By Raka Tavashmi
Seven years ago as a young psychologist I walked away from academia; my work felt lifeless, dry words and data, no feeling or soul. As if I had left some hearty parts of myself somewhere secret and couldn’t bring it in to work, what a shame. I then started learning about health and the arts and how to be more real… and to recover from my education somewhat.
Now I find myself working with university students, teaching them about connection, caring and creativity, sharing life-skills I learnt from my own explorations and from outside the university walls. I’ve become the strange person who carries around her Box of Random Objects and makes people doodle and play to learn about listening, imagining and creating.
On 24 April I attended a conference on Transformative Learning, and here I found that my practice has more links to scholarly work than I had realised. Very briefly, transformative learning theory describes a radical shift in one’s perspective, “a structural change in the way we see ourselves and our relationships” (Mezirow, 1978). It is triggered by a crisis – a ‘disorienting dilemma’ – that forces critical self-reflection. The learner becomes aware of a limitation in her experience or knowledge and the difficulties this brings, she is forced to find a different way of thinking/feeling/acting to resolve this dissonance, leading to a new, transformed way of being in the world. Things need to not make sense, for the learner to be a bit bewildered, feel a little unsafe perhaps, in order to reflect in a way that makes transformative learning possible.
It turns out that this view of learning is very much reflective of my own practice, and despite being a newcomer to this theory I recognise it well. At the conference I heard scholarly perspectives on the process of transformative learning, such as the importance of ‘permeability to experience’ (Kaisu Malkki), of the recognition of rhythm in learning (Michel Alhadeff-Jones), about the need for identity transformation to respond our world in flux (Knud Illeris), and much more. A rich picture emerged of this conceptual world, and I was surprised by how much of this discourse already permeates my work. Some of the reasons I invite art-making, imagination and reflection into my teaching is precisely to capture these lessons: being open to and surprised by our experience, experimenting with moving towards and away from our usual ways of learning, and considering the way our identity and environment shape each other.
I’m a practitioner, not an academic. As much as I love grappling with ideas, primarily I need them to work: I need to feel them in my life and in my body to understand them. I need to be moved and changed by them, for them to really land in my experience in order for me to consider them useful. On this day concepts resonated because I had already felt them in my life, as a learner myself and as a teacher, and the pieces that were missing for me within the presentations could be filled from my own practice.
The title of the conference was Transformative Learning: Theory and Praxis, the phrase mirroring the several examples of polarities that emerged through the day, including quite personally within myself – I had left the world of theories to delve more into my aliveness, and now my lived experience was connecting back to concepts. I felt an impulse to invite more dances between knowing and being, and importantly, to find others who may want to dance with me.
Mezirow, J. (1978). Perspective transformation. Adult Education Quarterly, 28(2), 100- 110