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What Is Formation?

The premise of Parker Palmer's work in formation is that, without denying or abandoning the outer world, we must reclaim the reality and power of the inner life. Formation assumes that each of us has an "inner teacher" that has a continuing capacity for discernment. Formation work is the process of creating a quiet, focused, and disciplined space in which the noise within us and around us can subside and the voice of the inner teacher can be heard.

FORMATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION is both a personal and professional endeavor involving

  • nurturing identity and integrity, identifying and honoring gifts; resisting the pressures and projections of others.
  • acknowledging the lifelong process of unfolding, honoring the unique journey of each individual.
  • exploring questions about the inner life and about "the inner teacher," which are indeed personal questions but need not be entirely private, and are often best answered in and through community.
  • recognizing that we are all engaged in teaching, learning, leading and serving, no matter the job title, thus deepening our understanding of the truth that "We Teach Who We Are."
  • creating a context for intimacy and deep connection that does not annihilate difference.
Formation is about creating safe spaces and trusting relationships in which a person’s soul can retake its original form.

- Parker J. Palmer

Getting Specific about Formation

The work of the Center for Formation in Higher Education is based in the writings of Parker J. Palmer, especially The Courage to Teach and A Hidden Wholeness. Formation is a commitment to oneself to work towards living an authentic, undivided life. The work will be done individually, but it is often helpful to join a community of people committed to their own formation.

Retreats of varying lengths are often used as the focus for formation work. It's helpful to get away from daily pressures and come to a special place for formation work, especially at the beginning. During a retreat, participants spend time in solitude and silence as well as in small groups and in the whole group. Although participation in any activity is absolutely optional, members agree to attend all of the retreats in a given series, not letting predictable work and family concerns take precedence over this commitment to self. In longer retreats it is possible to hold Clearness Committees in which committee members ask open, honest questions of a "focus person" who has requested this time for discernment about an issue.

Some of the other elements used in retreats to support an exploration of the inner teacher include

Silence Movement
Solitude Music
Reflection/journaling Art
Poems Play
Stories, both personal and traditional

Boundary markers called “Touchstones” are used to increase the likelihood that our journey towards wholeness will feel safe and trustworthy. They include ideas such as be 100% present, extend and presume welcome; listen deeply; it’s never “share or die;” no fixing; suspend judgment; identify assumptions; speak from your center not to another’s; respect silence; maintain confidentiality; and, when things get difficult, turn to wonder.

Over the course of a series of retreats, a wonderful spirit of respect and support often develops between group members. But developing team spirit is not the goal of formation. The group acts as a container for the individual work of its members, neither invading nor evading one another. This work of exploring the inner life is a life-long process of nurturing one’s identity and integrity, learning to listen for the voice of the inner teacher.

Although it is important to talk about the results of formation, it is critical that participants not be held to external expectations and that formation not be sponsored for specific outcomes on individuals or groups. The effect of formation is unique to each participant. The Courage to Teach program of formation for K-12 teachers has existed since 1997 and has conducted two evaluation studies, reporting results such as these in Stories of the Courage to Teach (Intrator, ed., Jossey-Bass, 2002), pages 304-305:

  • Teachers feel rejuvenated and their passion for teaching renewed.
  • They undertake new leadership roles in education, often crediting their enhanced leadership skills and capacity to assume new challenges to formation.
  • They report initiating more collegial relationships on campus.
  • Though changing classroom practice is not the focus of formation, participants believe their teaching has improved to the benefit of their students.
  • They feel more reflective in their teaching.
  • They report living more mindful, balanced lives.

The Courage to Teach program provides participants eight quarterly retreats over two years. Evaluations of similar programs in the Dallas County Community College District indicate parallel results. For more information, see www.couragerenewal.org.