Tag Archives: transformative learning

taking a stand: what does it take to make a difference?

tarot: courage and strengthmy last post was inspired by the 20th anniversary of the tiananmen square massacre. in it i was musing about what it takes to stand up against whatever oppression we’re experiencing, be it political or in a smaller social environment.

making that decision

marie reflected: “i guess it’s a matter of deciding what is more important . . . standing up or staying safe . . . ?”

decisions – what does it take to make a decision to stand up? how often are these decisions planned, and how often do they happen in a split second? i wonder what it was like for the tank man at tiananmen square. hard to imagine that that was a deliberate, conscious decision. most likely, he saw the situation and just walked out. perhaps there was not even any self talk; it just happened, almost as in a trance. there is some controversy in the psychological community right now whether slow, rational decisions have a better outcome than “gut” decisions.  i haven’t seen these specific studies but imagine that they probably didn’t look at momentous decisions like the one made by tank man.  if he had made a list of pros and cons whether to stand in front of the tanks he wouldn’t have; he would have decided on safety.  but he did the crazy thing and continues to inspire people all over the world.

past experience and present support

“my guess is that it is a combination of past experience and current support.” – that’s what evan said.

that reminds me of something that happened just yesterday.  i was participating in a workshop that – well, didn’t leave me feeling very positive.  in fact, i felt trapped and disregarded, and it appeared that a few others did so, too.  i asked a question that tried to deal with that, which was answered only superficially, and when i became increasingly frustrated, a got up and left rather than making another comment.  so in terms of standing up it was okay but not exactly stellar (“you don’t have to be a saint, isabella!” said one of the other participants).

what was the past experience?  as many of you know, i grew up in post-nazi germany.  standing up to people who i feel use authority inappropriately is a huge value for me.  i have also stood up in similar situations before and while it is difficult every time, i feel proud and – clean, afterwards.  at the same time, not standing up can fill me with despair and disappointment.

the present support was that i knew myself surrounded – both physically by some of the participants and emotionally by my friends and family –  by people who i knew would accept and support my decision to speak up.  (interestingly enough, i think if i would have thought less about the decision to speak up the second time, i probably would have done it).

education, awareness and community

finally, sandy commented, “we find strength through awareness, education, a shared sense of community, and people in our lives who tell us we are valuable.”  i touched on education and awareness already with what i told you about my post-nazi germany upbringing.  the education and awareness came mostly through the stories i heard from my parents, who were involved with the resistance each in their own modest ways, and through my best friend, whose parents were holocaust survivors.  formal education was just an addition to that.  i think the point here is not so much that education doesn’t work but that there probably needs to be a strong, personally felt emotional impact for it to make a difference.

when i was doing my research on transformative learning, i interviewed a young man who had decided to become a forest ranger.  this decision came after having spent a summer with an older environmental activist who told him stories, explained larger environmental questions to him, and led him on many walks, intimately acquainting the young man with plants, animals, soil and the whole wide world of forests.  an education indeed – but again, a fully rounded education, touching not only the mind but also heart and body.

image by eric schwartz

transformation, chaos, and the straw that breaks the camel’s back

last month, i started a little series on change and transformation, inspired by a post by my blogging friend nancy that asked, how does change occur? that time i talked about the precursors of change – the “rumblings”, so to say, that precede an earthquake.

aaah, but is it an earthquake? is transformation really about the “disorienting dilemma” that transformative learning guru jack mezirow talks about? is it a “burning bush” experience?

for sure, that is the case for some people. in my research on transformative learning, i talked to people who had been transformed through tragic events like accidents and cancer. one person’s life changed completely after surviving a few days locked in a caved-in mine.

it was interesting, though, how often transformative moments in people’s lives were rather small. this is one of the main reasons why i became interested in the connection between transformative learning, psychotherapy and chaos theory. in chaos theory, too, small, even minute changes at crucial moments can make a huge difference. it’s like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

in my research, i asked interviewees to describe the moment of change, the actual turning point in their transformative experiences.

one person had grown up thinking that people with blue-collar backgrounds like hers could not become successful professionals, and that along with being professional came being “brilliant.” she tells us:

i didn’t know i could set goals. even with one of my daughters who had to work very hard at her schooling – when she said she wanted to become a teacher, i was wondering, can she really do that? i still thought she had to be brilliant, even suggested she’d become a teacher’s assistant instead – so i still put her in a category. … i knew that i was complying with these structures and in a way i wanted my daughter to comply, too … [but then] my daughter graduated and i thought what am i doing? that’s what broke the mold.

after that experience, this person started to set professional goals for herself that were completely different from before.

here’s another example of someone who, rather by accident, took a women’s studies course. this is what happened when she read a particular article.

i had thought that i had “let go” of this notion that i needed to be a dutiful, obedient, subordinate wife. what i realized was that i had let go of that on the surface but at a deep level, i felt like i was doing something wrong. it took this article to raise my consciousness about that.

after reading that article, she completely revised her ideas about being a wife and mother and realized that she’d be quite happy not having children. again, this dramatically changed her career path.

this little story is interesting because it shows the power of being open to revisiting and examining earlier insights – maybe we could call it the “i-thought-i-had-dealt-with-that syndrome.” it reminds of the ever continuing cycle of action and reflection that people as early as dewey (1933, p. 102-118) talk about.