Kessen, Kathleen, Cecelia Traugh, and Felix Perez III. “Descriptive Inquiry as Contemplative Practice.”

Kessen, Kathleen, Cecelia Traugh, and Felix Perez III. “Descriptive Inquiry as Contemplative Practice.” Teachers College Record, vol. 108, no. 9, Sept. 2006, pp. 1862-80.

To remember:

  • The gift of vision . . . through which observing lays claim to its fullest possibilities, requires exercise to realize its power or it relapses into a kind of blindness, in which the things in the world are perceived only as objects-of-use; that is, in terms of personal needs. In its most benign form, habituated perception is reassuring and indeed useful. . . . But, there are limitations and implicit dangers in habituated perception. . . . When habituated perception is carried to an extreme of circumstance (e.g., extreme physical need), or through a failure to exercise the gift of vision (e.g., ordinary ‘‘busy-ness’’), the world may come to be seen only from the frame of reference of personal need. Then both the viewer and viewed are impoverished, detachment replaces interest, and the world loses its power for calling forth meaning.’’ (Carini, 1979, p. 11) (1862)
  • Habitual thinking is especially dangerous under the current regime of ‘‘technical-rationality,’’ or the ‘‘standardized management paradigm,’’ a bureaucratic approach to education in which ‘‘decisions are top-down, and teachers are expected to implement other people’s ideas’’ (Henderson & Kesson, 2004, p. 205). Habitual thinking lends itself to an uncritical acceptance of policies and practices that operate not necessarily in the interest of the child, but in the interest of maintaining an efficient system. Habitual thinking dulls the imagination, and the capacity to reimagine education is crucial if we are to create more just, caring, and effective learning communities (1863).
  • The capacity to reimagine education, according to curriculum scholar and theologian Dwayne Huebner, ‘‘means having a different view of people, of our educational spaces and resources, of what we do and what we say—a view that will enable us to critique the embodied images, see obstacles, and recognize alternatives’’ (Hillis, 1999, p. 402).

  • learning to suspend judgment, bias, conditioned responses, and hasty interpretation allows for more fluid and open perception, guiding the practitioner into forms of inquiry closely akin to Polanyi’s tacit knowing (1962), Schön’s reflection-in-action (1983), and Miller’s contemplative practice (1994) (1863).

  • Despite the overpowering nature of the current paradigm in education, our work with teachers in such schools has shown us that most of them experience ‘‘emotional dissonance’’ when confronted with a pedagogical environment that dictates practices that are at odds with what they perceive as serving the best interests of their students … The emotional dissonance they experience provides a fertile ground for advancing a form of teacher research called Descriptive Inquiry, in which teachers observe and document dimensions of their students’ learning and their own teaching practice, including their own phenomenological, or deeply felt, responses to what is going on in the classroom (1864).
  • Such an attunement is essentially a practice guided by ‘‘spirit,’’ but we use this term here in a broad, secular sense, hearkening to Huebner’s notion that to ‘‘‘have spirit’ is to be in touch with forces or aspects of life that make possible something new and give hope and expectations. Spirit refers to the possible and the unimagined—to the possibility of new ways, new knowledge, new relationships, new awareness’’ (Hillis, 1999, pp. 343–344) (1864).

  • Phemomenological study is, as Van Manen (2011) noted, systematic in that it uses specially practiced modes of questioning, reflecting, focusing, intuiting, etc. . . . . [It] is explicit in that it attempts to articulate, through the content and form of text, the structures of meaning embedded in lived experience. . . . [It] is self-critical in the sense that it continually examines its own goals and methods in an attempt to come to terms with the strengths and shortcomings of its approach and achievements. . . . It is intersubjective in that the human science researcher needs the other (for example, the reader) in order to develop a dialogic relation with the phenomenon, and thus validate the phenomenon as described. (p. 11) (1868).
  • Phenomenological educational inquiry focuses on the act of perception, and the detailed description of that perception. It is, according to Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, and Taubman (1994), ‘‘a disciplined, rigorous effort to understand experience profoundly and authentically’’ (p. 405). Distinct from forms of inquiry that depend on quantifiable logic and empiricism, ‘‘the phenomenological investigator questions how phenomena—‘the things themselves’—present themselves in the lived experience of the individual, especially as they present themselves in lived time’’ (p. 405) (1869).

  • Description is the core methodology of the phenomenological inquiry that we are discussing here. It is through taking a descriptive stance that inquirers using this method engage in a form of contemplative observation, seeing what is rather than seeing what our experiences have conditioned us to see:

    Describing I pause, and pausing, attend. Describing requires that I stand back and consider. Describing requires that I not rush to judgment or conclude before I have looked. Describing makes room for something to fully present. Describing is slow, particular work. I have to set aside familiar categories for classifying or generalizing. I have to stay with the subject of my attention. I have to give it time to speak, to show itself. (Carini, 2001, p. 163) (1869).


  • engaging mindfully in description requires several things of the investigator. One is positioning herself on the borders of her taken-for-granted reality in order to become aware of her own perceptions and preconceived notions about these perceptions and to work to meet the thing described in its own terms. Another is resisting—or being aware of and stepping aside from—definitive judgments and instead remaining open to further experiences that generate possibilities and new understandings. A third is recognizing that moving from the particular to the general does not mean making an abstract generalization, but instead means seeing connections between different particulars that enables a deeper, more nuanced understanding (1869).

  • Thoughtfulness, said Van Manen (2001), characterizes phenomenology more aptly than any other word. ‘‘In the words of the great phenomenologist, thoughtfulness is described as a minding, a heeding, a caring attunement— a heedful mindful wondering about the project of life, of living, of what it means to live a life’’ (p. 12). … Noticing led to thoughtfulness, a more ‘‘caring attunement’’ (1873).

  • Focus your attention on the now and tell me what problems you have at this moment. I am not getting any answer because it is impossible to have a problem when your attention is fully in the Now. A situation needs to be either dealt with or accepted. Why make it into a problem? . . . . ‘‘Problem’’ means that you are dwelling on a situation mentally without there being a true intention or possibility of taking action now. (Tolle, 2001, p. 41) (1872).

  • ‘‘The phenomenological reduction or epoche brackets our convictions and prejudices so that we may examine the world in its primordialness, as it gives itself to consciousness. The epoche is designed to cleanse the field of consciousness so that we may see, feel, imagine the essential form of a thing’’ (Grumet, 1992, p. 38) (1873).

  • ‘‘For van Manen, such tactfulness is not so much a ‘body of knowledge’ one possesses but rather a ‘knowing body,’ a way of being with students that recognizes the pedagogical actions that are appropriate in a given moment with a particular child’’ (Brown, 1992, p. 56) (1874).

  • Phenomenology is a ‘‘philosophy of action’’ well suited to radically reforming educational practice. . . because of its ontologically oriented methodology, [it] provokes serious and original thinking about the world. … A deeper understanding of the lifeworld of the student through phenomenological research precipitates a greater likelihood of one actively articulating questions and dissent concerning ideas and programs that violate the good of the student.’’ (Brown, 1992, pp. 57–58) (1874).

  • In Van Manen’s (2001) words, “From a phenomenological point of view, to do research is always to question the way we experience the world, to want to know the world in which we live as human beings. And since to know the world is profoundly to be in the world in a certain way, the act of researching— questioning—theorizing is the intentional act of attaching ourselves to the world, to become more fully part of it.” (p. 5) (1875)

  • According to Van Manen (2001), “The end of human science research for educators is a critical pedagogical competence: knowing how to act tactfully in pedagogic situations on the basis of a carefully edified thoughtfulness. To that end hermeneutic phenomenological research integrates part and whole, the contingent and the essential, value and desire. It encourages a certain attentive awareness to the details and seemingly trivial dimensions of our everyday educational lives. It makes us thoughtfully aware of the consequential in the inconsequential, the significant in the taken- for-granted.” (p. 8) (1876)

  • According to Van Manen (2001), “In doing research we question the world’s very secrets and intimacies which are constitutive of the world, and which bring the world as world into being for us and in us. Then research is a caring act: we want to know that which is most essential to being. . . . And if our love is strong enough, we not only will learn much about life, we will also come face to face with its mystery.” (pp. 5–6) (1877)

  • ‘‘Phenomenological research has, as its ultimate aim, the fulfillment of our human nature: to become more fully who we are’’ (Van Manen, 2001, p. 12) (1877).

  • Speaking of these more measurable formulations, Aoki (1992) reminds us that ‘‘these portrayals, although correct, although illuminating, are all distanced seeing in the images of abstract conceptual schemes that are idealizations, somewhat removed, missing the preconceptual, pretheoretical fleshy, familiar, very concrete world of teachers and students’’ (p. 19) (1878).

  • To ask our students to attune themselves to their lifeworld is, in many cases, to ask them to bear close witness to painful realities—realities of hunger and homelessness and violence and neglect and deprivation and injustice. Many of them do not dwell in institutions that support inquiry—or for that matter, innovation, creativity, caring, joy, or experimentation, characteristics that enliven the practice of teaching. They are relieved just to make it through each day. To ask them to adopt a metacognitive stance, to ask that they distance themselves from their experiences in order to come closer to them, to be both in the midst of things and apart from them, and to document the small everyday details of their classrooms is almost more than they can shoulder. And yet they do it, and many of them do it well; their work attests to the stunning transformations that can occur when one engages deeply and intently in open-minded inquiry (1878).

  • For the phenomenologist, said Grumet (1992), ‘‘knowledge of the world requires knowledge of self-as-knower-of-the-world’’ (p. 30) (1878).

  • Students … who open themselves up to this phenomenological process and who give themselves over to deep inquiry, reawaken themselves to matters of meaning by reawakening themselves to the basic experience of the world. They have become contemplative in the sense that contemplation is a state of being in which one is fully present and attuned to the world, bracketing thinking, judging, and analyzing, while trying to see clearly. As Van Manen (1984) might say of them, they have awakened to the reality that ‘‘knowledge as understanding is geistig—a matter of the depth of the soul, spirit, embodied knowing and being’’ (p. 14) (1879).

To consume:

  • Aoki, T. T. (1992). Layered voices of teaching: The uncannily correct and the elusively true. In W. F. Pinar & W. M. Reynolds (Eds.), Understanding curriculum as phenomenological and deconstructed text (pp. 17–27). New York: Teachers College Press.

  • Carini, P. (1979). The art of seeing and the visibility of the person. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota, North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation.

  • Carini, P. (2001). Starting strong: A different look at children, schools, and standards. New York: Teachers College Press

  • Grumet, M. R. (1992). Existential and phenomenological foundations of autobiographical methods. In W. F. Pinar & W. M. Reynolds (Eds.), Understanding curriculum as phenomenological and deconstructed text (pp. 28–43). New York: Teachers College Press.

  • Hillis, V. (1999). The lure of the transcendent: Collected essays by Dwayne E. Huebner. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

  • Himley, M. (with Carini, P.) (Ed.). (2000). From another angle: Children’s strengths and school standards. New York: Teachers College Press.

  • Kesson, K. (2002). Tantra: The quest for the ecstatic mind. In J. Miller (Ed.), Nurturing our wholeness (pp. 30–47). Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal.

  • Miller, J. P. (1994). The contemplative practitioner: Meditation in education and the professions. West- port, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

  • Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

  • Tolle, E. (2001). Practicing the power of now: Essential teachings, meditations, and exercises from The Power of Now. Novato, CA: New World Library.

  • van Manen, M. (1984). Doing phenomenological research and writing: An introduction. Curriculum Praxis Monograph Series, 7. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: University of Alberta, Faculty of Education, Department of Secondary Education.

  • van Manen, M. (2001). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. London, Ontario, Canada: The Althouse Press.


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