Creative Discussion using Plain Pair Groups

Creative Discussion – a key to insight and change

William Plain
Emeritus Professor, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies

Plain Pair Group Teaching (Plain PGT)
- for universities and schools
Plain Pair Group Discussion (Plain PGD)
- for decision making and staff development
- for informal or community creative discussion

A flash of insight is the spark of cosmic intelligence.
Small group sharing of insight can change the pattern of human intelligence.

only search

Home page

Awareness Training in Learning and Teaching


Choice of the word ‘awareness’

The well tried dictum has it that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, and if for ‘pen’ we read ‘word’, ‘idea’, ‘theory’, or even ‘language’, interesting insights can be obtained. An ‘idea’ or ‘theory’ may be easily seen as having a certain importance for the manipulation of what we term our ‘reality’, whether it be in the area of social or political transformation, or in the field of science or the humanities. The simple ‘word’, especially where it does not contain a strong polemical or ideological element, may not at first sight seem to be such a terrible demon. Nevertheless, the mere fact that we choose a word, any word, is in itself a slicing up of the cake of reality in a way that is determined by our view of the world, and in turn determines the view that we will hold in the future. To take an example, the simple word ‘tree’ predisposes us firstly to separate from those objects we call trees all other objects that may be similar, such as plant or even bush, and on the other hand forces us to see similarity where lack of such a unifying word would lead us to see diversity. It could thus appear that it would be better to avoid naming the object or experience and to react to it at the level of that form of insight which is as yet free of descriptive thought processes. It may well be that ‘labelling an experience makes the insight go away’1 (personal communication, Kazuo Amma).

‘Linguistic’ definitions, contained in the words of our languages, are means of increasing our capacity to wield relevant chunks of knowledge, and at the same time ways of closing our eyes to the multitudinous manifestations of creative variety which can perhaps only be perceived under the title of immediate or ‘distance-less’ experience. Each thing we submit to the process of raising to knowledge, knowing, learning and conceptualising, is a crutch we use to understand reality, and which at the same time separates us from that reality. Each concept represents what happens inside our mental space, and that is not the same thing as what is being referred to outside that space. Even when thinking about our own thought processes, we separate ourselves from them in order to look at them, and the concepts we have of the inner dimension often have as little to do with that inner dimension as do our thoughts with the outer dimension.

On the other hand, direct experience – while we remain at the stage of direct experience and before we start thinking about that experience – is in fact direct contact with a reality, external or internal. There is a moment, at least in those experiences in which we are ‘totally absorbed’, in which there is a deep form of symbiosis between us and our experience. The choice of a word immediately separates us from that. In order to become verbalised, our experiences pass through the filter of our thoughts, memories and past experience, in other words our conditioning, and this inevitably gives a certain shade or colour to the language process.

It follows then that the act of choosing the word which will be used to describe and produce theories, and which in turn will influence subsequent experiences, is in itself an act of primary importance.

When I choose the word ‘awareness’ as the key word for this book, I am thereby committing an act of sacrilege, in that I am in one movement of the brush applying a daub of colour which will tint the entire development of my thought throughout this book, in the interviews I had with teacher trainers and lecturers whose ideas appear in these pages, and am thus conditioning the entire development of my argument. This must needs be, because any word I choose will have the same effect. I must therefore choose a word which is susceptible of leading me in a direction that I choose consciously, and which takes into account the widest possible spectrum of personal experience, knowledge and pre-conscious urgings as is possible. I must, as it were, resort to a form of ‘truth-seeking mechanism’ in the depths of my being, hoping that I have in fact been able to hone this mechanism sufficiently well for it to able to point me in a direction which will lead towards a fuller integration of the whole person with his environment, taken in its fullest sense – intellectual, noumenal and ontological.

In a certain sense this can be seen as a form of ‘convergent’ analysis, which is an attempt to reach towards a Gestalt, whole-field perception, where a model or paradigm is capable of producing insights and ‘perception leaps’ which can introduce new and unforeseen elements into the analysis, thus introducing an important element of creativity. This is opposed to ‘divergent’ analysis which is seen as a strictly controlled conceptual division of a field into its constituent parts, and which is conducive to understanding primarily at an intellectual level – the level of ‘scientific analysis’, which produces a controlled and carefully elaborated description of the component elements. In this paper I will tend to favour ‘convergent analysis’, since I believe that a study of awareness can benefit from the use of a form of analysis which is maximally consonant with the subject of the analysis, where process and content reflect each other. As emerges from the ensuing discussion, awareness derives fundamentally from a unitary field, and thus any analysis of awareness should be based on a ‘unitary approach’ which attempts to tie together appropriate elements from fields which may traditionally be seen as unrelated. It is in this sense that I feel no apology is required for making reference to fields as widely divergent as the teaching of English as a foreign language (EFL), Jungian psychology, Krishnamurti, and modern physics.

Terms such as ‘autonomy’ and ‘individualisation’, and in a less structured way ones such as ‘process’ and ‘practice’, may each provide important insights, but in a way they don’t seem to be ‘far enough up the ladder of convergent thinking’. In searching for an appropriate ‘word’, I started off with terms such as ‘values’ and ‘attitudes’, but found them to be too broad and unmanageable, while in my more philosophical reading, I have been tempted by terms such as ‘domaines’ (Ruyer), ‘holistic order’ (Bohm), or ‘insight’ (Krishnamurti). These terms I do in fact see as being further along that path of personal, and even professional development I am trying to follow, but they are as yet enshrouded in mist. I will attempt to make some link with such concepts in the development of this essay, but the requirement of choosing terminology directly relevant (and seen as relevant) to the area of higher education and the teaching of English as a foreign language (TEFL) leads me to choose the word ‘awareness’ as the focal point of this endeavour. By doing so I am placing very strict limits on that theory and experience which is considered to be relevant. Man is bound by that ever-moving current, the flowing river of life (though this may imply ultimate freedom – in the terms of the boatman in Hermann Hesse’s Siddharta). I must therefore accept these limitations while at the same time, in the best Whorfian tradition, remaining conscious of the fact that I am defining my view of the world, and that we live in a world of ‘absolute relativity’ (see Carroll 1956:214).

I will take up this concept of ‘relativity’ later on in this paper (see pp. 40 and 42), where it will appear both as a conclusion and as a practical means of teaching awareness. This whole concept is perfectly encapsulated in the term ‘paradigm’, in the sense that ‘relativity’ can become both the object of our classroom analysis (seeing the limits of what we are studying) and the means by which we reach such a form of awareness.



Establishing the parameters

The term ‘awareness training’ is used to situate the forms of awareness that occur in the field of higher education and the ‘mid-career’ training that inservice or postgraduate training is concerned with, and in the teacher training situation in general (some interviews were in fact concerned with initial training).

Training involves the situation where there is the trainer and the trainee (lecturer and student2), and a full analysis of the awareness training context would necessarily involve both intention and perceived result, the lecturer’s input and the way in which the student on the course reacts to the awareness content of the course and of the individual activity. I would also have to look at his perceived needs as he is doing the course, the post-course development of his awareness as a result of the course, and the ways in which he is able to apply the awareness training he has received to his own classroom. Due to practical limitations I will concentrate however on the ‘input’ aspect of training, in that the interview material available refers to the lecturer rather than to the student. In addition I will be concerned more with the way lecturers view awareness and their approaches to awareness training rather than analysing in detail the individual awareness activities or lesson techniques. I then attempt to submit the concepts of ‘awareness’ and ‘awareness training’ to a form of ethnomethodological description which hopefully will allow the reader to generate his own personal insights, to reflect on his own practice, and to move towards self-generating forms of awareness.

I do not believe that I can produce a ‘model’ of awareness training which can withstand critical analysis. I wish rather to give an overview of this field and hope that I can stimulate the reader to discover, within himself and his daily experience in the classroom, his own answers to the issues which are raised in this book. Again I hope to make method consonant with content, that I will in fact be able to treat the issue of awareness in such a way that it will bring about a raising of awareness in the reader.

There are difficulties involved in using a term such as ‘awareness’ which is frequently employed in educational literature as well as in everyday speech, and in addition carries a wide range of meanings. This has obvious disadvantages in that professional communication may be hindered by the fact that each interlocutor is unaware of the fact that the other is using the word in a different way to himself. I nevertheless maintain that the residual vagueness inherent in this word is not a disadvantage but on the contrary is its main strength. As it is only possible for me to think and write within the walls of my own understanding and my own idiosyncratic definitions of the words I use, I can relate only in very general terms to the personal ‘world-view’ of each individual reader.

The wide range of meaning implied by the word ‘awareness’ will hopefully permit each person to acquire an understanding of his practice via the medium of his own intuitive processes, thus leading him to a personal understanding relevant to his particular profession even though I as the writer may in no way have access to such understanding. If this is the case, then my choice of a word carrying such areas of vagueness as ‘awareness’ will have been justified.

Next chapter
Back to Awareness Training Contents


Recognition and remuneration


© William Plain  1990-2016 (print) 2005 - 2016 (website)