Contemplating the spaces in between: transforming meaning from experience through writing

Contemplative Pedagogy Network Workshop Series, March 24 2021

By Dr Mike Wride, Transformative Pedagogies Lead, Centre for Transformative Learning, Uni of Limerick, Ireland

It was a great pleasure to facilitate the Contemplative Pedagogy Network workshop on March 24th.  The workshop featured a classroom activity that I have used in my work as an academic developer: poetic transcription. This is based on the work of Fiona Smart and colleagues (Smart, 2017; Smart & Loads, 2017).

There were four steps:

  1. Participants were asked to free-write about a meaningful learning experience. The meaningful learning experience is akin to a ‘critical incident’ or a ‘disorientating dilemma’ and could be ‘personal or professional’ (10 mins).
  2. Having written about it, the experiences were then shared orally in groups of 3 in breakout rooms (15 mins).
  3. A second break-out activity then took place in pairs, where the texts were shared via the chat, email or via Google docs (or on paper if face to face). Poetic transcription was then carried out (see below)  (20 mins).
  4. The group then came back to together to share their experience of the task and explore any insights gained. This may include reading some of the experiences and/or poems outloud – but there is no pressure to do so (15 mins).

What is poetic transcription?

The process of poetic transcription involves each person selecting resonant/emotive key words and phrases from their partner’s prose to create a poem.

There are a few rules for poetic transcription:  

  • words can be removed to create the poem, but words can’t be added
  • no rhyming is required
  • punctuation is encouraged for structure/emphasis
  • the sequence/chronology of the original writing should be maintained
  • a title should be provided for the poem.

Why use poetic transcription in teaching?

I have always found it a wonderfully emotive, creative and transformative approach. It’s often the case that participants aren’t aware of all the facets or implications of their experience and how it has impacted them. They may not have thought about it for a long time.

The challenge is to make such implicit experience and tacit knowledge explicit and visible, so that transformation can occur: “We know more than we can tell” as Michael Polanyi says (Polanyi, 1998). It can be hard to do this as an individual. The process of sharing is helpful. But, it is the step of producing the poem, which really provides a new perspective. The paring down of the words seems to focus the meaning and, as all good lovers of poetry know, it’s often what is not said and the spaces in between the words, which hold the meaning and allow it to be revealed in new ways.

Cultivating curiosity but being clear

Previously, I had carried out this approach only in face-to-face sessions (during workshops on creativity in teaching), so it was a very interesting exercise to see how I could adapt this to an online format. The challenge was to structure the session to be true to the approach and to enable the participants to engage meaningfully with the activity and with each other.  Ultimately, I wanted them to leave with new perspectives on their experience and new ideas about how they might apply it in their own practice.

In the pre-workshop advertising summary, I had talked about ‘writing’ in general, but I had not specifically highlighted that participants would be writing poems!  The way to true transformation is often through inhabiting and moving through a space of uncertainly and not knowing. Therefore, I preferred not to be explicit about how the process will unfold.  It’s not that there is a lack of clarity – I believe that structure and clear instructions are very important, but the point is that not everything needs to be known at the outset.  

It’s important to allow for curiosity to be encouraged while creating a supportive environment and safe place for shared exploration. In this workshop, the aspiration was to create an opportunity for the participants to be curious about each other and the stories that were being told and unfolding. The shared experience also helps everyone appreciate how the ‘twist’ of creating a poem allows new meaning to emerge from the narratives. It’s there that the transformative potential lies.

Feedback and next steps

From the feedback received, the participants acknowledged the value of the space to think and the depth of sharing of experiences through coming together as a community to experience the practice. The importance of narrative and the need to listen were also appreciated. The break-out room activities were greatly appreciated but could perhaps have been given even more time.

It would be lovely to hear from you about your experiences of putting into practice this approach to contemplative pedagogy. You can share your experiences through our Mobilize CPN community!

A future blog post will be from two of the participants about their experience of the workshop. It will focus on their reflections on the process of sharing and writing.


Polanyi, M. (1998) The tacit dimension, in: L. Prusak (Ed.) Knowledge in Organization (Boston, MA, Butterworth Heineman).

Smart, F. (2017). Poetic transcription with a twist: An approach to reflective practice through connection, collaboration and community. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 54(2), 152-161.

Smart, F., & Loads, D. (2017). Poetic transcription with a twist: supporting early career academics through liminal spaces. International Journal for academic development, 22(2), 134-143.

3 thoughts on “Contemplating the spaces in between: transforming meaning from experience through writing

  1. Many thanks for this update, Caroline. Two colleagues from Newcastle University attended the workshop and found the methods really powerful. We intend to incorporate them into our Executive Education programmes

    Best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m delighted to hear this Sandra – truly wonderful to hear. I hope it goes well fort your colleagues. Best wishes, Mike


  2. Pingback: Light into a Forest | Contemplative Pedagogy Network

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