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Transformative Inquiry

welcome the awkwardness

We teach who we are.
Parker Palmer

Interactive 6.1 Dr. Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology

Caring for your Soul

One of the three questions Gregory Cajete suggests as being important for educators to attend to is: how do we care for our own souls? The concept of soul can be considered a philosophical quandary and has been interpreted logically, spiritually, emotionally, and even physically over the course of human history. Indeed, ever-evolving descriptions of soul have been posited by Greek, Socratic, Indigenous, and existential theorists, and some common descriptors emerge as being resonate with the TI approach:

  • Soul is the actualized and embodied form of spirit
  • Soul can be interpreted as a synonym of the mind
  • Soul represents the mixture of beliefs, values and attitudes that create each person’s disposition, a unique expression of self in the world

If souls are ubiquitous in all humans then the tending of souls must be implicit in the practice of education. Typically, teachers engage in helping students understand themselves in relation to others. This work often goes beyond what is written in the curricular outcomes of learning. How do we engage in soul-work as teachers? And, what is it that teachers do when they care for their own souls? Likely it means something more than the necessary tending of our basic needs (e.g. food, sleep, water, and shelter). Dr. Martin Seligman, a positive psychologist, suggests that nurturing our strengths, happiness, and gaining fulfillment in our lives is paramount to understanding ourselves as psychological beings. Seligman suggests that there are three differing components that make up a ‘happy life’: pleasure, meaning, and engagement. Watch the TED Talk by Martin where he explains these three components. How do you gain pleasure, meaning, and engagement? And how do they relate to caring for your own soul or learning spirit?

Identifying important relationships, activities, or spiritual practices can help inquirers describe the components and connections in their lives from which they derive pleasure, meaning, and engagement. By focusing on our soul and trying to understand ourselves better, we engage in a noticing that transcends self-obsession and narcissism. This chapter looks at reflexivity, mindfulness, and curiosity. These are the kernels of inquiry and arethe central acts of being and be~coming a learner~teacher~researcher. The TI process is aided by careful consideration of deep self knowledge and relationships to others.

Developing Curiosity

In the high and far-off times the elephant, o best beloved, had no trunk. He had only a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side; but he couldn't pick up things with it. But there was one elephant--a new elephant--an elephant's child--who was full of 'satiable curiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions. - Rudyard Kipling, The Elephant’s Child

As the elephant’s child discovered, following burning questions can be both dangerous and useful. They often require us to gather our courage and venture out on our own, carrying supplies and adapting to the unexpected. As we discuss later in section 7.4, our explorations can be hindered or aided by the perspective of others, be they relatives or thinking friends such as the bi-coloured python rock snake. Curiosity inevitably leads to change, and the elephant child’s ability to adapt gave him vantages in the realms of eating, shlooping mud, and the then-common pachyderm practice of spanking.

As he brought back new ways of being to his community, the elephant’s child began to influence others and eventually set larger changes in motion. His beloved family sought their own stretched and useful noses. In fact, when long noses more readily fulfilled the food and mud needs of the community, a peace and lack of spanking ensued overall.

Being curious about life can be an act of introspection, reflexiveness, and mindfulness. Hypothesized as the neologism biophilia by ecologist, E.O. Wilson, he suggests that humans all have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” (1984, p. 1). The concept of biophilia could be nuanced further with concepts of cultural, social, psychological curiosity that many teachers experience throughout their careers. In fact, curiosity inevitably leads to a complex web of relationships. Our TI data show that nourishing and dwelling in curiosity as a learner~ teacher~researcher can lead to a distinct form of inquiry that can transform us in meaningful ways.

The complex nature of teaching makes the profession an especially ripe context for cultivating an inquiry question. Teaching requires teachers to make sense of the interaction between the following five elements simultaneously: the child, the context, the content, the acts of teaching, and the teacher’s own beliefs or dispositions. So how do teachers think about the five elements of teacher work? In any teaching event, teachers consider the context where they teach. For instance, they may ponder: ‘What resources are available?’, ‘What are the state [or provincial] standards or system objectives?’, ‘What support is provided for this innovation?’, or ‘How will the broader community react?’ In conjunction with thinking about context, teachers also make sure they understand the key content knowledge that must be constructed. Teachers ask, ‘What misinformation or misunderstandings often occur as children construct knowledge in this area?’ and ‘What are the multiple perspectives that must be shared in order to capture the complexity of the content?’ (Dana & Yendol-Hoppey, 2009; p. 21)

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Taking charge of your own learning

In some instances, inquiry topics arise for some people through curiosity about our own past such as touchstone stories, past traumas, unexplained phenomena, or even shame. These topics or memories are inherently personal and can sometimes be uncomfortable to explore. This discomfort arises for two reasons:

  • Looking directly at what and how we are as individuals in any situation can be hard work.
  • Inquirers are asked to take charge of their own learning - something unusual in a schooling system that is so focused on transmissive and even passive techniques.

Finding your own path in learning requires trust on many levels. Whether it is the mentor~inquirer relationship or the administrators~mentor relationship, the learner~teacher relationship, or the relationship between peers, trust is a fundamental characteristic for empowered learning scenarios. Inquiry topics cannot be allocated as a rote or prescribed menu, nor should they be steered by anyone other than the inquirer. This gives a sense of responsibility to the learner and also a chance to engage in a self-knowing of one’s own learning spirit. The elephant’s child asked his own questions and went on his own journey to follow them.

Marie Battiste (2009) tells us that each person has a learning spirit; a special gift that is each individual’s to unfold. We believe teachers can facilitate that spirit, but only if they have a personal sense of the process, therefore all TI instructors also engage as TI inquirers. The TI course provides a place where each inquirer can explore his or her own learning spirit. This may feel different than learning environments you have previously known. In TI we focus predominantly on the process of learning rather than on any particular end product. This is in line with the new BC Education Plan with its emphasis on personalized learning for every student, quality teaching and learning, and flexibility and choice.

The process of following your inquiry on your own impetus and terms can at times be exhilarating, daunting, frightening and enlightening. Within the course, mentors can act as supportive thinking friends who will provide tips for facilitating and navigating the process through introducing questions and models, empathy, and intuitive wisdom. But the overarching goal is that gradually the mentor fades into the background of the process.

Charting new territory, when you are unfamiliar with both the terrain and your final destination, can be exciting but also quite frightening. Beginning your journey becomes less daunting after you do some initial preparation and take your first steps. (Dana & Yendol-Hoppey, 2009; p. 19)

That Inquiry is considered as territory is modeled within the TI process as well. Mentors can act as support for navigation and facilitation of the process through mentor-meetings, introducing questions and models, empathy, and intuitive wisdom.

As Paulo Freire put it in conversation with us one evening: “Only the student can name the moment of the death of the professor.” That is, a teacher can be intent on a dialogue with an adult learner, but if the learner sees the teacher as “the professor” with whom there is no possibility of disagreement, no questioning, no challenge, the dialogue is dead in the water. (Vella, 2002; p. 20)

Honouring your own learning spirit requires caring for yourself, finding meaning, pleasure, and engagement in your practice, and leading your own learning.

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