When you think of “learning” or “education” you may think of acquiring practical skills, scientific knowledge or simply factual or historical information about the world. How to build a house; how to fix a car engine; mathematics; human psychology; history of ancient Greece etc. But what if you could obtain an education which is not only professionally, scientifically or practically useful – like helping to create a new career – but also personally and spiritually expansive in that your life is transformed in some meaningful and permanent way. This is a type of education known as “transformative learning”. We can think of transformative learning as the acquisition of knowledge which can alter or transform our usual frames of reference, even the “meaning” we place in our own lives. A transformational learning process can fundamentally alter our self-image, consciousness, values and meaning as well as how we perceive the world and others around us. Wikipedia defines transformative learning this way;
“Transformative learning is the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self; transformative learning is facilitated through consciously directed processes such as appreciatively accessing and receiving the symbolic contents of the unconscious and critically analyzing underlying premises” (“Transformative Learning”, 2017)
And so we can view “transformative learning” not only as a cognitive or intellectual process, but a process which provides an opportunity for personal, emotional or spiritual transformation of the self and consciousness. In order to define what a transformational learning process might look like, let’s consider the Transformational Learning Theory developed by Mezirow (1991)
According to Mezirow, Transformative Learning Theory is based on the idea that personal experience is a critical component in a learning process intended to bring about transformation. The theory suggests that it is this experiential component of the learning process, which encourages interpretation and evaluation which leads to reflections on meaning, and ultimately changes in behavior, mindset or even beliefs. In other words, a personal or “perspective transformation” resulting from the learning experience can occur within a transformational learning paradigm (Mezirow, 1991). Rather than simply reading or viewing new information and attempting to memorize facts or figures, the content of the material is both a form of new knowledge that relates to one’s personal, psychological or spiritual views and is presented in such a manner that the student is expected to “practice” or “implement” the knowledge into their own lives. Given this emphasis on actually applying the knowledge to one’s own life through the learning process, it is not hard to recognize the critical role the educator also plays in the delivery of a transformative learning process or program.
According to Taylor (2000), one of the core ingredients of a transformational learning process is found within the context of relationships, particularly between the students and the educators. Rather than simply passing on knowledge to students to be memorised, the educator becomes something of a facilitator of transformative learning through encouragement of critical reflection on that information, as well as acting on that new knowledge and applying it to their own lives (Mezirow, 1997). This aspect of acting upon the new knowledge and “living in the new perspective” (Baumgartner, 2001. p. 17) is thought to be absolutely critical to the transformative learning process. The role of the transformative learning educator is to create a supportive learning environment and an encouraging and facilitating structure which can lead to a deeper understanding of one’s self and then to facilitate behavioural change which may lead to personal transformation. It is through this supportive and trusting social context encouraging participatory dialog between student and educator, that critical reflection comes to the fore with methods to implement any shifts in perspectives, beliefs or self-image into the student’s life (Mezirow, 2000).
Critical Reflection & Meaning Structures
The content of a transformative learning process tends to be of a deeply personal, emotional, psychological, creative, spiritual or philosophical nature. Topics might include the expansion or alteration of consciousness; explorations into creativity; energy-healing; movement therapy; dreaming; shamanism; meditation and spirituality of many forms. All of which can touch on deeply held personal values and meaning. Given the deeply personal, spiritual, religious or psychological content of a transformative learning process, a common experience which can occur is one of a “disorientating dilemma” where a discrepancy is realised between what a person has always assumed or understood about the world or themselves, and something recently experienced, heard or learned (Cranton, 2002). This “disorienting dilemma” is similar to cognitive dissonance where one struggles to maintain two contradictory bits of knowledge such as “it is important to save the environment” yet “I drive a car that pollutes the environment”. Although it is often fairly easy for us to maintain or even justify these contradictory bits of information, when they touch on deeper aspects of meaning, values, self or assumptions about the world, they can become triggers for personal transformation. When we are confronted with these discrepancies between what we have always assumed about ourselves or the world, the resulting “disorienting dilemma” can lead to a process of “critical reflection” in order to work through existing beliefs or assumptions in light of the new knowledge and possibly re-evaluating those beliefs or assumptions and allowing them, allowing YOU, to transform accordingly (Cranton, 2002. Taylor, 2000).
The heart of the transformational learning process, the deep-seated aspects of our selves which become triggered, reflected upon and ultimately transformed, are our “meaning structures”. These “meaning structures” in our lives are defined as “broad sets of predispositions resulting from psychocultural assumptions which determine the horizons of our expectations” (Mezirow, 1991). These are the social, psychological and epistemic (knowledge) based components which collectively shape our perspectives, worldviews, self-image and our deeply held values and meaning systems. The types of questions we may ask ourselves and the “meaning structures” which may be considered in a transformative learning process or program might include:
- What does it mean to be a “good person”?
- Am I happy in my life?
- Am I on the “right” path in my career, family or spiritual direction?
- Am I serving my deepest emotional or spiritual needs?
- Will earning more money make me happy?
- Can I accept that I will die one day?
Ultimately it is how we reflect upon these sorts of questions and the effect they have on our “meaning structures” that form the foundations for the deep and reflective changes and personal growth which can occur during a transformative learning process or program (Pappas, 2016).
Transformative Learning with Alef Trust
The Alef Trust has been delivering online learning programs in consciousness studies and transpersonal psychology since 2012. Yet, our faculty’s experience in delivering transpersonal graduate education goes back decades, including 20 years of teaching online variants of transpersonal psychology programs at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. Our director Professor Les Lancaster is President of the International Transpersonal Association (ITA), and our international faculty is deeply involved in many professional networks and organisations, promoting spiritual and transpersonal approaches to personal development and professional practice.
At the Alef Trust, as we pursue transpersonal studies within the online learning context, we continually examine our approach to teaching, asking what it means to be holistic and experiential educators working at a distance. Transpersonal online learning presents many unique challenges and opportunities. We approach these with a wide-angle lens, continuously evolving our ways through which the multi-facetted pedagogic processes that underpin the study of transpersonal ideas can be realised within online learning environments.
Entering into the world of research and scholarship in the study of consciousness and spirituality is, we believe, intrinsically transformational. There have been major inroads into the science of consciousness over recent years, with many recognising dynamic synergies between, for example, neuroscientific research, quantum mechanics, and traditions associated with mysticism. Academic study can open new vistas on the human mystery and the place of consciousness within the broad sweep of our understanding of the cosmos. Many scholars are coming to recognise that in some complex way, consciousness is a fundamental presence in the universe as a whole, and that a reductionistic perspective will not enhance our understanding of what it is to be human. It is this enriching view that lies at the core of our teaching with the Alef Trust.
A transpersonal pedagogy embraces a whole-person approach to learning. The curriculum of the Alef Trust’s online graduate programs in Consciousness, Spirituality and Transpersonal Psychology features experiential, embodied, creative and relational components alongside academic tuition, drawing on spiritual traditions, contemplative arts, and creative arts, seeking to balance intellectual with intuitive modes of knowing. Our overarching hope and aim is that our programs may, as Rowe and Netzer (2012) put it, “contribute to whole-person transformation and lead to social applications for a more sustainable world” (p. 1).
As transpersonal teachers working at a distance with students who are sometimes thousands of miles away, we have identified four key principles which we apply to facilitate whole-person learning online. These are: presence, embodiment, community and relevance.
On mundane levels, we achieve presence through consistent and quick communication with our students, giving them a sense of being heard and seen. We endeavour to nurture one-to-one contact throughout a student’s learning journey, e.g. through a personal tutor team who accompany students during their time on the degree programs. We also endeavour to depict clearly what students can expect from our online programs and how they can make the most of our online learning offer and tools. We also continuously consider issues of netiquette and cultural diversity, aiming to create a safe and inclusive environment, sensitive towards people from all walks of life. Ultimately, the notion of presence runs deep, involving congruency, the embodiment of the values we cherish, walking the talk. As we work online, we work with intention … co-creating online spaces as sacred vessels, within which our students’ journeys can unfold and flourish.
As transpersonal educators we traverse the borderlands between academia, personal growth and spiritual praxis. It is relatively straight-forward to give a lecture online, but enabling experiential, embodied immersion requires the courage to experiment, testing the limits of the virtual environments. The Alef Trust utilises Sakai, a Collaborative Learning Environment (CLE) featuring a range of standard tools for online education: amongst them forums for asynchronous discussions and a webinar facility for live events. Experiential work may be facilitated via written instructions or podcast (where students work independently and report back on their experience), or via live webinars. Holding a live space online can be particularly challenging, as well as exhilarating. We share a virtual space with people from around the world, often involving participants from several continents. Here we may be able to see and hear each other, yet we are challenged to read the subtleties of non-verbal, embodied communication through webcam images and microphone sounds. The connection can be fragile, voices and faces can be distorted. Furthermore, we cannot determine learning context for the student who may be at home or at work or on the move! We have had students joining us live from their car, on busses and from Internet cafés in exotic places, like the Australian outback and the Amazon rainforest! Yet online webinars can be intimate, offering glimpses into people’s private spaces and family life – family members or friends appearing in the background or looking curiously into the camera, smiling and waving. Pets can make casual appearances. Bringing the learning space into one’s home can engender feelings of close connection.
And despite the distance between us, we find ways to engage with each other through the body, integrating meditation and contemplative practices into live sessions, offering gentle movement work in front of the screen, and enriching lectures and discussions with creative and expressive arts exercises, utilising forums and live chat facilities. It is through these embodied components that we deepen the learning experience, utilising somatic, intuitive and creative ways of knowing which pave the way for (trans)personal growth.
Throughout the Alef Trust we nurture a sense of community, bringing students from across all programs together, not only by creating spaces for extra-curricular activity and exchange, but by putting the community at the heart of our learning offer. Alongside community forums and regular live get-togethers, we encourage students to come together in groups, to explore shared interests and to offer peer-support. Graduates of our courses stay on in mentoring roles, supporting newcomers to the community. Monthly ‘Soul Space’ sessions offer live meeting spaces informed by expressive arts principles, which deepen connections and relationships. The diversity of our international and professionally mature constituency affords our students and teachers a unique exposure to a broad range of perspectives which can be eye-opening, inviting revaluation of assumptions and expansion of one’s point of view. As Lowe (2010) suggests, “The importance of peer relationships in an online community cannot be underestimated. […] The community of learners is also the vehicle by which formation is nurtured” (p. 7).
The Alef Trust’s academic programs are framed by a focus on personal development which means that we place particular emphasis in many of our course modules on encouraging students to apply their learning, helping them identify ways to integrate transpersonal values and approaches into their professional and private lives. Like other transpersonal educators, such as Braud (2006) and Netzer & Rowe (2010), we believe that spiritual ideas and principles can be understood only if they are lived and made relevant in one’s daily life. In year 2 of the Master’s program, for example, students undertake a 3-month period of Integral Practice (e.g. Wilber, Patten, Leonard & Morelli, 2008), designing and implementing a schedule of practices to exercise bodily, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal aspects of the self to facilitate a deeper attunement to, and unfolding of, their unique individual potential within our deeply interconnected world.
To conclude, we give one of our graduates the last word:
“This Master’s course has changed my life more than I could possibly have imagined in the beginning. In my experience it is not a study to be undertaken by the faint of heart. For it requires self-searching. It was a long time since I had ventured into the waters of academia and that took quite a lot of getting used to. But it was the combination with the ‘soulfulness’ that appealed to me. What happened was that I learned to articulate more clearly what I think and why I think it. I also learned to bring in my creativity. It has brought together seemingly disparate areas of long standing interest for me such as ecology, consciousness studies and therapy and allowed me to discover what it is that connects them all and to experience that connection in myself. What I hoped at the beginning was to find others who share my vision and my interest in the development of a new paradigm in science. Although the study is mostly online, and that can be difficult at times, it also creates a real sense of there being a world-wide network of like-minded individuals. This sustains me at a time when we are experiencing tremendous upheaval and uncertainty in the world.” ~ Online Master’s program graduate.