Interview with Eva Vass
‘Thinking from presence’ in learning, teaching and research
SIG 25 Interview Series: The role of theory and philosophy in Educational Science
In this conversation we explore Eva Vass’s scholarship towards re-imagining learning and teaching (and therefore theorising and research on these) as an interdisciplinary, embodied, creative, receptive-responsive dialogue. Eva’s research approach in this spirit is experimenting with the understandings of “Natural Inclusionality” (Rayner, 2017), a refreshing take on the scientific study of nature. In this interview Eva discusses her attempts to establish a research trajectory which can signify and illustrate the shift towards substantive, lived, receptive-responsive dialogue in various dimensions of educational inquiry and practice.
‘Thinking from presence’ in learning, teaching and research
Tina: It came to my knowledge that you are inspired by understandings of Natural Inclusionality (NI). May I ask you how we may apply these understandings, translated to our field of education? I’m thinking on the ontology in its whole because it seems like it’s not only pure epistemology you’re dealing with, right?
Eva: Indeed, it goes beyond epistemology, in the sense that it really speaks to the nature of reality, and the way we experience ourselves as embedded in or disembedded from our physical, natural or social context. Our perception, one way or the other, has an impact on how we approach knowledge… and how we understand science or frame our mode of inquiry. Essentially, Natural Inclusionality is based on the central premise of evolution as a natural attunement and creative dialogue between self and habitat. NI builds on the notion of receptive-responsive relationship to reformulate evolution as habitat making (sustainability of the fitting) and not a competitive adaptation process (survival of the fittest). I cannot unpack the significance of this central premise without looking at my own research journey. Especially the way my data prompted me to challenge what I understood at the time as mainstream educational science. Early in my research, it happened quite often that I got frustrated or challenged by my research data.
Tina: Please go ahead.
Eva: If I could just give you an example for that … My background is in linguistics, theoretical and applied linguistics. So my doctoral thesis (investigating children’s collaborative creative writing discourse) built on this knowledge. I became an expert in analysing classroom dialogue. And I loved the language focus. In the late 1990s ‘collaborative learning’ research was a rich, dynamic niche in educational science. However, my discourse data often did not ‘comply’ and started to ‘talk’ about other things.
For example, children’s collaborative creative writing conversations often didn’t follow linear turn-taking: the kids were talking on the top of each other. But how do I create some sort of a map of this? And how can I show people that it’s actually good! Because what I observed was not necessarily problematic, it was simply incongruent with what was expected. I realized that talk was almost like, you know, different melodies that come together in a song. And this inspired me to try to capture children’s collaborative talk as a musical score… To show how the overlaps and interruptions all come together into a coherent entity. Because the idea was to actually evidence that the excited, playful, overlapping talk might not be problematic at all.
Eva: It appeared that, in these heated creative exchanges, children could almost talk and listen at the same time, and logic became secondary. Whilst such talk failed to meet the expectations of a classroom in the traditional sense, it served the purposes of collaborative creativity well. Just like when musicians improvise and jam together.
Another example from the same period is linked to the analysis of video-recorded data. I was looking at children’s talk but I also had videos to clarify any ambiguity or note any contextual details. So what was really, really mesmerizing in one particular recording was how the children were swaying together, in synchronized movement, like trees in the wind. I did not think this was simply additional body language. It was not like ‘we talk and (as an extension) we move’, it was more like ‘we move and (as an extension) we talk’.
There was no real scope for this in my research at the time. Yet, the unique features of my data inspired me to depart from the study of language. I gravitated towards movement and wanted to understand how intersubjectivity may emerge through embodied forms of interaction. Coincidentally, I found an alternative music pedagogy as my explorative context: the Kokas pedagogy. There is something special about this pedagogy in the way it targets students’ somatic, experiential understanding of classical music. Whilst it builds on the world-renown singing-based music pedagogy of Zoltán Kodály, it goes beyond the structural analysis (or ‘science’) of music often prioritized in education.
I worked with the late musicologist Klara Kokas (who passed away in 2010) to develop the framework to study her pedagogy: especially how it nurtures co-creativity through collective, embodied encounters whilst also deepening musical understanding. So there was a natural shift from educational theorizing towards musicology, embodied cognitive science, phenomenology, and more recently natural sciences. I recalibrated my research, with a new context, new concerns, and refreshed theoretical foundations.
Currently there is a lot of discussion about embodied, lived experience… The recent surge of interest in Vygotksy’s understandings of ‘perezhivanie’ is a good illustration for this. My own empirical insights show the need for such broader framing of dialogue. Yet, we still don’t really understand how dialogicality (a dialogical opening) emerges from embodied experience. We don’t fully grasp the process of collective being and becoming. Why is this so? If lived experience, or the embodied dimensions of dialogicality are so central, why do we neglect these in educational science?
Tina: Do you mean empirically?
Eva: Yes. And not just in research but in practice too. Because educational practice is not concerned much with these issues either. Classrooms, as we know them, are disembodied and monologic. So, how can we change this? How can we enable children to learn through experiencing, through collective being and becoming? If the body is the medium of collective experience, how can we tune it well? What opportunities for co-experiencing and embodied dialogue can be offered in classrooms? And how do we help practitioners to develop their own understandings of embodiment, and incorporate these understandings in their own practice?
But going back to your question about the ‘empirical’, my journey shows changes in my orientation that are clearly data-driven. The puzzles in my data were the catalyst to review and reformulate my intentions. In turn, my understanding has also shifted in the broader sense, revising my priorities and values. I needed to align my research focus and analytic approach to these. This is what I referred to as the ‘dialogic dance’ between theory and data.
The data also led to interdisciplinary curiosity. For me, this meant a turn towards natural sciences as well. In my recent work, I combined Natural Inclusionality with a phenomenological approach to dialogicality, in order to capture the embodied, polyphonic co-creativity often manifested in my data on the Kokas pedagogy. NI has proven to be an excellent philosophical partner for Bakhtin’s embodied dialogicality and appears to be congruent with what I understand about the phenomenology or the embodied aesthetics of the mind.
So going back to your opening question, I am working with Alan Rayner’s perception of ‘receptive-responsive relationships’ at different levels… To fully grasp the co-creative potentials of natural and social sciences (or sciences and arts) as dialogic partners… To describe the researcher’s artistic dance between theory and data… And to envisage the mode of inquiry as a creative interplay between extraspection (outward perception) and introspection (inward sensing), brought together in an empathic, second perspective.
[Alan’s website, http://www.spanglefish.com/exploringnaturalinclusion/ is a rich source of knowledge on NI.]
When coming to the issue of interdisciplinary dialogue, we need to engage disciplinary fields in the same sort of substantive dialogue that we wish to promote in classrooms… Dialogue which respects the distinctness of various fields but which manifests an openness to change, a mutually responsive-receptive relationship. What we see instead is fragmentation, a sense of disconnect which limits dialogue. We have been conditioned to split mind and matter, emotion and cognition, art and science, the spiritual and the intellectual, the inner and outer, contemplation and objective inquiry, and to value the objectivist mindset above all. We often blame Enlightenment for all this: Arthur Koestler calls it the ‘Cartesian Catastrophe’. But we have actually been bound in this direction for a much longer time, for millennia.
Tina: The Greeks also had the same logic.
Eva: Yes. And this long tradition of ‘the excluded middle’ is really hard to break, it is much more convenient to maintain the status quo. This is how our human world functions. We have created a map of reality, and this map has become the reality for us.
Tina: It is constitutive then?
Eva: Yes. And objectivistic perception has permeated every aspect of our thinking. So even the way we use language, without us realizing it, conveys this bias. Natural Inclusionality offers an inspirational response to the binary logic of objectivistic science. Objectivistic science perceives the natural world as a world of rigid, definitive, static boundaries. NI proposes natural continuity instead. It says that natural boundaries do exist, but they are intrinsically dynamic and fluid. Thus, they do not isolate one from one another, but afford mutual inclusivity. Once we shift from oppositional logic to this ‘flow logic’, we can have a fuller understanding of the possible interplay between natural and social sciences… or embodied cognition and educational science… or arts (e.g. musicology) and sciences and so on. However, this requires a move from the definitive language of either/or. And it is really challenging to depart from our habitual use of language, and try to communicate the ‘neither/nor AND both/and’ logic of NI. We are not all the same, but we include each in the other.
Tina: Let’s discuss the dialogue between introspection and extraspection…
Eva: Yes, the relationship between between insideness and outsideness is central for dialogism (Bakhtin), phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty) and Natural Inclusionality (Rayner). I especially like how NI negates the either/or perception of objective science and subjective art. It shows how objective and subjective perceptions can form a partnership towards comprehensive perception and insight. If so, our mode of inquiry cannot just focus on one or the other. There is no need to ‘bracket’ our subjective insights. From an observational point of view you can look and say what things ‘look like’ or appear to be, but you also would need to look at your own experience of those things. Research thus becomes an art to relate – or ‘dance in between’ – the insideness and outsideness of experience.
In my recent work I have been experimenting with these ideas, visualized in this image: I am looking at my participants but they are also looking at me. I am reflecting on my own felt experiences (introspection) and I am also asking participants to share their introspective accounts, in talk or in writing. I am basically combining the looking in with the looking out, reopening to the continuity that exists between researcher and the researched.
So if you look at my most recent work, you see how I used observational or narrative data to elicit or revisit my own felt experiences and insights. I combined this inward-looking inquiry with the outward looking, detached exploration of participants’ actions and shared insights.
Tina: Thanks for showing me your image, this was thought-provoking. What do you say, could we perhaps turn to implications for the Educational practice now?
Eva: I am not a mathematician, and I do not fully grasp how, for example, the radical perspectives of NI may change mathematics, and how NI relates to or extends quantum physics in describing the nature of reality at an atomic or sub-atomic level. I am nevertheless deeply drawn to explore the value of NI with regards to the functioning of the mind. It is evident to me that Natural Inclusionality has deep implications for the study of the mind as inherently embodied and inherently dialogic. The natural mind has an inherent disposition to engage in a receptive-responsive dialogue with its natural and human environment. However, a major concern arises from the NI positioning. Does education – with its reliance on objectivistic perception – actually work against the natural orientation of the mind towards thinking from presence? Does the narrow focus on objectivistic perception dislocate us, severing the self from the world?
If so, the ramifications are significant, and they go far beyond the walls of our classrooms. As Alan Rayner (2018, personal communication) put it, The 'dislocated self' is lost from its sense of place and begins to behave incoherently. What's needed, therefore is not so much 'reconnection to self and world' as 're-opening to self and world', which brings awareness of natural continuity…. Nature is not an object to attach ourselves to, Nature is the reality ourselves are dynamically included within: hence the need is to re-open to Nature, while not going so far as to deny the existence of our bodily boundaries as distinctions between inner and outer. NI offers a refreshingly new take on eco-psychology or emphatic ecological awareness. These are realisations that, at my current juncture, I am passionate and invested to explore further.
Tina: It was great to talk to you, Eva, thanks a lot for inspiring us into your new-thinking approach to educational research!
Rayner, A. (2017). The Origin of Life Patterns. In the Natural Inclusion of Space in Flux. Springer Briefs in Psychology and Cultural Developmental Science. Berlin: Springer.
Eva Vass is a lecturer in the School of Education, Western Sydney University, Australia. Previously, she held lecturing positions in the UK and in New Zealand. Eva has extensive expertise in observational research and classroom ethnography. Eva’s main research concerns collaborative creativity (e.g. shared creative writing, collaborative creative design or musically inspired imagination). She has been working with the Liszt Academy of Music, Hungary for the last 7 years focusing on alternative music education approaches. Currently she is exploring the embodied, affective dimensions of learning and creativity. In particular, she is looking at how active musical experiences – such as free movement improvisations to music – facilitate the expansion of dialogic space in the classroom, nurturing empathy, other-orientation, and collective imagination. Eva is a regular reviewer for the Journal of Thinking Skills and Creativity, and has recently guest-edited a special issue in this journal on Dialogic Pedagogies: https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/thinking-skills-and-creativity/special-issue/10HSHVLR4FT.
Tina Kullenberg, PhD in Educational Science, is a SIG25-member from Sweden (Kristianstad University) who is especially involved in the research area of dialogic education, drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogue philosophy in particular. Other areas of interests are Art Education, music pedagogy, child research, democratic education and relational pedagogy. Her own teaching background comes primarily from music education in primary schools and preschools.