Sunday, September 29, 2013

Acting with shared purpose and understanding

Simon Buckingham Shum and I are working on a short book based on my doctoral thesis, which will put across the main conceptual and practical aspects of that research in a more digestible form. An early version of the introductory chapter is posted at, and we welcome your comments. 

Below are some further thoughts on the material there that we'll be incorporating into that chapter.

Why bother creating participatory representations? What are they for? What distinguishes this activity from others is that there is overriding goal of not only fostering shared understanding, but actually leading to some sort of action -- at minimum, walking away from a session with a new outlook or solidified insights, but more to create a change or shift in the way people come together around a set of facts, ideas, or issues. The point is to couple "how should we think about this" with "what should we do about this" -- "what understanding should inform our actions, what actions should we take?" Behind this is something even more ineffable than the concept of "understanding", and that is purpose -- the "why" and "what for" behind actions. Understanding alone does not produce action; it is purpose that gives force and direction to any action that rises above simple reflex. 

Representational practice is one way to help people take actions based on shared purpose and understanding, by externalizing these in collaboratively created images, diagrams, maps, text, sound, and other representations. Without some external representation, purpose and understanding are the province of individuals. By focusing on a coherent and expressive representation, querying it and discussing it and modifying it to make it better reflect the aims and needs of a group of people, more faithful to and evocative of what people are saying, thinking, and feeling, participatory representational practice helps to instill and externalize the sense of sharedness behind acting with purpose.

Referencing the story that opens our draft intro chapter: Jackie realized that in order for Tom enjoy his new compass -- to use it -- he'd need to understand what it was, how it workedm and what it meant. She did this by using a spontaneous, improvised, simple but expressive representation that she invited Tom into modifying. She gave Tom direct feedback on the meaning of his modifications, so that he would both understand them and be able to move forward -- to act -- based on a bolstered understanding, sharing her understanding of not only compasses but of how compass directions mattered in their neighborhood, and how the compass could be fun to use -- to act with -- once he understood what it was for (its purpose).