Writing and context

I have been encouraged, previously, to realise that writing is a complex task, according to Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1991 (‘Literate Expertise’).

Now that I am trying to help others to write, I am also finding out a bit more about that complexity.  It has to do with the contextual nature of writing and meaning making.

Bateson, (1972/1969 ‘Double Bind’, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind), suggests that part of the capacity to be creative arises from somehow recognising cues from context .. and realising that in a certain context, something new is what is most appropriate.

It seems to me, as I try and suggest alternatives, of word choice, of sentence construction, for non-native English writers working on thesis drafting, and as I try to explain why what is written is not satisfying me, as a reader, the issue of a range of options of how else to write this, arises.

Those options need to be examined , and by using a range of evaluative criteria, in order to choose, or to design, which one, of the many ways of saying something, best serves the meaning the writer wants to convey.

No wonder, when I tried to construct a email, to share some of this, the email became more and more convoluted …

I needed to be with the writer, questioning, and finding out the meaning they intended,

I needed to help them to settle the choice on one issue before I/we could proceed to the next issue, whether it was immediately consequential, or not.

The choice of options, and all options chosen, needs to consolidate (or coalesce) around the purpose of the writing.  This is what is meant by coherence – a context in which each sentence has its own inimitable part to play.

It seems that I wasn’t far wrong, as an eight-to-nine-year-old, in reading the lot to try and find the meaning of the new word/s, rather than using a dictionary as a first resort.  I was working on understanding a new term, especially, in its context, as well as by its context.

5 Feb 2010: Now I find, from Kate Wilson’s thesis on EAP, that van Lier (2004) puts ‘context’ on the top of his list of ten principles for language learning. [No. Kate puts ‘context’ top; van Lier puts ‘relations’ top and ‘context’ second; though if we are strictly systemic, it willbe hard to order anything as top, because they are all interrelated, so that you cannot have-one-without-the-other.]

A Practice Dilemma for Self-Study when helping

My practice involves helping.

The questions I ask, of my practice, to proceed into self-study, include:

1. How do I improve my practice?

2. How do I help you improve your learning?

3. How do I live my values more fully in my practice?

(from Jack Whitehead see http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/ )

I am beginning to recognise a persistent dilemma in undertaking this kind of self-study.

When my practice is with others, the process of my gathering data, for my focus, runs counter to ‘being there’ (presence a la John Heron), and being there for the process of helping.  And yet, unless I can know more about my practice, about the nature and quality of my helping, how can I work at improving it?

For the one I help, it is their objective that is their primary focus.  Asking them for information about my inputs is a distraction from that objective.  When that is the case, to proceed with my agenda destroys the helping relationship, shifting the ground.  When my focus moves from helping, I cease to be there, and cease to be effectively there for the one I am intending to help, and to keep on helping, and by being focused on their primary concerns and focus.

I can engage in relatively contemporaneous post-activity reflective work; gathering and documenting observations of the helping event.  I can engage in post-action reflection, and document that.

When the helping relationship is ongoing, I can work with my post-activity reflective work, and undertake some pre-activity reflective work as I design my likely inputs, and I can document that.

I can engage in reflection-in-action, and especially when the action involves writing a response.   It is more difficult to capture reflection-in-action in a live and synchronous interchange.  That is when ‘being there’ is much more significant.

But asking for evaluative input, from the person being helped, long after the event of helping, when the pressure of their immediate and primary task concern has abated, is likely to be asking for what is not remembered, and if remembered is now far from being relatively contemporaneous.  It may be coloured by layers of interactions since.

How then to find out the efficacy of my helping, from the other’s viewpoint (member checking aspect of validity)?

What does the literature have to tell me about this dilemma?

When I first noticed some of the dimensions of this dilemma, it was in respect of my professional development activity design.

(p.48-9 of my thesis


During that process, a number of challenges to, and dilemmas of, the design and its assumptions arose.

  • [do people change, if and when they know their behaviour and what and how to improve?]
  • [is self-disclosure of, for, and by the practitioner ethical, or does it amount to a power play involving ingratiation?]
  • [when does a practitioner introduce challenges to assumptions?]
  • [if a practitioner has a mental model that goes beyond evidence-based research, because it has been framed in a different knowledge system, but appears relevant to the problem, when and how does the practitioner introduce such a frame, so that it too can be open to consideration and examination?]

My second recognition of some of the dimensions of the dilemma related to trying to establish a cooperative peer research team. Here I noted (p.53)

Concurrent with the preparations to contact a group and begin the professional development activity, I explored the potential to participate, as a peer, in a group, with others working in a like area.   It was, for me, a matter of congruence.   I needed to be doing what I was asking others to do.   I needed to find out, by doing, where it was easy for me, and where it was difficult for me.


While looking for such a group I was also aware of a dilemma: if my thesis was soundly based, then such a group would also need to build self-awareness, and in that group.   For me to bring my material to such a group of peers would need me to move out of the peer role for at least the input of the relevant self-awareness materials.

When I first recognised the dilemma, in practice, I noted (p.152-3)

One change that developed during the activity was the awareness of being there (Heron’s indicator of whole person facilitation engagement (Heron, 1999)) and adding that to my focused reflective categories.   To ‘be there’ I needed to disengage from my previous practice of in situ, in vivo, notetaking.   My experience of operating as a participant-observer in the action design included the training and testing of my memory and recording capabilities.   I reached the point where I recognised that my increased capabilities, together with being there, were sufficient to capture the material that is significant for ongoing practice issues, providing that the necessary records are made as soon as possible after.   I could ‘give myself’ to being there, attending with all my being to the moment and the interactions, and very little would be lost in the later recording.   Indeed, when my attention was distracted from being there, I often did not retain a good recollection of the distraction, let alone the other interactions operating at the same time.

Designing …

Stephen Downes has opened up this area for me on the web. (It is useful to follow someone with similar interests down their track … it helps sort the hakeas and their thorns from the other bushes that hit you around the head and in the eyes (Ku-ring-gai Chase hike with Chris Clerke and others when I was smaller).

While my first introduction to ‘design’ was from the visual arts (Gwenda and her design principles and doodling), it was when I was reading Donald Schon, for the second or third time, that I realised that teaching, indeed, life, is a matter of design: working with multiple evaluative criteria, in a sequence, to solve a problem; and when you get stuck, trying to shift your ground or re-frame, as Donald describes it: either changing the sequence of application of the evaluative criteria, or bringing in other evaluative criteria.  The intent is to develop an aesthetically pleasing solution – something that ‘fits’, and ‘fits me’ – something I can enact.

So for this blog space, what I am after are the lateral (serendipity), external stimuli that offer another sequence or different criteria, to force a rethink of what I am grappling with.

In response to Stephen’s comments, the thought triggered off, which I have expressed elsewhere from time to time, is that I work now with the three phases of adages: if a picture is worth a 1000 words, and a proposition is worth a 1000 pictures, then a practice is worth a 1000 propositions.

For John Heron the practice of an individual is their presence and presentation … and here I am around a circle again!