Luraschi Silvia & Alessia Vitale
Department of Human Sciences “R. Massa” University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy
ESREA – European Society for Research on the Education of Adults
Life History and Biography Network
‘Resources of hope’
The place of hope in research into “learning lives”
Hope beyond words: The body in guidance experiences
Transforming experience into learning
As you set out for Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
This paper analyzes an innovative project that explores the reflexive, transformative, orienting effects which resulted from the active involvement of body perception and movement in guidance and career workshops. Our analysis explores common practices in career guidance. The dominant discussion in adult education and career counselling is based on individualism, on linear and de-contextualized ideas of rationality and information (Reid, 2016), but we believe that real life is much more complex. We are concerned about the pedagogical role of adult educators and counsellors in giving hope to future generations, because everyone has the right to career guidance that is hopeful, creative, personally meaningful and which looks beyond the immediate situation (Reid, 2016).
Guidance in adult education is a complex experience. This work presents a pilot case study relating to university orientation and body-learning, aimed at students in the faculty of Education. According to the principles of systemic and radical constructivism, learning is built upon through action in context, and further, interaction creates a co-constructed reality, shared by individuals, so individual experience is itself co-constructed (Bateson, 1979; Maturana & Varela 1993).
Within this epistemological framework, we intend to celebrate a kind of learning which 'anchors' the life experiences of participants to actions and interactions. Along these lines, research on lifelong and lifewide learning can be seen as occasions to challenge and transform the frames of mind that hinder one’s possibility of discovering new ways of learning.
Our aim, then, is to foster new ways of thinking in participants and researchers, so they can use their experiences for transforming themselves in creative ways.
In Mezirow’s theory, reflection on experiences is a process that involves critical evaluation. He believes that the process of knowledge acquisition follows a critical interpretation of an experience, and that this is what gives it significance (Mezirow, 2000); this involves a change of point of perspective of meaning. For example, this happens in biographical narratives when one’s “way of thinking about the past” is compared with one’s different “way of thinking about the present”, becoming a “disorienting dilemma”, which provides a working model for learning how to think in new ways and to be open to new ways of looking at the future. Biographical experience is thus transformed, thanks to memory (past/present) into a form of experiential knowledge that is similar to “the hope principle”, defined by Ernest Bloch as the capability of seeing what has not yet been done (present/future) and making it a guide for present action (Bloch, 2005). The hope principle allows people to actively participate, without being blocked by fear, into what is new, into what is taking shape and what they are a part of. Our proposal, in this project, is to interpret guidance action as “actions of hope” (Bloch, 2005), if they are used to orient, or better, to orient oneself, starting from lived embodied experiences. Any action, which allows us to see beyond reality “as it is”, and to project what is beyond our own “perceptions”, is an action of hope. We will also try to show how these actions are related to the creation of a space for the recognition and the valorisation of differences.
The creation of workshops in the area of pedagogical guidance over the last ten years has changed our way of doing research. Since 2005, Alessia Vitale has coordinated an educational service named LAB’O (Laboratorio Orientamento Bicocca) at Milano-Bicocca University, whose participants are encouraged to wonder about the strategies they use to choose their course of study, and to learn how to design their futures. Silvia Luraschi entered LAB’O as a student in 2008; then she began to organize and propose similar workshops in other contexts, where education professionals meet to develop their sensitivity to the systemic approach.
We cannot separate the idea of the workshop from our theory, research activity, and lives. This work is a way to analyse and reflect upon our practice as researchers and to share our experience with others. It is evident for us, from our own auto/biographical work (West, Merrill, 2009) and shared collaborative analysis, that the body is crucial for transformative learning (Mezirow, 1991, 2000), as a tool providing leverage for new opportunities in disenchanted and hopeless situations. For us, discovering greater self-confidence around one’s feelings, senses, movements and thought, has indeed turned out to be the key in acquiring more awareness in our own life choices.
We are convinced that auto/biographical research can come alive, as long as it is a lived embodied experience; it changes as it unfolds, because its understanding accompanies the entire process.
The workshop: feeling the world in order to discover hope
The workshop was set up as a ‘formative inquiry’ or ‘recherche formation’ (Josso, 2000). We used a methodology inspired by the Spiral of Knowledge (Formenti 2005, 2009), a recursive process based on four movements: Authentic Experience, Aesthetic Experience, Intelligent Comprehension, and Deliberate Action. The workshop was designed and led by both of the authors, and activities took place out outdoors: with the students we explored the university campus, focusing, in different phases of the experience, our attention on the body (e.g. feet, head) and its functions (breathing).
Our focus is involvement of body perception and movement in guidance and career workshops, in order to become aware of the important role of the body in our self-narration. In fact, awareness is not an interior condition, but a form of action (Feldenkrais, 1991). The participants were ten university students attending a Master’s course in Pedagogical Science at Bicocca University in Milan.
According to the constructivist theoretical framework, and experimenting with a compositive methodology, participants are asked to invent and construct the world by way of their actions and social interactions within a community they are part of, by sharing language and gesture.
Therefore, the learning process in the field of orientation is realised in a relational context.
Attention to the dimension of movement was linked to the students’ questions and doubts about their choices. For example, after having experienced the sensation of loss of balance, we wondered together with the students: “What kind of body strategy do we apply in these cases? Is there a link between that body strategy and our way of choosing? We asked the students to produce some embodied narratives (Formenti, West, Horsdal, 2014) about what they had experienced during the workshop. In that way we tried to integrate mind and body, as well as speech and body experiences in a guidance practice aimed at composing (Formenti, 2009) the students’ self-image, and designing their futures. The workshop is inspired by the recent works on: educational guidance through art (Formenti, Vitale 2013, Scardicchio, 2012), ethnography of multi-sensory exploration of settings (Pink, 2009, 2011), and one sensory ethnographical field exercise (Järviluoma, 2013).
The students were also invited to:
Choose a place on campus to go to, and to take a small notepad and pen with them.
Spend 40 minutes on the spot either sitting, standing or walking.
Observe their environment and their perceptions.
They could use the following questions to help focus their attention. What do you hear? What do you smell? What can you touch or what kind of tactile sensations do you recognize around you? What about tastes? What do you see? Do the sensory perceptions come from somewhere near to you or have they travelled from afar? How does your body respond to your sensorium as a whole? What about your mind? Feelings, memories, associations? Are they personal/individual, or can they they be understood in a more cultural context? Are they related to your field of study?
Write freely about your sensory experience. Spend some time immediately writing down your experience in a field journal and bring it back to the group.
After this sensory ethnographical field exercise, the students were invited to narrate and share their experience, or part of it, in order to gain awareness of its relevance in the present and, maybe, to the future of their life at university. We asked them to experimental different narrative means and languages (writing, drawing, acting, thinking in small groups). To our surprise, mostly non-traditional mature students participated in the workshop; this led us to think about the concept of habitus (Bourdieu, 1977), both with regard to the idea of transitional space (Winnicott, 1971) and in auto/biographical research with non-traditional students in High Education (Merrill & West, 2009; Finnegan et al., 2015).
The workshop is a process of co-construction of personal and shared learning. It relies on the subjects’ and the groups’ capacity to make, to share, and to criticize experience, always starting from their own history and story, i.e. from their own concrete life experiences and from their ways of narrating it, and without separating their perceptions and emotions from their ideas and values, of course. Flora, the mother of a six years old, chooses to introduce herself by telling a story of something that happened with her son the night before:
A dance is being prepared as part of the Christmas recital at Dimitri's school. Knowing that he is having a hard time coordinating his movement with his classmates, I have the idea of moving the furniture in the sitting room, plants and all, in order to create a rehearsal space. The sitting room was turned into a dance floor when he put on some music. Dimitri was very enthusiastic and afterwards we both went to bed feeling happy and satisfied. I think he felt fully recognised: he gave his all in the dance and I was totally present with him. (Flora, age 38)
A scuola di Dimitri stanno preparando un balletto per la recita di Natale e sapendo che fa un po’ di fatica a coordinarsi con i compagni ho pensato di spostare i mobili della sala, piante comprese, per creare una sala prove. Il soggiorno è diventato una pista da ballo quando lui ha messo la musica. Dimitri era entusiasta e siamo andati a letto soddisfatti e felici. Penso che lui si sia sentito riconosciuto nella sua integrità: nella danza ci stava mettendo tutto se stesso e io ero lì con lui. (Flora, 38 anni)
Flora's story represents an area of transitional experience, where her multiple identities, as mother and as student, constantly negotiate her position in relation to other people (Merrill, West 2009). During the conversation phase, subjects were encouraged to talk about themselves and to dialogue with others:
[…] Why did you do it that way? (Gea, age 25)
Because if he had needed help with his maths homework, for example, I certainly would have done it; and so, why place less importance on the body? (Flora, age 38)
[…] Perché hai deciso di fare così? (Gea, 25 anni)
Perché se lui avesse avuto bisogno di essere aiutato a fare ad esempio i compiti di matematica, io l’avrei senz’altro fatto; e quindi, perché dare meno importanza al corpo? (Flora, 38 anni)
Obviously, the initial phase of a workshop is crucial to actively involving the participants as co-researchers, and for the gestation of transitional processes (Winnicott, 1971). For this reason, the activity started with our asking participants to introduce themselves to the group by referring to a present experience or concrete situation in their lives that involved their bodies, and to ask questions freely. The exchange of questions between Gea and Flora was an invitation to us as researchers to render explicit our idea about the non-separation between words and the body.
The notion of embodiment, which had a significant impact all across the social sciences by the 1900s (see, for example, Shilling 1991, 2003), resolved this dichotomy to some extent. An important implication of the literature that emerged on this topic was the deconstruction of the notion of a mind/body divide, to understand the body not simply as a source of experience and activity that could be rationalized and/or controlled by the mind, but as a source of knowledge and subsequently of agency (Pink, 2009).
This understanding enables us to think of the body as a site of knowing. The idea of embodiment might be understood in terms of a process that is integral to the relationship between humans and our environments.
This is why we proposed to the students, after the initial presentation – in the form of auto/biographical writing and conversation, two different sensorial activities – one of them involved listening to the body, and the other olfactory perceptions. Both were followed by an ethnographic sensory field exercise.
Let the body speak
We believe that auto/biographical narrative is a mode of inquiry because we have been persuaded that educational science texts need to construct a different relationship between researchers and their subjects and between authors and their readers. We wanted a more personal, collaborative, and interactive relationship, one that centred on the question of how human experience is endowed with meaning, as well as the moral and ethical choices we face as human beings who are living in an uncertain and changing world (Ellis, Bochner, 2000).
Martin, one of the participants in the group, is a working student. He decides to present himself to the group by narrating the contents of his closet:
My clothes speak of the different situations I confront in my daily life.
I have work clothes that I use when I carry out work tasks. They are old or second-hand clothes which I am free to allow to get dirty while I work.
I have clothes adapted to my social life, which I use when going out with friends, or to university, or out in general: they are clean and fashionable (but not over the top).
I have elegant clothes for parties and special occasions: quite few of them.
I have sportswear: a lot of them and they are very comfortable.
I have pensive clothes: they are soft and warm.
I have summer and winter clothes: a lot of the former and they are very familiar to me; the latter are also numerous, but I use always wear the same ones, which I wear quite regularly – in a schematic way. (Martin, age 25)
I miei vestiti parlano delle diverse situazioni che vivo nelle mie giornate.
Ho vestiti lavorativi (liberatori) che utilizzo per casa quando faccio lavoretti. Sono vestiti vecchi o di seconda mano, che posso liberamente sporcare nelle attività.
Ho vestiti sociali, che uso quando esco con gli amici, vado in università, entro nella società in generale: sono puliti, alla moda ma non troppo.
Ho vestiti eleganti che uso per feste ed occasioni speciali: sono pochi.
Ho vestiti sportivi: sono molti e molto comodi.
Ho vestiti pensierosi: sono morbidi e invernali.
Ho vestiti estivi e invernali: i primi sono molti e li so tutti a memoria; i secondi sono molti, ma uso sempre gli stessi in modo abbastanza ripetitivo – schematico. (Martin, 25 anni)
Martin works as a family educator in a town in Northern Italy that is known for its furniture industry. He brings his experience of life into university, or, in the words of Bourdieu, a particular habitus or set of dispositions and recurrent cultural practices (Bourdieu, 1977). Specifically, clothes inside a piece of furniture (his closet) from his city are metaphors which reveal the multiple roles Martin wears in his private and public lives. In addition, Martin expressed an interest in having some fashionable clothes, like most Italian students.
If we had limited ourselves to this first story we would have concentrated on his creative role in telling his story, but in order to understand how identity is composed of complex and multiple aspects, we tried moving our attention from written and conversational exercises to body exercises. This composition, involving both words and the body, represents the possibility of transformation in our workshop activities in the field of pedagogical guidance.
In vocational and career guidance there is a predominant use of written and oral speech-based practices. Conversely, the body rarely represents the focal point at the base of the action of constructing a future life project. In Western thought, there is a long tradition of Cartesian disjunction between mind and body (Damasio, 1994; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999): the mind is the site of reason and the location of speech, and it is entrusted to the future design of our life; the body is an action tool at the disposal of the intellect. But what about considering the body not only as an instrument of the intellect but as a way itself to knowledge? As a useful tool in guidance for finding our own barycentre in this troubled world... There is literature, though not strictly dedicated to guidance, in which several authors (Feldenkrais, 1991; Lowen, 1958; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Winnicott, 1971) identify body experience as a starting point for generating learning. For this reason we have decided to explore the themes of body and movement in guidance, by designing a workshop experience with ten high school students concerned about their choice of faculty at university.
To challenge these premises, and before realising the workshops with the high school students, we turned to a group of volunteer students from our faculty in Education Sciences. We selected them randomly, and proposed a collaboration as co-researchers in order to explore the connections between words and the body. We found the experience with mature students extremely interesting in light of their intense and profound revelations about their lives, and this led us to the decision to concentrate this research on their writings.
The texts produced are stories that create the effect of reality, showing characters embedded in the complexities of lived movements of struggle, disconnection, and fragmentation, while trying to preserve or restore a continuity to life’s unity in the face of unexpected blows (Ellis, Bochner, 2000). Life and narrative are inextricably connected. Life both anticipates telling and draws meaning from it. Narrative is both about living and part of it. We titled this little talk “Let the body speak” to emphasize that we live within the tension constituted by our memories of the past and anticipations of the future. The presence of things in the past and the presence of things in the future, according to St. Augustine of Hippo (in Chadwick, St. Augustine’s Confessions (2008 ed), are the tensions of every moment of experience, both united in the present and qualitatively differentiated by it.
In this way, the body and its movement can find the needed and indispensable space for understanding our experience and we are able to recognise the role of our perceptions, emotions and cognition as integrated and inseparable activities. Language (words) and cognitive activities are inseparable from perceptions and emotions, and they are always connected to the body and to movement. These ideas are in accord with recent studies in cognitive neurosciences, in which the unity of a person is considered a system that communicates without a central control (the brain) but which emerges from the dynamics that the same system has activated (Doidge, 2015).
No perception exists outside of action, and as far as actions change, perception of the world changes too (Varela, Rosch, Thompson, 1993). Listening to one’s own sensorial perceptions, and giving them form through writing words is an exercise of hope which allows one to create a new image of of our connection to nature, and to go beyond the separateness from it we have ourselves created. To illustrate this idea we have chosen to transcribe the words of one of the participants:
I felt as if I was being called to. By whom? By the leaves! Yes, they were so yellow: it was autumn and I, up until that moment, had not noticed the change of seasons. And I was actually seeing myself in the leaves. I was aware of the fallen leaves and of my body, made of a soul, which itself is nature. (Andrea, age 35)
Mi sono sentita chiamata. Da chi? Chiamata dalle foglie! Sì, quanto erano gialle: era autunno e io, fino a quel momento, non mi ero accorta del cambio di stagione. E nelle foglie in realtà io stavo vedendo me stessa. Sensibile alla natura della foglie cadute è il mio corpo, fatto d’anima, che è esso stesso natura. (Andrea, 35 anni)
Andrea's words transformed the setting, shifting the focus from a pedagogical workshop to one oriented towards a philosophical goal. The shift in focus is the idea to make students live an experience, similar to taking a trip, attending a theatre performance, or observing an artistic masterpiece. The pedagogist Scardicchio, in describing a theatrical performance, writes: it is “a way of life in which art finds its deep and ancestral identity: it teaches us how to see, to hear and even to live. It contaminates a point of view, and rather than being irrational, it teaches us to think” (Scardicchio, 2012, p.2). In order to develop a thought you must live an experience, take action. We want to offer the students not only the chance to participate in a reflexive meeting but the opportunity to live an experience that is able to promote a “learning to learn” moment. An aesthetic experience that puts together thinking and feeling and awakens the aesthetic emotions mentioned by Scardicchio.
The aesthetic image of nature in Andrea's words indicates that the way to generate hope is to set-up orientation experiences with the objective of not finding answers, but which have the distinct characteristic of making participants feel that they are “explorers”. This involves an existential transformation to which formation trainers and students are called: to perceive of themselves as those who are seeking something and in seeking they lean towards things which have not yet taken form, and in this they find a sense of hope. Furthermore, if our perceptions generate images and new stories, these then enable us to create new worlds and contribute to the re-design of. not only the world in which we live and the ways in which we explore it, but they also bring the future into the present. This is a creative process that creates changes in ideas and perspectives and, above all, innovative actions.
The creative margin in guidance
The workshop opened up ideas, reflections and discoveries. I came because I do theatre and I wanted to take part in a corporal formation experience. Now I feel that I need to make some correlations with my orientation: I am a student in Education Sciences, and I would like to know how this workshop connects to the direction I am heading in? (Elena, age 28)
Il workshop ha aperto riflessioni, idee e scoperte. Sono venuta perché faccio teatro e volevo fare un’esperienza di formazione corporea. Ora sento di aver bisogno di fare dei collegamenti con il mio orientamento: sono una studentessa di scienze dell’educazione, come questa esperienza parla alla direzione che sto prendendo? (Elena, 28 anni)
For the students the workshop represented a place for open conversations. The single participants felt that, besides their own personal experiences, many other lives were being shared as well. In a certain way, individual body experiences constructed “space” for attention towards the biographies of others. This ‘space’ led Elena to reconsider the direction and meaning of her study experience at university.
The ego at the centre of her narration felt unsettled and a longing to build new connections between the present and the future. The student's reflections show the importance of taking care of all phases of formation. This allowed us to see how our workshop was wide-reaching in content and how it involved the participants in deeply intimate moments, so much that the gathering of data for our research turned out to be very difficult for us. Our living body (Formenti, West, Horsdal, 2014), carefully perceived, cannot be singularly evoked, and if it is intellectualised it runs the risk of not being expressed.
While analysing the participants' stories, we discussed, on many occasions, the limits of research and asked ourselves these questions: what is the limit in an inquiry? Is it correct to consider all topics as part of the discussion? How can we gather coherent data and get lost in the many stories told during the workshop?
Our proposal for the workshop was based on group work in order to reflect upon the way to experience university life. We asked participants to move around in physical space to increase awareness about motor processes and we created a setting which invited them to experiment with new ways of moving. We hoped that the students could increase their body sensitivity and their capacity to put themselves on the line in order to acquire a hopeful vision of the future. We did not have a clear objective of planning a guidance activity aimed at orienting the student’s actions or personal and professional choices. And yet, one student placed our choice as a critical point. Elena felt the need to be accompanied in reflection in a new way.
How should we think about this aspect: should it be suppressed? Every human being constantly orients him/herself, or have we generated a need? Creating space for listening to one’s body opens one up to a deep and new experience and it is legitimate to want to continue with similar explorations.
A story or a dialogue is an agent of self-discovery or self-creation. The possibility of telling different stories from different perspectives about the same experience helps us to comprehend that we, as embodied human beings situated in time and space, combine multiple models of the world (Horsdal, 2012).
Conclusion: a different idea of the future?
A shift is ongoing in the notion of future - from progress/repetition to openness and unpredictability (Morin, 2001), it demands a wider educational perspective of guidance, where the choice is seen as a continuous, dynamic process (Formenti, 2009). The notion of self-orientation, or learning to orient oneself (Vitale, 2012b; Formenti, Vitale, 2013; Vitale, 2014) has been implemented in the project LAB’O (previously “Let’s Talk About It”), centred on students and how (besides what) they choose. They have to learn about the necessity for lifelong and life-wide self-orientation, as a constant of their learning and working lives. The epistemological idea at the base involves working on polarities (e.g. dream and context, words and body) and to start from these to explore connections together with students to generate learning, or as Gregory Bateson would say: “learning to learn”.
The participants start to take care of each other and this opens up space for learning and change, because a group becomes a super-individual mind (in Bateson’s terms), going towards states of coherence and complexity that individuals would not be able achieve on their own.
As researchers, we now find ourselves facing our ethical responsibility to take care of the stories that have been entrusted to us. Elena's confusion and doubts stimulate us. We feel the need to look at our research methods again, in order to facilitate guidance in orientation which is sensitive, and where the composition between words and the body can be an occasion for self-awareness and the awareness of others, which can be useful in generating knowledge in disenchanted glances with little hope.
Speaking to each other in a common scenario, from different perspectives, and communicating our uniqueness, not only as students or researchers, but as humans, we shared our learning. Reflecting upon this experience is intended as an ethical action, not only because of the principles of democracy, but for the connections and relationships we activated.
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Both authors contributed equally to this work
Silvia Luraschi is social worker, pedagogist and Phd student in the Faculty of Education at Milano Bicocca University in Italy. She is interested in studying body learning concepts and approaches to educational contexts for an ecological guidance.
Alessia Vitale PhD., is a post doctoral researcher at University of Milano-Bicocca Human Sciences department. Her primary research interest is the development of aesthetic methodologies in the framework of university guidance.