Safely Exploring Unsettling Questions — Julie Timmermans

Photo by Wink, Creative Commons,
Photo by Wink, Creative Commons,

Last month, I attended a conference on the theory and practice of adult development. The conference left me feeling profoundly unsettled and yet, inspired, in a way that no other conference ever has. I see this state of “unsettledness” in a positive way. Organisms need something to disturb their current state of balance in order to grow. For humans, this kind of disturbance of our current ways of knowing and being can lead us to new, more expansive, ways of understanding and being in the world.I’d like to share some of the questions and ideas I found unsettling during conference, as I think they may be of value as we design learning experiences for students and for ourselves – experiences that may be unsettling, but that may ultimately lead to growth.

• What are the big questions in our field?
• Are there deeper levels to the questions we’re asking?
• What does the theory not explain?
• What is the larger stage for the work of our field?
• Is there a deeper purpose behind this work?
• Imagine the best society. What would it look like? What am I doing (through my work) to contribute to this vision?

At the conference, we were invited to explore these questions. To fully engage in exploring them, both individually and collectively, required a certain amount of courage. Yet, rather than leaving each day of the three-day gathering feeling disheartened or disillusioned in the face of these rather unsettling ideas, participants appeared to feel uplifted and hopeful. And this is where the very intentional design of the learning environment seemed to play a crucial role. The conference hosts designed a program that accomplished two goals: it invited people not only to share knowledge, but it also provided a safe environment in which to explore the frontiers of our knowing – that is, our not knowing. This reminded me of the powerful potential of course design to create learning spaces that fill us up, shake us up, lift us up, and ask us to make connections to the world beyond the classroom.

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As the Instructional Developer - Consulting and Research, Julie supports research on teaching and learning. She is Chair of the annual teaching and learning conference at uWaterloo: Opportunities and New Directions and manages the Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement (LITE) Grant program. She also collaborates on research projects, regularly reviews journal manuscripts, and works on publications. Most recently, Julie has had the opportunity to facilitate a week-long course design workshop in Japan and see first-hand how the questions, frustrations, and joys related to teaching are both similar and different across cultures.