constructivist ideas in practice

liz thomsonMF: Great to have some time with you Liz. I am interested to explore some issues from your working life as you have specialised in large-scale change projects in very different cultures. I am curious about the difference a constructivist approach might make in such settings.

LT: Yes I am a constructivist. As you know my background was in teaching, teacher development, inspection and supporting strategic change and development. The thread running through all these roles was a systemic approach, based on establishing developmental frameworks to support learning and change.

MF: What were the key features of that framework?

LT: It was about working from where people were. This is fundamental to me - if you can see what people are doing, you will find out where to go. Also, right back when I was a teacher I had realised the importance of focusing on individuals, schools and organisations - change could only happen when all three were worked with.

The joy of running a teachers’ centre in the late seventies and early eighties was that the local authority I worked for didn’t dictate, which meant that I had a high level of autonomy to work with groups in ways that made best sense.

I established an approach which was based on encouraging teachers to become active agents in developing their own learning. This was done through setting up a range of planning groups where teachers would be involved in articulating their needs, establishing priorities and creating training programmes to meet those needs. It was an action research model based on reflexive practice which is familiar now but was very new then.

What I knew when I left and moved to a much larger authority, to co-ordinate teacher development, was that my approach worked. We had achieved great results and highly motivated schools. I realised that working with adults was different from working with children, as it took longer to see growth, and learning opportunities needed to be supported within the school context.

Moving to the new authority was like moving to another world - the bottom-up approach I was committed to was not part of the culture at all. And it was a very big organisation with 13 teacher’s centres, 14 divisions and over 800 schools. Again, it was a question of creating area structures and involving interested people who could move things forward.

MF: Given that it was an innovative way of working at that time and not part of the culture you were moving into, how did you win support?

LT: One thing that helped was being very successful in bidding for Government grants. This enabled us to create an effective support infrastructure. We were able to build a team of 34 people working directly with schools helping them to create their own staff development plans, working out what was needed and how they could take the plans forward. The focus was on staff as individuals and as a group, linking their needs with overall policies and developments, and harnessing their own talents and skills. Again, the systemic approach was ahead of the time and schools realised the difference and valued it.

MF: Were you able to take that developmental stance when you were involved in school inspections?

LT: It was at a time when school inspection was the responsibility of the local authorities. My view was that as a local authority inspector, when you inspect a school, you are inspecting yourself. In some authorities inspectors and advisers cast themselves very much as experts and had roots in behaviourist training, so the developmental approach was not well established. In my view, you must have a relationship with the individuals, staff and school, and aim for feedback which genuinely helps improvement and in which you play a part. The contrasting model is just ‘hit and run’ – without constructive feedback it is difficult to move forward. If it is approached in the right way there is learning and insight for all of us. When reflexivity is central, everyone involved is part of the change and development that follows.

MF: The aspect of your work I have heard most about is working in other countries with national change projects. - how did those opportunities arise?

LT: It was through my work at Bishop Grosseteste (University College, Lincoln). I was asked to work in Jordan on a small pilot project on school development and I realised how interesting it would be to move into different cultures. The one I have probably talked about most, and learned from, was the project in Palestine where I was a key consultant working on whole school improvement rather than just staff development.

The starting point was a credulous approach, listening very hard. At the same time, you bring your expertise and you have to be practical, that’s the mix. You need to give people an idea of where they might go, and let them think it through and feel their way to making plans and determining the steps.

In Palestine, the concept of teachers as learners was much less well understood. They were not seen as active agents in their own development - generally in the middle East there is more authority exercised and the expectation is top-down. The value of a pilot is that you can experiment, and the breakthrough came after about 9 months when the leader of the project went into the schools and saw what was happening - the levels of excitement, energy and engagement. When he saw these experiments in action, he understood what it was about, and when those in authority get it, you can make things happen.

The most important thing in working in another culture is listening and working with people on their own terms. One story made a great difference. When I first went to Gaza I saw a depiction of a rooted olive tree painted on a wall and I asked what it represented. I was told that it was the Tree of Palestine - deep blood-red roots feeding down into the earth, strengthening the tree and enabling fruit to grow and ripen. It was a wonderful metaphor for us to share because it made sense of the bottom-up approach, the holistic perspective, the gradual growth of fruit. This was the developmental approach and it was there, deep in the culture, to tap into.

The project was a wonderful experience for me as people were hungry to learn and develop - they took the ball and ran with it; beyond the given, beyond expectations. But we were aware of the developing tensions as the people accompanying us became more and more frustrated as they literally never knew until the last minute whether or not they would be able to get permits to cross the border. The project closed in September and by the end of the month the Intifada had started.

MF: We have talked before, and you have written about, the destruction of the project and infrastructure at that time. It was a desperate loss. I know you asked yourself the question ‘what endures?’ How do you answer that now?

LT: It is perhaps the true test or evaluation of the developmental approach. When individuals are really touched by change and find themselves not just doing different things, but being different people, then something does endure. A sense of what is possible, the belief in another way of working, confidence in what we can do together. Through building group involvement and support as core to the project, people came together to see how to resolve problems and how to take an exploratory and experimental approach. Many practical things had to stop but there were changes to the way people could look at things, to what they could make of their situation.

MF: Were you able to work in a similar way elsewhere? I am aware that many ‘expert’ projects are exported from the UK in a more manualised form with very little local involvement in developing methods and materials.

LT: A similar approach was used in projects in Macedonia and Bangladesh where the methods were refined to work with the construction of strategic plans. In Bangladesh a clearer model was needed to build on, as people had always been told rather than involved and their constructs of planning were about dates and task lists rather than a vision or sense of overall direction. We did need to produce some manuals which had not been our way of working, but it was about being sensitive to needs as we discovered them. We always tried to avoid imposing or directing.

In Macedonia some earlier work had been done by another team to develop training materials and I was asked to read and approve or adjust them to a final draft and then some relatively inexperienced people were lined up to implement and deliver it. I couldn’t and wouldn’t work that way. Although it was a national project, I felt the trainees had to be involved and it had to be developmental at core, or it wouldn’t work - the emphasis had to be on relationship, not the manual. I didn’t say so at the time but I was prepared to resign. I believed there could be no final draft until the end of the whole project - it would all be work in progress. I was able to have some time with the national project leader and gradually won her confidence to move forward. Informed by constructivism and action research, I was very determined that strategies and tools can only be refined and developed through practice, never by a few leaders in meetings.

In Bangladesh, the key moment was winning over a very well respected member of the planning group, an ex-freedom fighter who, after I had laid out the possibilities, went on the attack asking ‘what could be achieved?’ I replied that ’I can’t tell you that’. I said it was perhaps a leap of faith, that by working together we would find out what might work and that was our purpose. I agreed that he was free to turn against it, and that I could pack my suitcase and leave, or we could try something. He looked very hard and then said...OK. That was the breakthrough there.

So, I am very firm about the approach and what’s needed! And it is very structured - the building of planning teams, the process of involvement and so on. But I believe that this firm structure allows real creativity and flexibility to flourish, it creates the container for innovative practice.

MF: That mix of relatively tight structure to hold a genuinely experimental process sounds very facilitative, and very PCP. You started by saying ‘i am a constructivist’. Given the stories you have told here, how would you summarise what you mean by that?

LT: In practical terms I am an explorer - I want to find out. I believe in the person-as-scientist and I believe it has resonance for all kinds of populations and circumstances.

I know from personal experience that whatever difficulties you are experiencing you still have choice. I subscribe to George Kelly’s two big statements - you do not have to be a victim of your own biography, and you do not have to paint yourself into a corner.

I believe that PCP can change people, and am committed to a more social constructionist view. When I first encountered Kelly in the 1970s I was also influenced by G H Mead (who of course influenced Kelly). I am indebted to Phillida Salmon, who introduced me to Kelly's theory which supported much of what I had been trying to do intuitively and which has since contributed greatly to my work in many different contexts. Looking back I have had a fantastic career. 

May 2012

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