Shifting Mindsets: Transforming Self, School, and Society
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We are living in a time of profound disruption and planetary crises which is calling on all of us to show up and make a contribution that serves the wellbeing of all. A central aspect of making such a contribution is the capacity to shift our mindsets towards more caring, inclusive, and interdependent perspectives. This chapter explores mindsets in an educational context. We begin with a general overview of mindset theory and examine the relationship between mindsets and the unfolding of human potential. Then we explore fixed and growth mindset theory in education, which is primarily focused on learning, achievement, and improvement. Next, we evolve this focus to include benefit mindset theory, which integrates leadership, contribution, and transformation, and focuses on how we can recognise our interdependence with the living Earth community, turn towards our individual and collective shadows, and realise our unique potential in a way that serves the wellbeing of all. We include a table of 10 mindset transformations, and we invite scholars and educators to explore implications.
The word mindset was first used at the turn of the twentieth century to mean habits of mind formed by previous experience (Gollwitzer, 1990). In simple terms, mindsets are deeply held beliefs and assumptions that we create about who we are and how the universe works. This includes basic assumptions about what sort of person we are supposed to be, how we are meant to relate with others, and what skills and strategies we should learn in life. Thereafter, mindsets act like a “frame of reference” that shape our capacity for perception and action, and shifting them plays a central role in our ability to “be the transformation” in response to our life circumstances (Meadows, 1999; Mezirow, 1997).
For example, consider a school community which is experiencing increasing levels of trauma. Initially, the school community responds to this experience by organising a trauma-informed training, because they perceive if the teachers can learn new skills and strategies, they will be able to intervene and hopefully improve the situation. However, following the training, the teachers notice that while they are seeing some areas of improvement, the new skills and strategies are not translating into lasting change.
Curious to learn more, the teachers join a global learning ecosystem which is dedicated to the transformation of self, school, and society. It is in this learning ecosystem that the teachers realise a reason that they were not seeing results from the new skills and strategies was because they were aimed at treating individual symptoms, rather than healing and transforming the underlying root issues, such as the systems of disadvantage and marginalisation in their community. This insight leads to a profound shift in mindset, where the teachers begin to see the trauma that they are experiencing with new eyes. Over time, this shift in mindset catalyses a paradigm shift in culture—from being trauma-informed to being healing-centred—and this shift not only changes the skills and strategies the teachers learn, but it also transforms the school’s capacity to care for everyone in their community. In this way, learning new skills and strategies is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to change and transformation. At a deeper level, it is the capacity to shift mindsets that can transform the possibilities we are able to see and actualise in our lives and in our communities.
In this chapter, we explore mindsets in an educational context, with a focus on primary and secondary school education. We begin by exploring the relationship between mindsets and the unfolding of human potential. Next, we look at fixed and growth mindset theory, which is primarily concerned with the development of new abilities and intelligences. Then we look at its evolution towards benefit mindset theory, which is concerned with how we can be the transformation and realise our unique potential in a way that serves the wellbeing of all. To support educators with facilitating mindset shifts in their learning communities, we include a table of 10 mindset transformations, and include practical examples of how each transformation can be facilitated. By shifting our mindsets in ways which are aligned with the wellbeing of all, those shifts can ripple out through our lives and the world in ways that are remarkable.
Mindsets and Human Potential
Mindsets are associated with the unfolding of human potential in two primary directions. The first direction is what is commonly referred to as horizontal development, or informative learning. In horizontal development, we incrementally add new skills, knowledge, and intelligences within our current view of ourselves and the world (Kegan, 1982). It is learning which, over time, enables us to grow, progress, and improve.
The second direction is what is commonly referred to as vertical development, or transformative learning. In vertical development, we transform our view of reality so we can see our lives and the world with new eyes (Kegan, 1982). It is learning which as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe describes “opens up a new organ of perception within us”, and in turn, transforms our way of seeing and making sense towards broader and more inclusive perspectives (Cottrell, 1998, p. 257).
Facilitating vertical development is important because we live in extraordinary times, when everyone is facing complex challenges they have not had to face before. From coronavirus to climate change, mental health to racial injustice, what is clear is these are not challenges that can be transformed through the development of new skills and abilities alone. We must also develop vertically into our full humanity, as engaged global citizens who are aware of our interdependency and care deeply for the wellbeing of all.
The issue is, in society and in mainstream education today, most people are only socially supported with developing into a dependent or independent frame of reference. At these stages of vertical development, we are primarily concerned with our own wellbeing and potential as well as the wellbeing and potential of the people closest to us. Whereas, if we continue to develop in a vertical direction, our view of who we are and how we belong transforms, and we are increasingly able to recognise our interdependence with all life. In this more inclusive view, we are increasingly able to see wellbeing and human potential from a global living Earth perspective, and this transforms our capacity to realise our potential in a way which is aligned with the wellbeing of all, including future generations (Goreng Goreng, 2018; Vieten, Schlitz, & Amorok, 2007; Wilber, 1996).
This makes the horizontal and vertical developments we can embody—the potential we can mature into—an essential aspect in the creation of a healthy and harmonious world.
Mindsets in Education
In mainstream education and positive education, Carol Dweck’s fixed and growth mindset theory has received the most attention (see Dweck & Yeager, 2019 for a comprehensive review, and see Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, & Macnamara, 2018 for a meta-analysis of mindset interventions). Dweck’s research originated from self-theory, which is primarily concerned with a person’s implicit theories of intelligence and ability. In her early research, Dweck identified an “entity” view and “incremental” view of intelligence, based on whether individuals believe a particular attribute is simply fixed (entity) versus being something that can be developed (incremental). As her research developed, she proposed fixed and growth mindset theory as a way of integrating her research findings into an accessible body of work (Dweck & Yeager, 2019).
The theory suggests two specific mindsets that we can have within different areas of life: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). A fixed mindset is based on the belief that a specific ability or intelligence is a fixed trait. We assume that we either have a natural ability or not. We also believe that effort is for people with deficiencies, and therefore, give up easily when challenged. For example, let’s say a young person at some point in their lives had an experience of feeling that they are not creative. This may be because they were explicitly told so, or perhaps they tried something new and found their creativity to be lacking. To protect their feelings of self-worth, this experience leads to the formation of a belief that “I’m just not the creative type”. From then on, the young person opts out of anything that invites them to be creative. On the surface, this can look like a student who is resistant to their own growth and change. But at a deeper level, this young person’s actions are rooted in a belief that they have formed about their creative abilities.
In contrast, a growth mindset is based on a belief that our abilities and intelligence are malleable and can be developed through hard work, putting in deliberate effort, and using effective strategies. We feel confident to try new things and are less discouraged by the inevitability of failures and setbacks. This leads to a passion for stretching oneself and drawing inspiration from others who are doing the same. For example, a young person might have faced a number of challenging experiences with their creativity but chooses to persist in the face of them. They understand that challenges they face are not proof of inability, but rather are a natural by-product of learning. This belief drives their behaviours. They are more likely to embrace their creative challenges, engage in intentional effort, and get closer to fulfilling their potential in life.
When you follow a growth mindset to the extreme, it can lead to the development of some incredible skills and abilities. A popular role model of a growth mindset in action is basketball superstar Michael Jordan. Facing multiple failures and setbacks throughout his life, Jordan embraced his challenges, committed to mastering his skills, and became one of the greatest athletes of all time. He mesmerised fans with his gravity-defying dunks, fierce competitiveness, and he inspired an entire generation of young people to “be like Mike”. And he credits much of his success to his unrelenting drive to grow. As Jordan states, “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed” (Dweck, 2006, p. 154).
By limiting the theory’s focus to an individual’s belief about their intelligence and ability, Dweck’s fixed and growth mindset distinctions have helped a great many people form a developmental frame of reference. Its strength is in how it helps individuals activate the malleability of their beliefs such that they can learn and grow. However, the focus is primarily on adding another skill here or learning about another concept there, without facilitating a deeper transformation in a person’s underlying frame of reference. With the result being, growth mindsets largely perpetuate patterns of horizontal development and neglect to nurture the vertical developments necessary for mature engagement in the living Earth community.
Similar comments can be offered about the paradigm of positive education. Broadly speaking, positive education represents a paradigm shift in the field of psychology, evolving beyond a focus on pathology to a focus on wellbeing (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Yet, most positive education programs attempt to achieve this aim of promoting wellbeing through the lens of horizontal development. The primary focus is on adding new skills and knowledge, such as the ability to implement positive psychology interventions, not on developing vertically and transforming our capacity to care for people and planet as an undivided whole. As a result, positive education would also benefit greatly from a more complete mindset theory which nurtures human potential in both a horizontal and vertical direction.
Another comment we can make here is that there seems to be this implicit assumption in fixed and growth mindset theory, that growing through effort is a good thing; that a person who is driving their own growth is healthy; and from that growth, good things will follow. While the theory is good at telling the stories of people who persevered to overcome their life challenges, it remains relatively silent on the shadows of constant striving, for instance a parent who is so busy achieving at work they hardly see their children, or the person who burns out in their unrelenting efforts to progress. The theory also remains relatively silent on the collective shadows of growth, such as the reality that what we are learning and progressing most of the time are powerful colonial mechanisms of privilege, exploitation, and infinite growth which are perpetuating intersecting forms of violence and are destroying the systems of life on the planet. Finally, very little attention is paid to the deeper roots behind why someone might be in a fixed mindset, such as a lived experience of trauma, marginalisation, or socioeconomic disadvantage, where the formation of a fixed mindset might be a protective response against living in an oppressive and inequitable society.
This is why we as authors believe that there are grounds to evolve Dweck’s mindset theory, such that it can support us with making the more transformative and inclusive shifts associated with vertical development, and flourish into our full humanity as authentically engaged global citizens.
Benefit Mindset as a Compassionate and Transformative Evolution of Fixed and Growth Mindset Theory
Developing into our full humanity as authentically engaged global citizens is at the heart of benefit mindset. A benefit mindset builds on a growth mindset, when we understand that our abilities can be developed—and we also understand we can transform towards a more caring, inclusive, and interdependent perspective. It is called “benefit” mindset because it is concerned with the lifelong process of learning how we can be the transformation and realise our unique potential in a way that serves the wellbeing of all (Buchanan & Kern, 2017).
Central to this development in perspective is the understanding that we are not separate individuals going it alone. We are interdependent beings who belong to a massive global ecosystem—the community of life—and every one of us has a role to play in creating healthy conditions on the planet, no matter our interests, passions, or expertise. Therefore, while it is important we learn how to develop new abilities in different areas of our lives, it is also important we take responsibility for transforming how we come to understand our place in the world, and realise our potential in a way that affirms life and supports others with doing the same.
For example, a benefit mindset is evident in a young person who not only commits to developing their capacity for creativity, but chooses to step into their full creative potential in a way that benefits others and society more generally. In a benefit mindset, a young person would commit to widening their circle of care and inclusion, such that they can become more fully themselves in a way that brings out the best in themselves and everyone around them.
When we commit to a lifelong process of transformation and compassionate care, we not only learn new skills and abilities, but we can open up to a healthier and more coherent life orientation which is serving the whole. A person whose life journey embodies this way of being is Jane Goodall. From humble beginnings, Jane was an unlikely scientific pioneer when she first set foot in Gombe Stream National Park in the 1960s to study wild chimpanzees. She was 26 years old, had no academic credentials, and was living at a time when women were expected to be housewives rather than scientists. Yet with a great love for animals and a strong belief in herself, Jane returned with more compelling information about chimpanzees than anyone before her. Then, these profound experiences of connectedness with the living world began to transform Jane's life. She began to work tirelessly to protect the environment so that all living beings might continue to have a future on the planet. This has included founding Roots and Shoots, a global education program that empowers young people to affect positive change in their communities (www.rootsandshoots.org). The program has since grown to include approximately 150,000 youth in nearly 140 countries. In this way, Jane’s lifelong commitment to growth and transformation has strengthened her capacity for compassionate action in the world and is supporting a new generation of engaged global citizens with doing the same (Goodall, 2010).
In a benefit mindset, we would also understand that in our attempts to live in harmony and balance with the living Earth community, we will also encounter a shadow landscape of unhealthy patterns and unjust dynamics in ourselves and the world. Therefore, it becomes our duty to do the often uncomfortable work of paying careful and compassionate attention to any shadow material we may be denying, dissociating from, or absent to, and move towards healing and transforming this material as an act of service. This includes turning towards any societal shadows that we may be complicit in perpetuating, such as systems of power, privilege, and inequity, and the role they play in marginalisation, collective trauma, and socioeconomic disadvantage. It includes turning towards the unprecedented ecological shadows of our time, such as the climate emergency, the mass extinction of species, and the mass contamination of air, water, and soil. It includes turning towards any personal shadows we may be projecting onto others, such as personal triggers, unhealthy habits, and hidden biases. It also includes turning towards any intergenerational shadows we have been born into and have been passing on from generation to generation, such as racism, colonisation, and intergenerational trauma. We are all shareholders in these shadows, although some people and living communities are suffering disproportionately because of their existence, and our capacity to respond requires something more of us than the addition of new skills alone. They are shadows that require us to see more deeply into the many ways we may be contributing to and passing on the deep suffering of the world, such that we can move towards healing and transforming these patterns, and open up to a healthier and more inclusive life orientation which is serving the whole (Hübl, 2019; Scharmer, 2020; Williams, Owens, & Syedullah, 2016).
In attempting to describe the wellbeing of all in words, it might seem like this diverse ecology of concerns is a collection of separate issues. But when we hold them with an interdependent view, we see that all of these concerns cannot be separated. They inter-are (Hanh, 1987; Hooks, 2003). This is the compelling realisation that more than simply being interconnected—everything relies on everything else in order to be. The difference is akin to the contrast between that which is interconnected, and that which is interdependent. Interconnected things can be taken apart and put back together again, whereas interdependent things cannot be separated. They co-arise and flow together as part of an interdependent process of becoming.
This means, in every moment of our life, we are intimately participating in the wellbeing and unfolding of all life. Where everything we do impacts the wellbeing of everything else. In this interdependent view, we realise that being well is more completely understood as interbeing well. Where more than being interconnected, our wellbeing interdependently co-arises with the wellbeing of others and the wellbeing of the oceans, the forests, the birds, the bees, and the climate. We are all in this together, and if we are serious about caring for the wellbeing of all, it is our responsibility to develop a perspective which is inclusive of all people and all beings, including acknowledging and transforming the ways we may be overshadowing the wellbeing and liberation of others, such that we can live together in greater harmony and balance.
Herein lies one of the main limitations of many modern wellbeing and positive education programs. Too often we are conditioned to see wellbeing through an individualistic and positivistic lens that privileges personal concerns such as “self-care” and neglects the more collective concerns of “community care,” “planetary care,” and “intergenerational care,” as well as neglecting the many ways our inattention to the “mutual care” of all beings may be contributing to the overlapping suffering of the world. Thus, we arrive at the result today where there is now a strong belief that the whole of wellbeing can be more or less understood in individualistic and positivistic terms. All around us are self-help books, self-improvement strategies, and training programs suggesting a simple formula: just try this psychological strategy, use this lifestyle intervention, learn this new skill and you can be well. It is not that these things are unimportant. All these techniques can improve an individual’s wellbeing for a short while. However, they are an incomplete approach that excludes much of what there is to include and fails to recognise our shared responsibility to create a world that truly cares for and includes all of us.
Therefore, the intention at the heart of a benefit mindset is nothing less than a lifelong commitment to transform our way of seeing and being in the world towards a more caring, inclusive, and interdependent perspective that is wide enough to include the wellbeing of all.
This interdependent view of life and wellbeing is not intended as something new, but as a remembering of a sacred understanding of our kinship and deep interbeing with the living world, which many traditions and lineages of practice have long been aware of. Our ancestors and First Nations People took great care to live in harmony with the rhythms and processes of the living world, and their cultures were grounded in practices which were holistic, loving, reciprocal, and engaged. They understood that belonging to a living Earth community comes with responsibility. Nobody can simply act on his or her own behalf. We are all participants in the community of life, and our actions and practice of wellbeing must be attentive to the dynamics of how life functions as a harmonious whole (Atkinson, 2002; Capra & Luisi, 2014; Elgin, 2009; Yunkaporta, 2019).
To summarise, benefit mindset is concerned with maturing into the understanding that our capacity to realise our full potential is about more than how smart, driven, or growth-oriented we are. More completely, it is also about how well we are able to honour our interdependency, compassionately attend to our individual and collective shadows, and become partners in the wellbeing of all people and all living beings. While a growth mindset has many advantages over a fixed mindset, what truly makes us thrive is our capacity to realise our potential in a way that nurtures our uniqueness and serves the wellbeing, not only of humans, but the entire community of life.
Ten Example Transformations of a Benefit Mindset
In considering these distinctions, it is important to recognise that the mindsets are not identities. They are pointers to how our perception (i.e., the way we look at an ability or life circumstance) shapes our actions in different areas of life. The mindsets are also not binary states. Rather, every one of us has our own kaleidoscope of unique and ever-changing perspectives, as do the schools and communities to which we belong. So, the point in sharing these distinctions is not to imply they are rigid categories that represent some truth about you or your mindset. Rather, they are being offered as light handholds to help you to be more discerning around how a shift in perception creates a shift in action, and be alert to the possibility of how you can practise wellbeing and unfold your potential in a more caring and inclusive way.
In a fixed mindset, we presume we either have a natural ability or we do not, and there is little we can do to change or improve. We prefer to engage in activities where we can look talented and resist activities where we believe there is little point in trying. For example, a young person might do the least amount of work required on an assignment about climate change because they have formed a belief that “I am too small to make a difference”.
In a growth mindset, we show up with an open mind and are ready-to-learn. We drive ourselves to continuously improve and draw on effective strategies to allow growth and development to occur. For example, a young person might work hard on their climate change assignment, asking their teacher for help when they are stuck, and even challenge themselves to explore new questions in areas where they are improving. To foster a ready-to-learn attitude in young people, educators might set learning goals and success criteria and support students to progress towards them through feedback, practice, and deliberate effort (Dweck, 2006).
In a benefit mindset, we show up with an open heart and are ready-to-lead as part of engaged communities who are putting their practices to work in the world. We understand leadership is not a job title or something reserved for a special few people. Leadership is the distributed capacity of an entire community to respond to its life circumstances. This means responsibility for the wellbeing of all starts with every one of us showing up and contributing something as part of a larger social movement for healing and transformation. For example, a young person might widen their circle of concern, and consider how their climate change assignment can actively contribute to something in their lives, such as improving the sustainability of their home. More broadly, they might choose to start a permaculture garden, act in solidarity with marginalised people who are disproportionately impacted by climate change, or join one of the many grassroots groups leading transformative change in their local community. They might also choose to join Greta Thunberg and the millions of young, engaged global citizens who are turning our climate emergency into a learning and leadership opportunity (Thunberg, 2019). To foster a ready-to-lead attitude, educators can connect young people with personal practices such as compassionate action (e.g., Dalai Lama, 2004), engaged citizenship (e.g., Hanh, 2016), radical dharma (e.g., Williams et al., 2016), and mindfulness-based character strengths (e.g., Niemiec, 2014), as well as collective leadership practices such as awareness-based collective action (e.g., Scharmer & Kaufer, 2013), sacred leadership (e.g., Goreng Goreng, 2018), and evolutionary activism (e.g., Patten, 2018; XR, 2019). Educators can also activate their school’s capacity for collective action by hosting what we call a 21-day challenge, where everyone in the school community is invited to practice a courageous and compassionate act, every day, for 21 days (Buchanan, 2018; Mehta, 2014).
In a fixed mindset, we hold an “entity theory” of development, where we believe that we have a set level of intelligence and ability, which cannot be improved. For instance, a student might believe that they do not have a natural ability to play an instrument, and as a result, they avoid engaging in music class.
In a growth mindset, we hold an “incremental theory” of development, believing that our intelligence and abilities can be developed through deliberate effort and effective strategies (Dweck & Yeager, 2019). For instance, a student might be unsure about how well they will be able to play an instrument, but they are willing to try anyway, practising and improving over time. A way educators can support young people with finding their way into an incremental frame of reference is by providing lessons and opportunities to practise and by talking about how the brain is like a muscle that grows through determination and effort (i.e., brain neurons wiring and firing) (Blackwell, Rodriguez, & Guerra-Carrillo, 2015).
In a benefit mindset, our beliefs expand further such that we hold a “participatory theory” of development, where we understand that we are inseparable participants in each other’s becoming. Accepting this means taking responsibility for how we show up in life and how we participate in the lives of others and the life of society. This is when, more than forming new neural connections in our heads (e.g., brain neurons wiring and firing), we seek to become ourselves in a way that strengthens relational bonds through our hearts (e.g., hearts interconnecting and coalescing; Mehta, 2011). For instance, a music student might not only show up to class and be ready to learn, but they also consider how they can be of benefit to their orchestra as a whole by contributing to an inclusive culture and by igniting a shared love of music in the group.
Educators can nurture participatory modes of development with practices such as container building (e.g., Bird, 2020; Issacs, 1999), engaged pedagogy (e.g., Hooks, 2003), culturally responsive pedagogy (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 1995), and contextual wellbeing (e.g., Street, 2016), as well as practices that build a generative school climate or social field (e.g., Boell & Senge, 2016) that support young people with building a sense of “we-ness” around what it is they find energising and enlivening. These distinctions are important because when we think of development only in terms of brain activity, it reinforces a view of human beings as separate individuals (Shepherd, 2017). Whereas when we include the heart, and its boundless capacity for love, care, and interconnection, we get a more complete view of just how inseparable our potential and wellbeing really are.
In a fixed mindset, our beliefs focus us on reproducing what we already know (e.g., pre-set outcomes and achievements). For instance, some schools provide young people with an industrial-era education, where they teach standardised curriculums and evaluate performance against centralised and pre-set outcomes (e.g., grades).
In a growth mindset, our focus expands to consider how we do what we do (e.g., intentional effort and effective strategies). For instance, some schools provide guidance on how certain strategies and practices can be used to drive development and evaluate young people on their willingness to put in effort and make progress towards their goals (Dweck, 2006).
In a benefit mindset, our focus expands even further to also consider who we are being (i.e., attention and awareness) and why we do what we do (i.e., intention and purpose). We understand more than what we do and how we do it; it is the deeper impetus behind our actions: who we are being and why we do what we do, which creates a vertical space for deep transformations in ourselves and the world (Scharmer, 2009). For instance, some schools nurture the development of a young person’s way of being by providing them with an education of the heart (e.g., Dalai Lama, 2011) and social, emotional, and systems awareness training (e.g., Goleman & Senge, 2014), as well as by teaching practices such as mindfulness (e.g., Hanh, 1975) and yoga (e.g., Stone, 2011). Such awareness practices build on a traditional knowledge curriculum, to also include learning the basics of how the mind and heart work, cultivating a sense of oneness with humanity, developing the capacity to live by compassionate values, and be present to our experiences as they are. Some schools also use practices such as retreats (e.g., Palmer, 2004) and rites of passage (e.g., Plotkin, 2003; Rubinstein, 2014) that support young people with cultivating an authentic sense of life purpose and place this purpose at the centre of their education. Life purpose often manifests as an embodied knowing that “this is something I must do with my one wild and precious life” and provides young people with a sense of direction of how they can live in greater alignment with who they truly are and realise their fullest potential for the benefit of the whole.
In a fixed mindset, we typically reduce effort when an ability does not come easily, because we believe effort will do little to change things. For instance, a young person might put in minimal effort to learn how to hold an Acknowledgement of Country (an Australian ritual which is intended to show respect for the Traditional Custodians of the land you are meeting on), and shy away from leading one for their class, because they believe they will not be very good at it regardless of how much they try.
In a growth mindset, we see deliberate effort and effective strategies as necessary for learning and mastery. Effort is not seen as a substitute for ability, but as a way to develop and improve. For instance, if the young person was to shift their mindset towards growth, they would now see their ability to hold an Acknowledgement of Country as something they can learn and keep doing with effort. To encourage deliberate effort in young people, it is common for educators to talk about the importance of hard work, persistence, and grit, to keep progressing, even when we might find it challenging.
In a benefit mindset, we embrace a paradox about effort, and our actions increasingly become effortless. We loosen our grip on the need to be constantly driving growth, and instead, slow down and build an authentic connection to what we are trying to do, so we can align ourselves with the natural flow of life, and allow life to act through us in a way which is attuned with the whole (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Scharmer, 2009; Tolle, 2005). For instance, if the young person were to slow down, and physically feel a connection to Country, such as by putting their bare feet on the Earth, and if they were to walk with First Nations People, this would create the conditions for the possibility of an authentic Acknowledgement of Country to emerge through them. In this way, their Acknowledgement of Country flows effortlessly from an authentic connection, rather than something we drive or force with effort. Educators can facilitate this shift in effort by creating space for young people to form a personal connection to what they are being invited to learn and lead at school.
In a fixed mindset, we hold fixed expectations about our relationships. We assume relationships are either a good fit or not and see any issues we may experience as a sign of deficiency in ourselves or others. For instance, a young person might feel like they do not belong at school. If the young person views this experience through the lens of a fixed mindset, it can lead to feelings of loneliness and helplessness, and cause them to withdraw and disconnect, because they assume it has to do with a fixed shortcoming in themselves or others.
In a growth mindset, our openness to learning means we are more adaptable and flexible in our relationships. We understand all relationships require care and attention, and everyone is capable of growth and change. For example, if the same young person shifts their mindset towards growth, they would now be able to see belonging as something they can work at and build together with the people at their school. Educators can promote growth mindset relationships by teaching young people the social skills and strategies needed to make and maintain their relationships at school (e.g., Allen & Kern, 2019).
In a benefit mindset, we would widen our circle of concern and also consider how we can build our relatedness and our sense of belonging as responsible and authentically engaged global citizens. This is an important development, because we not only belong to our schools, we also belong to the living Earth community. The Earth is our home, so it is vitally important that we, as people and schools, widen our sense of belonging, and cultivate the feeling that everyone is welcomed, accepted, and included as a member of the living Earth community. For instance, what this might look like is a group of young people who not only work together to build their relatedness, but they explore what is incredible about the places they live and strengthen their sense of belonging to the living world around them. This could include connection activities, such as being present to the first bird call they hear in the morning or being attentive to a tree, or a waterway, or any living community that gives them a sense of their place in the world. It might also include connecting with diverse people and cultures in their community to learn how they can build authentic and inclusive relationships, especially in places of marginality and disadvantage. Educators can nurture the building of relationships with deep listening practices (e.g., Scharmer, 2009; Ungunmerr, 1988), nature play and re-wilding practices (e.g., Louv, 2005; Macy & Brown, 2014), inclusion practices (e.g., Hooks, 1994; Ladson-Billings, 1995), and with circle practices (e.g., Roffey, 2014), all of which support young people with building a sense of kinship and mutuality around their connection to self, each other and the whole.
In a fixed mindset, we focus on proving ourselves and validating our abilities. We avoid challenges where we might make a mistake or may look untalented. For example, if a young person has mastered a particular skill at sport, they might choose to focus on replicating that skill to prove how talented they are, rather than embracing opportunities to improve and learn new skills.
In a growth mindset, we not only seek out challenges, we thrive on them. We are aware of our own learning edges and embrace challenges as an opportunity to develop. For example, if the same young person shifts their mindset towards growth, they would now be more likely to experiment with new skills and abilities they have not tried before. Even if they experience failure at times, they are more willing to stick with it, enjoying the challenge of learning something new. To foster a growth mindset, educators might support young people seeking out challenges at their learning edge, such as trialling for teams at higher representative levels, in order to continually progress and expand their potential.
While this shift to a growth mindset represents a clear improvement from a fixed mindset, it is often the case that the challenges we seek out tend to be the ones that make sense within our current view of ourselves and the world. As a result, people with a growth mindset often reach great heights within their current paradigm or field, such as a particular sporting code, but rarely go beyond these boundaries to actively engage in the big global challenges that affect the wellbeing of all, such as the intersectionality of socioeconomic disadvantage.
That is why, in a benefit mindset, we have the courage to open up to the challenges all people face and see them as an invitation to a higher perspective. More than growing or incrementally improving we see all challenges as an opportunity to develop vertically, transform how we come to understand ourselves and our place in the world, and contribute to profound civilisational renewal. For example, a way a young person might facilitate this is by bringing their passion for sport into a global innovation lab, such as the societal transformation lab (e.g., Presencing Institute, 2020) or a global learning ecosystem (e.g., Hall, 2019; Luksha et al., 2018; Smitsman, Laszlo, & Luksha, 2020), which brings together diverse people from across all sectors of society and takes them on a journey from me to we—from a silo view to a systems view. On such a journey, participants use awareness-based systems change practices (e.g., Scharmer & Kaufer, 2013) and collective healing practices (e.g., Hübl, 2019) to incubate new ways of being, generate vertical social prototypes, and lead transformative change. As an outcome, a young person might offer to become a coach of a junior team or offer to use their skills to support the development of others in a way which is responsive to socioeconomic disadvantage and other important global issues. Educators can facilitate such a transformation by making and maintaining a relationship with a number of innovation labs that nurture the transformation of self and society as an undivided whole.
In a fixed mindset, we tend to be selective about the feedback we pay attention to, preferring feedback that confirms our perceived talents, and avoiding feedback that invites growth and improvement. For example, a young person might be concerned about their performance on a recent written assignment. When the assignment is returned, they look at the mark to see how they went, and if the mark indicates they did not perform well, they avoid reading the feedback provided by their teacher.
In a growth mindset, we are not only open to receiving feedback, we actively seek it out, because we understand it could help us learn and grow. For example, a young person might ask for feedback on their writing before finalising and submitting an assignment. When the assignment is returned, the young person reads the feedback in detail, learning from each comment made. A way that educators can facilitate feedback-based learning is by providing constructive comments and by encouraging students to focus on their capacity to grow and improve.
In both of these cases, the sharing of feedback is considered to be the transfer of information. While the sharing of feedback as information is an appropriate way to promote horizontal development (i.e., informative learning), it often fails to facilitate vertical development in our underlying frame of reference (i.e., transformative learning) (Isaacs, 1999).
That is why, in a benefit mindset, we would move beyond feedback as the transfer of information and engage in the practice of dialogue (e.g., Bohm, 1996; Issacs, 1999). The word dialogue comes from two Greek roots, din and logos, suggesting “meaning flowing through”. Thus, in a dialogue, we engage in a free-flowing conversation in the interests of allowing common meaning or collective intelligence to emerge. For example, a teacher and a young person might sit together and find their way into a careful conversation where they can collectively inquire into what the young person is learning about their writing. In such a conversation, the direct sharing of feedback and advice is not encouraged. Rather, it is about asking questions and exploring them together in the spirit of collective inquiry. When well-practised, dialogue leads to a deeper understanding and can give rise to profound moments of insight and transformation.
In a fixed mindset, we are more likely to feel intimidated by the success of others and may even seek to undermine them. It can evoke feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. For instance, a young person might socially compare themselves to another in their drama class and feel inferior around them, so much so, they feel too scared to participate for being “not good enough”.
In a growth mindset, our perception of the same people and situations shifts, and we are more likely to be inspired by the success of others. We are now open and available to learn from others to inform our own growth and development. For instance, if the same person shifts their mindset towards growth, they might choose to watch other people with keen interest and model what they learn in their own performance. Educators can foster this view of success by reminding young people that everyone’s success is an opportunity for learning.
In a benefit mindset, we understand that all people are exceptional and unique, and rather than driving ourselves to be successful, we allow our lives to naturally unfold. In this view, we not only look outwards to learn from others, but we also look within to learn more about who we truly are. We are successful because we allow our lives to naturally unfold, like a seed organically unfolding in a diverse ecosystem, and we support others with doing the same. For instance, a young person might recognise and learn from the unique strengths other people exhibit, and they would also look within to learn more about their own unique impulse to become, their own unique essence that wants to be expressed, and find ways for that uniqueness to manifest. Educators can nurture this view of success by inviting young people into rites of passage processes (e.g., Palmer, 2004; Plotkin, 2003; Rubinstein, 2014), which create supportive spaces of deep listening, peer learning, and mutual holding, where everyone can feel acknowledged and accepted for who they truly are and become partners in each other’s unfolding.
In a fixed mindset, we typically react against the symptoms of trauma. This can include quick fix interventions and it can also include fight, flight, freeze reactions such as hyperactivation and numbness. For example, some schools routinely reprimand and discipline children who exhibit disruptive behaviour. However, what often goes unacknowledged is that at a deeper level, the child’s behaviour is likely a symptom of trauma. As a result, the child’s underlying traumas remain unaddressed, and it’s possible the school’s actions may lead to further traumatisation.
In a growth mindset, we are now open to identifying, learning from, and growing through trauma. For example, some schools today are attending trauma-informed training programs, where the focus is on adding new skills and strategies that can be implemented in an education context. Then, if a child exhibits disruptive behaviour, these educators would understand this behaviour is likely a symptom of trauma and they would intervene in an informed way such that learning can still happen, while also connecting the child with care and support.
While the adding of new skills and strategies represents an improvement, such efforts are often blind to how many of today’s well-intentioned education traditions, including curriculum, policies, and teaching practices might be traumatising or retraumatising young people. Trauma-informed interventions also remain relatively silent about how communities can move towards healing the roots of trauma, such as the intersectionality of multiple forms of discrimination that combine to create systems of marginalisation in society, and how such systems of marginalisation are linked to internalised patterns within the body. This means that despite educators’ best trauma-informed efforts, there is a greater pattern of collective harm which is being left unaddressed (Gaffney, 2019; Menakem, 2017).
That is why, in a benefit mindset, we understand while individual work is important and must continue, the future of trauma-aware practice is collective. Thats because many of the challenges we face in the world today are collective issues and they require a collective response (Ginwright, 2018; Hübl, 2019). They require communities who are able to respond to trauma from the perspective of our interdependency. For example, some schools engage in practices such as healing-centred education (e.g., Acosta, 2020), collective healing (e.g., Hübl, 2019), and restorative practice (e.g., Drewery, 2007), where education communities—including young people, teachers, parents, and community members—can come together in a space of trust, mutual witnessing, and relational warmth. These are spaces where everyone can feel held and supported and reach a deeper understanding of the individual and collective traumas which are present in their community and can become partners in conversations about their health. The big difference here is that these spaces are not primarily about adding new skills and strategies. They are about listening deeply, being present to what is, co-regulating and restoring relationships with kindness and compassion. They are also about widening our circle of concern, such that we can collectively move towards healing our relationships with all people and the living Earth community. As a result, these schools have a clearer sense of the traumas and systemic patterns behind the symptoms they are experiencing, and this awareness increases the likelihood their community as a whole can move towards health.
In a fixed mindset, schools tend to be talent-centred, with a focus on the need to appear successful. The result is an entrenched know-it-all culture that disconnects young people from the natural unfolding of life by insisting they maintain the status quo. For example, some schools have trophy cabinets and promotional material that celebrates their top performers, sending the message that what matters most is each individual’s ability to compete and achieve against what has come before.
In a growth mindset, schools become learning systems, where there is an intentional culture of growth. The result is a learn-it-all culture that looks at everything they do through a lens of continuous improvement. For example, some schools create such a culture through education change initiatives, where entire learning communities—including young people, teachers, principals, and even families—are encouraged to be constantly growing and improving together.
The underlying assumption of a growth culture is if we raise children to look at everything they do through a lens of continuous improvement, that they will grow up with the skills they need to succeed in the world, and the world should be getting better, too. But there are limits to growth, and we are living at a time of massive disruption where the world of tomorrow is going to be very different from today. This means the challenges young people face and will continue to face are much more complex than improvement challenges—they are transformative challenges. So more than learning the skills to be improving together, young people need to learn the practices and processes they need to be transforming together in relationship with a transforming world.
Thus, in a benefit mindset, schools mature beyond the strengths and limitations of a growth mindset culture by building their capacity for collective transformation. Collective transformation is when a school can lead their own vertical transformation, upgrading their entire educational operating system to socially support development through dependent, independent, and interdependent stages of life. Robert Kegan and Lahey (2016) refers to such schools as being “deliberately developmental”. Otto Scharmer (2019) refers to this capacity as building “vertical literacy”. Such a school could also be called a “regenerative system”, because they have become self-determining around their ability to align their own transformative processes with the transformative processes present in society. For example, a school might empower students to identify ecosystem leadership challenges in their lives and in society, especially in places of marginality and disadvantage. Then, the ecosystem leadership challenges they identify are put at the centre of their learning and leadership. This means, a transformative approach to education would create the conditions for everyone to lead as part of engaged communities who are actively participating in the healing and regeneration of their schools and their society. The more a school collectively transforms, the more they are able to take responsibility for their participation in the interdependent processes of life and become a co-evolutionary partner in life’s unfolding (Laloux, 2014; Laszlo, 2019; Roy, 2020; Stein, 2019).
Educating Planetary Citizens
Awareness of our interdependency awakens us into a caring relationship with all of humanity and the living Earth community. It also awakens us into the realisation that many of the things we consider to be normal and healthy in today’s society are actually destructive and unhealthy, causing deep harm for ourselves, others, and the world. Thus, it is our view that it is vitally important all people are not only given the opportunity to learn new skills and abilities, but they are also given the opportunity to develop vertically, so they can move towards practising wellbeing from the perspective of people and planet as an undivided whole.
This is where education, as a fulcrum of society, can make a big difference. To create a healthy human society that is responsive to the wellbeing of all, we need to attend very carefully to what it means to raise children and support them with developing into their full humanity as authentically engaged members of the living Earth community.
The issue is today’s mass-scale education system is largely enrolling young people into a way of life which is no longer viable and which many do not want to participate in. Instead of learning to regard the living Earth community as kin to be cared for in a way which is holistic, loving, reciprocal, and engaged, young people learn to see the planet as a resource to serve our own aspirations for growth, wealth, and happiness. We have developed powerful colonial mechanisms of domination, exploitation, and oppressive power, which seduce us into believing we can progress and be well on our own, as we perpetuate intersecting forms of discrimination and violence which are destroying the life conditions upon which our civilisation has been built. The situation is so serious that many of the systems of life on the planet are disintegrating, and some form of civilisation collapse looks inevitable during our lifetime unless we wake up, mature, and change our behaviour on a massive scale (Laszlo, 2017; Read & Alexander, 2019; Yunkaporta, 2019).
Therefore, we believe there is an urgent need to transform our perception of “school” and “education” at the most fundamental level and be more mindful about the mindsets we are role modelling for young people. This means inviting young people into processes that initiate them into their full humanity and give them the opportunity to build an authentic connection with all people and the living world, so they can learn to live together as kin, in harmony and balance. It means learning in partnership with wisdom traditions and lineages of practice that can support us with deepening our experience of interbeing and with expanding our circle of care and concern. It also means being careful with how we initiate young people into the realities of the world in which they are growing up in. We ought to be holding space for compassionate inquiry into the interdependent co-arising of our multiple global crises, such that we can prepare them for the unprecedented challenges they are facing and will continue to face in the coming years.
We also have to pay careful attention to what it means to be an adult or teacher who is committed to lifelong vertical development and can act as a true role model of these perspectives and practices. It is vitally important that we, as adults and teachers, especially those in a position of power in the education system, are socially supported to engage in the life practice of interdependent participation, and are open to having experiences where our frame of reference matures. Experiences that help us see how we are interdependent beings who have been colonised by all of these modern ideologies that separate us from the living world, and as a consequence we have been blindly participating in the destruction of nature, each other, and even ourselves. Our task then becomes to decolonise our minds and learn the transformative practices we need to become a true role model of interdependent participation and socially support the next generation with doing the same.
Reimagining Wellbeing Education: Towards a Transformative Philosophy
More progressive programs support schools by building engaged communities of practice and by taking a systems-informed approach (e.g., Kern et al., 2020). In these programs, the power shifts towards nurturing community leadership, collective wellbeing, and systemic responsibility. However, many of these programs are still primarily rooted in horizontal modes of learning. They are trying to improve wellbeing through the addition of more information and by developing more systemic skills within the bubble of their current paradigm. They are not yet engaged in the practice of vertical development and nurturing the possibility of a transformative approach to wellbeing education.
We suggest that this is the potential of benefit mindset and the examples and practices we have explored in this chapter. They focus on how wellbeing education can mature beyond horizontal modes of learning to include the entire landscape of developmental possibilities. This includes nurturing transformation at the individual level. However, it is also important transformation is nurtured collectively, at a whole school level, and even at a whole societal level. Such a maturation in wellbeing education would aim to give rise to an ecosystem of mutually catalytic practices and processes, which are oriented towards cohesive “whole person”, “whole school”, and “whole system” transformation.
We are living at a time when it is vital that we not only attend to wellbeing and human potential from our own perspective, but also from the perspective of people and planet as an undivided whole. More than focusing on the development of our skill sets, we also need to pay careful attention to our mindsets—and commit to an ongoing and lifelong process of transformation.
What is special about a transformative approach to wellbeing and human potential is that the more we develop into a caring and inclusive perspective, the more we show up and participate in life in a different way. We mature from being a collection of separate individuals all seeking to fulfil our potential in relative isolation of one another and create the possibility of consciously and cohesively participating in the collective wellbeing of humanity and the planet.
However, to actualise this possibility in our lives and the world, we must make new choices and engage in new practices. To help us make new choices, here are some reflective questions: What am I noticing about the way I see the world and my place in it? What practices mentioned in this chapter stand out for me as something I might like to explore further? What is something I can do in the next few days to learn more about these practices?
We would like to thank the following people for commenting on draft versions of this chapter: Kesh Sharma, Jessica Taylor, Peggy (Margaret) Kern, Azadeh Rezaeian, Leanna Dey, Nella Garrasi, Viv Sercombe, Megan Corcoran, Dana Kerford, Matt Smith, Lilli Morgan, Therese Joyce, Christophe Menage, Bernadine Clark, Vadivu Govind, Lisa Barker, Adam Cooper, Karen Bonson, Kavita Bali, Trudi Horler, Joanne Alford, and Lynne Barrington.
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