the situation—interpreting what's going on based on their expectations, their past experiences, their personal interests, their power status. If I'm going to keep the class or meeting moving along harmoniously, sustaining some energy, encouraging open expression of different points of view, then I have to make judgments about what's going on.

Now what's interesting, is that I have no more idea what direction any particular class is going to take than I have a meeting. I have some global goals—take for example the 'course' I was doing with twenty teachers/ administrators this past fall. We were engaging in inquiry into practice. My 'goal' was to help these folks develop further skill as action researchers. I took responsibility for bringing some reading to the group which would help outline various 'kinds' of action research so folks could understand some techniques. These readings were helpful for opening the conversation. But once the conversation got going the teachers/administrators were in charge of its directions. ...

What I'm trying to describe is how I see my role, whether as teacher or as chair of a meeting—one of listening to what's going on, making my own inferences, testing them out with the group, trying to hear common interests, to pick up on what might be productive contributions (realizing that my interpretation of 'productive' might not be someone else's) and suggesting strategies / or asking for strategies for moving on, initiating a summary, inviting a regrouping, etc. The usual stuff.

This 'inquiry' stance of mine has quite interesting ramifications—first of all, because the situation is unpredictable, I'm continually surprised (sometimes in a "That's neat, I wouldn't have thought of it" way, sometimes "I didn't know they knew/thought that" or "I can't believe they don't know that", sometimes as "whatever does that mean", sometimes as "Oh, oh, I don't like where this might take us", sometimes in a "Gee, I see a connection here" way.) (I've been meaning to respond to Shankar about 'surprise'—Shankar, I've been thinking about it.) Trying to maintain this openness means that I'm constantly learning new things about people and their interests, interactions, motivations....

So this is a long way of answering Jack's question:

> whether it is important for you to construct
> explanations for your 'educative'/'management' influence on others and if
> this is part of your enquiry how do you take account of the voices of
> others in showing your influence?

Yes, it is important for me to construct explanations for my influence on others because I can't know how to act without some 'theory' of what might be going on. And yes I struggle to find out how others are responding to my influence so that I can keep things moving in what feels like an energetic, excited way. And I take account of my inferences and try to test them out with my 'informants' as much as is feasible when I'm dealing with a group of people.

None of this is easy. ...