Holding the space

Reflecting further on the questions for the first week in #moocmooc, it seems to me that the basic idea enshrined in Freire’s chapter, of the contrast between the transformative or liberating model and the banking model is clear enough. There have been some good summaries posted. In the most simplified sense it brings us back to the Socratic notion of “not filling a vessel, but kindling a flame”.

But, as the second question indicates, the question is how to do this?

If it is not our task to “make deposits” into students’ minds, to reinforce learner passivity, but rather to spark inquiry, where is the best place to start?

The problem is, as some of the Twitter conversations have shown, that there is a double bind involved. If we aren’t revolutionary from the outset, then we will simply become instruments of the oppressor, but if we are, are we not simply imposing our own agenda, and thus becoming the oppressor. How can this be avoided? How can the necessary atmosphere of dialogue be achieved, when so few of us, even the “teachers”, actually engage in real dialogue (the deep listening, non-judgmental kind)?

I know a deeply sensitive educator who achieves this dialogic atmosphere quite remarkably. I have been exploring her approach (which is quite a challenging thing to do). Here are some my notes from that process, summarised a little.

  • Her central aim at the start for the learners to have the sense that the learning experience is taking place within a safe space.
  • A safe space is one where there is deep mutual respect, trust and compassion. Building this involves deep close listening, and accepting what others bring without judgment. A key element is that participants feel free to interact in any way that is acceptable to all the participants.
  • The central role of the ‘teacher’ is to create and “hold” the space in such a way that learning can take place within it. This is done principally by being fully present. To be fully present is to be there, with the other participants, in the moment, rather than thinking of the next activity, or lunch.
  • The verbal and non-verbal engagement of the teacher, and her responses to, and encouragement of, the verbal and non-verbal engagement of the other participants are also part of her presence. Transparency and dealing honestly with vulnerability are very important elements of this engagement.
  • Her presence is gentle. It is in the way she listens, the way she and others are ‘positioned’ in the space, how she sits and moves, the way she looks and sees, the way she speaks, how and when she is silent, in the words she says, and what she speaks of as well. I have noticed that participants come into this presence and respond to it, not mimicking it but settling into compatible states.
  • Her engagement, and that of the participants, is threaded through and around the ostensible themes of the interaction that takes place. In a sense it is built in the interstices of that conversation.
  • As it develops and grows, the way the space is held becomes more and more subtle (there are less evident signs of it) and the holding evolves into a shared endeavour, with the ‘teacher’ as one more participant.
  • It seems to work especially well, at least initially, in a physical space, but it is not bound to that space. It is more an emotional and attitudinal “space” where the learners’ voices, and their stories can be heard.

I am still working towards an understanding of it. It is hard to collapse it into a set of things that are done, much of it is intuitive, or tacit, and seems to relate to her personality, and the spirit in which she approaches the work. Other elements seem more transferable.

What is clear to me is that what she creates is a space where the seed of inquiry can and does germinate…

That kind of space might be a good place to start…


5 thoughts on “Holding the space

  1. I think your detailed observations and notes are excellent. It’s one thing being in broad agreement with Freire’s ideas but something quite different when it commes to knowing how to apply them. Questions such as how the necessary ‘teaching’ skills can be learned, how suitable a method employed by one successful practitioner can be adapted for others etc etc, need to be answered. I would like to see much more of this type of ‘fieldwork’ – eg ‘how it’s done’ real life videos with real learners.

    • Manyof the feminist critical pedagogues do exactly that – eg Ellsworth and hooks – next week of #moocmooc is on feminist perspectives (and some videos too but of Anita Sarkeesian not classrooms) – i have always tried to write about CP in practical terms coz Freire and Giroux abstract writing drove me nuts for years

  2. Pingback: Show, don’t tell! | doublemirror

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