This posting is the second in a series that discusses ideas and themes from the recent NZCER report, Organising for Emergence (see the first posting here), an output from NZCER’s Future Focussed Issues project. Organising for Emergence discusses a case study of the New Zealand-based, youth-led sustainability network called ReGeneration. Our interest in case studying the ReGeneration network stemmed from our goal of exploring the ways knowledge is constructed, shared, and used in what we’ve been calling: “self-generating networks for knowledge building, learning, and change in relation to future-focussed issues” *.
In this posting, I’d like to reflect on the name “ReGeneration” (and other language associated with this network) and some of the challenges that it presented for us as researchers who are used to describing teaching and learning within institutional contexts (i.e. within schools, early childhood centres, tertiary institutions, workplaces, etc). For example, when we write about school-based research, we are able to draw on a large set of conceptual categories and labels that are familiar to most readers as “ideas and things that are part of schools”. These include labels to describe people’s roles (e.g., teacher, student, principal), physical objects and spaces (school, classrooms, staffrooms) and organising concepts associated with the daily practices of schooling (curriculum, teaching, learning, subject, assessment, lesson), and so on. Each of these conceptual categories implies a space with edges and boundaries that readers can easily fill based their own prior knowledge and experiences of these categories. Even though the edges and boundaries of these concepts may be more fluid in real life than they appear on the written page, they are at least simple to write about.
As a “self-generating network for learning and social change” (our phrase), ReGeneration did not come with the same set of descriptive labels and categories. The roles that people play in the network, the things that happen within the network and the spaces in which these things occur all required description; but the language to describe these things is much less self-evident and more fluid—even when used by the participants in our research. For example, the name “ReGeneration” was carefully chosen by the organisers for its many layers of meaning and significance. We (the researchers) were first introduced to the word by one of the organisers, who gave us a full copy of this article . This (along with ongoing conversations with the organisers) gave us some sense of the idea of “regeneration” as a concept that seeks to move beyond “sustainability” thinking (i.e. trying to maintain things in the state they are currently in, or to keep doing what we are doing indefinitely, without degenerating the environment, or without depleting resources), towards the concept of actually designing systems, processes, and ways of being that have a positive impact, that is, making things better than they were before, generating new resources through our activities, and so on.
However, a significant aspect of the ReGeneration network (as we observed in our case study) was that word “ReGeneration” was not defined in any singular way, or presented as though there was one correct or best meaning. Rather, multiple, intertwined, and parallel meanings were constructed individually and collectively by participants. For participants, the word “regeneration” sparked metaphors of intergenerational connections, cycles of death and regrowth, nourishing the energies of themselves and other people, connections to people, places and communities. Overarching all of these ideas was a message of positivity and hope. (For example, many saw regeneration/ReGeneration as sitting in direct contrast to “old-school” approaches towards sustainability which, in their experience, could often lead to anger, frustration and despair).
We believe that what we observed in ReGeneration was an approach of emergence, in which both ReGeneration as a group of people, a process and a network, and “regeneration” as a meaningful concept, emerged as a living co-construction. (Likewise, Organising for Emergence pp. 20 – 22 describes the collaborative construction of meaning for other “touchstone concepts” within the network, such as: “organising”).
As researchers, this emergent approach presented us with considerable challenges. Research is a deliberative process of deciding what questions to ask, what kinds of data to collect to answer those questions and, finally, how to synthesise, interpret and represent those data, and an important dimension of this process relates to the kinds of words and language that are used to convey data and analyses.
In the report we adopted some of the language used by the participants in ReGeneration (or language drawn from relevant literature), while in other cases we chose words that we thought would help to simplify matters for readers. The report braids together multiple voices: our own, participants’ and other authors’. We purposefully developed it as a bricolage, presenting a range of data in their raw form, rather than attempting to present a single grand or linear narrative. In many chapters we used the technique of inset boxes to include participant quotes, or quotes from researchers and theorists alongside the main narrative thread. In other cases we include participant quotes in the main body of the text. Our choices were purposeful, but we also invite readers to bring their own interpretations to these layerings of text.
As my previous posting stated: We see Organising for Emergence as an entry-point or a stepping stone into many of the ideas that we would like to continue to develop in the Future Focussed Issues project. The report is not an endpoint, but a beginning point for further thinking, research, and conversation. We would be overjoyed if you chose to respond to or engage with these ideas on this blogthread so we can continue to develop them together!
* Four future focussed issues specifically mentioned in the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) are: Sustainability, Citizenship, Globalisation, and Enterprise.