Woods, 1998, pp.44-6 on Serendipity from Woods, P. (1998) Critical moments in the "Creative Teaching" research in G. Walford (ed.) Doing Research about Education, London, Routledge.
One of the critical events I covered involved children from two primary schools planning and designing a heritage centre for their city, aided by their teachers and a group of architects and planners (discussed in Woods, 1993). I experienced two moments of flagging wilt followed by exciting uplift. The first came at the end of a hard days interviewing when I was recovering in my hotel in the early evening. I had been told that Philip Turner, Assistant County Planning Officer for the environment, who had been a member of the project, would be happy to talk to me that evening on his return from London, but was not available otherwise. I was sitting in the bar with a whisky and ginger in one hand and his card with his telephone number in the other, wondering what on earth he would be able to tell me that I hadnt been told already. It was raining heavily outside, and at the back of my mind, too, was the next days crowded itinerary. Researchers, I think, must have a streak of masochism. I pulled myself together and phoned his number. That evening, the project came to life in Philip Turners drawing room. It was a startling interview, full of new data and new insights from somebody with special skills and knowledge, and with a distinctive role in the team. He had folders of exhibits of the pupils work at various stages. He pointed out aspects of its giftedness and of its deficiencies.
I think the architects were pretty astounded at some of the results. Looking at some of these early designs, that one (pointing to one that was not actually pursued) is quite extraordinary for a 10-11 year old, to have got to that stage with the concept of a building of that kind and to be able to draw it in that way almost entirely on his own....
He was also reflexive, putting himself into the situation, looking at the effects on himself as part of the event. He recalled a talk he once gave to some sixth formers:
They said to me: You half hinted that you would really like to see some strong planning control over what the farmers do as they are damaging the environment, are you pressing for that? and I said I dont think its realistic in this political situation and they said Thats a cop out! Now I remembered that and thats actually coloured my approach to the whole subject ever since.
In the critical event itself, Philip was what I have termed a critical other (Woods, 1995). These are people who make a significant input into the event, but have no formal role within the institution where it is based. Their function is to enhance the role of the teacher, basically through the provision of a charismatic quality. This derives from three main attributes: 1) qualities emerging from being other. They challenge the taken-for -granted, introduce novelty, present new role-models, make the familiar strange, widen perspectives; 2) personal qualities emerging from self, providing trust, faith and inspiration; they induce new insights, build confidence, strengthen relationships; and 3) qualities emerging from profession, through their specialist knowledge and expertise contributing toward the authenticity of teachers work. Philip was a critical other in respect of the research also. He contributed his own specialist knowledge and judgement, and his own enthusiasm and inspiration for the project were contagious. Though I had conducted a number of interviews on that day and gathered a great deal of information, it was only that evening that I began to capture some of the charisma that attended the event. The contrast with the initial lethargy could not have been greater. This marks out critical others as special kinds of key informants - the usual conceptualization for this sort of relationship.
Charismatic input was to come from an even more surprising source. I had had another long day in one of the schools after a poor nights sleep in the hotel. The tough, continuous schedule had been arranged by the headteacher. The day began at 9 am with an hour and a halfs discussion with the headteacher. This was followed by a visit to the Teachers Centre, where the childrens work was on exhibition, and where I had another lengthy discussion with the Head of the Centre. Back at the school over a working lunch I continued my talk with the headteacher and studied more examples of the childrens work. In the afternoon, I interviewed groups of children non-stop over a two-hour period. As I finished my last scheduled interview at 4 pm, I breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a good day, plenty of rich data. Now the mind, which had had to keep alert for every moment of the seven-hour day, yearned for rest. At this point, however, I was told that seven year old Jonathan, who had not been included in the group interviews wanted to talk to me, would I see him, or had I seen enough? I really thought, quite strongly, that I had seen enough. After all, data collection should leave room for concurrent reflection and analysis. But Jonathan was already at the door. As he came into the room, exhaustion was again taking hold and I was resigned to simply sitting there and going through the formula. However, as he talked on, there was an urgency and insistence in his words and manner that brought me back to full attention. The fact was that Jonathan was different from those I had seen earlier. I was told later that he was described by his teacher as a very average pupil, but to the astonishment of all, he had excelled at the project:
This is exactly what this child needed. Hes not a confident boy. Hes a very worried child and he loved this project. He thrived on it and got a lot of attention because he came in with his lovely work and everybody praised it up to the hilt because it was quite exceptional for him. It was lovely to see him shine.
Jonathan wanted to convey this to me, and somehow, the brightness in his eye, the eagerness of his tone and his wide-awake body language perched on the edge of his chair brought even this worn out, ancient researcher back to life. It was a key discussion in two major respects. One was in the way it emphasized the charismatic quality that attends critical events that can only be conveyed by feeling. That a small boy could conjure that effect on me in such circumstances illustrates the power of the charisma. Secondly, it was the key to two important parts of the learning theory that emerged from the research as a whole. The first illustrates understanding which includes developing a feel, a sensitivity, a grasp, and a love for a subject, entering creatively into the spirit of an area of enquiry (Best, 1991, p. 269). The second was a key to the population of pupils affected by critical events (all learners, and particularly those who had not yet been very successful); and the degree to which they were affected.
These examples of serendipity relations (Fine and Deegan, 1996, p. 440) illustrate the occasional cathartic effects on the researcher of subjects in situations where the opposite seemed prefigured. In the same moment and on the same matter that the research begins to hang heavy, one can experience that sublime excitement that comes with the totally unexpected.
(Woods, 1998, pp.44-6)
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