Resilience and Liminal Space

I’m trying to clarify how learning, sensemaking, emotions and spirituality interweave. It all happens in the same person, so we can’t chop them up.

Being in London for a few days at PCF5 has given me that little extra reading time I don’t normally find in the family home 🙂

So yesterday I had the luxury of browsing in the superb Institute of Education bookshop and picked up Guy Claxton’s Wise Up: Learning to Live the Learning Life which has been on the hitlist for a few months. Maybe his work could also add a new dimension to SocialLearn, an Open U. strategic initiative to explore emerging online paradigms for the new learning landscape…

Right from the introduction to this lucid and influential book, Claxton’s writing is engaging and to the point:

Let me be clear. Learning, in the way I am using the term, is what you do when you don’t know what to do. (p.11)

Claxton goes on to present, in accessible language for a non-academic, research in the learning sciences which motivates what turned into the Building Learning Power approach for school teachers to learn how to teach children an explicit language for learning-to-learn. It turns out this derives in turn from a research project at University of Bristol into what makes good learners:

Deakin Crick, R., Broadfoot, P. and Claxton, G. (2004). Developing an Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory: The ELLI Project. Assessment in Education, 11, (3), pp. 247-272.

One of the key dimensions in Learning Power is resilience — the emotional capacity to tolerate the feelings of discomfort that assail us when we are stretched out of our comfort zone, threatening our sense of identity. Both adults and children flee this feeling if they are not resilient enough to persevere and believe that they can push through.

OK, now switch context to our AHRC/EPSRC/JISC-funded e-Dance research project, which as I hoped when putting it together with the others, is turning out to be an incredibly stimulating space to be in. We opened the proposal as follows:

A key problem in the academic field of dance is how to capture and document the incremental development of ideas and their material manifestation in the creative process within practice-led research. In improvisational, embodied investigation, the mode of engagement is generative, pre-verbal, intuitive, experiential and fluid. This militates against types of cognitive engagement necessary for analysis, critique and reflection. The problem is most acute in the context of dance: however it is pertinent to all arts-based disciplines. This project is predicated on dialogic processes between dance and e-Science and the fluidity of concepts as they transverse the two domains, making use of recent advances in the visualisation and representation of spatio-temporal structures and discourse.

Drilling down into the theme of pre-linguistic annotation/capture of choreographic design process, we wrote:

The visual nature of the interface employed by these e-Science documentation tools enables exploration of possibilities for pre-linguistic, multi-layered, non-linear representations of process, more aligned with the characteristics of the creative process itself. This reiteration of process will be considered not just as a static archival document of the process, but as a dynamic source of material that can be redeployed, for example, as a site for forensic, archaeological investigation; a score for further developmental commentaries generated through practice; or pre-recorded audio/visual content for re-use in hybrid distributed performance.

As the Open U. software development effort comes on stream in August, and with our Research Intensive in U. Bedford only a week or so away, we are now thinking about the kinds of user interface that choreographers want to scaffold, capture, provoke, reflect back their creative process. The role of the visual, and perhaps non-verbal human-computer interaction, are to the fore, as we take seriously the pre-linguistic nature of the choreographic design process. We have learnt from Helen and Sita (our choreographers) and from our partial immersion in the choreographic process, that they will ‘just know’ when they see something ‘right’ unfolding before them on the dance floor: a moment that they want to capture without getting verbal, to be revisited and replayed later for reflection and further rehearsal/research.

With these considerations in mind, it seemed providential when Guy Claxton emailed me this article:

Claxton, G. (2006). Thinking at the Edge. Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 351–362

This tries to put language and concepts on how we conceive, and nurture, creativity. His interest is in how we work with, not fear or fight, that creative period when things remain inchoate, ill-formed and unsettling:

…there is a softer, slower kind of groping for a way of articulating something that is currently, tantalizingly, beyond our linguistic grasp… It is these gentle, generic, but often unsung, aspects of the creative process that I want to describe.

Intruigingly he uses the particular example of choreographers, as he writes about:

…the intuitive feeling of rightness (or wrongness) that guides the process. This sense of rightness—the same immediate, unjustifiable feeling of ‘Yes, that’s it’ that guides the process of focusing—seems to be essential to the kind of creativity I am exploring. A choreographer may not know what it is she is looking for until she tries out one more move and gets the ‘Yes, that’s it’ response. As I write, I too do not know quite what I want to say, nor precisely where the discussion is heading, until a sentence hits the screen and I get the ‘Yes, that’s it’ feeling. Even research scientists must learn to recognize and trust that intuition.

Inspired by the 1960s work of Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago on the pre-conceptual period of creativity and cognitive change, and continued by his associates [Focusing Institute], Claxton writes:

Gendlin’s point is this: that the kind of personal problem-solving that happens in counseling and psychotherapy usually requires slow, delicate, hazy knowing, rather than quick, conceptual, conscious knowing. The main problem is often not one of ‘deciding what to do’, but of coming to understand more precisely what it is that makes things appear problematic to us in the particular way they do. And that kind of knowing requires us to be able to go ‘back to basics’; to start with the complicated, murky ‘felt sense’ of the predicament, and then slow down the process of epistemic evolution so we can (a) see more clearly what kinds of assumptions we might, unconsciously, have been stirring in to the conceptual mix; and (b) allow the emerging conceptualization to be driven, and continually refined, by the felt sense itself, rather than forcing it to fit the pre-existing templates, categories, habits and phrases that we happen to have installed in the skill-scape and the word-scape. Focusing enables people to regain some flexibility, with regard to their ‘ways of knowing’. In particular, it helps them relearn the kind of patient, open-minded attentiveness that allows them to conceptualize their predicament in a way that is fresher, more differentiated, and more accurate, in the sense of being closer to the complex reality of their own embodied knowing.

So, all this is quite intruiging. In the context of e-Dance, embodied, pre-verbal cognition looks to be an interesting seam to mine in the coming months as we seek to build language that bridges cognitive interface design and dance, and concretely, to adapt our visual hypermedia tools (Compendium and Cohere) to support the construction of resources for choreographic, practice-based research.

The final strand coming together is around the writing of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, on liminal space. Take this article, written in the aftermath of 9/11, but applicable to all contexts of suffering — which Rohr, uncomfortably, holds to be the only time when we grow spiritually:

“Limina” is the Latin word for threshold, the space betwixt and between.

[…] It is when you have left the “tried and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun.

[…] IF YOU ARE NOT trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait — you will run — or more likely you will “explain.” Not necessarily a true explanation, but any explanation is better than scary liminal space. Anything to flee from this terrible “cloud of unknowing.” Those of a more fear-based nature will run back to the old explanations. Those who love risk or hate thought will often quickly construct a new explanation where they can feel special and again in control. Few of us know how to stay on the threshold. You just feel stupid there — and we are all trying to say something profound these days.

[…] THE PREFERRED LANGUAGE of both the Christian and the Muslim mystics is the language of darkness. They are most at home in the realm of not-knowing. Often, therefore, it was called “luminous darkness.”

This “cloud of unknowing” is Claxton’s “slower kind of groping for a way of articulating something…”, and Gendlin’s “felt sense of the predicament…” —  but this time it’s framed within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, by a spiritual mentor who counsels normal people like you and me who may be enduring suffering and confronting personal meltdown as all the usual reference points dissolve.

As our times grow more complex and uncertain, nurturing resilience, which we might see as part of the deeper ability to inhabit liminal space, looks to be of central importance — not only for ourselves, but surely also our children. It may be “merely” artistic wrestling in the creative process, or the struggle to learn deeply, or it may be facing immense shock in one’s life.

As Dave Snowden argues, we are past the era of designing fail-safe organisational and societal systems: the only thing we can be confident of is that they will fail, as the environment grows more turbulent. We must instead design for safe-fail systems.

Since people are at the heart of such infrastructure, we might wonder what kind of an educational or organisational learning culture — from kindergarten on — would value the nurturing of such a fine mix of cognitive, emotional and social skills, dispositions and personal qualities? What if we treated them as equally important to — indeed, profoundly enabling of — traditional core literacies, or the performance indicators that conventionally govern the balance sheet?

3 Responses to “Resilience and Liminal Space”

  1. Very much aligned with this thread is a talk at google found at No Time to Think by David Levy. That link was suggested to me earlier by Ted Kahn.
    Similarly, I believe that David Gelernter’s book The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought is well worth reading. In that book, Gelernter talks about thought that occurs in that twilight zone between deep sleep and fully conscious wakefulness. Levy also talks about “those thoughts that hit us while taking a shower”. Maybe those are related to achieving liminality.

  2. […] few new blogs Simon Buchingham Shum has just posted about one of the benefits of coming to conferences like PCF5.

  3. […] Deakin Crick’s ELLI tool highlight creativity and strategic awareness. I’ve already discussed how the dimension of resilience connects to the dynamics of creativity and inhabiting the […]

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