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Visions of Excellence

Based on a paper presented at the S-STEP Conference July 2000

Katharine Childs
Graduate student, Concordia University
Adult Educator, Eastern Townships School Board, Cowansville Campus
1057 Girouard Avenue, Montreal, QC, H4A 3B9
email: kathy_childs@email.com

Sarah Fletcher
Lecturer in Education, Department of Education
University of Bath, Claverton Down
Bath BA2 7AY
email: edssjf@bath.ac.uk


There is increasing interest among educational researchers (Mitchell and Weber, 1999) (Prosser, 1998) in the possible applications of imagery among professional educators in the process of undertaking research. The use of imagery is already well recognised in the medical context (Simonton, Simonton-Matthews and Creighton, 1986) and in sport (Martens, 1987).

Imagery is being used by educators in a number of different and quite distinct ways. For some, it is being used for assisting students in accessing perspectives on themselves as educators in an autobiographical study (Whitehead and Fletcher, 1999), while others use it for facilitating learning (Leondari et al, 1998), as well as for assisting pre-service teachers in controlling stress and providing opportunities for their pupils' creative development when they are teaching, (Fletcher, 1999). Still others find it useful as a motivating force or as a guide to further enhance learner goal-setting and self-directedness in adult learners (Childs 1999b).

Defining what visualisation is

Visualisation, according to Simonton et al is a process whereby the unconscious mind is able to communicate with the conscious. In western society we are taught to value external events and objects rather than our internal environment. Meditation is an accepted part of eastern culture but is still frequently viewed with suspicion in the West. Thus we tend to ignore feelings, dreams and intuitions from our internal self-system which can provide us with resources to meet demands of the external world. Visualising is " a symbolic representation of aspects of the personality not normally available during conscious awareness." (p.198) The unconscious self, so Simonton et al believe can be accessed in a kind of "guided daydream" where there can be a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious self. Learning to access this unconscious self can take time and patience and contact is easiest through consciously induced relaxation.

How visualisation can be used to access possible selves

Leondari et al define possible selves as "conceptions of the self in future states". They are thought to derive from representations of the self in the past and to include representations of the self in the future. They are considered different and separable from the current or now selves but intimately connected to them". Similarly Markus (1989) suggests that "Most goals occasion the construction of a "possible self" in which one is different from the now self and in which one realises the goal." (1989, p. 212) These possible selves are "future orientated components of the self - system (which) represent individuals ideas of what they might become. " (1989, p. 212) Others (Bandura, 1988; Burger, 1992) appear to concur with Markus' opinion that "imagining one's actions through the construction of elaborated possible selves achieving the desired goal may thus directly facilitate the translation of goals into intentions and instrumental actions." Possible selves can be consciously conjured up in the pursuit of desired goals which can be positively or negatively constituted. The implications of this for initial teacher education for mentors and mentees are far-reaching.

Possible selves are thought to influence the motivation process in two ways:

i) by providing a clear goal to strive for or to avoid if they are negative,

ii) by energising an individual to pursue the actions necessary for attaining a possible

Therefore, possible selves appear to have the potential to exert a very concrete impact on how one initiates and structures actions to realise positive selves or to prevent negative selves from such realisation.

Katharine's Research Experience

My research is a direct outgrowth of an action research project which looked at acquiring goal setting skills as a way to facilitate self-directed learning (Grow, l 991) in adult students. Among the conclusions of that initial study was the possibility of using a strong personal vision as a motivating force or as a guide to further enhance learner self-directedness(Grow, 1989). In an effort to help my adult students become more self-directed, I continually search for different ways to help them gain greater control of their learning. Through the acquisition of basic goal setting skills, l have seen a certain amount of personal causation emerge, giving those learners in my care a definite sense of achievement and "success". In some of those learners, a vision of the future accompanied by an individualized learning plan to help accomplish that vision, began to strongly emerge. Realizing that this vision could be a key to be used either as a guide or as a motivating factor for increasing self-directed learning, I began to look at visualization and related techniques as a possible means of enhancing selected goals and of seeding the mind (Gerzon, l 997).

The characteristics of a self-directed learner and the cycle of self-directed learning have been well-documented and explored in adult education literature. Most notably, researchers like Knowles (1975 and 1990), Gugliemino (as cited in Tremblay, 1992), and Grow (1989) have determined certain qualities as being essential for self-direction in learning. Among these are that self-directed learners usually have well-formulated learning plans or some sort of vision of excellence to spur them on. As well, more autonomous learners set goals that are realistic and in keeping with their own understanding and plans, and are enthusiastic about their learning. Self-directed learners also take responsibility for their own learning and are aware that they are doing so - often creating learning strategies or devising tailored ways to make learning that much easier and individually more meaningful for themselves. But probably the single most important aspect that characterizes self-directed learners is that they experience "progress" and/ or "success"- according to their own definitions of these terms. Motivationally, then, it would appear that one of the biggest differences between self-directed learners and teacher-dependent learners is that self-directed learners have intemal incentives--their own curiosity or vision of excellence, for example--to carry them on, whereas teacher-directed students seem to be primarily motivated by external rewards or punishments--such as being made to stay after school or getting good grades on a report card.

My belief is that true (that is, highly-developed) self-direction may be difficult to find in an academic system or institution which requires leamers to take courses in order to eam credits towards a degree or diploma program. This echoes Grow's (1989) and Wlodkowski's (1985) concerns that when teachers set many of the requirements, tests, and even assignments for course work, they are, in essence, controlling the environment and the context for learning, thereby making it inadvertently difficult for any learner in the system to take the "...primary responsibility for planning, carrying out' and evaluating their own learning endeavors " (Hiemstra, 1985, p. I I, emphasis mine). With this in mind, the definition of self-directed learners that I use in my previous study as well as in this one is "... those who within a teacher-controlled setting, take greater charge of their own motivation, goal setting,, learning, and evaluation" (Grow, 1989, p. 203).


This action research project is being carried out at an Adult Learning Center in the Eastern Townships section of Quebec, with adult learners enrolled in my classes and in my care, but most specifically with the ten learners under my direct supervision in my position as mentor. As a part of these services, the Adult Education Center offers full-time and part-time academic programs in a self-contained academic setting to those adults wishing to complete their studies leading to the high school diploma (DES) or the professional vocational diploma programs (DEP). These programs are open as well to people who wish to upgrade their academic credentials This academic year over 62% of our learners are 20 years old or younger. These young adults exhibit many of the characteristics of the teacher-dependent learner and have radically different needs and seem to require a completely different "approach" than our slightly older/more experienced adults. Most specifically, there seems to be a lack of student involvement and interest in their own learning.

My belief is that if I could help learners to acquire effective, appropriate goal-setting skills, they would become more self-directed in their learning. I worked out a very simple seven-step plan for use in working on goal-setting with each mentee in our individual mentoring sessions (Childs, 1999a). This plan a modification of the Personal Planning Portfolio used by mentors and learners at the Adult Education Centre.

The "Plan" starts with

(1) a vision, a vision of what the learner wishes to accomplish perhaps a "long term goal" or a dream. We try to commit this vision into words and onto paper as best we can, because dreams can't become goals or even reality until they are put into words.

(2) we take stock of where the mentee is, where he sees himself as going, what he is already doing well, and what he needs.

(3) The actual goal setting begins after taking stock is completed. The mentee writes down his .short-term educational goal, his long-term educational goal, and his vocational goal. These goals may be very similar for many learners—for example, one's short-term educational goal (something that can be completed fairly soon, like getting one's high school diploma) may also be one's long-term educational goal if further education is not seen as part of one's future. Often, learners are unsure of their long-term educational goals or even their vocational goals. After this, l ask each mentee to write down his goal for the year. I remind each one that a goal must be very specific/concrete as well as measurable, stated with no alternates, and be growth facilitating (constructive, not destructive).

(4) an action plan then evolves in which the learner will take small steps towards this goal, each one a subject-specific goal—each with a time limit and a specific task. These subject goals will be set after consultation with his subject teacher as well as his mentor. Then, at every mentoring session (or more often, if needed),

(5) we take stock again to see how things are going, and

(6) revisit the vision, constantly checking and verifying to see where the mentee is in relationship to his vision and his stated goals,

(7) always asking the question "Am I there yet?"

The findings from the initial action research I carried out in the academic year 1998-99 that learners frequently mentioned having their own "vision" of what it was like to be successful, often speaking about this vision in very concrete terms, as if they could smell, touch or feel it:

"Now that I can see - really see - myself graduating, I can see all sorts of other things related to what I want to he: when I visualize myself in an office, I can actually feel myself sinking down into that cushy gray swivel chair behind a polished desk...there's lots of those flat things that hold papers neatly, and l 've got one of those phones - beige, or maybe it 's almond - with lots of buttons and gizmos on it... whenever I imagine it, I always come away with the feeling that my office smells like furniture polish early in the morning. But, as I said, that part is still a long ways off.. "


As well, learners also frequently referred to themselves as if they were, indeed, different "selves"- past selves, present selves, and future selves, positive selves and negative selves. Interestingly enough, these possible selves were always mentioned in connecton with the realization of their goals:

"...1 already see myself as that future person, I mean, I am that operating room nurse. That's who I 'll be, who I am really inside. That 's the positive part that keeps me motivated and going. Now, the person I don't want to he, the person I'm afraid I'll become, is a drunk on a park bench. That 's the person whot’ll keep me in line, who'll keep me on track, the negative image that keep.s me working hard to become the person I am inside, that nurse... "


Sarah's Research Experience

The potential of using imagery and visualisation is yet largely unrealised in education though imagery appears to be well-accepted tool for enhancing performance in sport. I decided to take Cox's (1998) three categories and adapt them to working with pre-service teachers. I have a group of 12 graduate linguist trainees who are taking a thirty-six week PGCE course to enable them to teach in secondary schools. This combines teaching experience with university-based study. The programme is co-written by teachers and tutors and encourages the trainees to reflect upon their own professional development for improvement

Three main foci for using visualisation in the context of my sessions with my trainee teachers parallel the three main divisions of Cox's model:

Visuo-Motor Behaviours Rehearsal

I encourage trainee teachers to imagine how they would react in a potentially confrontational situation with an angry teenager.

Stress inoculation

I put my trainees into a mock interview situation.

Stress management

At the outset of the year I taught my group a number of basic stress control. Stress control has become a recurrent theme in teaching sessions and is an essential aspect of preparing pre-service trainees for teaching.

I talk about using imagery with my leamers as well as encouraging them to live it out through a series of scenarios. I stress that visualization is one aspect of imagery and that some may not see internalized pictures.

How do I use visualisation as means of furthering my own knowledge?

I imagine myself into situations - and "see" myself learning more. By doing this I experience what it feels like to know more - I prime myself ready to learn, knowing that I can overcome initial fears in this way. I scan my memory for previous learning experiences of a similar kind - What did I do when .....? and put myself back through the major steps I undertook in acquiring knowledge on an earlier occasion.

How do I use visualisation as a means of improving my practice in educative relationships?

I imagine myself, as nearly as I can, in the position of the Other. I listen, I watch intently and I try to see "where the Other is coming from". I try out tentative communication to where I think the Other is coming from - and build an empathetic bridge as far as I can with them. Once I can see to some extent where they are and where they want to be, I can work with them to imagine what it would be like to succeed. Beginning to see through their eyes I can ask targeted questions - to probe gently to understand their underlying values - what REALLY matters to them - do they know? Is what they say about their values and what matters what really matters. I hold up a mirror - distorted though it is by my own bias and check - is this what you see - is this really you? If it is why not look at some steps to move you on?

How do I use visualisation as a means of solving my own significant problems?

My action research cycle for moving on is not neatly sanitised but full of tensions and that very tension spurs me to resolve significant problems. I have developed an ‘intra’ internalised dialogue within the multiplicity that is myself! I ask myself questions, I challenge myself - and I argue too! I have I think evolved a form of reflection for confronting fears and joys and moving on by using visualisation in a dialectic way!

So how does my model of an Action Research approach differ from Jack Whitehead’s (1988)?

Jack’s model works something like this: (Mc Niff,Action Research; Principles and Practice, London: Routledge)

1) I experience a problem when some of my educational values are denied in practice

2) I imagine a solution to the problem.

3) I implement the imagined solution.

4) I evaluate the outcome of my actions.

5) I re-formulate my problem in the light of my evaluation.

Mine works like this BUT there is a dialectic and a synthesis within the stages like this;

1) I experience a problem when some of my educational values are denied in practice.

I ask myself if my values are really appropriate to this situation? What would the fullest embodiment of my educational values be like in my practice? Is this really a complete denial of my educational values - how would it feel like to experience both?

(I use visualisation to enable me to reflect on my action- does it really matter if my educational values are being denied and should I change my educative values anyway? My educative values are not static - they evolve through the experience of living more)

2) I imagine a solution to the problem

Again the dialectic approach - I ask myself

"What do I think would be the best solution to this problematic situation?

What do I think would be the worst?" Between the two I synthesise a solution. I form possible selves and "live" in them before I decide which might be best one to actualise.

3) I implement the imagined solution.

I implement and I keep checking and constantly evaluating as I implement it. I am ready to change course if I need to and go back and review the synthesis situation in stage 2.

4) I evaluate the outcome of my actions.

I evaluate formatively as I proceed with my chosen course of action - and I evaluate summatively when I examine the outcome of my action to resolve a significant problem.

5) I re-formulate my problem in the light of my evaluation.

I reflect on how I did overcome this problem - what I have I learnt about solving this problem and how might I use what I have learnt to assist others as an educator in overcoming similar problems that they might encounter. I use visualisation to go to where I first encountered a tension of feeling my values were being denied in practice. I re-examine why I felt tension in the first place - was my course of action appropriate and if it was - are there other areas of my practice where I can apply what I have learnt?

(I constantly move to solving the next problem in the quest of improving my practice!)

How might I use visualisation to enable others to improve their own practice?

I might come to share the visualisations of others by asking targeted questions.

might be able to gain a clearer insight into the educative values held by them and enable them to see other creative approaches to solving problems. I might be able to see as they see... and work alongside them towards solving together their significant problems.

My targeted questions to assist them in seeing their problem clearly and their values that they feel to be denied in their practice might include

Why do you think this situation feels so problematic for you?

(Beginning to explore in a non-judgemental way core values underpinning practice)

Visualise into the heart of the situation (for example; confronting a class that is playing up):

What do you think will be the worst thing if you do nothing to resolve your problem?

What do you think will be the very best thing if you resolve your problem?

What do you think it might be that is stopping you resolving your problem here?

How did you overcome a really significant problem that faced you last time?

How can you use the same techniques this time for solving your problem?

What do you think might be the very best course of action in this situation?

What do you think might be the very worst course of action in this situation?

What course of action between the best ad the worst are you going to take?

How will it feel when you know that your course of action is working out well?

How will it feel if your course of action isn’t working too well and what will you do?

An illustration of my dialectical action research cycle in practice!

It struck me that as I prepared to climb a fell in the Lake District that I approach significant problems that I can see coming at least in a fairly similar way each time. Like this;

I prepare for the challenge by sounding out opinions of others who have faced and overcome similar problems, I get hold of the best "route map" that I can to orientate myself. I ask lots of targeted questions and I examine the options available to me.

What is the best outcome of tackling this problem I can hope for?

What is the very worst outcome in relation to this problem I can expect?

Why am I bothering to tackle this problem anyway - is doing nothing the best option?

What need does solving this problem provide for me? What use might it be in future?

My own vision of excellence; a Self Study

Thoughts on climbing Red Pike 20/7/00

I have asked the National Trust warden all about this walk - asked at my hotel, got myself a large scale map, looked at the track as far as I can see it from the lake shore as it snakes away.

In the past I have considered it too difficult to climb - if I’m honest it scares me and I don’t like being scared - so let’s slay the dragon! I considered it too difficult until now because the last time I tried climbing it with a group the girl next to me fell from the path down the hillside bouncing among the boulders. I gave up and walked back to base with her - frightened. I still feel frightened but I get a kick out of confronting past fears - can I resolve this feeling of fear?

It intrigues me - why is it called Red Pike - why red - I am curious - the ground round here is strewn with greyish boulders, with slate - is it really red up there beyond my view? I must see!

Climbing Red Pike - seems to have a currency here - Have you climbed Red Pike? Are you going to climb it? The National Trust warden asked me - ‘After Bleaberry Tarn (my original goal for today’s walk) What about Red Pike - will you have a go at it - the view will be superb’

I realise how competitive I am - both with myself - You beat me last time mountain but not this! and with others - If others can climb it why shouldn’t I do so - my sister climbed it ages ago ....

Yes - that’s it - slight mystery, slight apprehension, slightly beyond my capabilities and my past fell-walking achievements since I was disabled in the eighties - I can do it - I need to prove me!


What if I don’t climb it? It remains like a thorn - an unattained goal - something I gave up on.

What if I do climb it? Self-affirmation, the best view for miles, the weather is superb, it is time!

Deadline - always bring out my best when I feel the thrill of almost not doing ..........

I am going home tomorrow - probably my only visit here this year - next year- will the weather be good - will I be too disabled with arthritis in future - I visualise my self - doing it now NOW!

I ask questions, I look at aerial maps, and as I start to climb I begin to evaluate constantly ...

This is easy! Oh Hell this bit isn’t! The next bit looks better, one stage at a time - get to the next boulder THEN I can rest - I set myself targets and reward myself as I climb - That’s great!

Tricky bits -tell myself I have managed MUCH worse than this before - besides going back is not an option - I didn’t get better so I could give in now - look at the best scenario - take small steps, block that negative images nagging me to stop - pause, affirm, move on and upwards.

I come to the exact spot where my friend fell thirty-five years ago. There is no doubt. It looks just the same, the narrowing path, the fell-side falls away to loose boulders - I am back there. I face my fear - I make myself pause - You can give in and go back or you can move on and up...

I see the damp boulders where she slipped and I see her curl up as she bounces against the rocks - I still feel my fear as I felt it then - and I want to go back - but I won’t, I don’t - I have overcome much bigger challenges since then - I have learnt to deal with much more than this!

I examine the options

Best scenario;

With small steps I can easily get past this spot and get up to Bleaberry Tarn - and I might just might get to the top of Red Pike - too much for me to see myself doing that from this point.

Worst scenario;

I fall off the mountain, I smash into the rocks, I might die. Ah well - at least I will have died having had a go at being alive - at overcoming my fears and slaying my dragons till the end!

Decide to go on -

Have I got the right equipment? Yes

What do I know about covering difficult terrain? Small steps, steady breathing, taking care.

Don’t look down - block the vision of falling off this mountain, use every tool available to stay on it - never mind what is elegant or looks good. Review - try using hand holds as well as placing my feet carefully into the cracks to hold me. Remind myself - Don’t kneel - the knee is the weakest joint in climbing - I learnt that when I climbed as a child - stay on my feet, upright!

Short bursts of action, pause, don’t look down, fill my head with keeping going - upwards.

If I look down I will see this is too dangerous - don’t look down - don’t let that thought in ..

Set myself small targets - never mind the dialectic - don’t allow myself to think the worst now

GO FOR IT! Focus in really hard on what I am doing. Achieve, rest, self-affirm, continue - the intra-dialogue is relentless and reassuring. Yes you b. well CAN do this! Don’t even think of giving up! Get on with it - OK but what if ? Get on with it! - you have done more than this BEFORE!

I’ll use anything to motivate myself now - it’s getting hard, I’m tired and I hurt. SHAME myself! Others have done this - never mind giving me excuses - Do it! (and I do .....)

Ease back, stop beating myself in my intra-dialogue - Congratulate myself, you’re doing it, all on your own, you’re doing it! Well done - the warden said it would be tough here, everything slides as I touch it, no hand holds, He said Just keep going - so I do, painfully and slowly.

And now it’s just us - me and you - you the mountain and I talk to you and I curse you!

How DARE you beat me! I have come here to climb you! It’s You and Me. I don’t want to be with me if I give up .......... I won’t let you beat me - not after I’ve got this far! PAUSE

Getting there. I’m getting there. And my dialogue with the mountain starts to a conversation

You’ve let others climb you - why not me? Come on work with me - show me how to climb!


Scan my memory for a challenge that I overcame - a massive one - and tell myself -that if I could overcome THAT - this one isn’t so bad - in fact it’s relatively easy ............ really.....

Getting there, managed the last few steps so I can do more of the same. Ground breaks away as I touch it - red ground - my hands are red. Red Pike - you old devil! Now I understand!

LAST push! I’ve got just enough energy. FEAR! I hit FEAR and it’s everywhere. Not now. Not now! Imagine myself - walking up this, visualise myself - walking up this last scree NOW!

Visualise what it is to be excellent - right now - visualise what it feels like. Manage that fear!

I am suddenly detached - seeing ME on the hillside - and I start to think about my fear. Fear produces adrenaline; adrenaline produces energy. Save energy, lower centre of gravity - crouch

Rationalise - detach myself and evaluate how I am coping at my limit now

You ARE doing this, you are, you are ...... YOU HAVE!!!

Relax - take off the pressure, take brain out of gear from concentrating, relax, conserve


The mountain is flat on top. I stroll round taking photos from every angle. ENJOY!

A small nagging doubt begins to grow at the back of my mind ......

what if it’s as steep on the way down? Block it - visulise walking down - happily!

The dialectic returns

Worst scenario - Well you’ll have to die up here! At least you’ve made it to the top! Black sense of humour kicks in - and when they find you they’ll see some super photos of it all!

No - it’s fine - best scenario - you’ll be OK - it can’t be as difficult as it was coming up ...

I’ll reward you if you can get down - you can have a ice cream from the shop opposite the hotel - COME ON!

So what have I learnt about how I learn to overcome problems?

* I have a constant intra-dialogue that I become aware of in stressful situations.

* The nature of this dialogue influences how I react under stress

* A positive intra-dialogue spurs me on to achieve goals I set myself

* I ask myself targeted questions about my intentions and strengths - I interrogate my memory as I scan for evidence of overcoming similar challenges and how I coped

* I use positive and negative visualisation to spur me on to meet challenges

* I compete not only against others but importantly against myself - I internalise challenge

* Self-affirmation is an important motivator for me - I need to reward myself too!

Knowing this, how might I help trainee teachers to overcome problems?

Share my own fears and my own strategies using visualisation to help me cope.

Help them to hear their own internal dialogue and help them to value it as they work

Demonstrate that seeing the worst scenario actually defuses a situation - ‘Is that ALL?’

Encourage them to scan back fro when they met similar challenges - and won through.

Work with them to learn to identify small manageable steps in problematic situations.

Support them as they learn to be independent as learners - monitoring for themselves.

Encourage them to use a dialectical AR cycle as a life skill - not just for in their teaching!

Towards a new epistemology of practice?

In using visualization we have discovered something that already lies within practice and which we can apply to not only to access but to generate knowledge. We are enabling knowledge to arise from intemalizing vision rather than using agreed theories of knowledge to dictate what we see. What an individual sees inside through visualizing is quite unique, for nobody creates the image that individual sees on the internal screen.

Visualization is a widely used technique in a number of contexts and would appear to be of benefit to educators engaged in enquiry. The challenge that awaits us as researchers is to represent the spontaneity of internal seeing and to do so with rigour and artistry while meeting the demands of academic accountability to ourselves, to our institutions and to our students. We will need to demonstrate that learning is taking place in relation to visualisation and justify the values which constitute that learning as being truly educative.







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