A&O READING – Excerpts from The Phenomenological Heart of Teaching and Learning Chap 1 (K Greenberg et al 2019)




from The Phenomenological Heart of Teaching and Learning*,


Chapter 1, The Lifeworld of the Classroom


Rarely do we teachers in higher education consider the dynamic processes  involved in the lifeworld (Lebenswelt) of the classroom: “[T]he world of  lived experience inhabited by us as conscious beings and incorporating the  way in which phenomena (events, objects, emotions) appear to us in our  conscious experience or everyday life” (Brooks, 2015, p. 642).  For the primary job of higher education teachers is to impart to students the objective, analytical, and abstract knowledge of our fields of  study. Hence, this objectivism turns our attention away from our subjective perceptions. And we contend (along with many phenomenologists)  these subjective perceptions are the only way we initially connect with the  world and what we know of it. Indeed, we authors (who are also higher  education teachers) believe attention to the lifeworld in relation to course  content opens teachers and their learners to a deeper realization of abstract  knowledge and its meaning in their personal and professional lives.

Picture these brief descriptions of experiences shared by a professor  and his students:

Students: I feel I am in it. I am helping to create it and it is helping  to create me…. It is seeping into a lot of other areas of  my life. (Sonia) I really didn’t feel like a student. I felt like  a learner. (Lois)

Professor: My intent is to go somewhere—where students want to  go—[to focus on] what stands out to them. To find an  answer to some BIG question related to the topic of that  session…. I know certain places that I want to go. We  go, and we get there. My job is to show them how they  can get themselves there. It’s the revelation of self.

Students: I think there’s a challenge to be more engaged with everything  … like little things throughout your day even, and just  kind of like seeing those things in your life. (James) It’s given  me a different way to look at the world. (Lois)

Professor: It flows and most everybody’s looking at you or toward the  person who is talking. And they’re not talking to anybody  else. And I think that basically, there is no resistance in the  class. It’s going better than you would ever hope. You’ve  got someplace where you never expected.

What could be more gratifying to any teacher than for students to  experience a course as these student quotes indicate? And how can we as  teachers understand the teaching that fostered such experiences? We, the  authors, have explored the answers to these questions through detailed  descriptions of the lifeworld of the classroom. By hearing the voices of  students and teachers, by foregrounding their first-person perspectives,  we believe that research can uncover the heart of teaching and learning.  Lived experiences of students and teachers are frequently ignored by  researchers focused on pedagogy. Some of these researchers consider  such accounts too subjective or anecdotal. Hence, the implications for  evidenced-based methods for teaching are presented objectively, as if  those methods represented universal truths. Yet in this book we present an existential phenomenological approach to teaching and learning  in higher education. It is an approach in which the science of teaching  does not supersede its art, an approach based primarily in the philosophy  of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) that fosters deep connections  between the personal subjective experiences of teachers and students and  the abstract theoretical knowledge of course content.  Our approach and the way we present it is intended to provide principles that encourage every teacher to determine their own intuitive style to  address the fluid context that is the lifeworld of their particular classroom  (see Chapter 9).

Unlike much literature offering approaches for higher  education pedagogy, where rationality receives attention while intuition is  ignored, in our approach we honor both. For teachers who aspire to use  best practices frequently find that recommended techniques do not work  as planned because they ignore the lifeworld of a specific classroom and  the intermingled, subjective perspectives of a unique group of students.  The science of teaching without the art can never be truly successful.  On the other hand, combining the lifeworld with best practices can lead  to startling improvements in teaching (see Box 1.1).

Box 1.1Reflection, Kathy Greenberg  I experienced a powerful transformation in my teaching after participating on a research team focused on the lived experience of black university students on a predominately white campus (Davis et al., 2004; see  also Chapter 8). Prior to that research project, I had spent 20 years teaching, researching, and consulting on the effectiveness of an educational  approach to help marginalized students, primarily African Americans, develop personalized strategies for school learning. Nevertheless, with the  Davis et al. research, I felt I was able for the very first time to walk in the  shoes of marginalized students, if only for a few brief moments. Through  this research project I developed a much deeper level of understanding as I  reflected on the students’ lifeworld from their perspectives. It dramatically  changed my teaching.

To be sure, traditional research in teaching and learning has led to  an extensive and valuable literature related to higher education pedagogy. Some of these texts offer principles or techniques derived from  implications of research findings about effective learning (e.g., Ambrose,  Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). Some texts share pedagogical approaches based on implications from fields of study such as  brain research (e.g., Taylor & Marienau, 2016). Still others combine  implications from personal experience and related research (e.g., James  & Brookfield, 2014; Weimer, 2013). These authors discuss their pedagogical ideas from their unique perspectives and often provide examples  from classroom settings.

We the authors of this book do not reject such research. But when we  examine phenomenological research based on teachers’ and students’  first-person descriptions of their experiences in teaching and learning  contexts, we discover a broader focus on aspects of learning beyond the  utilitarian focus of acquisition of knowledge and skills. In this book, we  look beneath the surface—to the phenomenological heart of teaching  and learning—to provide a balanced approach to researching the living,  dynamic, and sensitive system of the lifeworld of the classroom. (Note:  Some readers may be wondering why we use the term teacher to describe  higher education “instructors” and/or “professors.” See Box 1.2for our  explanation.)

Box 1.2 Labels Matter: Teacher vs. Instructor  We chose to focus on the more concrete role of teaching and move away  from the underlying meaning of instructing. For instructing implies lack  of interest in the lifeworld of the classroom. It also implies lack of balance  between first-person experience and the utilitarian focus on mastery of  abstract knowledge and skills. The only exception in labels we chose to use  when referring to those who teach in higher education is our use of professor when referring to our case study teacher. We want to make clear when  we are referring to our teacher who served as our research participant and  whose practice is at the heart of this text.

The case study research we conducted permits a more intimate glimpse  of what is actually happening from the teacher’s preparation for class to  the moments of mutual excitement and discovery during class interactions, as well as the first-person descriptions shared by the professor and  his students. We believe our work allows teachers to make both personal  and professional connections that will enhance teaching and learning.

Using the phenomenological research methodology developed at The  University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) (Sohn, Thomas, Greenberg, &  Pollio, 2017), this book provides an opportunity for readers to walk in  the shoes of our case study professor and his graduate students. But we  also include teachers and students’ first-person descriptions in a variety of  higher education settings that demonstrate the feasibility of our approach  in other contexts.

We do not recommend a set of techniques or activities. Instead, we share  a phenomenological approach that can inform the unique connoisseurship of good teachers—the sensitivity to subtle variations of the lifeworld  of the classroom—informed by a phenomenological attitude (Churchill,  2012; Dirkx, 1998; Finlay, 2008). We include in-depth examples of the  approach from the case study (Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7) but also descriptions of our approach and its use in community college and university  settings across numerous fields of study (Chapter 8). We also compare and  contrast our findings and framework to that of more mainstream research  and other pedagogical approaches (Chapter 9).

Our Case Study

We began our case study because of consistent anecdotal reports that  students of a certain graduate seminar were telling other people, “take this  course, it will change your life.” Throughout the 30 years it was taught, a  sizeable number of students and also faculty members participated in the  course more than once. Although the professor taught graduate courses  focused on learning theory, he claimed little interest in any of the related  pedagogical research that might inform his teaching. Clearly, something  special was happening in this course—unaffected as it was by mainstream  pedagogy—that led to students’ reports of transformative learning.  Our curiosity developed into a study of the lived experience of this  professor and his students in the graduate seminar—as it occurred—week  by week. Our case study was empirical—in the sense of using data based  on first-hand experience. It was descriptive—in that for most of our data,  participants were asked to describe their experience in careful detail, while  with our analysis of transcribed classroom episodes, we provide evidence  of the way in which teaching and learning occurred during class sessions.  It was personal—in that our findings are presented in the first-person  language of participants before we discuss our interpretation of them in  more abstract language. Finally, it was comprehensive—in that we studied the course in its entirety (over two sections of the course in subsequent  years) and focused on the experiences of the professor, his students, and  third-person observations.

The case study had five goals:

1. Describe the lived experience of a professor and his students in a  semester-long, graduate level seminar derived from transcribed interviews and excerpts of class sessions.

2. Derive implications from findings that illuminate a framework of  teaching principles.

3. Explore the potential contributions of existential phenomenology to  the science and art of teaching and learning.

4. Compare and contrast this approach to teaching and learning with  evidence-based practices and theory regarding other approaches to  higher education pedagogy.

5. Determine the applicability of this approach in other higher education teaching/learning settings by exploring the experiences of other  teachers and learners in community college and university settings  at undergraduate and graduate levels and in diverse programs of  study.

With these goals in mind, we undertook a phenomenological study combined with case study methods. Our hermeneutic phenomenological  approach is built on years of development at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (Thompson, Locander, & Pollio, 1989; Pollio, Graves, &  Arfken, 2006; Pollio, Henley, & Thompson, 1997; Sohn et al., 2017;  Thomas & Pollio, 2002). There are many approaches to phenomenological research discussed in the literature (see Finlay, 2012 for an overview).  Nevertheless, Natanson (1973) described features of phenomenological  research that apply to all or most of these approaches:

one learned what phenomenology is step by step, through reading,  discussion, and reflection…. What is needed is rather simple: to learn  what is meant by the natural attitude, to practice epoché, to attempt  descriptions of presentations without prejudicing the results by taking for granted the history, causality, intersubjectivity, and value we  ordinarily associate with our experience, and to examine with absolute care the fabric of the world of daily life so that we may grasp its  source and its direction….  (p. 8)

The UTK approach stands out from others most clearly in three ways.  First, research participants are given freedom to describe what stood out  to them as meaningful in their experience. At UTK we ask one open-ended  question and only include additional questions for clarification as the interview proceeds. Second, a significant amount of analysis is conducted  through dialogue in our Transdisciplinary Phenomenology Research  Group (TPRG) that provides multiple perspectives on the transcribed  texts. Third, thematic findings are typically reported in the first-person  words of participants—that represent a common essence of the experience  shared by all participants in each study—choosing words and phrases  where possible that are poetic in nature and/or share meaningful metaphors (cf. Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).

Over two semesters, our research team collected data. Reports on various  aspects of the emerging research are available in greater detail elsewhere  (the professor’s experience of preparing for class [Franklin, 2013], student  experiences of other students [Sohn, 2016], and students’ experiences of  the course overall [Sohn et al., 2016]). The most relevant findings from  these studies are included in the chapters of this text along with related  studies conducted by various members of the TPRG over the past 25 years.

The Course and Its Professor

The seminar was titled Existential Phenomenological Psychology. The  professor designed the course for upper level doctoral students who came  from psychology and philosophy as well as applied fields such as business,  counseling, education, nursing, and sports psychology; the course was  also taken by master’s degree students and an occasional undergraduate. The content focused on the philosophy of existential phenomenology  from a psychological perspective, primarily the ideas of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Essentially, the professor guided seminar  discussions by focusing student attention on descriptions of their own  or others’ lived experience as it related to course readings and also by  engaging students in practicing phenomenological research during class.

The professor assigned readings to be completed prior to each class  session. Whole books or excerpts included numerous authors, such  as Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945/1962), Ihde  (Experimental Phenomenology, 1986), Berger and Luckmann (The Social  Construction of Reality, 1967), and Tuan (Space and Place, 1977). The  professor told students that their only obligation for the course was to  read: there would be no graded assignments. Few students had background in philosophy; most found the readings, particularly those of  Merleau-Ponty, initially difficult to understand.

We describe the professor’s teaching in much greater detail in Chapter 4  and provide only a brief overview here. Rather than beginning with lectures that explained ideas from readings, he typically invited students into  a dialogue by asking what stood out to them from the texts. He encouraged  students to “say more” about the meaning of passages and only afterwards shared his own deeper or alternative understanding. The professor  not only led but also followed students into deep reflection on descriptions of personal experience as it related to the subject matter. In addition, he  led them toward the key concepts he wanted them to learn by preparing  stories, activities, and questions that he then used to launch them into the  world of those ideas.

The professor strived in every class to engage students in awareness of  being-in-the-world, being in a living experience in the classroom. He did  this often through playfulness, by frequently making fun of himself, “This  is getting worser and worser!” (as he discussed a complicated concept) or  by adding levity and/or drama to student stories.

Attendance and class participation were high. Field notes from class  sessions often included documentation of engagement such as laughter,  note taking, or silent pauses after dialogue or mini-lectures (typically 2- to  15-minute explanations of abstract knowledge). Audio recordings captured the energy and deep reflection participants displayed in their tones  of voice. Student reflections immediately after each class revealed what  stood out to them in each session. From personal insights to professional  applications, profound thoughtfulness to practical implementation, these  data were part of the overall data collection scheme, as detailed below.

Research Questions and Data Collection

For the case study, the research team members worked together to develop the research questions, participant prompts, and other data collection procedures suited to the case study (see the Foreword for a discussion of author positionality). Our goal throughout was to create prompts that would allow participants to comment on whatever it was within their experience of the course that stood out. Table 1.1 lists specific research questions and our procedures for collection of data.

Table 1.1 Case Study Research Questions and Data Collection

Research Questions

Data Collection

What was the experience of the professor as he prepared for and reflected on his teaching?

Audio recordings of planning sessions before each class session and immediately after.

What processes did the professor use during class sessions?

Audio recordings of class sessions. Selection of 3–5 episodes in each session that stood out as particularly meaningful. A 2-hour audiorecorded phenomenological interview of his experience.

What were the students’ experiences of each class session?

Written reflections prepared by students at the conclusion of each class session to include what stood out to them as particularly meaningful.

What were the experiences of students of the course as a whole?

Audio recordings of individual student interviews and two focus group interviews at the conclusion of the course.

What were students’ experiences of other students?

Gathering of all student data in which students focused on their experience of other students.


Data Analysis

The UTK data analysis methods are enriched by the dialogical, hermeneutic process used by the TPRG wherein transcripts of data are read aloud. Researchers stop periodically to share interpretations: they make connections to empirical studies, philosophical scholarship, literature, or even a recent radio or television program and also personal experiences. They seek to continually keep in mind the context of interpretations through bracketing—they consider the various contexts of the study, the participants, the specific words and phrases they use, and why or why not certain elements of a transcript may stand out to members of the TPRG. The themes, like specific interpretations, attempt to keep a sense of the whole. Drawing from Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and Gadamer’s (1960/2013) focus on the hermeneutic circle, we interpreted data to find not only what participants found figural but the often-implicit ground from which the figure stands out (see Sohn et al., 2017, for greater detail).

For the case study, the research team reached consensus on themes that represented a given experience across participants. We confirmed that each theme related to other themes and the context in which they were experienced. We used the words of the participants where possible to represent each theme, as discussed above. For example, in one of our studies of black students on a predominately white university campus (Davis et al., 2004), we could have labeled one theme using a jargon construct, “marginalized.” But we wanted to help readers get inside the meaning of marginalization to these students. Hence, we selected a metaphor stated by one participant that best represented the meaning for all student participants: “A fly in the buttermilk.”

To increase the trustworthiness of our research, again we submitted our findings to the scrutiny of the TPRG. This process enabled us to revise our findings until they provided the best possible representation of the data from the case study. In this manner the rigor and coherence of our findings were enhanced. In this book we summarize the studies that inform our implications and contribute to a phenomenological approach for teaching and learning.

The research we describe, along with application of philosophical concepts from existential phenomenology, are the bases of our approach for teaching and learning. From the findings and the specific philosophical ideas we detail below, we support our phenomenological framework. In the next section, we provide an overview of what stands out to us from the field of existential phenomenology and its relevance in teaching and learning.

Our Perspective on Existential Phenomenology

[T]he world is what [I] perceive. To seek the essence of perception is to declare that perception is, not presumed true, but defined as access to truth. . . . The world is not what I think, but what I live through.

(Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, pp. xvi–xvii)

In this book, we focus on the teacher and student experience in the lifeworld of the classroom as informed by the field of existential phenomenology (for a detailed history, see Bakewell, 2016; Moran, 2000; Sokolowski, 2000). Note that unless otherwise indicated, when we say “phenomenology,” we mean existential phenomenology in regard to Merleau-Ponty’s (1945/1962) perspective.

Most especially, we draw our inspiration from the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (e.g., 1945/1962). But we include the explanations of others (often writing about Merleau-Ponty’s views as well as other phenomenologist philosophers) when we find their statements helpful in relation to teaching and learning in higher education (see Table 1.2 for a brief overview of each of our key concepts).


Table 1.2 Definitions of Phenomenological Concepts That Inform Our Teaching Approach




Provides our only . . . access to the world but is forever bound by what stands out within a given context. Perception is subjective and by its nature necessarily narrows our perspectives in ways we are often unaware.

“What we see is always a function of ‘how’ we are looking” (Churchill, 2006, p. 89).


“The directedness of the mind, what the mind is about at a given moment. The experience of more or less consciously imaging or speculating about something” (Bakewell, pp. 44–45).

Intentionality drives us in a certain manner, in ways we are often unaware, pertaining, for example, to our thinking, feeling, knowing, imagining, remembering, and expression. “These subjective states include beliefs and desires, intentions and perceptions, as well as loves and hates, fears and hopes” (Searle, p. 85).


“[T]he world of lived experience inhabited by us as conscious beings and incorporating the way in which phenomena (events, objects, emotions) appear to us in our conscious experience or everyday life” (Brooks, 2015, p. 642). “It is a social, historical, and cultural world [that] includes individual, social, perceptual, and practical experiences” (from Alan Parson’s course notes on Lebenswelt, 2016).

Intertwined influences on our perception, intentionality, and lifeworld of which we are often unaware:



The body as a lived, experiential structure and as the context of cognitive mechanisms. All lived experience is embodied, including undetected or unknown elements such as development, cognition, physical sensations, and emotions.


Sociocultural embeddedness

Existence within a particular sociocultural milieu. Our personal, professional, familial, linguistic, and societal experiences create a worldview, a lens that limits what and how we see the world.



The connection of humans to each other in some form of mutuality that can provide a sense of community or alienation, but that by our nature remains subjective. With an egalitarian stance, a teacher joins student as another learner exploring course content and personal experiences, where the teacher’s and students’ paths “intersect and engage each other like gears” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. xx).



The fundamental indeterminacy of experience that can provide a sense of awe and mystery about course content as well as engendering creativity. When ignored, it can lead to a utilitarian attitude that prioritizes specific practical applications of knowledge and skills related to content with little thought to their phenomenological meaning that transcends the classroom.


What draws us to existential phenomenology is its emphasis on human experience:

[An existential phenomenologist] does not view experience (or consciousness in more technical terms) as a consequence of some internal set of events such as mind or brain but as a relationship between people and their world, whether the world at that moment consists of other people, nature, time, one’s own body, personal or philosophical ideas or whatever. What is sought by both existentialism and phenomenology is a rigorous description of human life as it is lived and reflected upon in all its first-person concreteness, urgency, and ambiguity. For existential phenomenology, the world is to be lived and described, not explained.

(Pollio et al., 1997, pp. 4–5)

Many scholars have written extensively about implications of existential phenomenology for education (e.g., Friesen, Henriksson, & Saevi, 2012; van Manen, 2017), but their focus has primarily been on phenomenology’s relevance for teachers of children and youth. There are many phenomenological researchers that apply phenomenology to their scholarship on teaching in higher education (e.g., Adams & van Manen, 2017; Barritt, Beekman, Bleeker, & Mulderij, 1984; Halling, 2012; Hultgren, 1987, 1995; Selvi, 2008), but this body of work focuses almost exclusively on the teaching of the methodology or philosophy of phenomenology rather than the application of the phenomenological method to a broader framework for teaching and learning, which is our intent (see Chapters 8 and 9).

Our knowledge of the world comes primarily through our first-person experience of it, through our perceptions and the intentionality through which our subjective states connect us with the world. For Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) intentionality is part of “an ever-flowing energy, a network of relations” (p. xx) between a person and the world—driven by “a psychological and historical structure . . . a way of existing, or a style” (p. 455).

As humans, we experience and learn about the world through perception and intentionality. “The world is not what I think, but what I live through” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, pp. xvi–xvii). But perception and intentionality are subjective; thanks to academia’s rationalist, objectivist focus, we are typically unaware of their influence. As Hass (2008) stated, perception “opens up in perspective [figures within some ground] . . . overflowing with half-hidden things that overlap, hide, and allude to other things” (p. 58).

If as teachers we understand the meaning and importance of the lifeworld, we can nurture a feeling or approach in ourselves and our students that opens the lifeworld of the classroom for examination. For it is with this approach, including the phenomenological attitude, that we can go to the heart of teaching and learning and realize the objective world of course content in all its subjectivity.

Phenomenological Attitude

Our understanding of the phenomenological attitude falls in with views of the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Finlay (2008) describes the phenomenological attitude as a dance “engaging a certain sense of wonder and openness to the world while, at the same time, reflexively restraining pre-understandings” (p. 2). In this manner, people can “[open] themselves to being moved by the Other, where evolving understandings are managed in a relational context” (p. 3). For humans connect with the world through our senses, filtered through the subjective lenses of our attitudes, values, and beliefs that have evolved through individual experience. To live with this attitude, it is necessary that we acknowledge and constantly work to be aware of our subjectivity. Through the intersubjectivity inherent in a relational context, shared feelings or meanings lead to an increased sense of empathy, a listening to be influenced.

A relational stance and cultivation of empathy are common elements in descriptions of the phenomenological attitude. Churchill (2012), for example, described his provision of learning experiences for “cultivating an empathic presence to the world” (p. 3). He talked about his students “becoming enthralled to discover that they can tap into their own experience to open themselves to new worlds” (p. 3). Likewise, Dirkx (1998) discussed how a phenomenological attitude creates space for transformational learning experiences as meaning-making processes instrumental in fostering “a democratic vision of society and self-actualization of individuals” (p. 9).

A phenomenological attitude extends beyond relations with other people, however. Henriksson (2012) recalled being asked by a student if she felt like she was a better person, now that she has found phenomenology. Henriksson (2012) responded, “if better means more thoughtful, more willing to question the taken-for-granted, more open to others’ experiences, then yes, phenomenology makes us better persons and probably also better teachers” (p. 122). She also stated that phenomenology has the “the potential to create a sense of wonder, openness, change, and readiness to reflect on pedagogical matters” (p. 123). The findings we share in this book related to student experiences support those reported by other researches and illustrate how students open to a phenomenological attitude when in learning environments that honor the lifeworld of the classroom.

Our particular existential phenomenological approach to teaching and learning in higher education rests on several intertwined aspects that stood out to us from Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. We believe they can help teachers deepen their understanding of what influences perception and intentionality: embodiment, sociocultural embeddedness, ambiguity, intersubjectivity. For these four influences, always in play in the lifeworld of the classroom and of each individual student and teacher, can lead to exploration of assumptions and intuitive thoughts that might otherwise go unnoticed and interfere with learning, and with teaching. We discuss these concepts next.

Intertwined Influences of Perception

At first glance, an emphasis on perception seems rather obvious and of limited value to teaching and learning—as perception is a naturally occurring act. But Merleau-Ponty (1948/2004) describes our apparent familiarity with the world as “a delusion” and commented, “the world of perception is, to a great extent, unknown territory as long as we remain in the . . . utilitarian attitude” (p. 39).

In the current culture of higher education, the teacher’s role is often utilitarian in the negative sense Merleau-Ponty describes (see Chapter 7 for a discussion). Many higher education “instructors” focus almost exclusively on training students, on transmitting the knowledge and skills of course content. For the job of the college instructor is to impart a given world of abstract knowledge, of explanation and analysis of subject matter—which may engage students in deep reflection, or merely provide an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to repeat back in some manner the information instructors transmit. Perception of each student’s human experience seems a distraction. But Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) says direct personal perception is of primary importance in developing knowledge:

All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my own particular point of view, or from some experience of the world without which the symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second order expression.

(p. viii)

Students may not believe, think, or realize (make real for themselves) the ideas their teachers want them most to learn—at least not in the manner that can expand and possibly transform their lives. But because abstract knowledge is built upon students’ “basic experience of the world,” our framework hinges on perception.

Student perceptions, whether or not teachers are aware of them, can enhance or inhibit their ability to understand course content. For perception involves a given perspective, and some perspectives hide alternative views. But if teachers exclusively hold a utilitarian perspective, even when students are eager to learn, their goal may be to “cover” the content. They may believe they should not “waste” time helping students consider alternative perspectives related to course content, or helping students experience the inevitable ambiguity of new perceptions in a constructive way. Unfortunately, rather than address these issues, most of the literature on “best practices” takes a top-down stance on “correcting misconceptions,” implying student perceptions and experiences are wrong. Further, recommendations for higher education increasingly call for a utilitarian attitude rather than the broader goal of higher education (Biggs & Tang, 2011; Cangemi, 2001; see also Chapter 7).

As we detail in other chapters, with our approach we seek to harness perception in such a way that students are launched into the world of the course subject matter. Our case study helped us understand how describing experiences relevant to course content prior to explaining abstract concepts allowed the case study professor and his students to explore their perceptions and meaning at a deeper level (see Box 1.3). Assumptions were questioned, alternative ideas discussed, and realizations frequently took place. We discuss the value of description in various chapters through our case study and related research findings.


Box 1.3 Reflection, Howard Pollio

Instead of beginning with an explanation of the meaning of space and place in the lived experience of humans, I brought five landscape paintings to class and asked several students to describe what stood out for them and then encouraged all students to pay attention to the similarities and differences among these descriptions. Only then did I connect these descriptions to the assigned reading of Tuan’s Space and Place (1977) and the connections of Tuan’s ideas to those of Merleau-Ponty.


Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about four aspects of perception contributed greatly to our development of an existential phenomenological approach. As mentioned above, they include sociocultural embeddedness, embodiment, intersubjectivity, and ambiguity. Each presents a facet, like those of a diamond, that brings out heretofore hidden depths and enhances illumination of the human experience of being-in-the-world. In this section we define these concepts and provide a brief overview of their relation to the lifeworld of the classroom. We develop them further in later chapters.

Sociocultural Embeddedness

Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) discussed the role of sociocultural development as a key context through which we learn to interpret the world. Sociocultural embeddedness refers to this context, which includes language, culture, and history. Although the particular term “sociocultural embeddedness” is not one Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) used, he wrote extensively about the ways sociocultural development in childhood determines how we interpret the world. Bakewell (2016) discussed his remarkable insight:

Of course, we have to learn this skill of interpreting and anticipating the world, and this happens in early childhood. . . . We fall for optical illusions because we once learned to see the world in terms of shapes, objects, and things relevant to our own interests. . . . We rarely stop to think that [the thing or thought] is partly constituted by our way of paying attention or reaching out to things.

(pp. 231–232)

Bakewell (2016) discussed the social/cultural/historical influences from past experience. But these influences do not end with early childhood. If we become experts in some field of study, we co-create our perception of it with tacit and intuitive knowledge beyond its decontextualized subject matter. No teacher can fully step outside their own pre-academic development, their intuition (see Box 1.4), nor the assumptions and structures of their field of inquiry; neither can students that are confronted with novel information. Being aware of our own and students’ sociocultural embeddedness can assist us in achieving our goals.


Box 1.4 Reflection, Neil Greenberg

As an ethologist by training with a research career in academia, I teach graduate and undergraduate biology courses that include content far removed from ethology. Nevertheless, my lectures and responses to student inquiry are always connected in a subtle if not overt manner to an understanding of the discipline of biology by first describing behaviors (actions) of organisms, followed by looking for patterns of relationships and connections and only then inferring causation. The assumptions, questions, and ways of inquiry of ethology infuse all my work.


Sociocultural embeddedness contributes to the lifeworld of the classroom in deeper ways as well (see Box 1.5). The term “unconscious/implicit bias” recently became a popular term, appearing frequently in the media (e.g., Spinney, 2014) and popular books (e.g., Kahneman, 2011) reviewing extensive research in this area. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical ideas about sociocultural embeddedness are manifest and confirmed in social psychology research (e.g., Haidt, 2001; Kahneman, 2011). Humans have prejudices and misconceptions. We cannot avoid it. As teachers, we view our students through unconscious bias, through stereotypes of race, class, gender, and what we think they are like as more or less responsible learners. As Mackh (2018) stated, “We must first recognize our own biases, presumptions, and the impact of culture in our own lives so that we can genuinely, respectfully, humbly do the most good for the people whose lives we hope to improve” (p. 199). Our students, too, are embedded in a sociocultural milieu, and they enter our classrooms with their own perspectives they developed through experiences in their families, earlier schooling, and the communities in which they live. These influences affect how they approach the teacher and the course content.


Box 1.5 Reflection, Brian Sohn

As I teach courses regarding the professional obligation of teacher candidates to do their part to dismantle systemic racism and work for social justice, I encounter resistance. There have been times when this resistance comes across as bigoted. When I hear phrases such as “I’m not racist, I have friends that are black,” “Some of the gay kids just want attention,” and other such banalities, it is difficult to maintain an open relational stance. At times I do so and find my negative assumptions to be correct, but at other times I learn from my students in unexpected ways. In one instance, a student responded negatively to a video in which black youth are described by a school principal as “victims.” After dialogue with the student, I found, rather than latent racism, this student had suffered abuse from her domestic partner: in facing him in court, she was referred to repeatedly as a victim and had come to hate the term. She preferred survivor. Without an openness to student perspectives, I would have made the grave error of thinking I knew when I was influenced by my own bias. As my ignorance was alleviated, my understanding of the student grew and as a result I was better able to serve her learning needs.


As we describe in later chapters, our approach focuses on sociocultural embeddedness in order to broaden our own and our students’ awareness of their social, historical, and cultural situations. We work to reveal underlying assumptions and use lived experience to more deeply reach our students.


Perhaps Merleau-Ponty’s (1945/1962) most notable contribution to philosophy was his elucidation of embodiment and its clear refutation of the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. He stresses that “thinking is never devoid of context; it is always shaped by my history, language, interpersonal influences, and my bodily attunement [emphasis added] toward a meaningful and structured world or environment” (p. x). His ideas are especially important to consider in the classroom due to their implications for expression, language, and meaning (Adams, 2014; Hass, 2008):

My body is the seat or rather the very actuality of the phenomenon of expression. . . . My body is the fabric into which all objects are woven. [So] my body is . . . that strange object which uses its own parts as a general system of symbols for the world, and through which we can consequently “be at home” in that world, “understand” it and find significance in it.

(Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. 235)

All lived experience, even thinking, is embodied. Everything we as humans do and are involves our physical body and our senses, including our interoceptive and proprioceptive interaction with cognitive processes. Our engagement with the internal as well as the external world is fundamental to who we are as human-beings-in-the-world. Our feelings, imaginings, intuition, and many psychological and environmental influences are a part of us and, of course, influence teaching and learning (see Box 1.6).


Box 1.6 Reflection, Kathy Greenberg

I recall a time as a student when embodiment dramatically affected my learning. My professor was well known in his field and was teaching an introductory graduate course on a particular theory of learning. I was excited to be studying under an esteemed researcher. But I felt my body tense as the teacher began to speak rapidly about basic tenets of the theory. I sensed defensiveness in his demeanor which I took to mean the class was not a safe environment for ideas. Later I learned the professor was coping with recent criticism of his once highly esteemed theory. Although I was able to do fairly well on tests, I found I could not creatively engage with the content—I could not mess about (Hawkins, 1974) with the implications for teaching that the theory was supposed to make obvious. I do not find it a coincidence that later, when using a language arts program based solely on this theory of learning, I became increasingly aware that my students and I did not like its rigid structure, its emphasis on recitation of one-right-answers, its lack of attention to the lifeworld of the classroom. One day in class, I threw my teacher guide over my head and announced that we would go back to our former way of studying language. My students’ looks of relief are with me to this day.


In the lifeworld of the classroom, bodies and embodiment are often ignored, but always influential. When teachers and students are aware of emotions and other sensations, they become more mindful of the present moment. When the classroom is open to humor, to acceptance of feelings ranging from excitement to frustration/confusion, the classroom becomes more “real.” With our approach we appreciate, rather than ignore, the key role the body plays in teaching and learning. Not simply as affect or motivation, but as the seat and site of our lived experience. In later chapters we discuss the role of embodiment in the lifeworld of the classroom and ways teachers can create a safe atmosphere in which it is acceptable for all participants to share what they experience in its wholeness (see also Chapter 2 for a discussion of embodiment from a scientific perspective).


While there are many definitions of intersubjectivity within various disciplines, the term generally refers to agreement—mutual understanding—between individuals that leads to shared feelings or meanings. Intersubjectivity is related to empathy, understanding another individual’s feelings from their point of view. But discussions of empathy are often limited to the realm of the cognitive. Intersubjectivity includes as integral the embodied individuals who share a world together with some degree of safety and/or conflict and sometimes with the synergy of something created between us. Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) describes the ways in which reflection ultimately reveals not only a self, but a self that is in a world in which other selves exist: “The world is an indivisible unity of value shared” by all those with consciousness (p. xi). And in the lifeworld of the classroom, this shared indivisible world, this basis for intersubjectivity, can be seen most clearly in language. Hass (2008) stated,

In language, in dialogue, self and other communicate, that is, they “come together in one”: conversation sweeps us into a common experience in which “subject” and “object” have no place, in which we are reciprocally drawn out of ourselves and our former thoughts toward the other.

(p. 110)

Regarding others, Merleau-Ponty took a decidedly egalitarian stance. He viewed them as “fellow travelers in life’s journey” (Thomas, 2005, p. 71) and wrote, “my own and other people’s [paths] intersect and engage each other like gears” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. xx). As humans, we are very good at categorizing and comparing ourselves to others but rather wary when facing the others’ uniqueness, which can complicate teacher-student and student-student relationships. With our approach, we discuss ways to personalize relationships with students, so we can build trust and find the bridges to connect with each other (see Box 1.7).


Box 1.7 Reflection, Howard Pollio

I often share stories about how I acquired my knowledge, illustrating how I came to realize the abstract concepts of the subject matter. I present those stories in a self-deprecating manner as another learner working to expand his understanding of the world. My stories and my stance as an advanced student of the course content help create a sense that my students and I are all learners, we all have weaknesses, and we can all work together to pursue the challenges of learning.


Through our framework, we honor intersubjectivity by joining our students as learners in order to lead them to deeper understandings of course content (see Chapters 4 and 8).


According to Hass (2008), Merleau-Ponty uses ambiguity “literally to denote that our experience of the world is pregnant with multiple meaning-directions . . . with multiple things calling for our attention” (p. 62). Ambiguity is part of the mystery of lived experience. Merleau-Ponty saw the ultimate role of the philosopher to always question assumptions and approach even “well-known” phenomena with wonder and openness. Perpetual questioning leaves the fixed accounts of objectivity open to flexibility and uncertainty and allows for a sense of excitement and discovery within everyday life.

The particular sociocultural backgrounds and bodies of teachers and students leave open the potential for chaotic and infinitely differentiated interpretations of course content. But far from suggesting students will not learn what we teach, we believe implications of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas tell us that students will have their own perspectives, and while these may cohere through our guidance, we can create opportunities to navigate multiple meanings within the classroom, assured that no phenomenon is ever known in a complete way.

Ambiguity may seem counter to the typical enterprise of teaching and learning. Students want to attain a fixed set of knowledge from their teachers. “Just give me the answer,” a student may say. But from science to the humanities, ambiguity may find corollary in such concepts as tentativeness, interpretation, and appropriation. Failure to realize the ubiquity of ambiguity is a barrier to deep learning. From the author of a textbook to a teacher lecturing to the student learning, course content may be seen as objective and rigid. Students become distracted from sensing the mystery in our experience of learning something; they may remain unaware of their co-constitution of it.

Within our approach, the ambiguity that exists in all fields of study is not only acknowledged but used to develop powerful learning. We value the mystery and curiosity that accompanies ambiguity and share more about its power in later chapters. These four influences on perception, crucial to our approach to teaching and learning, are not isolated from each other. Ambiguity is intertwined with embodiment, sociocultural embeddedness, and intersubjectivity. For perception underlies the mind’s intentionality.


At the heart of teaching and learning—as with all human experience—lies an ever-flowing energy, a network of relations (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. xx) between a person and the world. Most philosophers call this situated perspective intentionality, adopted by Husserl to address the mind’s disposition to be about something. Although much controversy exists among philosophers over the particularities of intentionality, Searle (1999) described intentionality in a manner that is helpful in relation to our focus on teaching and learning:

The primary evolutionary role of the mind is to relate us in certain ways to the environment, and especially to other people. My subjective states relate me to the rest of the world, and the general name of that relationship is “intentionality.” These subjective states include beliefs and desires, intentions and perceptions, as well as loves and hates, fears and hopes. “Intentionality,” to repeat, is the general term for all the various forms by which the mind can be directed at, or be about, or of, objects and states of affairs in the world.

(p. 85)

By its very nature, intentionality is always a first-person perspective; “What we see is always a function of ‘how’ we are looking” (Churchill, 2006, p. 89). For

[w]e learn and relearn who we are on the basis of our encounters with objects, ideas, and people—in short, with every different kind of “otherness” . . . . What we are aware of in a situation reveals something important about who we are.

(Pollio et al., 1997, p. 8)

Indeed, according to Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962), the human experience involves a structure of intentionality, and “All of my actions and thoughts are related to this structure” (p. 455). And first-person descriptions are the way to understand the structure, to reveal it. Merleau-Ponty made the following connections between intentionality and Gestalt psychology: figure-ground relationships (critical in Gestalt psychology) provide a window into intentionality by revealing what stands out in a lived experience and what recedes to the background. Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) describes the all-encompassing role of intentionality and its subjective states:

The fact remains that I am free, not in spite of, or on the hither side of, these motivations, but by means of them. For this significant life, this certain significance of nature and history which I am, does not limit my access to the world, but on the contrary, is my means of entering into communication with it. It is by being unrestrictedly and unreservedly what I am at present that I have a chance of moving forward; it is by living my time that I am able to understand other times, by plunging into the present and the world, by taking on deliberately what I am fortuitously, by willing what I will and doing what I do, that I can go further.

(pp. 455–456)

Hence, in the lifeworld of the classroom, all participants—teacher and students—have their own, personal network of relations with other participants, the physical environment, and course content. Each participant’s intentionality in turn becomes a part of the lived experience of the other participants. What participants are aware of and how they are aware of it reveal what is important to them. Intentionality connects a multitude of processes with each other and the world. It influences their demeanor, how participants connect or disconnect with others, and their perceptions of teaching and learning as they live the moments of the class. Intentionality is—and figure and ground are—fundamental to human experience and led us to Merleau-Ponty’s work on the nature of perception. It is our intent that other chapters in this book will make these concepts come alive.


In summary, our approach seeks to go to the phenomenological heart of teaching and learning in higher education. We believe an understanding of the intertwined influences of sociocultural embeddedness, embodiment, intersubjectivity, and ambiguity on perception can help teachers better understand the phenomenological attitude, including related intentionality. Teachers who are open to the meaning of the lifeworld of the classroom will display a much more egalitarian than authoritarian stance as they embrace intersubjectivity in their relationship with students and toward course content. Although usually a more knowledgeable other, this kind of teacher is open to alternative views and the ambiguity natural to our exploration of any objective knowledge. This kind of teacher joins students in exploring the wonder of course content, rather than maintaining a strict focus on the “facts.” Further, teachers with a phenomenological attitude can better balance the utilitarian demands of helping students master knowledge and skills needed in some future career with the importance of exploring personal experience in relation to course content—in helping students find deep meaning at the heart of learning.


Our intent is to connect philosophy, research, and implications for practice. Our intent is that each chapter will help readers follow us through these lines of thinking so that our existential phenomenological approach becomes clear and useful to higher education teachers.



*Greenberg, Katherine; Sohn, Brian; Greenberg, Neil; Pollio, Howard R; Thomas, Sandra; Smith, John.  (2019) The Phenomenological Heart of Teaching and Learning (Routledge Research in Higher Education).  Chapter 1 (pp 1-26) N.Y., Praeger, Taylor and Francis.