Thinking of

A Government Classroom and Reading Intention

The teacher, Justine, has written the timetable on the whiteboard. First, at 9am, is mathematics, then, at 10am, literacy. Next is a break, and after that, it’s topic work. She has planned this day, and all the days of the week, and the term: she has decided, following school goals and curriculum, how to divide her school days to ensure children reach certain learning outcomes. Moreover, as she divides the class into groups for this morning’s mathematics and gives out work sheets and other tasks, she has goals for what her children will gain from this hour, from 9am to 10am. This is to say that she has intentions for the learning of others. They are intentions she writes into her lesson plans as firm, clear, and achievable. This is her job.

Today it is windy outside, and a Friday morning, and several of the kids are out of sorts and misbehaving. One keeps talking while the teacher does. Another has had their seat taken and is crying. The teacher Justine is very sensitive to these types of problems and spends a long time talking through techniques for dealing with the upsets of life. We start mathematics late, and some children don’t settle into work, continuing instead to be silly (Government School, author field notes, 24 May 2007).

Justine knows as she writes her lesson plans that these days happen sometimes, that her intentions can be derailed, but that, if she is flexible, other lessons are learnt instead. She knows pragmatically about the patterns of children’s resistance to her plans and the accommodations she must make in the course of the day. This is similar to what Michael Pickering refers to as ‘the mangle of practice’ (Pickering 1994).8

This chapter is about one issue that gets caught up in the negotiation of lessons between children and teacher, between sure plans and changing needs. That issue is the taking of new perspectives. This is what Justine takes imagination to be: ‘opening your mind up to other possibilities and seeing things differently, just drawing on ideas and experiences [for] imagining putting yourself into a different time, a different space’ (Government School, author interview with teacher, 29 May 2007). The chapter comes in two parts. In the first, I tell a story about the achievement of this imagination which is supposed to meet the requirements of a certain type of politics. This is to talk of the routines that teach perspective-taking as empathy, and places this in terms of the culturally sensitive politics of a multicultural nation-state. By empathy I mean the ability to ‘see into’ the life of another, to see with their eyes. This is a reading of imagination as a tool for achieving a ‘good’ form of civic education and thus as a solution to a public problem. Imagination as empathy teaches children to respect and understand other cultures, backgrounds, and habits. In this section, I tell of a teacher working hard to embed routines of empathy in the children she teaches, and I suggest lines of critique.

But as I have hinted above, and will develop in the second section of this chapter, things are not so simple. Justine does intend to impart skills in empathising to her students. But she also intends to respond to students’ needs and sometimes these intentions clash. A skilled teacher, like Justine whom I discuss in this chapter, is skilled partly because she is comfortable negotiating between her intentions for learning and the ways lessons just end up going due to the unpredictable needs and interests of children. This is a skill in picking up and following chance remarks, or tears, or the conflicts that occurred at lunchtime, and turning these into useful lessons. Her interventions are good because they are responses to the ongoing passages in her classroom. What is the result? Adequately answering this question requires acknowledging the impact the messiness of practice has on a participant-observer.

I too had intentions about what I wanted to see. Justine talked about empathy; I knew it was a good of her lessons. I had read and thought a lot about empathy in education (Macknight 2007; 2008; 2010) and I lived in a nation-state where empathy is part of good politics. All these things made me want to interpret the moments of perspective-taking I experienced in this classroom as successful or less successful performances of teaching empathy. This was my intention – but the contingencies of practice resisted so simple an interpretation. Now instead I have revised my intention and I write about the broader concept of perspective-taking.

Making this move is part of trying to be a participant-observer who recognises that they are part of what they later write about. This is part of the move away from telling about classrooms through modes of representation. I seek here to tell of my ways of responding to the events that I witnessed, both at the time and retrospectively. To that end, in the two parts of this chapter I present myself as two types of witness: one, a witness who observes and represents the facts about what happened (one who thinks she is observing from an impartial distance) and the second, a more corporeal and emotional witness (who recognises her situated and emotional body). Doing so reminds us of Donna Haraway’s figure of the ‘modest witness’ (1997). She is a figure who can tell a different kind of story, and it is one I appeal to here. Crucially, she is a witness who does not aim for a single explanation.

The argument I make in this chapter, then, is that a good witness is comfortable with more than one interpretive lens. She does not see classroom practices succeeding or not in terms of a single intention stated by a teacher, but in regard to how the teacher negotiates between her intentions and those of others, and how she brings alive broader and richer versions of her plans. In this case, I argue that instead of ‘empathy’ we should talk about perspective-taking. Extending the metaphors of perspective-taking as ‘seeing into’ and ‘seeing from’ that I introduce in the first part of this chapter, I suggest two alternative ways we might talk about perspective-taking – ‘seeing with’ and ‘seeing for’. Justine’s intention might be to teach imagination as empathy, but it is also to teach these other ways of taking another’s perspective. Realising that it was my intention, my hope, to see and write about practices of imagination as empathy enables a richer reading of classroom practice. The result, I argue, is a new way to understand the complexity of intention involved in teaching imagination and an expanded politics of civic education.


‘Could you Imagine Being Him?’

We gather in the biggest classroom, and all the school’s grade three and four children find spaces to sit cross-legged on the floor. They crane their heads up to look at the ‘special guest’. He is very tall, very black, and has spent most of his twenty-odd years in exile. This is what he tells about today, starting from fleeing Eritrea with his family to a refugee camp in Sudan. He details material aspects of life there, comparing these to how he assumes these school children live: cooking on fires, not stoves; no books, no libraries, no schools; nothing to do but play soccer if male, and cook if female. His story continues. He escaped the refugee camp for Saudi Arabia, advancing from there to Egypt and thence, finally, to a nearby Melbourne suburb, here, in Australia.

The children listen, as the teachers stand watching them, ready to shush whispers and still restless limbs. Now as he finishes his story, the teachers come back to life, with one telling the assembled children that it is time to ask questions. The keenest children put their hands up, looking from teacher to guest for permission to speak. Pointing, the guest calls on child after child.

Most questions come direct from the interview sheets the children had taken home and used to glean a migration story from a family member. These sheets had originally been given out as homework, acceptable as such because they were deemed to constitute a piece of ‘authentic learning’, something embedded in the lives of the children. When, earlier that week, Justine’s class had another ‘special guest’, Justine had held this sheet up and suggested the classes’ questions should come from it.

So now, the children ask the questions teachers wrote for them to ask their families.

Some questions are generic and have already been included in the guest’s story. ‘Where did you first live in Australia?’ ‘I lived in Flemington’, he says, patient though he’s already told them.

Other questions might enable rich replies if asked of older migrants, but for this life story are confusing. ‘Did you have any difficulties during your travel to Australia?’ No, he tells them, catching a plane was very easy and comfortable.

Most questions forget that this was a story of fleeing war. These are answered quickly. ‘What possessions do you still have from your home?’ None. ‘Do you wish you hadn’t decided to leave?’ No. One boy asks, ‘Were you ever shot?’, and the teacher says, hurriedly, ‘Next question’.

We walk back to our particular classrooms, and sit again on the mat. ‘Could you imagine being him?’ Justine asks. ‘Imagine what it must have been like!’ (Government School, author field notes, 22 May 2007)

These children are being taught a set of routines that involve looking, listening, and questioning with the intent of helping them see into the perspective of another person, imagining what it must have been like. Given ‘perspective resources’ in the form of guests, picture and chapter books, timelines, biographies, and classmates, they are taught a set of questions to ask of them. There are particular skills involved in asking questions well, and these children have not yet all absorbed them. Some have not listened closely enough; others have not had the experience with objects, like planes, to ask interesting questions. These are signs that the children are still learning the complex of listening and thinking skills that make these perspective-taking routines work smoothly. Moreover, they have not all learnt a more socially significant set of rules, those that govern what is an appropriate question in this community. To be a good questioner is to avoid upsetting people; it is to ask things that make our interlocutors like us (having migrated, travelled, having special processions, deciding things) not unlike us (shooting, being shot at, running away).

Through the material technology of questions printed on pieces of paper, practised in several situations and increasingly without the paper itself, these children are learning to speak a set of accepted questions. And, through glaring at and telling off children who ask questions deemed inappropriate, another set of standards come into play – those governing acceptable questions in civic life. The teacher rounds off by requesting that children imagine what it would have been like to be the guest. This appears to encapsulate the lesson as having been about perspective-taking as empathy: imagining oneself in the life of another.

So, what I initially believed I had witnessed in this (and other) lessons at this school was the teaching of routines that embed routines of imagination as empathy in children. The notion of empathy as a kind of ‘seeing into’ the world or perspectives of another person, time, or place has a long history.

Empathy and ‘Seeing Into’

Analyses of empathy began in embryonic form with Giovanni Vico, according to Isaiah Berlin, and grew with Herder. Vico’s great insight, in his 1725 New Science, was to see that myths were human articulations of experience. In thinking our way bodily into these myths, through the method of ‘recollective fantasia’ we could come to understand past human experience. We would be able to ‘see into’ the life of another. The tool for the human project of self-understanding would be the logic of imagination (Berlin 1976; Verene 1981; Vico 2002).

Isaiah Berlin ties the insights of Vico and Herder to map broader intellectual trends. According to Berlin, these two figures can be read as opponents of the Enlightenment notions that were slowly taking hold. Where Enlightenment figures said that humans were all essentially the same, counter-Enlightenment thinkers said that culture makes us different. Where Enlightenment figures believed in the logic of science, induction, and laws for knowing about other cultures, the counter-Enlightenment thinkers believed in the need for poetry, art, and imagination to get glimpses of otherness (Berlin 1976).

These are also a politics, one that has been a basic part of nation-states’ dealings with ‘culture’, albeit in radically divergent ways. Commonly, arguments for the intrinsic difference and value of culture to specific groups have been used to justify a politics of multiculturalism. In a piece of previous work, I found an example of this politics. Looking at the curriculum and reading resources of Victorian primary schools in the 1930s, I was struck by the many lessons, stories, articles, and photos that were published in an explicit attempt to show that ‘children in other lands’ were not really so different from those in Australia. If children could see into the world as experienced by the differently acculturated children in other lands, then they could sympathise and feel affection for them. By these means, future wars might be avoided (Macknight 2007; 2008).

Meanwhile however, the conviction that cultural difference causes us to experience the world differently can also be used as argument for the radial incommensurability of cultures. This understanding of cultural difference was the basis of the post-1918 division of Europe into ethnically defined nation-states. Each ethnic group was to be self-governing and by this means civil (and other wars) would be avoided. These ideas were called into Nazi and neo-Nazi ideology (see, Holmes 2000). If everyone really was so different, some must be better than others and some worse. For obvious reasons, we tend to avoid the notion of radical incommensurability and settle instead for a level of difference that can be imagined into via empathy.

So influential has the notion of empathy become that Currie and Ravenscroft argue that empathy and thinking into the worlds of others is usually what people mean by the term ‘imagination’. To recreate the lives of others, ‘to project ourselves into another situation and to see, or think about, the world from another perspective’, they claim is the folk meaning of imagination (Currie and Ravenscroft 2002: 1). Though I have not met this meaning often in my dealing with ‘the folk’ (whoever they are), it does permeate education literature, again as a type of politics. Maxine Greene, for example, discusses what she calls ‘social imagination’. This is intended as part of the achievement of a political goal of education – making better communities through better ways of knowing ‘others’. Her Marxist leanings are clear. For her, the goal of education should be to teach social critique that ‘entails an ongoing effort to overcome false consciousness by rejecting an absolute and state view of reality’ (Greene 1995: 61). To achieve this she advocates a process whereby dialogue between diverse people is made meaningful by empathy. In Greene’s words, we (including children) should learn to ‘look in some manner through strangers’ eyes and hear through their ears’ and therefore ‘cross the empty spaces between ourselves and those we have called “other”’ (Greene 1995: 3).

Imagination as empathy has also been assumed to be vital to good history education. David Stockley, for example, following an article by Boddington, argued that successful history lessons would be those that produced empathy in students. This he defined as stepping into others’ minds to gain an understanding of motives and actions and a vicarious experience of humanity within a historical frame of reference. This was not to be confused with sympathy because this would not be an appropriate emotion to feel for most historical agents. And, he was careful to add, this was imagination – by which he meant that it would be formed of a mixture of knowledge and emotion: ‘Empathetic reconstruction combines analytical and emotional skills and requires substantial contextual knowledge’ (Stockley 1983: 60).

Empathy as an Everyday Political Goal

There have recently been significant changes in how perspective-taking is understood in the Victorian curriculum. There has been a move away from empathy across cultural boundaries replaced by a stress on improving children’s skills in talking and working with people from other cultures. This is a politics that replaces the uniqueness of cultural others with a politics of getting along.

Empathy remains, however, a notion widely expressed in the primary school classrooms I visited and by their teachers. A few examples:

  • the first in a row of posters displayed above the whiteboard in the class at Government School reads, ‘Listening and Understanding with Empathy – Understand Others! – Devoting mental energy to another person’s thoughts and ideas; holding in abeyance one’s own […]’ (Government School, author field notes, 22 May 2007);
  • of her teaching, Mrs Rich explains during our interview that ‘Dealing with the children I teach, I imagine what their life must be like at home. So I s’pose I’m constantly thinking, imagining, putting myself in others shoes, in many areas’ (Catholic School, author interview with teacher, 11 September 2007); and
  • telling about what he believes mainstream schools should learn from the Steiner approach assistant teacher Paul says, ‘I think that ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and that’s something that’s lacking a lot in our society’ (Steiner School, author interview with teacher, 15 June 2007).

These words, collected from a bigger corpus of like examples, reveal that empathy remains an important goal for primary school teachers. It is simultaneously intended to guide children into better understandings of others, to be a tool to help teaching, and as a step towards the goal of improving society.

Given that empathy is a goal for primary school teachers, there are important questions to ask about whether they achieve it in their students. We can work in a sceptical mood, pointing out as I did after the opening story where empathy is stopped or where it misrepresents perspectives. By only focusing on some features of life in camps, and planes, and new countries, children are encouraged only to see into certain aspects of the refugee’s life. Likewise, to give an example from a history lesson, by describing the physical experience of sleeping in a mid-nineteenth century goldfields shanty, children are helped only to imagine themselves in that past, rather than understand that this might have seemed different to those nineteenth century men and women who did sleep there. This is to suggest that ‘seeing into’ is an inappropriate aim for it encourages us to focus on what is familiar, not the great realms of mystery contained in other people and other times. As Samuel Weinburg puts it, ‘the goal of historical study should be to teach us what we cannot see, to acquaint us with the congenital blurriness of our vision’ (Weinburg 2001:11).

Furthermore, beyond the epistemological problem that ‘seeing into’ might produce incomplete or inaccurate knowledge, it also encourages what Lorraine Code identifies as a dangerous ethics. By assuming that others are essentially like us, we claim that ‘I know just how you feel’. These claims might, however, be beset by issues of power and a belief in one’s own authority to know. Such claims might be closer to the statement ‘I know just how I would feel if I were in your situation’ and may stop us from really listening to others. When we recall that much supposed empathy work is done by professionals in medical and state bureaucracies, this becomes a danger to those poor, sick, or otherwise needy people subject to their ‘empathy’ (Code 1995, especially pp. 120–143).

Important though they certainly are, critiques of this nature are not what I am interested in providing here. Instead, I want to explore the assumptions that lie behind a reading of Justine’s perspective-taking routines as empathy, or better, as only empathy. To do so, we turn to an inquiry into the nature of my own witnessing. We ask about the complex play of intentions, resistances, and accommodations performed by children, teacher, and myself. This takes us first back to the classroom that I described at the start of this chapter.

A Critique of your Witness – ‘Seeing From’

These events happened at Government School located in the middle-class inner suburbs of Melbourne. I told something of this classroom in chapter one; of its school context and my happiness there. I said that often riding home I would feel actively happy, soothed, and validated in some deep way. Let me say more about the multiple nature of class in this particular site in order to cast suspicion on my initial readings of what these imaginative routines were about. This will show the classroom embedded in a wider community of practice that takes as basic and natural what Erica Burman (1994) has seen as the production of white middle-class notions of ‘normal’ child development.

First, and simply, this class was a unit of a school located in, and drawing children from, an area of modest affluence a short distance from the city centre. The median weekly family income in this neighbourhood is well above that of Australia as a whole ($1,636 compared to $1,171 according to the 2006 Australian census) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). Financially then, these children likely come from middle class homes.

Moreover, this government school works to attract parents with a particular view of the role of schools in society. Governments should pay for educating children, either because it is ‘right’ in political terms or, in the case of parents who could not choose otherwise, is necessary. These are notions of the state’s role inherited from welfare state politics. What this school takes as its role is articulated in more detail in the material given to new parents. It is to produce naturally social children. The Government School parents’ book has a glossy cover showing children playing, reading, and doing schoolwork. The central photo is of a girl, with a big gappy smile, her hair blowing across her face. These children are messy and childlike, but happy. The text inside emphasises ‘authenticity’ and a natural happy environment (Hilton and Malmgren undated).

In practice, ‘authenticity’ is a frame for the routines that discipline children towards good behaviour. They are routines of mutual responsibility, based on the idea that others’ feelings are like one’s own. When a child complains she has been left out of a game of cops and robbers, Justine asks the culprits, ‘Can you see that Daniel would have felt like that? Would you have felt like that?’ Acknowledgement that they would have is taken to be lesson enough on how to behave: if you would feel left out and upset, so will others (Government School, author field notes, 28 May 2007). This policy is explained to me as natural in our world of social conventions. This is a world in which all are expected to behave equally well, regardless of a person’s superior or inferior power. The physical education teacher tells it in these terms: ‘It just makes sense, it’s how you live in the world, you know, if you drive a car it’s your responsibility to drive it according to the rules’ (Government School, author field notes, 30 May 2007). This school takes ‘seeing into’ to be both a vital and a relatively simple procedure. Others are presumed just as naturally social as oneself. This is how society runs.

In telling about this class and this school in this way – as representing a politics – I do a particular type of witnessing. This type of witnessing constructs me as a reliable observer and reporter of events and the ideas behind them.

However, the suggestion I have been making throughout this book (and in chapter one in particular) is that we should learn to see classrooms as both ‘representatives of’ and ‘ongoing processes in’. This can be drawn into Donna Haraway’s discussion of the witness.

Haraway gives us the figure of the modest witness set both with and against the witness of Enlightenment empiricism. The Enlightenment witness is the rational observer and recorder of the facts of the world as they are reflected off objects and into his retina. This witnessing is powerful, and provides power to those who are entitled to use it. They have been gifted ‘the elaborately constructed and defended confidence of this civic man of reason’ (Haraway 1997: 24). This witness wants to, and can, say definitively that this explains that.

Haraway’s modest witness, just like her less modest cousin, does care about and attest to matters of fact. But she does so in ways that do not rely only on reflection. She is a ‘more corporeal, inflected, and optically dense, if less elegant, kind of modest witness to matters of fact’ (Haraway 1997: 24). As such, she might see in diffraction patterns instead of, or as well as, by reflection. Haraway explains the physics behind her diffraction metaphor:

when light passes through slits, the light rays that pass through are broken up. And if you have a screen at one end to register what happens, what you get is a record of the passage of the light rays onto the screen. This ‘record’ shows the history of their passage through the slits. So what you get is not a reflection; it’s the record of a passage. […] It’s simply to make visible all those things that have been lost in an object; not in order to make the other meanings disappear, but rather to make it impossible for the bottom line to be one single statement (2000: 103 and 105).

A modest witness, then, might see depth and complexity within the facts. She might accept her sensitive body as integral to her acts of witnessing. She might say this is a record of working towards this and that.

With this modest witness in mind, here is the greater analytic significance of the class story I have just told. I myself attended government schools, sent by parents with the middle-class political morals likely to assume the ‘good’ of empathy. I attended a university at the time when curriculum documents that stressed empathy were being written and enforced (Curriculum Standards Framework One (1995) and Two (2000)), a time when the problems of globalisation and diversity were understood and solved through the discourse of multiculturalism and its companion empathy. This is where I was ‘seeing from’, but I could learn to see in a new, more modest, way.

These facts about my classed and classing body make me suspect as an Enlightenment witness, or more obviously suspect than most. Being admittedly corporeal, my ability to rationally observe is compromised. What your witness feels is the tug of familiarity in this place and in these ways of becoming a good citizen, and also the validation of a deeply felt ethical programme. What comes to be reflected most strongly into her retina is the object she already expects and wants to see – that of imagination as empathy. From the start of the ethics process, to justify her project in terms of empathy, she wrote that she intended to study how teachers imparted imagination as empathy to their students. And look, she found it!

However, if we see as modest witnesses, empathy is not the only object that we could distinguish in teachers’ complex routines of perspective-taking. Looking through the diffracting slits we can also see at least two more types of perspective-taking being performed. Looking in this way also enables us to write in terms of Pickering’s notion of the ‘mangle of practice’. This is a dialectic process, formed in the relation of material (or, in this case, human) resistance and the intending human agents’ accommodation to those resistances over time. This is a process of modifying intention and subsequent practice. He explains: ‘“Mangle” here is a convenient and suggestive shorthand for the dialectic: for me, it conjures up the image of the unpredictable transformations worked upon whatever gets fed into the old-fashioned device of the same name used to squeeze the water out of washing’ (Pickering 1994: 567). Despite teacher intentions for empathy, she assesses other forms of perspective-taking as being successful even when children mangle her intentions. I call these ‘seeing with’ and ‘seeing for’, and they are articulated by Helen Verran and by Government School teacher Justine respectively.

Two New Ways of Seeing Perspective-taking

‘Seeing With’

Here is another story of what happened in Justine’s classroom that was initially interesting to me because it seemed a failed attempt to teach perspective-taking as empathy.

The kids are polite, but bored. We have a special guest here today, sitting up the front with Justine. An old woman, who needs help standing up from her chair but who still goes dancing every week. She is here to tell the class about her experiences of migrating to Australia. She was born the daughter of an English accountant in Egypt, a real lady back then, who had to come to Australia with her husband when Nasser gained power. She’d had maids in Egypt, but then she got to Australia found she had to do all her own washing and all her own ironing! And, oh! She cried and cried! She and Justine laugh together, perhaps imagining as I was this poor privileged girl weeping at her ironing board, and Justine replies with a similar story about her friend from India.

At the end the children are invited to talk to the old woman. They gather around, clamouring to tell her about their own families’ migrations, how they’ve been on planes themselves, and about their grandmas and grandpas. Few seem interested in asking questions of her, just three girls who look through the photo album of life back in Egypt. They giggle, ‘Was that you? Your hair is funny’.

Justine and I go to morning tea together. Justine tells me how pleased she is that the lesson went so well. But, I’m thinking, No, that’s wrong! The kids were rude. They talked about themselves and didn’t empathise. I don’t know how to reply to Justine (Government School, author field notes, 29 May 2007).

This lesson does not seem to work as empathy to me. It does not seem to achieve any degree of ‘seeing into’ what it would have been to be this old woman in her past, nor what it is like to be her now. But, I want to suggest, this does not mean that no perspective-taking is achieved. It is just of a different type: a seeing with. Whatever Justine’s intention was when she began the lesson, she is happy to guide the lesson in the direction she found it moving; and is wise enough to be pleased with the result.

Imagination as ‘seeing with’ is a notion that has more in common with Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogic imagination than with the ‘seeing into’ of empathy. His work suggests that language and meaning are not fixed and speakers are not closed, message-sending bodies. Rather, at each moment the speaker makes a choice ‘out of all the possible existing languages available to it at that moment’ and speaks to ‘transcribe its intention in this specific exchange’ (Holquist 1981: xx). Thus, for him perspective-taking is ideally a partial and ongoing building of intersubjectivity rather than the wholesale move from self into other, from my shoes to yours. Our words open us, somewhat, to others and only for now.

Verran argues towards a similar ideal with her notion of ‘postcolonial moments’ which

are made where disparate knowledge traditions abut and abrade, enmeshed, indeed often stuck fast, in power relations characteristic of colonizing. […][it] is not about retrieving a lost purity by overthrowing and uprooting an alien knowledge tradition. Rather, it might effect an opening up and loosening. Increasing possibilities for cooperation while respecting difference […] Elaborating a postcolonial moment involves both making separations, and connecting by identifying sameness. […] sameness in a postcolonial moment enables difference to be collectively enacted (Verran 2002: 730).

Let me put this simply. Different people live in the world differently, and sometimes they meet. The hope should not be for one or another way of living in the world to ‘win’, but to find ways to work together these ways of living. Doing so requires keeping the difference between the ways of living in sight, while also finding points of similarity. The result is new hybrid ways of living in the world, tiny or large, which work in the here and now.

How do Bahktin and Verran help us read the moment when children meet the old woman as a moment of ‘seeing with’? In two ways. The first is that after the woman has finished her talk, this moment becomes a time of dialogue. What children try to do, in telling her about being on a plane and their grandparents, is to find points of common ground between them. These points are broad and simple, but they do identify sameness in their experiences. Now the children and the woman have found points at which their knowledge seems to provide sameness. From these points they could have perhaps found other similarities: they now could see that it was possible to have something in common with this woman so much older than they were. These are moments of intersubjectivity.

Second, some difference is brought to the centre of some children’s attention. What I read as rude (the girls laughing over a photo of an old-fashioned hairstyle) might instead seem to be a moment of loosening, a point at which a gap is opened between these children’s present and that woman’s past. This is a moment at which children don’t understand. Hairstyles in old photos have not been reduced to the explanation ‘that was the fashion at that time’. Instead, as the children laugh at what seems to them to be a simply silly hairstyle, they see a point of difference between themselves and those photographed people. Recognising difference is vital if we are not to reduce all others’ experiences to versions of what we ourselves have experienced already.

This then can be seen as an episode when perspectives are mutually changed by dialogue with another, albeit in minor ways and for only some children. These changes are not only those that pretend likeness. Children learn simultaneously that this old woman is the same as them in certain respects and also that she is unlike them: differences between growing up then (with that hair style), and growing up now (with these hairstyles), are enhanced by a refusal to reduce this difference to easy explanations like ‘fashion’. This is perhaps what Justine recognised as successful, but what I had to question my own bodily expectations to see. By keeping difference in place, ‘seeing with’ can enable moving beyond the self as the index of knowledge. This however, is not the end of ways we can understand the routines of perspective-taking at this school, for it is not the only way the routines of listening and asking can play out.

‘Seeing for’: Different Futures

Justine lost her husband several years ago to cancer. She tells me of the revelation she had then – that imagination is vital for dealing with change and loss.

At that time I needed to be able to imagine that I could be able to move on from that. That, that, yes I’m in a really bad spot, but that I could imagine that at some point, in a week or a couple of weeks I could imagine myself being two years down the path and being able to look back and say that I had made progress. And I guess sort of rethinking dreams of a future. So I think that and an ability to put myself in other people’s situations and imagine, you know, their situations in life. So yeah, I think that I have come to understand the role of imagination is about being able to see endless possibilities and providing myself and others with different thinking of the possibilities and imagining, and understanding that if you can imagine yourself doing something you’ve got a greater chance of actually achieving it (Government School, author interview with teacher, 29 May 2007).

Justine is talking about the importance of imagination for coping and resilience. Having achieved this imagination in her own life, she realised that she had been unprepared by her own childhood: ‘I came to understand how [a lack of imagination] had limited me, that I had never been able to imagine my life as being any different’ (Government School, author interview with teacher, 29 May 2007). Now what she tells is of the importance of all these forms of perspective-taking – imagining oneself other – to embed in her class the ability to change. She is talking about an imagination that enables us to believe in the possibility of changing our lives in the face of crisis.

Vital to achieving this is the ability, as Justine puts it above, ‘to put myself in other people’s situations’. But this perspective-taking is not aimed towards empathy, towards knowing how another feels. Rather, it is aimed at seeing that there are wider possibilities for one’s own life. By this mode, the children are to become capable of coping with personal and collective crises. This is achieved by giving an imaginary scenario that can be set against a current situation to give it scale and possibility. Perspective-taking now is not to ‘know just how you feel’ but to believe that things in one’s own life could be different.

A boy comes into Justine’s classroom upset. She finds out what is wrong by asking him if he can explain to her while the class listens. He does and she asks some questions. The story emerges that his brother has broken his PlayStation. Justine agrees that it is right for him to be sad, saying that sometimes things happen that make us so sad we cannot even talk about them. But, she suggests, if he puts it on a continuum of the worst things that could have happened this morning, maybe he’ll find that it’s not so bad. Your brother could have been hurt, she puts as an example. Then she adds, ‘He’s probably upset about it too. What could you do to make your play together better?’ (Government School, author field notes, 21 May 2007).

Here Justine gives the boy three options. He can focus on the moment of sadness, leaving it distinct and unnameable. Or he can mentally line it up in a string of worse possibilities, and by comparison find a perspective to give it scale. And finally, he can find ways to play better with his brother: PlayStations will remain intact, feelings will be spared, brothers will bond. The boy nods, sniffs, and sits down on the mat. The morning continues.


‘Seeing into’, ‘seeing with’ and ‘seeing for’: these are the possibilities I have given to interpret the routines of perspective-taking that Justine and her colleagues work to embed in their students. At first I assumed that all perspective-taking was aimed at empathy – seeing how another feels. By taking account of the broader practices of this classroom as a corporeal, modest witness, I see now that things were more complex.

When a good teacher begins a lesson, they understand that the outcome cannot be predicted entirely. They can have goals, but learning, especially in a classroom of more than twenty children, is an unpredictable business. We saw Justine express pleasure and satisfaction over the outcomes of several of these lessons, and had I the presence of mind to ask, would likely have heard her give it for the others too. To me this suggests that she was not confused over what resulted, but that any or all of these types of perspective-taking met her hopes. She had broad intentions that could cope with some mangling.

I was unable to recognise this until I myself had done some imagination as perspective-taking. This required two steps. First, I had to recognise where I was seeing from and how this could be extended. I had to be honest about what I had hoped to see in this classroom, and acknowledge that there was more than one way to read events. I tried to become a more modest witness. Second, I had to try to recognise difference in the ways Justine and I were assessing lessons. Instead of thinking she was wrong, I had to think with her, achieving enough intersubjectivity to see her intentions as broader and richer than I had initially assumed.

My argument here, then, is that participant-observation researchers always face the challenge of contemplating where they ‘see from’. When working with others, it is often necessary to wonder about their perspectives and intentions, and, because of the resistances they face in practice, these will be subject to ongoing mangling. Researchers should always work to imagine other ways to see more modestly – to see into and from, to see with, and for.