Rethinking How We See Our World Changes Everything
by Linda Sechrist
In the 30 years since Harrison Owen introduced Open Space Technology (OST), it has been used hundreds of thousands of times by three-quarters of the world’s countries. Whether a few people gather in a circle to share ideas and brainstorm personal issues, or thousands discuss a bulletin board of topics around tables, OST is a safe, informal venue for transformative learning.
Guided by purpose-based, shared leadership, it allows individuals focused on a specific task to freely speak their thoughts and be heard. It also encourages breakout groups to mine for more information—learning individually, as well as collectively, and self-organizing in order to concentrate on more complex topics. “Boeing engineers used OST to learn how to redesign airplane doors and young Egyptians used it to strategize for their Arab Spring,” as examples, comments Owen.
For Owen, like Jack Mezirow, author of the paper, “Core Principles of Transformative Learning Theory,” 20th century Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and Juanita Brown, co-founder of The World Café, learning is transformation, the keystone of life, and the essence of meaningful education. “The circle principle contains the predictability of fresh, emerging thoughts and learning that never occurred previously,” explains Owen.
He points to an experiment regarding children’s capacity for self-learning initiated by Sugata Mitra, Ph.D., the former science director of an educational technology firm in India. On the outside wall of the building where he worked, Mitra installed a computer facing a New Delhi slum where most children were unschooled and illiterate and had never seen a computer. He turned it on and told children they could play with it.
Via a noninvasive video camera, he watched 7-to-13-year-olds discover how to use the computer and teach each other how to play music and games and draw using Microsoft’s Paint program. Repetition of the experiment in other impoverished sections of India yielded similar results. Wherever he established an Internet connection, children that could not read English, the Internet’s default language, taught themselves how to use the Web to obtain information through their interactions with each other and the computer.
“I agree with what Mitra surmised from his experiment—learning is emergent, which is another word for self-organizing,” remarks Owen. Like Freire, Owen likens traditional education to the “banking” method of learning, whereby the teacher passes information to students that become dependent on someone else rather than learning how to think on their own.
Suzanne Daigle, a Sarasota, Florida-based consultant with a Canadian multidisciplinary consulting firm, explains how the OST learning environment changed her life: “My personal transformation began in 2009, when I volunteered to assist another OST facilitator. I was a perfectionist who judged myself harshly and struggled with the question, ‘Who am I to think I can help hold space for leaders to transform themselves through their learning when I have so little experience?’”
She notes, “Before such experiences, even though I was a leader in my corporate career, I doubted myself and often believed that what others had to say was more significant and interesting than what I could express.” Now she says she has shed her people-pleasing tendencies and former attempts to control other people’s agendas and discovered the freedom and courage of her own voice. “As an OST facilitator, my life work now occurs in the moments I am collaboratively learning and listening for opportunities to enter into meaningful conversations that can lead to actions,” says Daigle. “I invite others to do the same.”
In a compulsory two-year Theory of Learning class for an International Baccalaureate degree at California’s Granadas Hill Charter High School, math and science educator Anais Arteaga helps students apply two major elements of transformative learning: self-reflection to critique one’s own assumptions and discourse through which they question or validate their judgments. She focuses on the roles that perception, language, reason and emotion play in a student’s learning and decision-making abilities.
“Questions and lively discussions are the basis of the class,” Arteaga says. “We begin with a question and explore what we know, how we know it and any conclusions drawn from the process.”
Using a democratic model in which the teacher welcomes critical discussion, Arteaga and her students have mutually discovered that knowledge is not static, but has a history and changes over time. “When we first started the class, it was challenging to accept that in many situations there is no right or wrong, just relativity and a matter of perception. We don’t really know anything for certain,” she remarks.
Katia Petersen, Ph.D., is the executive director of education at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), headquartered in Petaluma, California. She co-developed the tools, practices and 22 lessons in the pioneering organization’s Worldview Explorations (WE) project. Founded on 40 years of IONS research, WE engages everyone in age-appropriate ways in reflecting upon long-held assumptions and how beliefs create the lens they see through, ultimately improving how they understand and respond to the world.
“When individuals understand the power of offering their story and are open to the worldview stories of others, they no longer focus attention on differences and limitations,” says Petersen. “They realize that everyone has their own truth.”
Through small groups and conversations, participants unpack how the program has influenced them by answering questions that explore what inspired, surprised and changed the way they perceive the world. “WE’s transformative learning experiences draw from the heart and soul of individuals, rather than stuffing heads with ideas and perspectives, which serves them well as they embody and apply these tools and practices in their daily lives,” notes Petersen.
She cites a particularly powerful moment for a group of young people she worked with. “A student was killed in a drive-by shooting two weeks before their certification. The transformative moment came when they said that their new awareness and capacity for compassion and understanding would not allow them to seek revenge. Instead, they chose to save lives in their communities using their new skills.”
Ashley Cooper and Matt Abrams, co-founders of the Mycelium School, in Asheville, North Carolina, re-imagined a learning environment for aspiring entrepreneurs and social change agents committed to activating their potential and realizing solutions to today’s challenges. A 12-week learning journey allows individuals to become increasingly adept at learning from and helping each other learn.
The curriculum offers minimum structure, significant support and collaboration with others. “In the learning community, individuals are dedicated to a project or life question of their choice,” explains Cooper. Participants’ goals include changing careers, determining the next steps after retirement or how to pursue true passions to make a difference in the world.
“There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
~ Richard Shaull, Th.D.
Cheri Torres, Ph.D., founder of the Asheville-based Innovation Partners International SE, was one of the earliest participants in the Mycelium Learning experience. She says that she obtained an expanded understanding of the approach that she uses in her work. “The whole systems approach I use with organizational and community leaders enables them to shift from a top-down management model to one that engages everyone and uses the collective intelligence and collaborative efforts of all for the collective good. My own learning journey transformed the level of awareness I bring to my work and the understanding of who I am,” advises Torres.
“My original guiding question was, ‘How can I get so clear about my work that I can explain it in plain language?’ Ultimately, my question shifted to what would it be like for me to live and work from a place of wholeness. Through conversations with Ashley and self-reflection, I realized I was not walking my talk within my own mind-body-spirit system. My journey helped me understand that my most effective role in my own life, as well as with clients, is to create the conditions for collective intelligence and collaboration to emerge in service to the whole,” says Torres.
Like OST, the World Café, co-created by Brown and David Isaacs, of Burnsville, North Carolina, creates a transformative learning environment for individuals of all ages. Its primary principles are: set the context, create hospitable space, explore questions that matter, encourage everyone’s contributions, connect diverse perspectives, listen together for patterns and insights and share collective discoveries. Webs of conversation created around typically actual and occasionally virtual tables resemble those found in coffeehouses.
“Conversation is a core meaning-making process, and people get to experience how the collective intelligence of a small or large group can become apparent,” says Brown. After several rounds of conversation on one or more topics, participants offer their harvest of key insights, learning and opportunities for action with the full group gathered to reflect together on their discoveries.
“World Café provides an environment in which you are comfortably drawn forward by the questions you are asking together. When enough diversity is present, varied perspectives are offered and people feel listened to and free to make their contribution,” observes Brown.
What participants learn in this setting creates the climate of conditions that support the kinds of transformations that can changes lives. Brown remarks, “When it happens to me, I feel like my brain cells have been rearranged. I know something in the collective, as well as the individual, has been evoked, so that something never before imagined becomes present and available.”
Transformative learning has been compared to a sea journey without landmarks. Adventurous individuals that are open to traversing its highly engaging processes can emerge as autonomous thinkers, capable of contributing fresh, new ideas that just might transform the world we live in.
Linda Sechrist is a senior staff writer for Natural Awakenings. Visit ItsAllAboutWe.com for the recorded interviews.