Appreciatively Building Higher Educator’s Relational Sensibilities

March 30, 2014 in Volume 02

Appreciatively Building Higher Educator’s Relational Sensibilities

David Giles

Flinders University, Australia

Email: [email protected]


In our busyness as higher educators, we can take for granted the relational essence of our educational context and pedagogy. As a consequence we find ourselves striving for greater efficiencies in our educational transactions, all the while lamenting former rich and deep teaching and learning experiences of the past. When the relational nature of education is fore-grounded in our educational praxis, the educational experience will be valuing critical and humanistic ideals. Drawing upon phenomenological research and appreciative inquiries into the nature of teaching and learning in higher education, this article will (1) broadly outline the ontological imperative of relationships before, (2) considering strategies for enhancing the relational nature of educational experiences that give particular attention to the development of relational sensibilities on the part of those responsible for students’ learning. Indeed, the given-ness of relationships calls for dialogic processes that evoke a deepening engagement that is intellectually rigorous, sustainable and advocates for a greater sense of social justice.

The ontological imperative of relationships in education

There are many different approaches to education that emphasise the priority and centrality of relationships. Approaches can be identified which focus on the ‘process’ of relating, others on the ‘distribution’ of tasks (Gronn, 2002), while others focus on teaching and leading as a ‘dialogic’ process where systems, ideals and practices are co-constructed (Drath, 2001). Uhl-Bien (2006) extends the dialogic nature of relational experiences to that of a process of social influence, embedding such practices within a socio-cultural and social constructivist framework (Gergen, 2009a). For Uhl-Bien, the process of being social influenced evokes a level of coordination and change that originates with the teacher and is then perpetuated and sustained in relationship.

Educational contexts presently tend to accentuate the objective and contractual nature of relationships within educational practice (Hall, 2008). Objectifying and reducing educational processes to an efficient exchange, or transaction, can be said to reflect prevailing ideologies that tend to dehumanise the nature of relationships in education (Codd, 1999, 2005; Shapiro, 2005; Thrupp and Willmott, 2003). All too often the concern for relationships focuses on the exchange, or transaction between those involved in the relational experiences (Graen and Uhl-Bien, 1995). Such objective and discrete interactions are seen as integral to learning and teaching too. In this way, learners are seen as discrete entities and the learning experience as a matter of causality.

An ontological take on relationships

Ontologically, educational practice invariably shows a quality of experience. Indeed, educational experiences affirm the essential and ontological nature of education as ‘relational’ and ‘dialogic’ (Gergen, 2009a, 2009b; Giles, 2008; Sidorkin, 2002; Whitney, Trosten-Bloom and Radar, 2010). Relationships, indeed inter-relationships, are seen as foundational to our shared humanity (Giles, 2008; Zander and Zander, 2000). In a similar way, Heidegger (1996) describes our way of being-in-the-world as essentially a way of being-together-in-the-world. The French philosopher, Nancy (2000) also, describes our existence as always being a ‘co-existence’. Relationships are integral to our humanity ontologically with the real issue for educators being the nature and quality of these relationships (Whitney et al., 2010). It is not whether relationships matter to teaching and learning but how they are mattering.

Effective teachers show a concern for, and commitment to, creating humane and connected inter-relationships. In essence, these teachers show a concern for a greater collective good. Such a concern honors our shared humanity and a fundamental respect for others. Relationships with others are more than a functional and utilitarian means to an end; rather they exist as foundational to our humanity. What is often overlooked is that being a teacher involves living towards an intentional and engaged way of being for the sake of others.

A Heideggerian notion captures this idea well where Heidegger (1968) suggests that we live as signposts that point towards that which concerns us in a moment. Effective teachers, in this scenario point towards the formation of learners personally and collectively. Similarly, effective teachers lean towards possibilities of relating which authentically models and embodies a way of being that centralises relationships (Giles, 2011b). In this way, teachers in higher education for example, are found ‘living’ a challenge to other staff and students alike in their everyday lives. In short, effective educators live an understanding that change is integral to living, relationship, teaching and leadership.

Effective teachers promote and engender an emancipatory stance that enables a sense of community and social justice for a greater common good (Codd, 1999; Freire, 2003; Western, 2008). These teachers call others to dialogic spaces where educational ends and processes are seen as one in the same (Uhl-Bien, 2006). In this way, effective teachers position their desired change agenda alongside the necessary re-culturing that works towards critical and humanistic aspirations (Fullan, 2001), where the individual and the collective are not discrete concerns.

Shifting towards a collective agenda is an ongoing challenge for effective teachers seeking to re-culture their educational contexts and practices to ensure that relationships are mattering. Understanding that the means and ends are critically important in the field of education, effective teachers work towards co-constructions of future practice by inviting an authentic involvement of others in creatively considering ideas and practices. Such practices reflect Heideggerian notions of bringing strategies and practices into being, which are currently as-yet-unthought (Heidegger, 1992).

Everyday experiences of teaching and learning also point to a quality of ‘care’ others sense and feel in the experience. Effective teachers care in an ontological sense. Such care is integral to who they are and how they comport (Giles, 2011; Hamachek, 1999). This is not a care that switches on and off but a care that is of essence to a teacher’s and student’s being. In the face of institutional re-structuring and significant change, effective teachers care and set out on their own change agenda.

Noddings (2005) refers to ontological care as a care that is fundamental to our being human. She (2010, p. 394) suggests that ‘the primary aim of … education is to produce people who will engage successfully in caring relations’. Noddings (2005) and Mayes (2005) describe the educational task as one of ontological care and where the educational endeavour involves a caring way of being as integral to an authentic concern for how relationships are mattering (Noddings, 2010).

Effective teachers must concern themselves with ‘how’ they are ‘in’ the teaching-learning context. They must show a caring comportment that is attuned towards the experience of relating (Giles, 2011). Virtues of humility and hospitality will be seen as integral to an effective teacher’s practice. Martin Buber (1996, 2002) describes this kind of relating as showing an ‘I-thou’ relationship, where the ‘other’ is not objectified but care-fully embraced as a fellow participant of life and education. Such care involves appreciative and strengths based orientations that seek to build, equip, support, enable, and encourage others in their ongoing formation.

Enhancing the relational nature of educational experiences by prioritizing the development of relational sensibilities

Relational sensibilities

When experiential accounts of being in teaching, or being with a teacher, are analyzed, invariably a teacher’s engagement in a local, relational and emergent context can be likened to being in a play of relating (Giles, 2008, 2010). Living beyond rules and recipes of engagement, it is the teacher’s relational sensibilities and sensitivities that are critical to the lived experience of teaching and learning, while also being critical to the formation of the individuals involved; the teacher included.

Effective teachers have a particular way of being in their teaching role where their relational sensibilities attune to the nature and subtleties of the immediate and dynamic relational context (Giles, 2010; Segel, 2010). In this play, teachers attune to others’ ways of relating and, more particularly, to the movement of the space between those relating (Segel, 2010). Effective educators know that how the relational space is mattering significantly influences experiences.

Relational sensibilities appear to have an enduring and ontological presence within teaching-learning experiences as being a teacher requires sensitivities and relational sensibilities that enable teachers in the dynamic and emergent settings they find themselves in. How teachers are in their relational context becomes a central concern for the preparation and development of teachers in Higher Education (Giles, 2011). Examples of these relational sensibilities include a teacher’s attunement, nous, tact, resoluteness and improvisation (Giles, 2008, 2010).

In the uncertainties of everyday moments, teachers and students alike can find themselves in experiences where they are thrown and surprised. These moments arrive; they are not planned or scheduled but they call for our attention. In these moments, a teacher’s relational sensibilities are seen in their way of being, perhaps as they attune themselves, remain resolute in a course of action, or improvise towards a decision (Giles, 2010). The following short narrative from a teacher in higher education shows a teacher who is open to others’ growth. She writes,

Another situation, which comes to mind during my teaching and learning is that of letting go and putting your trust in students’ capabilities. Although difficult, having the trust that they can achieve empowered them to be successful. It also gave me a sense of accomplishment that they were guided successfully to do this.

This story shows a teacher trusting her students. Being resolute in her decision making and having confidence in her students is seen as empowering and enabling the students. Reflecting on this experience, she says, ‘although difficult, having the trust’ empowered others. When asked what this story shows about the ontological nature of education, she wrote,

The relationships we build … are key to our own success. Education is very situational and it is about being in tune with what is happening and knowing the actions to take.

In teaching-learning contexts, teachers and students exercise their relational sensibilities in immediate experiences, drawing upon their tacit wisdom and even improvise at times. Experienced educators show a practical wisdom (phronesis) that emerges while immersed in the teaching-learning experience. The uncertainty and improvisation that is integral to teaching and learning is never rigid (although it can be resolute), and is not a set of practices. In these contexts, effective teachers have a way of being that values relationships and where they sense, read, and act in a moment relationally. These sensibilities develop over time and are heard in stories where teachers reflect on ‘how’ they were in an experience, how they might have been in hindsight, and the taken for granted understandings this opens in terms of the ontological nature of teaching and learning.

A range of relational sensibilities have been identified in the context of relationships, professional practice and education (Giles, 2008, 2010; van Manen and Li, 2002). Within this literature, the following sensibilities are identified; nous, attunement, tact, pedagogical thoughtfulness, improvisation, phronesis, resoluteness and moral judgement. These sensibilities are evident in phenomenological and hermeneutic analyses of everyday educational experiences by their ontological presence and significance. Importantly, sensibilities are found in context and in relationships as these sensibilities are lived out. It is not the purpose of this article to justify such the sensibilities but rather open pedagogical approaches that might evoke these sensibilities with teachers and students.

The challenge for providers of higher education is how to engender relational sensibilities in their teaching staff and students. Given that transmission models of learning are inappropriate to the development of these sensibilities, alternative learning arrangements and pedagogical approaches need to be urgently sought and implemented (Giles, 2010; Giles and Morrison, 2010).

Pedagogical strategies for developing relational sensibilities

In this section, two pedagogical strategies that I have developed for evoking a concern for relational sensibilities are outlined. The first approach works with experiential stories in a consideration of ‘educational practice’. In the second approach, I have adapted an Appreciative Inquiry process to explore the life-centric nature of individual’s professional practice in a process I call an ‘Appreciative Appraisal’. These examples are pedagogical approaches have been developed to intentionally engage teachers in higher education, and students in education in a deepening and enduring inquiry about the ontological significance of relational sensibilities in everyday educational experiences.

Experiential stories

The first approach for developing relational sensibilities is to engage teachers and students in interpretive and hermeneutic writing processes that directly relate to their own stories. Life experiences are critical to the teachers or students development (Riggio and Mumford, 2011). This scaffolded learning experience involves contemplative thinking and hermeneutic writing which seeks to open significant meanings from within students’ experiential accounts. This process is a way of provoking greater attunement and reflective concern for their practice as a teacher. Participants write about everyday experiences in particular contexts. A critical aspect of this first step is to ensure that students write about experiences, not their theories or thoughts about an event. In short, thick descriptions akin to phenomenological and ethnographic data gathering approach are sought as grounded experiences (van Manen, 1990).

Having written a minimum of two stories, explanations are given about the process, the nature of hermeneutic processes in interpreting meanings from stories, as well as an introduction to Heidegger’s ideas of calculative and contemplative thinking (Heidegger, 1992). I refer to this interpretive process as a ‘reading the white font’ on the page; or a ‘chewing’ on the experience. Hermeneutics is not about coding words, rather it involves the search for meanings that lie beneath, around, and within the words; metaphorically, meanings that are located in the ‘white font’ and typically taken for granted. For Heidegger (1968), contemplative thinking involves a process of allowing as-yet-unthought thoughts to find us, where everyday experiences tend to involve a calculative thinking approach, which is typically deductive and rational.

Between classes, and in relation to these experiences, teachers and students are expected to be chewing on their stories, recording insights for sharing with the class. Most typically, what students’ share during subsequent gathering are ontological thoughts that relate to relationships and educational practice. Interestingly, student’s thoughts are shared in a gentle manner as if holding treasure.

Once the experiences have been described in text, the interpretation commences. The interpretive activity occurs in small groups of 3 or 4 students and can be an online activity (Giles and Morrison, 2010). This experience involves participants reading aloud their experience from the past, and listening to others interpreting meanings from their story. The Giles of the story is asked to listen without speaking or recording any thoughts, as what is shared is both specific to the actual story but phenomenological in nature.

In designing this activity, I drew from the writings of Levinas, who suggests that others see us more fully, as we can only catch a glimpse of our ontological nature (Alford, 2007; Jagodzinski, 2002; Joldersma, 2001; Levinas, 1998; Marcus, 2007). The ‘other’ is critical to our seeing. The silencing of the Giles occurs for several reasons: firstly, I wanted to close down the rightness and wrongness of the dialogue; and secondly, I was affirming the notion that we live life in a way that takes for granted deeper meanings in our experience. In contrast, others come to meanings on our experiences from outside the experience. Thirdly, the interpretive process in the end was not about the meanings within one person’s experience but those meanings that reside across the stories.

In their group of 3 or 4, having read their stories aloud, and listened to many interpretive comments, teachers and students must now collaboratively identify ontological understandings in the form of powerful and emergent themes, which show essential understandings about the nature of educational practice. In due course, these are shared in a class discussion.

Appreciative Appraisals

This approach to teacher preparation and development shifts from deficit discourses related to teacher’s lack of knowing and doing, to an orientation where the primary concern is the fullest formation of a teacher. This alternative strengths-based orientation focuses on a teacher’s becoming as a teacher and their critical discernment and intentional engagement within the multiplicity of relationships within which the teacher is located (Whitney et al., 2010).

Strengths-based approaches to teacher preparation and development deepens reflective practice from causal and behavioural concerns within problem based approaches, to ontological understandings and imperatives for practice that are taken for granted and yet are essential to how we are as humans together in the world (Heidegger 1996). As a strengths-based approach, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) offers an alternative lens on the formation of teachers, learning and leaders. Focusing on the life-centric nature within everyday experiences of professional practice, those involved engage in deliberative and contemplative thinking and reflection that is concerned with successful practice and the sustainability of teachers over time. In the process of relating with a critical friend or appreciative coach, action-sensitive inquiries open the self-reflective and contemplative nature of educational practice for ongoing consideration (van Manen, 1990). In this sense, practitioner inquiry is lived, deepened, and reflexive, and centralises the relational nature of professional practice (Gadamer, 1994). Enduring benefits can also be facilitated through the use of software where teachers and inquirers engage from their personal learning space (formerly eportfolios). In this way, ontological understandings of individual and collective practice evoke generative dialogue and engagement towards life-centric ways-of-being in practice.

A second approach for developing relational sensibilities then involves an appreciative coaching process (critical friend) within the context of producing, what I have affectionately named, an ‘appreciative appraisal’ (Chapman and Giles, 2009; Giles and Alderson, 2008; Giles and Kung, 2010). In this structured process, over a six-week period, I act as an appreciative coach, critical friend and facilitator of the process. The process involves a lot of dialogue and contemplative thinking on the part of both the teacher or student and the critical friend. The process for completing an appreciative appraisal is deduced from the title itself; firstly, the process has an appreciative lens, meaning I have adapted the appreciative inquiry process (Cooperrider, Sorenson, Whitney, and Yaeger, 2000; Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987; Hammond, 1998; Whitney and Cooperrider ,1998; Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003; Whitney et al., 2010), and secondly, the process involves an appraisal of the student’s current educational concerns.

Like an appreciative inquiry, appreciative appraisals begin with students writing about six experiences that were life-centric in nature, that is, experiences that gave a sense of life to their practice. These experiences are sometimes referred to as peak performances. These are written descriptively by the students with a copy of the stories going to the coach / critical friend.

Separately, the student and the critical friend seek emergent and ontological themes across the stories that show characteristics within the experiences that engender a sense of life in practice. This approach seeks the positive core of one’s practice (Hammond, 1998; Whitney & Cooperrider, 1998; Whitney et al., 2010).

The challenge continues as the participant explains each story, their meanings and themes they identify across the stories to the critical friend. Then it is the turn of the critical friend who repeats the process, tabling ideas as to the nature of the experiences. My approach is to draw upon my hermeneutic skills and abilities to engage with the stories, invariably constructing text associated with the emergent and ontological themes in and across the stories. This important discussion may require a second meeting.

The third phase, after writing the stories and analysing the stories together, involves the construction of provocative propositions that resemble aspirational statements that underpin the participant’s educational practice. This aspect of the process is difficult, and usually requires an outside lens. The final part of the process is to construct an action plan, which shows how the propositions will be contextualised in the participant’s immediate future practice.

The process is electric, energising, and very serious, particularly as teachers and students alike grapple with the life-giving nature of their experiences. The seriousness continues as together we engage over interpretations on their experiences and enact a process of hermeneutic interpretation. The experience of working closely with an appreciative coach / critical friend models a challenging professional dialogue, of the sort that ‘moves’ a teacher or student and the critical friend in the process. Regularly participants point to their new learning and how they are ‘chewing’ on an aspect of their educational practice they had not previously seen.

Participants are required to construct a report on the appreciative appraisal experience and present a PowerPoint summary of the experience to others. Recently, one teacher said, “in over 30 years of being a school teacher, I have never thought so deeply about this angle on my practice. I’ve never been asked what gives me life to my practice as a teacher.”

Having conducted these appreciative appraisals with participants for over ten years, I remain thoroughly committed to the time consuming and interpretive responsibilities associated with the process, given the transformative influence of the experience for teachers (Chapman and Giles, 2009; Giles and Alderson, 2008; Giles and Kung, 2010).

The two pedagogical approaches outlined above are my initiatives to build relational sensibilities within teachers and students. Many relational sensibilities are brought to the fore, not as must-dos, but rather as evidence found within experiential and grounded stories. The deepening dialogue, and the effect on participants who return to their educational positions, invariably results in a deepening attunement to practices and ways of ‘being and becoming’ teachers and learners with relational sensibilities.


It is not enough that educational programmes prepare and develop teachers with more knowledge about the importance of relationships, an up skilling of abilities, all within managerialist and transactional models of relating. This article argues for the centrality of relational sensibilities as ontologically significant to an educator’s way of being (Uhl-Bien, 2006). Priority must be given to educational programs, approaches, and activities that engender these sensibilities in tertiary educators. Two such approaches have been previously outlined.

The purpose of this article has been to call the discourse on teacher preparation and development towards ontological understandings of relational sensibilities. Presently many educational programs for teachers appear to privilege managerialist ‘ways of thinking’ over critical and humanistic ‘ways of being’. Hunt and Dodge (2000, p. 448) consider the ‘relational perspective … to be at the forefront of emerging [educational] thrusts’. The priority for education must be the abundant supply of teachers who are in the process of refining their relational sensibilities. Indeed these teachers should stand out as living and embodying a mattering that shows an ontological priority for relationships as they exist in their everyday experiences.



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This article was accepted for publication after a double-blind peer review process. Receiving Editor: Patrick Blessinger, St. John’s University, Queens, New York, USA.

Suggested Citation

Giles, D. (2014). Appreciatively Building Higher Educator’s Relational Sensibilities. The Journal of Meaning-Centered Education. Volume 2, Article 1,

Copyright © [2014] Institute for Meaning-Centered Education (IMCE) and David Giles

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