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)
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Plain Pair Group Discussion (Plain PGD)
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A flash of insight is the spark of cosmic intelligence.
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Awareness Training in Learning and Teaching

Chapter 5

Paradigms, models and the like

Awareness of paradigmatic limitation

Communication is often hampered by the existence of ‘mental sets’ which mean that two people can actually be talking at cross purposes, not due to a misunderstanding of what the other is saying, but rather because a part or all of his mental structure is formed in a way that is not consonant with that of his interlocutor. Words are exchanged and each may believe that meaning also is being exchanged, but at a certain point this lack of communication may become evident. Where inter-cultural boundaries, whether national, social, educational or whatever, are strong, this can be most evident.

“(They must have) many mental sets, but all are very different from ours, and we don’t know quite what they’re like and they, it seems don’t know quite what our mental sets are like. You can think that you’re making contact intellectually, but then one or other person will say something that reveals a great difference in understanding of what you’ve been talking about.” (Pauline Robinson)

Becoming conscious of this is an important step towards awareness. If both people share much the same mental set however, there is not the same need to become aware of the existence of the common mental set, although it exists just the same. It is only when sufficiently divergent mental sets confront each other that communication breaks down and the speakers are forced to bring the existence of mental sets to consciousness.

Such a coming to consciousness may not always take place, or at least there may be considerable resistance to this happening.

“There have been a few (students) who have had difficulties, and possibly that is due to a certain rigidity of mind, an absolute refusal to change viewpoint.” (idem)

This resistance may not even be due to not having thought about a certain area, but on the contrary to having established a very deep relationship with one’s academic discipline.

“You think yourself so deeply into this word that it’s difficult then to allow somebody else to penetrate into that world. Well that’s seeing it from your point of view, or the other person who wants to break into that world can’t see quite. These are interpenetrating worlds or not-interpenetrating worlds.” (Don Porter)

In a similar way recognition of the limitations of one’s knowledge and experience is a central factor in the awareness raising process (and can provide a means for ‘challenging past experience’ – see p. 18). ‘Consciousness of what you know’ can often be based on little other than uncritical ‘ingurgitation’ of facts and feelings which have been acquired in a situation which allowed for too little critical reflection. Such knowledge or experience then tends to impose a certain ‘direction’ on our thoughts and limit our capacity for a purely individual response to a new situation.

It is true however that information is required to provide the capacity for action and decision. Knowledge and experience of some form are necessary for the critical faculties to function when confronted with a corpus of data. This holds true in both a practical teaching situation and in a learning situation.

“If you have no model you don’t bother to look; if you have a model you do see something in very sharp focus, so it trains your sight. But then you have to keep remembering that that is just one possibility, so switch models and get a completely different focus and see totally different things, and then keep going, off the end of the course.” (Tessa Woodward)

Consciousness of what you do not know is at the basis of the functioning of a model. It is the consciousness of the limitations of one’s knowledge which is one of the main indicators of the presence of reflective attention. This leads a person to an awareness of the fact that his knowledge and experience are never absolute, even for himself.

Such terms as ‘mental set’, ‘interpenetrating or not-interpenetrating worlds’, ‘models’, as well as other terms used in this book, are I believe centred around the notion of the essential relativity of knowledge. Perhaps the term which has been most widely accepted as representing this concept is that of ‘paradigm’, which was developed very fully by Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’.

Here Kuhn talks of the fundamental shift in viewpoint which takes place when ‘research produced by the awareness of anomaly’ (Kuhn 1970:87) succeeds in ‘loosen(ing) the stereotypes and provides the incremental data necessary for a fundamental paradigm shift’ (idem p. 89). It is useful to compare this to ‘a change in visual gestalt: the marks on paper that were first seen as a bird are now seen as an antelope, or vice versa’ (idem   p. 85). In a paradigm shift across an entire community such as the scientific community, there may be the simple replacement of one paradigm by the successfully competing paradigm; awareness of being within a paradigm ceases when the period of revolution, or paradigm conflict, is resolved and life returns to normal.

In science it may indeed be difficult to retain awareness of the existence of competing paradigms once the paradigm shift has taken place, and indeed such lack of awareness may actually enhance scientific output, as Kuhn pointed out. It is nevertheless a fact that ‘after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world’ (idem p. 111). However the type of paradigm with which we are most often confronted in the learning situation is much more individual, and a paradigm shift implies a recognition of the essential relativity of that part of the world of knowledge and experience which pertains to oneself, as well as an awareness of one’s inner mental processes. Our paradigms are little ones. It then becomes much more possible and, I believe, necessary that the individual student or teacher works towards a consciousness of the simultaneous existence of competing paradigms. He should be led to realise that he himself functions within the sphere of a particular set of paradigms, whether personal or professional, and that such a consciousness can and should be applied to the learning process.

Awareness of the existence of paradigms would seem to be one of the fundamental forms of awareness. It is necessary that a person reflect on this in such a way that he sees (as though from within the boundaries of the paradigm) the extent to which its application is valid. By taking one more step and putting himself outside the entire structure which has been created by such data, he can see not simply the outlines of the entire concept but also intimations of that which does not belong to such a field. This reminds me of the image of the Ptolemaic view of the earth-centred universe in which a man pokes his head out beyond the borders of the earth’s atmosphere which is created by the sun, moon and the stars, and sees the realm of the infinite. This image is indeed an excellent description of the paradigmatic limitation to which we all subject ourselves.

Paradigm shifting then implies a Gestalt mode of looking in which the field is separated from the non-field. This requires a recognition of the limits of existing knowledge, and of the possibility of alternative forms of knowledge which may be as valid or even more valid.

This recognition of paradigmatic limitation is in its most developed form a recognition of the ‘absolute relativity’ of all knowledge and even of existence itself, where one can no longer uphold with absolute conviction the ‘veridity without exception’ of one’s attitudes, and can never say to another, ‘You are wrong’ without realising that that statement means rather, wrong according to one’s own personal view of the world.

“I think one of the difficulties in enquiry is that people take their paradigm, what they feel and think to be right, as the truth .. rather than if the brain maybe can acknowledge, see or recognise that it may be just a paradigm. It may be just conditioning. I think that’s a very important step, because somehow it defuses the sense of absolute rightness of something to which people get so passionately attached. ... So I think one can see a paradigm as a paradigm and simply admit that we are both conditioned by our background.” (Steven Smith)

The recognition of paradigms is a central factor in awareness training. Such a recognition is a personal event, but creating the situation which can facilitate such recognition on the part of another is the function of awareness training. It would appear that the recognition of the existence of a paradigm, and of being trapped within its sphere, is best obtained when the student is confronted with a series of paradigms which differ one from the other, and he is led to shift his point of view from one to another, thus recognising the separate identity of each such paradigm. Providing the opportunity for ‘paradigm shifting’ thus would be seen as one means of awareness training.

“If one sees a paradigm as a paradigm and not as an absolute, there is a certain freeing influence, there’s a certain freeing impact, and I think that’s an important and valuable activity for any group of people anywhere. .. It does seem to require a forum, and from what I gather and from what I see going on, different weekends investigate this, that and the other, it is felt that a kind of common perception is necessary.” (idem)

The realisation of the existence of paradigms in one’s thinking may be achieved on one’s own, but as indicated here, it is often easier for this to take place either within a group of equals, or within a group under the guidance of someone who can direct the process of awareness raising.

Perhaps however I shouldn’t even be talking about paradigm shifts, because this is simply the exchanging of one paradigm for another, of one set of mental boundaries for another. Rather I should be talking about developing an awareness of the fact that paradigms, any paradigm, i.e. any view that one can conceivably have of the world, is a barrier to one’s perception of the world. We have to be conscious of the fact that our view of the world is a form of conditioning, imposed on us and limiting our capacity for intuition and creativity.

It might well be that the person who creates a paradigm, Whorf or Chomsky e.g., is himself free and creative. He may later become a prisoner of the world that he has created and then crystallised, but at crucial points at least, he has acted out of dynamic insight. The person who comes along afterwards however, and tries to learn, or even who manages to master that paradigm, is much more prone to becoming a victim of it, to being conditioned by it. His participation in it tends to be that of knowledge and not of insight.

In awareness raising, the student can be led to become conscious of the views he holds concerning the subject being studied, to search out its limits, and then compare that view with an alternative which is set up deliberately by the lecturer as a means of leading the student to the realisation that his original view is only relative and has no absolute right to be considered as truth. Tessa Woodward talks of a Tibetan exercise used for breaking up ‘frames’ or views where

“you work from within a frame until you think your way out of it. You were required to loosen your own world view, accept another system and work out why it didn’t work, for you or for others. You had to think your way out, and once you’d thought your way out of one frame they’d give you another one, and you’d feel your way around that one and get the feeling for its limits, and then try to think your way out of that one too.” (Tessa Woodward)

Frames, world views, models, paradigms are all terms which    I see as virtually equivalent in this context, and the deliberate creation of successive paradigms is one way of drawing the student’s attention, not only to their existence, but also to the power they hold over his attitudes, values, and even professional competence.



Recognition of discrepancy

Another means of reaching the awareness of the existence of paradigms is through the introduction of discrepant information. One way of inducing such awareness is to expose a student to views of his own behaviour which are at variance with what he himself holds, or alternatively where two people’s views of an apparently objective event are seen to be at variance: this can lead to the awareness that attitudes and experiences are relative.

“The experience would mean that they’ll clarify some of their values for themselves, possibly shift some perspectives. But I think it will only happen by getting discrepancy information, by being told things .. that they were really not conscious of, which don’t fit with their own view of things. Now that is, to me, what shifts things.” (Jon Roberts)

There is often a form of shock value in such realisations that act much as the ‘ah-ha’ factor in insight, where the student is faced with a way of viewing reality which is at variance with his habitual structure. It may be that he will refuse to see this, or else be unable to do so due to any number of factors. Anxiety and lack of time are often responsible for inhibiting awareness raising and merit separate discussion (see Chapter 4). Awareness however will always remain a free and individual act, and the reaction of the student to discrepant information will at best be unpredictable.

Discrepant information can however lead to ‘perspective transformation’, which is seen as “reinterpreting your own behaviour, the way you act, and possibly reinterpreting your own value position at the same time, when the two things are not separable. And it’s that process of reinterpretation, either how you recall behaving or you think you behaved and/or your values, which I see as awareness raising. In that context and in teacher education generally, that’s what I see as awareness raising. It’s very close to Argyris, I think, that it involves us in a kind of reorganisation of your view or your own practice and of the values that you have, and it may be realising that your practice is somewhat different in its effect on other people than you had initially thought. It represents values that you perhaps didn’t quite see. It may make you realise that your values are more liberal or more conservative than you at first thought.” (idem)

A similar approach to ‘perspective transformation’ is the ‘perception shift’ of Steven Smith, although here it is the content of the course which constitutes in itself an intellectual shift from one dominant paradigm to another, as for example in the study of the Modern Movement which was the general social, scientific, intellectual revolution that took place at the beginning of the 20th century. Here it is the study of history that introduces the student to the reality of paradigms, and will hopefully lead him to see the relevance of this to his own personal knowledge and actions.



Awareness activities

When awareness training is not seen as a general underlying element of the education process, but rather is a factor which is imparted by means of specific awareness activities, then the teacher has to decide what balance to make between such awareness activities and other components of the course. In making such a decision a choice has to be made as to whether awareness training is to be seen as an activity that is to be limited to specific segments of the course, or rather whether the entire course is to be deliberately structured around awareness raising principles. The Argyris approach to awareness training (see Appendix) is a specific attempt at teaching awareness not simply as a component but as the principal element of the course. Content is chosen in relation to its value as a stimulus to awareness raising in much the same way as content is used in a foreign language course – simply as a means of teaching language.

It may well be advisable for an entire segment of a course to be set aside for awareness training in the Argyris sense. Where this is not feasible it may nevertheless be ‘woven into the fabric’ of certain courses, while in others it may be introduced in a rather more ad hoc manner.

“I don’t think it is as worked out or as systematic as the Argyris work, as the action research work, no. I think it’s a good deal more hit and miss, some students may pick up insights, some may not. It’s very hit and miss. It also tends to be rather one-off, because one’s doing it within an academic programme.” (idem)

Such ‘one-off’ activities can nevertheless be directed at precisely the same type of re-evaluation of basic assumptions as is to be found in the Argyris approach.

“I’m going to get the group to role play supervisory discussions. ... In the same sessions they have to play three roles out in various orders. One is to be a student teacher getting the feedback, the other is to be a supervisor giving the feedback and the third is to be an observer of these two talking to each other. And the purpose of it is obviously by putting into the situation the student teacher and by getting the feedback from the observers about what happens, to get them to rethink about what their own approach is in supervising. I see that as an awareness raising activity because they would get possibly some discrepant feedback about how they handle things, or they may get a discrepant account of how they are coming across.” (idem)

While this activity is rather more specific to a teacher training course, other such activities would seem to be applicable to general teaching situations, where ‘conflicting interpretations of the same object’ is seen as being the means of coming to a consciousness of the limitations that are inherent in our thinking and learning processes.

“Another thing we do is show them a video (of a teaching session), get them to evaluate that privately and then compare their evaluative judgements and their interpretations of what was happening. For some students, they agree about it, nothing much happens, it’s purely chance. Other students find that they actually have conflicting views both of judgement and really what was going on. And if that happens, that can open the door to a lot of rethinking and it’s really quite a significant experience, even as a one-off. I often use that at the beginning of a course to push for relativism in your judgements.” (idem)

It can be quite useful to compare these two awareness training systems, the Action Science approach (see pp. 177-181), and the role of discrepancy information in ‘perspective transformation’ as suggested above by Jon Roberts. In describing the techniques used in Action Science, Argyris speaks of the participant who is confronted with a situation which is deliberately designed to bring him face to face with the limitations inherent in his favoured methods for making decisions and resolving difficulties. As a result of this situation, the participant comes to a realisation that he cannot advance, that he is ‘stuck’. In some respects this form of ‘stuckness’ and the ‘discrepancy’ spoken of above may seem rather similar. The main difference between them however may be more in their applicability to a classroom situation which is concerned with studying a subject other than Action Science skills. Within a normal classroom it would be much more within the possibilities of the normal teacher to create a situation where the student comes to a realisation that there is a discrepancy     between his view and that of another, and that both cannot be right simultaneously, and within the same terms of reference – that something is wrong somewhere. To lead a student to realise, as is requested by the Action Science type approach, that his whole repertoire of skills is inadequate or inappropriate to a particular learning situation, is a much more onerous operation.

‘At different times throughout the learning process participants refer to themselves as ‘being stuck’. But what does it mean to be ‘stuck’? From the participants’ perspective, it means that they cannot find a move from their repertoire of skills that yields acceptable consequences. They can go no further, and they are aware that they can go no further. But from our perspective individuals get stuck like this all the time, only they have fascinating ways of camouflaging it. To see through this camouflage, the interventionist creates a context in which participants can get stuck, reflect on their ‘stuckness’, and not hold others responsible for it. Through an iterative process of experimentation, participants act, get stuck, and try to get unstuck, while simultaneously reflecting on these attempts with their peers. Such a process of reflective experimentation reveals what otherwise remain hidden, and it enables participants to try out new moves that might take them beyond the dilemmas that they discover.’ (Argyris et al 1985:319)

The Argyris approach may in fact go deeper, in that it may be more concerned with process, while in some senses ‘discrepancy training’ is more likely to be concerned with content. The Action Science ‘system’ however is precisely that: it is a system and would generally require a concentrated effort on the part of the teacher and the class – and the institution, in that this would have to be inserted in the syllabus.

My personal reaction to the Action Science method, at least as presented by Argyris, is that there may well be a certain resemblance of ‘style’ between the Action Science process and the ‘encounter groups’ of the ’60s. In a similar sense to how I reacted to the encounter groups of my university days, I get the feeling that there is the risk of the teacher putting people ‘through the loops’ (even though they volunteer) and forcing them (via the teaching situation) to interact with others, own up to their own foibles, and of ‘manipulating’ them into change. It would appear that this type of situation could be very stress-producing and could well involve the need to ‘bare one’s soul’ in a way that is less in keeping with the traditions of this side of the Atlantic. The resulting anxiety then, instead of acting as a goad to action, could well inhibit appropriate deep learning.

Despite these personal reservations, Action Science does however seem to present a series of very interesting possibilities within the awareness training field, especially in those cases where the institutional structure permits the dedication of an entire course to a practical study of awareness raising principles. It would also be very interesting to compare this with the type of ‘frame-breaking’ technique used within Tibetan Buddhism as discussed above (see p. 43).

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