Archive for March, 2011

I read two articles by Richard Williams on agency, since I think that it is a fundamental component of a theory of conversation and any theory of instruction. The argumentation of the two articles was pretty similar, although the later article (Williams, 1999) addressed a Mormon audience and thus applied the concepts to principles within Restorationist theology.

Williams’ argument is highly philosophical.  I will summarize a couple of main points, but hope I can also tease out the application to a theory of conversation.

Williams argues that traditional psychology is positivistic, empiricistic, and deterministic. This view grows from the acceptance of the metaphysic of things, Williams says, which posits a fundamental grounding for reality & thus for knowledge, as thinglike & necessary.  But to Williams, the notion of necessity obviates the possibility of agency, meaning, and morality in human action.  Meaning is possible only when an action is not necessary.  To apply these ideas to instruction and to conversation, learning can only be meaningful if it is not simply “the necessary effect of some necessary cause or set of causes” (Williams, 1992, p. 753).

Williams presents the “strong” view of agency: First, he explains that there is “nearly universal acceptance, by both proponents and opponents of agency, of the notion that freedom exists when one could have done otherwise, all circumstances being the same…. [T]he concept of freedom is conceptualized (or operationally defined) in psychology as the making of choices from among genuine alternatives” (Williams, 1992, p. 755).  However, Williams points out that “[t]he notion of freedom as choosing among alternatives is, however, unsatisfactory” because “[i]f freedom is defined as choice, then one can argue either that there is no freedom, because all choices are grounded and the grounds then determine the choices, or else that freedom is simply randomness, because it consists of ungrounded ‘choices'” (Williams, 1992, p. 756). This is highly philosophical to my mind, and it is difficult for me to poke holes in Williams’ argument (though I am interested to see how others would do so).

Having thrown out the view that agency is choosing between alternatives, then, Williams proposes a definition for agency which he believes avoids the philosophical dilemma stated above: “the question of the possibility of agency is the question of the possibility of truth….  [F]reedom requires truth or freedom from falsity…. Freedom is not a quality people have nor a ‘category’ attached to humanity, but an activity, a way of being in concrete situations. Freedom is having the world truthfully” (Williams, 1992, p. 757).  Agency is most meaningful when defined as living truthfully “if for no other reason than choices made without truth are neither moral nor meaningful, and thus agency would lose its purpose and, therefore, cease to be agency” (Williams, 1999, p. 136).  He applies this conception of agency to the social world as well:

It follows, from the view of agency as living truthfully, that freedom comes not by autonomy and individualism nor by any individual qualities or characteristics, but by the nature of our involvement in the social and historical world…. [F]reedom requires our fullest truthful social & moral participation…. Rather than others being a threat to one’s agency, others are the occasion for the possibility of agency (Levinas, 1969). (Williams, 1992, p. 758 – 759)

He further clarifies truth as “not the sort of ‘truth as correspondence to ideal or law,’ which is its usual meaning in our (metaphysical) tradition. Within the hermeneutic tradition (e.g., Faulconer & Williams, 1985), truth is spoken of as ‘the way things are (being)’ in their temporal and contextual concreteness” (Williams, 1992, p. 757).

I feel that I need additional clarification about this last statement: truth as the way things are (being) in their temporal and contextual concreteness.  I like the emphasis on the concrete (though I’ll admit myself an idealist who might more naturally see “truth as correspondence to ideal”).  We have already seen that Michaels et al. argued for “accountability to knowledge” and thus to concrete details and events.  But I’m not sure I completely understand what Williams is saying in this definition of truth, which I need to understand to fully grasp his conception of agency.

Even if I don’t understand every detail, I do like his argument that agency can be philosophically defensible if viewed as living truthfully. The issue of living truthfully reminds me of teaching A Separate Peace.  My students and I followed the strand of authenticity, and found that theme everywhere in the novel. For me, it made the book so much more interesting, more than just “boy jealous of his best friend.”  And I like that Williams sees a social advantage to this definition as well, wherein “others are the occasion for the possibility of agency.”  Williams even ties this social component of agency to conversation, though only briefly: “We also, as we enter into truthful conversations with others, provide truth. In this way, we are the guardians and nurturers of others’ agency” (Williams, 1999, p. 137).

I’m not sure if reading these articles has made me better prepared to argue that agency is an essential in instructional conversation. I hope so, since a revised rough draft is due very soon!  🙂


Williams, Richard. (1999). “Agency: philosophical and spiritual foundations for applied psychology.” Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy. 24, no. 1: 116–142. http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&btnG=Search&q=intitle:Agency:+Philosophical+and+Spiritual+Foundations+for+Applied+Psychology#0.

Williams, Richard N. (1992).  “The human context of agency.” American Psychologist 47, no. 6: 752-760. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.6.752. http://doi.apa.org/getdoi.cfm?doi=10.1037/0003-066X.47.6.752.

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The topic in IPT 692R this week fit right in with a presentation Taylor and I made at UVU on Friday at the Scholarship of Teaching and Engagement Conference.  We spoke about learning communities, drawing on a framework explained by Brook & Oliver (2003), who drew strongly on McMillan & Chavis (1986) (though the framework was from another scholar, Biggs (1989)).  When I saw the McMillan & Chavis reading assignment, I was delighted, since I had put it onto my to-read list.

McMillan & Chavis review several studies on community, and then propose a clear definition of the term: “Sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together (McMillan, 1976)” (McMillan & Chavis, 1986, p. 9).  They then propose four elements to this definition:

  • membership
  • influence
  • integration & fulfillment of needs
  • shared emotional connection

In their discussion of membership, they explore the issues of boundaries, including those that establish a neighborhood community. They discuss the sometimes very subtle demarcations used to show who is a member and who is not to a particular neighborhood community, and write that “[s]uch barriers separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ and allay anxiety by delimiting who can be trusted” (McMillan & Chavis, 1986,  p. 10).  This reminded me of Sandra Cisneros’s chapter from The House on Mango Street, entitled “Those Who Don’t.”  It’s so short I will quote the entire chapter here:

Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.

But we aren’t afraid. We know the guy with the crooked eye is Davey the Baby’s brother, and the tall one next to him in the straw brim, that’s Rosa’s Eddie V., and the big one that looks like a grown man, he’s Fat Boy, though he’s not fat anymore nor a boy.

All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes. (Cisneros, 1984, p. 28)

McMillan & Chavis were concerned with communities in general, not simply online communities.  Brook & Oliver (2003) adapt the definition and elements of community proposed by McMillan & Chavis to the online setting.  As well they adopt Biggs’ (1989) “3 P” model, applying the stages of presage, process, and product to the steps of developing an online learning community. (This model is what Taylor and I used in our presentation.) Brook & Oliver connect this model to the findings of Gunawardena, Lowe & Anderson (1997), who argue that the social construction of knowledge in the online environment progresses through five sequential phases:

  • sharing & comparing of information
  • discovery or exploration of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concept or statements
  • negotiation of meaning
  • testing & modification of proposed synthesis or co-construction
  • agreement statements & the application of newly constructed meaning

I wonder how this sequence is particularly for online learning.  Does F2F learning progress through a similar sequence?

One of the most interesting quotations in Brooks & Oliver was this: “Essential in the formation of all communities is the purpose that the community serves in the lives of its members (Hawley, 1950; Sarason, 1974).” I think this is very true, and may be one of the hurdles in trying to establish a sense of community in a classroom, whether F2F, blended, or online.  What lasting or significant purpose will that class serve in the lives of its members? Is the course simply a general ed requirement that may have little inherent purpose for students?

Rovai & Jordan (2004) found that blended learning environments may have the strongest sense of community (in comparison to similar F2F and completely online courses).  The authors felt that this was due to the greater range of opportunities for students to interact with each other & with the professor, though they did not research the exact causes (see p. 4).


Brook, Chris, and Oliver, Ron. (2003). “Online learning communities: Investigating a design framework.” Australian Journal of Educational Technology. 19(2): 139-160. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet19/brook.html.

Cisneros, Sandra. (1984). “Those Who Donʼt.” In The House on Mango Street, p. 28.

McMillan, David W., and Chavis, David M. (1986). “Sense of community: A definition and theory.” Journal of Community Psychologym 14(1): 6-23. doi:10.1002/1520-6629(198601)14:1<6::AID-JCOP2290140103>3.0.CO;2-I. http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/1520-6629%28198601%2914%3A1%3C6%3A%3AAID-JCOP2290140103%3E3.0.CO%3B2-I.

Rovai, Alfred P., and Jordan, Hope M. (2004).  “Blended learning and sense of community: A comparative analysis with traditional and fully online graduate courses.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 5(2): 1-13.

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This week in Dr. Graham’s class our four readings had to do with issues of self-directed, independent learning versus collaborative, group-based learning.  It’s interesting that I didn’t think of the “vs.” element until later.  While reading the articles the tensions between collaborative and independent learning were not foremost in my mind.

Of the four readings, I had actually blogged on the Carabajal et al. reading earlier (it was then pushed back).  I didn’t understand the article well then, however.  But this time around it made more sense, in part because it fit more cohesively into the themes for this week.  One of the most interesting points of the article was that there are two main needs which “all groups serve … : to attain the defining goal or central task of the group (i.e., the purpose the group was formed to achieve) and to satisfy the social needs of the members….  Conflicts then develop between task-oriented learning goals and the socioemotional needs of the members” (p. 137).  This tension between the task-attainment and the social needs of group members was at the core of much of our in-class discussion about these articles, though we didn’t highlight this passage in particular.  As the Graham & Misanchunk and the Carabajal et al (and the Johnson & Johnson) articles demonstrate, there are clear benefits to collaboration.  Yet students often fight against it, at least in part because they feel they can better complete a task on their own.  Dr. Graham suggested making tasks complicated enough that working collaboratively seems ideal, despite the extra “overhead” required to coordinate with others.

I liked the article by Graham & Misanchuck, especially because it outlined a lot of key factors that an instructor must consider when devising collaborative learning.  I would now like to read the work of Johnson & Johnson (though we did go into this in more depth in class).  I found their “challenge-and-explain” cycle very interesting, especially as it ties to communication or conversation as a means to improving critical thinking.  Graham & Misanchuck discuss a lot of other factors important in collaborative learning.  One was group size: I wish I knew the perfect discussion group size. I’ve often broken my classes into asynchronous discussion groups of 12-15, but this was based not on educational research but on something from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point — I can’t remember what he calls it, but he discussed 15 after talking about Dunbar’s Number of 150. (Sorry for my vagueness here! Not much of a solid basis for my actions!)  But in the Carabajal reading this quote did seem to back up my choice in size of discussion groups:

Fisher, Thompson, and Silverberg (2004/2005) found online groups need at least 15 members to ensure a minimum of messages, 25 was best for student and instructor satisfaction, large groups worked well for conferences and_discussions, and small groups of three to five members worked best for joint Projects. More than 10 members are needed for collaborative dialogue (Paulus, 2005, quoted in Carabajal, p. 144)

I also feel torn about the issue of heterogeneous vs homogeneous groups, another thing discussed by Graham & Misanchuck.  I do think students have a lot to learn from those less like them.  But I know that they are more comfortable in homogeneity, and the overachievers especially do not want to do group work if they feel their partners will be “social loafers.”  Designing collaborative work that truly stretches all students in a heterogeneous group is also challenging; I would love to see examples of things that teachers, in the trenches, have used.

The other two readings were about the “versus” to collaborative learning — independent or self-directed learning.  I did appreciate that both made the point that even directed, independent learners do not learn in a vacuum, and do not learn without others.  Here are a few quotations I thought were important:

Although it is appropriate to encourage autonomy and independence of thought through the process of constructing personal meaning, even the innermost learning activities occur in a social context mediated by communicative action. (Garrison, 2003, p. 164)

Up to now, SDL has been largely associated with individual external control issues. However, education is a transactional experience between the personal world of the learner (meaning focused) and the shared world of society (knowledge focused). Education is a purposeful and collaborative experience that is inherently normative and community based. (Garrison, 2003, p. 166)

These readings made me reflect on the courses I am teaching.  I haven’t given enough control and choice to the students. I want to do this better; it always helps me to see models of how other instructors are crafting assignment that offer a variety of choice to students.  These are harder to design, but I do believe that they are worth it in terms of student satisfaction, achievement, and engagement.


Carabajal, Kayleigh, Deborah LaPointe, and Charlotte N. Gunawardena. “Group development in online distance learning groups.” In Handbook of distance education, edited by Michael G. Moore, 137-148. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 2007.

Garrison, D. Randy. “Self-directed learning and distance education.” In Handbook of distance education, edited by Michael Grahame Moore and William G Anderson, 161-168. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 2003.

Garrison, D. Randy, and Myra Baynton. “Beyond independence in distance education: The concept of control.” American Journal of Distance Education 1, no. 3 (1987): 3-15.

Graham, Charles R., and Melanie Misanchuk. “Computer-mediated learning groups: Benefits and challenges of using teamwork in online learning environments.” In Online collaborative learing: Theory and practice, edited by Tim S. Roberts, 181-202. Hershey, PA: Idea Group, Inc., 2004.

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Since I want my theory of conversation to include agency and human freedom, I want to record a few key lines from Richard Williams, a professor of psychology who has written about meaningful human action.

  • “The meaning of the action (or of any concept) resides in its possibilities and alternatives, its meaningful network of ends and distinctions….  This notion of meaning as open-endedness, as being rooted in intentional involvement, is at the heart of much of the work in the hermeneutical tradition as well.” (211)
  • “Rychlak (1976, 1977, 1981) has written extensively in a similar vein about the importance of ‘dialectical’ reasoning and dialectical meaning in understanding human behavior and in accounting for such meaningful behaviors as acts of free will.  Dialectical meanings are intrinsically expressions of possibility.” (211)
  • “Meaning is in this manner integrally bound up with human freedom.” (211)
  • “…no act can be meaningful in the sense intended here if it is not an act of human freedom.” (211)
  • “Meaningful action demands possibility rather than necessity, and it demands a telic being, one for whom the world is given in terms of possibility.” (220)
  • “Meaningfulness must be the starting point of our psychology….” (220)


Williams, Richard. (1987). “Can Cognitive Psychology Offer a Meaningful Account of Meaningful Human Action?” The Journal of Mind and Behavior. 8/2: 209-222.

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I finished Keith Sawyer’s very interesting book Creating Conversations.  In addition to being an academic, Sawyer is a jazz musician, and spent two years as the pianist for an improvisational theater group.  In this book he brings together his interests in creativity, conversation, collaboration, and improv to argue that conversation (“casual, unplanned conversation” p. 1) is especially creative because it is unscripted and directorless.  It is also creative because it is by nature collaborative: “Collaboration is what makes conversation so uniquely creative” (p. 71).  This collaboration in “creating conversations can lead to unexpected and valuable new ideas.  That’s because creating conversations are unpredictable—new ideas emerge as we talk.  The unexpected ideas that emerge from creating conversations come from the creativity of everyone…” (p. 69). Sawyer draws on findings of M. Czikszentmilhalyi, who interviewed 100 creative people.  “[A]ll said that they couldn’t have done it without conversation—they got some of their most important insights during creating conversations” (p. 195).  Sawyer thus wants to dismiss the myth of that creativity comes from a lone genius working by himself.  Instead, creativity comes from the conversations that occur naturally in collaboration.

For Sawyer, it seems that the best collaboration is that which is improvisational.  Most conversation — especially the informal, unplanned conversation that makes up our social lives — is improvised.  Though we draw on cultural references and scripts, nevertheless all conversation must be improvised.  The parallels Sawyer draws between conversation and theater improv give interesting insights.  For example, Sawyer argues that our conversations are most memorable when “we followed the rules for good improvisation—no denial, don’t write the script in your head, listen to the group mind.  These rules should seem familiar, because in our most creative conversations, we follow the same guidelines” (p. 20).

Yet Sawyer also points out that improv is not without practice or rehearsal.  “Countering the myth that jazz musicians play whatever comes into their heads, Berliner’s research demonstrates that many years of discipline and practice are required before a musician can improvise creatively” (p.  110).  I found this to be interesting, though not surprising.  Though Sawyer focuses on music and theater, I thought about sports.  Team members practice again and again, but on the court, it’s improv.  Even a planned move must be improvised, because you can’t know what the other team’s members will do.  Couldn’t the following sentence be applied to a basketball team, if you changed “rehearsals” to “practice” and “group improvisations” to “team plays”?  “…[R]ehearsals are so important [because] they allow you to learn by doing, to practice quick reactions and the listening skills that you need in group improvisations” (p. 113).  Thus, as players of a sports team, members of an improv or jazz group, or participants of a classroom learning conversation rehearse together, “[t]hey’re learning the process of group improvisation—how to listen to each other, how to get into the odd mindset of not thinking ahead.  They’re also learning to become an ensemble: how to create collaboratively with the group” (p. 113).

I do wonder how to apply these ideas to conversation as a metaphor for instruction.  Sawyer focuses on informal conversations, and thus I am not sure whether he sees any value to more formalized conversation.  Clearly, if improv relies on discipline and practice (p. 110) and his comparison holds, conversation too can improve with discipline and practice.  To some extent, the conversations of a classroom discussion — even if more structured (disciplined) — can also prepare participants for the more informal conversations they will face in the outside world.  But on the other hand, classroom discussions always “break the fourth wall,” a no-no in some theater.  The teacher almost always steps out of the conversation, taking on the director’s role.  Thus Sawyer asks:  “Does conversationalcreativity change when we aren’t all equals?  If one person has absolute authority, they might take control and determine the flow of the entire interaction—like an autocratic manager running a business meeting,  But such an extreme case is rare, at least in everyday conversations in the United States” (p. 58).  Perhaps not in “everyday conversations” — but what of the classroom?  All that Sawyer values in conversation — its improvised, collaborative, directorless nature — is usually ignored in classroom discussion.  How often does conversation in the classroom reach a state of “flow” which Sawyer says our very best informal conversations achieve?  This sounds ideal, but how does one create an instructional model that fits with these ideas?

It takes skill to improvise these conversations—to connect with what has already been said, while at the same time introducing new ideas.  To reach the flow state, our abilities should be matched to those of our conversational partners—we’re not likely to experience flow if we’re conversing with someone who is not as skilled a conversationalist, because we get bored. (p. 190)

I love leading discussions of literature with my students.  But the very nature of a 20+ person discussion means that they may have an idea that connects to something said, and not get the chance to get it in (or have to wait for three others to first share comments inspired by other ideas before they can come to their connection).  How often do the 20+ students feel their abilities are matched by the other “conversational partners” of their classroom — not ones they choose (as they do their friends), but ones they were matched with due to scheduling needs?  And what of my comment: “I love leading discussions…”?  Should I not play the part of discussion leader?  When I do, I take the conversation one step further away from directorless, unscripted improv.


Sawyer, R. K. (2001). Creating Conversations. …

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For pleasure, I’m reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life.  I found this passage funny (I’m chuckling as I type it out), and fitting to Sawyer’s discussion of the effect of setting on conversation:

If we were to go back in time to a house in Chippendale’s day, one difference that would immediately strike us would be that chairs and other items of furniture were generally pushed up against the walls, giving every room the aspect of a waiting room.  Chairs or tables in the middle of the room would have looked as out of place to Georgians as a wardrobe left in the middle of a room would look to us today….

When one had visitors, the custom was to bring an appropriate number of chairs forward and arrange them in a circle or semicircle, rather like storytime in an elementary school.  This had the inevitable effect of making nearly all conversations strained and artificial.  Horace Walpole, after sitting for four and a half hours in an agonizing circle of fatuous conversation, declared: “We wore out the Wind and the Weather, the Opera and the Play…and every topic that would do in a formal circle.” Yet when daring hostesses tried to introduce spontaneity by arranging chairs into more intimate clusters of threes and fours, many felt the result was tantamount to pandemonium, and more than a few could never get used to the idea of conversations taking place behind their backs.

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Style of Writing

As I have read Keith Sawyer’s Creating Conversations, I have liked his very approachable style of writing.  This book feels substantive, but is not written with so much academic jargon as to be incomprehensible to the layman.   He makes more difficult concepts understandable.  He has inserted personal experiences (with jazz music and with improv theater) as appropriate.  He must have intended this book for a wider audience than just academics.  (And why not, with the subjects of creativity, improv, and jazz?)

It made me think about my own style of writing.  In a Ph.D. program, I will have to write an an academic.  But I want my writing to be as comprehensible and engaging as Sawyer’s in this book.  Is this a freedom allowed only once one has established a reputation for scholarliness, as Sawyer has already done?  Clearly your writing style must fit your audience, and in writing this book he both carries the prestige and addresses a topic to appeal to a wider audience.

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