Between the actual and the desirable: a methodology for the examination of students' lifeworld as it relates to their school environment.

Author:Zur, Ayala


In this article we describe and demonstrate a phenomenological method for researching students' school experiences. Within this method, students are asked to imagine and design an ideal school and to illustrate it both visually and verbally. Their proposals are examined in relation to their current actual school context regarding the characteristics of the physical environment and educational vision. The method is applicable for the use of high school students. It offers them an opportunity to express their feelings and wishes in this regard. Through the designs of their ideal school we receive a subjective portrayal of the way they conceptualize "school."

Projects in which students are asked to design a school are mentioned in the literature in the context of accomplishing two main goals: First, to produce an architectural design of the environment tailored to the students' needs; second, to offer a challenging task that ignites the students' creative imaginations and increases their involvement in school life (Burke & Grosvenor, 2003; Burke, 2007; Flutter, 2006; Koralek & Mitchell, 2005; Sorrell & Sorrell, 2005). Our method proposed in this article serves to accomplish both these goals. Its uniqueness is expressed in two aspects: First, it is based on a solid rationale that is grounded in the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty; second, it outlines a process of analysis that enables a comparison between the students' school experiences, which leads to general insights into the nature of learning environments.

To illustrate our method, we will demonstrate an analysis of the ideal school proposed by two Israeli students: Eli, 17 years old, who attended a democratic school, and Tom, 18, who attended a regular public school. Eli and Tom prepared their proposals as part of a comprehensive study that took place in Israel in 2008 (Zur, 2008). Twenty high school students--ten from a democratic and ten from a public high school--participated in it. Since we cannot present here the entire corpus of our findings, we decided to focus on two proposals based on the fact that these two students expressed a common idea--to design a school for the arts. Paradoxically, their common purpose served as grounds for exploring the difference in their school experience and its linkage to their respective educational environments.

The article has three main aims:

  1. To present the method that we have developed and the rationale on which it is based.

  2. To characterize basic components of students' school experience.

  3. To present ways in which students' school experience is interwoven with the characteristics of their school environment, and discuss implications for school choice.

The article is composed of five sections: In the first section, we present the philosophical infrastructure of our research method; in the second, we describe the tools and processes on which the method is based; in the third section, we illustrate the democratic and public school contexts; in the fourth, we present an analysis of two students' proposals for an ideal school--one from a democratic school and one from a regular public school. In the last section, we discuss the results and the theoretical and practical implications of our findings.

The Philosophical Underpinnings of the Research

This study is anchored in the phenomenological paradigm which incorporates the description, analysis, and interpretation of the structure of consciousness as it is experienced from a first-person perspective (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009). A key concept in phenomenology is the lifeworld, which is considered as the fundamental layer of consciousness--the everyday, covert, primordial, self-evident, and pre-reflective stratum, from which people's overt and explicit thinking originates (Husserl, 1970).

The lifeworld expresses the idea that people are immersed in the world. Applying natural attitude, they don't tend to reflect on their life's experiences--to examine why they occurred, what would have happened if they had not occurred, and whether they could have happened differently. The aim of the phenomenological inquiry is to enhance the researcher's access to participants' lifeworlds; to describe things and events from their point of view and explore the meanings that they ascribe to them (Seamon, 2013; Van Manen, 2007).

Our method is based on assumptions drawn from the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (1962). According to this philosopher, perception is made possible due to the body. The body belongs simultaneously to the subject and to objects in the world. It belongs to the subject as a constant, whole presence which senses the world. It also belongs to objects, because, similar to them, it has a form, size and the ability to expand. Space acquires meaning in accordance with the manner in which the body moves and operates within it. The body's form, size, and directions in space constitute the primary axis for measuring and understanding the world. This analysis, therefore, explains how the body-space interrelationship becomes the source of of meaning-making processes (Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

Place, phenomenologically speaking, is not synonymous with location or space as an objective and abstract entity. It is rather ecology created by the interrelationship between body and human space, consciousness and activity (Gruenewald, 2003; Seamon & Sowers, 2008). The relationship between people and places is bi-directional. On the one hand, people create and change places through meaning-making. On the other hand, places affect people, shape their identity and define the conditions that formulate their attitudes to themselves, to others, and to the world (Casey, 1993, 1997; Taylor, 2009; Eisikovits & Borman, 2005).

Casey (1993, 1997) calls our attention to the paradox that although places play a role in every experience, people do not give them conscious attention. Places are taken for granted as static backdrops in the routine of life, and their attributed cultural meanings remain ignored, buried in the depths of the lifeworld. Hence a contradiction arises between the importance of "places" in the lifeworld and their marginal position in conscious discourse. This contradiction entails the promise that the study of people's linkage to places will illuminate their lifeworld.

As mentioned above, this article presents a method that we developed to explore students' school experiences. The method implements a process that is outlined in the Location Task (Peled, 1976; 1990; Peled & Schwartz, 1999), which was developed on Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological principles. During the process, students are asked to create an ideal school as a place, when the body is invited to participate in a prereflective dialogue with the product being formed. In the next section, we elaborate on the method, its link to Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, and its modes of implementation.


To prepare the ideal school, we propose the use of the Location Task--a process developed by Peled (1990, 1976) to serve architects in their work with clients. We adapted the task for researching the school experience in two ways: first, by adjusting Peled's tool for architectural design to a tool suitable for educational research; second, by examining the ideal school in the context of the participants' real-life schools (Zur & Eisikovits, 2011).

The Location Task includes a task sheet (see Figure 1) and a task notebook. The task sheet is for creating a visual scheme and the notebook is for writing a description of the proposal. The size of the task sheet is 24 inches x 24 inches and the spatial dimensions for the design are 19 inches x 19 inches. On the paper, we find a thick, oval frame that marks the boundaries of the place. The broader circle surrounding it delineates the outer area. The size of the task sheet was determined by the average width of a human body based on the assumption that these dimensions would encourage the participants to enter into a discourse with the place at the level of the lifeworld--a naive, pre-reflective discourse, in which they personify the place, attributing to it meanings taken from the spatial relationships experienced in their bodies (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Peled, 1990).

The Location Task guides participants to decide which specific places they wish to include in the location and its outer area, and then to locate them in relation to each other and in relation to the place as a whole. The task is open-ended and participants are asked to express their wishes giving their imagination free rein. The visual medium is most suitable for highlighting the particular and the unique (Banks, 2007). Furthermore, it facilitates the exploration of young people's meaning making, as visual images are a central component of their culture. Hence they are a convenient and empowering mode for expressing themselves (Prosser & Burk, 2011).

The notebook includes questions on background information, as well as several broad open questions. The open questions invite participants to describe the school they have designed; its outer area and specific places within it that are of particular importance. The questions guide them to describe the physical space, the activities and atmosphere, the times at which each place will be active, and the type of interpersonal interaction to take place therein. They are asked also to relate to the subjects to be learned and the desired style of learning. The task sheet and the accompanying notebook are to be completed privately.

Upon completion of the task, participants undergo an in-depth interview. The interview guide includes two types of questions: fixed questions and specific questions that arose after perusing the task sheet and task notebook. The fixed questions are mainly descriptive. For example: "Describe your task preparation process," "Take me on a tour of your school; what can I see from the entrance?," "What do the school's boundaries...

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