{CONCEPTUALISING} Interthinking and the Value of Collaboration

Although the Researching Multilingually at Borders project ended back in 2017, the work from it continues to inform my work with colleagues (e.g. Jane Andrews) both in terms of:

  • content (e.g. the value of a translingual researcher mindset, and
  • modality (e.g. the value placed on collaboration, especially interdisciplinary, interpractitionary, intercultural, and multilingual collaboration).

This blog posting is mainly concerned with the modality aspect, and in particular with a chapter published in 2020 (in orange below) by Jane Andrews and myself from the RM@Borders’ applied linguistics team and Katja Frimberger, Gameli Tordrzo, and Tawona Sithole from the RM@Borders’ creative arts team.

Publications for both aspects

Andrews, J., & Fay, R. (2020). Valuing a translingual mindset in researcher education in Anglophone higher education settings: Supervision perspectives. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 33(2): 188-202. {special issue on teaching and learning in Anglophone higher education settings}.

Andrews, J., Fay, R., Frimberger, K., Tordrzo, G., & Sithole, T. (2020). Theorising arts-based collaborative research processes. In E. Moore, J. Bradley & J. Simpson (Eds.), Translanguaging as transformation: The collaborative construction of new linguistic realities. (pp.118-134). Multilingual Matters.

Being Collaborative

Most of my work – teaching as well as research, supervision as well as projects, education-oriented as well as musicking – is undertaken with others. Some scholars (and practitioners, teachers, etc) pursue a more individualised furrow, but the collaborative modality works for me (as my publications portfolio illustrates). I find that working with others allows their energy bursts to counterbalance my energy drops (and vice versa), and my thinking benefits from their engagements with, and knowledge of, associations communities, reading groups, literatures, and so on (as I hope they benefit from mine).

But, above all else, I value the way that these collaborative endeavours are not just a meeting for our individualised ideas. They are also an opportunity to create something new that is a greater than the sum of the parts. It is not just a question of adding my A to your B and ending up with work which is simply additive, A+B. Rather, when we bring my A and your B into proximity with each other, something new emerges and our original thinking is transformed into something more far-reaching.

It isn’t always easy – especially when the meeting of ideas, the collaborative nexus, is interdisciplinary, interpractitionary, intercultural, and/or multilingual in character. And it doesn’t suit everyone or all projects. And it can take more time to arrive at a work sufficiently progressed to be ready for sharing more widely. But it is always (in my experience) transformative.

The collaborative construction of transformation

The above-listed chapter, Theorising arts-based collaborative research processes, appears in a fascinating volume that I strongly recommend. It has chapters by many well-known figures in our field, and a sense of its remit can be gauged from the cover description:

This book examines translanguaging as a resource which can disrupt the privileging of particular voices, and a social practice which enables collaboration within and across groups of people. Addressing the themes of collaboration and transformation, the chapters critically examine how people work together to catalyse change in diverse global contexts, experiences and traditions. The authors suggest an epistemological and methodological turn to the study of translanguaging, which is particularly reflected in the collaborative, arts-based and action research/activist approaches followed in the chapters. The book will be of particular interest to scholars using ethnographic, critical and collaborative action and activist research approaches to the study of multilingualism in educational and creative arts contexts.

In our chapter, one of several conceptualisations we discuss is that of interthinking which has, I think, real explanatory power for such collaborative transformations. Below, I quote from the chapter on this conceptual area.


There is a large body of work in the education literature which analyses and promotes dialogues as a foundation of learning (see, as examples, Heath, 1983; Wells, 1986; Littleton & Mercer, 2013; Alexander, 2017). These works have focused on peers (adults or children) interacting together in specific contexts such as school classrooms and university seminar rooms. They have also explored adult-child interaction in homes and teacher-pupil, lecturer-student interactions in educational settings. In such studies, researchers have focused on a wide range of linguistic phenomena such as aspects of language acquisition and ways in which parents scaffold children’s utterances (e.g. Wells, 1986) and cultural patterns of interaction in communities and families (Heath, 1983). Alexander (2017) takes as his starting point the educational benefits of dialogic approaches to teaching and learning, and not the uses of and features of language in use in their own right. Littleton and Mercer (2013) also focus their work on what language is used for by groups of speakers and how it achieves, or not, those purposes. To delineate this specific research focus Littleton and Mercer coin the term interthinking, which they apply to discourse analyses of interactional data from group activities in real-life settings such as musicians in band practice sessions, workplace meetings between colleagues, and pupils interacting while using an interactive whiteboard. Within their data sets, the authors explore talk as (2013: 13) ‘a social mode of thinking – language as a tool for teaching-and-learning, constructing knowledge, creating ideas, sharing understanding and tackling problems collaboratively’. We note that in the first example of this type of social thinking, which is facilitated through talk (interactions in band practice sessions), that language is not the sole mode of communication as music itself serves to generate ideas and initiate problem-solving.

A feature of the writing on interthinking from Mercer (e.g. 2000) is that not all dialogues are deemed to be effective in terms of achieving the intended collaborative goals. Three types of talk are defined: disputational, cumulative and exploratory, with exploratory talk, in which speakers build on, challenge or generate new thinking or actions, being designated as the most effective for achieving goals. In our large, interdisciplinary and arts-based research project we met together as a whole team of twenty people and as well in smaller case study plus hub teams. As has been noted in one of the few published explorations of team-based interactions in a large research study (see Creese & Blackledge, 2012), the work of meaning-making within research can be seen in the space of project meetings. As the authors observe:

whole-team meetings provide a window into the process of analysis as colleagues brought to the table their emergent understandings of the phenomena under investigation. In these meetings we did more than listen, arguing, negotiating, contesting, agreeing, introducing our different perspectives and histories as we attempted to make meaning out of observed linguistic practices. (Creese & Blackledge, 2012: 307)

Creese & Blackledge (2012) articulate the complexity of their process of discussion as a research team, involving contestation as well as agreement, and this work can be seen as sharing features of Littleton and Mercer’s (2013) interthinking.

A Vignette (as adapted from the chapter presentation of the material)

The vignette below sets out an experience of the applied linguistics and creative arts teams jointly working on what we named hotspot texts. One year into the three-year project, a joint meeting was agreed in which ideas could be exchanged between the two teams. In the spirit of working closely with creative arts methods throughout the project, the Creative Arts team invited the applied linguistics team to spend a day in their workspace which they named a lab, signalling the intentionally experimental nature of the work carried out there. To facilitate the exchange of ideas and collaboration between us all, I proposed that we each write about one or more hotspots, ideas or experiences identified from the project so far as being thought-provoking or puzzling and which might merit creative exploration together. The term hotspot was deliberately chosen as not being a typical term used within academic research or as belonging to a particular methodological tradition which might constrain the nature of our interaction. Rather, it was hoped that the hotspot concept would open out our discussion and collaboration and allow us all to embrace creative arts and multimodal dimensions.

In practice, each colleague wrote approximately one paragraph for each of their hotspots (typically between two and four per person). The hotspots covered areas ranging from nhorwa, tasaamuh, speech and writing, to researching interculturally. In keeping with the project’s attention to researching multilingually, as seen in this list, colleagues drew on their linguistic and cultural resources to shape their reflections. Nhorwa was offered by Tawona Sitholé and it drew upon a word and concept from his linguistic resource of Shona and of a practice in which gifts were offered to guests. Tawona’s hotspot was how our interdisciplinary and multimodal research and collaboration could involve us in sharing gifts of insights drawing on our distinctive sources of knowledge and experience. Tasaamuh was offered by Mariam Attia, originated in Mariam’s Arabic resources and referred to the concept of acceptance or tolerance or letting be, which Mariam explained as being relevant to her understanding of how to engage together in a complex, interdisciplinary, multi-site project.

The development of the hotspot texts took place with all researchers in their home university and workplace, all within the UK but not in the same cities. A desired next stage was to meet face-to-face and move into a creative consideration of the ideas built into the hotspots, a move agreed by all as essential to continued joint working.  We saw this as an opportunity for the applied linguistics team to work in the lab (or collaborative space) of the creative arts team, in Glasgow in a venue which was not part of a university. Once in the lab space, Tawona asked for us all to propose one or more metaphors which emerged for each of us from our thinking about our own and each other’s hotspots. One of the RM team members, Mariam Attia, proposed the metaphor of a well. Mariam explained for researchers to draw upon their linguistic resources in doing their research multilingually, there is an analogy with the act of drawing water for a well. For Mariam, the action is perhaps arduous but the rewards are plentiful. Guided by Tawona, an agreement was reached (quite quickly) to spend longer exploring the metaphor of the well and to move into different modes. To do so, all hub members worked in two groups and used movement, music and mime to explore the metaphor of the well. It was noted by us all that our individual and group work using movement brought us together to produce a collective output but was also shaped by our individual understandings of the actions and motions involved in drawing water from a well. These understandings, we reflected, were clearly shaped by our cultural and experiential lives so that novices and experts were apparent. We all felt that the metaphor of drawing water from a well opened up our understanding of working multilingually together in a research team. The well metaphor became, subsequently, a shared point of reference, which was returned to many times in future collaborative encounters. Tawona reflected on the collaborative learning of the two hubs after the movement and music work on the ‘well’ metaphor:

Interthinking and the Vignette

The ‘well’ had such an impact because it was another creative moment from the so-called non-creative team; it validated the use of exploration as a method of working; it helped us unlock meanings; and it has a universal sense and appeal. (Tawona Sitholé, Reflections on Hotspots document, May 2015)

By working together with metaphors the two research hubs engaged in interthinking to explore aspects of the project’s objectives and methods as identified in the hotspots. The metaphor-work involved using words (generating ideas, proposing and accepting metaphors and reflecting back on processes and movement work) and also took us into embodied ways of collaborating where words were not prioritised or dominant. Writers such as Barad (2003) working in the new materialism paradigm deploy the notion of entanglement to convey how meanings and materials or matters operate together and have an impact on each other. Our physical work with our bodies to mime our engagement with a metaphorical idea which began with a reflection on our project’s work throughout the free writing of hotspots can be considered as an act of entanglement, we argue here. We sought to identify, present and re-present shared ideas and understandings to each other in order to get to know them better and see how they, and we, intra-acted in our collaborative work together.

Concluding Thoughts

Through this extended re-presentation of the book chapter (itself a re-presentation of a collaborative and creative experience), I have begin to rehearse some of the explanatory power of interthinking to help me understand the potential of collaboration, of collaborative discussion. As I think on the many, diverse collaborations in which I am involved – in my teaching as well as research, in my supervision as well as in our projects, in education-oriented as well as musicking endeavours – I can see how this interthinking frame is applicable and useful. I recommend it to you.


Alexander, R. (2017). Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk (5th edn.). Dialogos.

Andrews, J., & Fay, R. (2020). Valuing a translingual mindset in researcher education in Anglophone higher education settings: Supervision perspectives. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 33(2): 188-202. {special issue on teaching and learning in Anglophone higher education settings}.

Andrews, J., Fay, R., Frimberger, K., Tordrzo, G., & Sithole, T. (2020). Theorising arts-based collaborative research processes. In E. Moore, J. Bradley & J. Simpson (Eds.), Translanguaging as transformation: The collaborative construction of new linguistic realities. (pp.118-134). Multilingual Matters.

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs, 28(3), pp.801-831.

Creese A., & Blackledge, A. (2012). Voice and meaning-making in team ethnography. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 43(3), pp.306-324.

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work within communities and classrooms. Cambridge University Press.

Littleton, K., & Mercer, N. (2013). Interthinking – Putting talk to work. Routledge.

Mercer, N. (2000). Words and minds: How we use language to think together. Routledge.

Moore, E., Bradley, J., & Simpson, J. (Eds.) (2020). Translanguaging as transformation: The collaborative construction of new linguistic realities. Multilingual Matters.

Wells, G. (1986). The meaning makers. Hodder & Staunton.

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