Transformative learning is a concept originally developed by adult educationist Jack Mezirow (1978). Several authors have elaborated the theory, but there is no uniform understanding of its content and no generally accepted definition for the concept. O’Sullivan et al. (2002) have proposed the following definition which has also been adopted by the Transformative Learning Centre in Toronto:
Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and permanently alters our way of being in the world.
Sterling (2003, 2010) considers the lack of transformative learning being the main reason for the inefficiency of environmental education. The problem is partly systemic: our current education systems are based on societal paradigms with fixed conceptions of metaphysics, worldviews and values. It is not the purpose of education and learning to question them.
According to Sterling (2010), there is a need for a new educational approach that might “take us to the depth of things”. By the deeper levels of knowing and meaning Sterling refers to metaphysical conceptions, worldviews, values and beliefs on which our operative norms, theories and actions are based (Fig. 5.2).
Bateson (1972) has distinguished three orders of learning and change which are related to cognitive learning, meta-cognitive learning and epistemic learning (Table 5.1, presented by Sterling 2010). In addition to the learning of individuals, the model can be applied to organisational change. According to Sterling (2010), the first-order learning or change refers to doing “more of the same”, that is, learning or change within particular boundaries and without examining or challenging our assumptions or values behind our actions or thinking. He points out that most learning promoted in formal education in schools and higher education is of the first-order variety. Sterling (2003) compares this type of learning as “not seeing the wood for the trees” which equals learning inside the current operative paradigm.
Second-order learning is more challenging and involves the learner (or learning organisation) critically examining, and if necessary changing, beliefs, values and assumptions. This perspective can be described as “stepping out and seeing the wood as a whole” and “having some idea of an alternative wood”, which equals learning on the paradigm level (Sterling 2003).
The third-order learning,
, involves a shift of epistemology or operative way of knowing and thinking that frames people’s perception of and interaction with the world. According to Sterling (2003), the third level of learning means taking a helicopter view and “seeing fully that a number of alternative woods or paradigms exist and may be chosen between” (metaparadigm level).
The Epistemological Error
The three levels of learning described above arouse a question of the required epistemic changes in our thinking that would enable us to find a more sustainable paradigm for our common future. Bateson (1972) suggests that the Western thought has been characterized by “epistemological error” which he considers being the root for ecological crisis:
When you separate mind from the structure in which it is immanent, such as human relationship, the human society, or the ecosystem, you thereby embark, I believe, on fundamental error, which in the end will surely hurt you.
Bateson’s notion has its roots in the modern, dualistic worldview that replaced the perception of man being an integral part of nature. Separateness as an operative way of knowing and thinking reflects itself all around in the Western culture. We see our relations as win-lose games instead of win-win possibilities. We focus on parts of the system instead of their relations. We separate social and economic systems from nature, and base our decisions on reasoning with a false assumption of separateness of emotions and values. We believe in objective truth instead of accepting the existence of several, subjective explanations for reality.
According to Sterling (2003), the tension between the parts and the whole—the dominant mechanistic and the alternative organistic worldview—lies in the heart of this epistemological battle. Sterling suggests the postmodern ecological worldview as the solution for a new sustainable paradigm. He provides an illustrative picture of the epistemic ways of perception behind our dominant Western paradigm (Decontextual Separation) and ecological worldview (Co-creation in Context) (Fig. 5.3).
The Co-Creation in Context perspective means deep understanding of mutual dependence of all living organisms and systems. As Sterling (2003) puts it:
The former [decontextual separation] position gives rise to a deep-seated belief that the wellbeing of the isolated part is won in struggle against other parts; the latter [co-creation in context] gives rise to the conviction that the wellbeing of the part depends on the wellbeing of the whole and vice versa.
Challenging Our Worldview
Let us return to the Titanic. Could it be so that cognitive and meta-cognitive levels of learning including understanding the patterns, trends and systemic structures as well as reflecting our mental models are not enough to avoid crashing into the iceberg? What if we concentrate on the iceberg and our ship and ignore the existence of the sea around us?
The sea in the Iceberg metaphor represents the deepest roots of our thinking, our epistemic and metaphysical conceptions of the world and existence. What does the sea consist of? In Western cultural history, there are several factors that have shaped our metaphysical understanding, worldview and development of our societies. Norgaard (1994) lists five metaphysical premises that are dominant in Western culture, and, as he argues, “help explain the cultural and biological destruction associated with modernism”:
Atomism: Systems consist of unchanging parts and are simply the sum of their parts.
Mechanism: Relationships between parts are fixed, systems move smoothly from one equilibrium to another, and changes are reversible.
Universalism: Diverse, complex phenomena are the result of underlying universal principles which are few in number and unchanging over time and space.
Objectivism: We can stand apart from what we are trying to understand.
Monism: Our separate individual ways of understanding complex systems are merging into a coherent whole.
Table 5.2 summarises some implications of how the above-mentioned premises have influenced our understanding of the world around us.
An important observation by Norgaard (1994) is the fact that the five metaphysical and epistemological beliefs underlying modern rationality are rarely the basis for thought and action by individuals, families and small groups. Yet these suppositions are the only ones which are publicly held acceptable for use in public discourse and decision-making. Norgaard calls this commonly accepted cultural worldview as “Western public rationality”.
There is fresh evidence of the diverging public and individual conceptions in Finland. There is a uniform understanding across the political parties (including opposition) that Finland needs first and foremost economic growth to be able maintain the wellbeing of society. When Finnish individuals of all ages were asked their view on the presumption “Continuation of the wellbeing of people can only be based on economic growth”, 38% agreed and 39% disagreed (Apunen et al. 2015). In summer 2016, only 15.1% of 15–29-year-old Finns agreed the presumption and 46.2% disagreed (Salonen and Konkka 2017).
Truly Transformative Change
How do the different orders of learning and change manifest themselves for example, in the case of climate change? Table 5.3 below lists the three orders of learning as described by Sterling (2010) with examples of responses to climate change. During the past decades, our responses have mainly been conformative and incremental. The industrial sector has focused on improving its processes to produce more items with less material and energy consumption. Consumers have been instructed to segregate and recycle their waste. Logistics have been optimised mainly to achieve cost savings, but at the same time, improvements have been made in cutting emissions. Emissions trading schemes can also be included as a conformative approach.
Second-order change means reforming the existing production systems and consumption patterns. This is the phase underway in many societies and economies across the globe. Green and responsible products have been on the markets for some time, but their business significance is now rapidly growing due to consumer demands and increasing transparency of production chains. For many, this reformative approach is believed to be a final solution to the climate change challenge.
The three major reformative changes with regard to production systems are: a shift to renewable energy, building a circular economy and dematerialisation—the great promise of digitalisation. As discussed in section “Need for a Paradigm Change”, even these reformations do not guarantee that we will be able to reach absolute decoupling of material consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth.
The big question for learning and change is if they have to be truly transformative; able to fundamentally shift our worldview in order to save ourselves from the worst-case scenario of climate change. It is important to note, as Sterling (2010) explains, that “not only do current ways of thinking, perceiving and doing need to change in response to critical systemic conditions of uncertainty, complexity and unsustainability, but that old paradigms are the root of these conditions”.
Contemporary solutions to climate change based on our current worldview are not truly transformative but are only reformative. Constructing a sustainable future calls for changing our current way of living and consumer-based economic growth paradigm. It may be so that getting rid of this paradigm also challenges many other foundations of our current worldview. We may have to change our philosophical and scientific paradigms, to reposition our relation to nature, and perhaps most importantly, change our conception of the human mind.
Transforming Our Minds
There are several views on the possibility for the third-level learning described by Bateson (1972). Bateson himself considered it connecting to existential and spiritual experiences and thus being accessible only for few people. Sterling (2003), as many other authors, has taken a more pragmatic interpretation of the level three learning seeing it focusing on changing epistemic assumptions, but not necessarily requiring spiritual experiences involved.
However, examples of existential experiences are perhaps the most influential proofs of the capability of the human mind for third-order learning. According to Greyson (2015), several studies of people who have gone through a near death experienced (NDE) have yielded consistent findings showing changes in the experiencers’ perception of self, relationship to others, and attitude toward life. These findings have even shown deepening effect as the time has elapsed from the experience.
Ring (1980) reported the following changes in existential understanding and worldviews related to NDE’s:
greater appreciation for life, renewed sense of purpose, greater confidence and flexibility in coping with life’s vicissitudes, increased value of love and service and decreased concern with personal status and material possessions, greater compassion for others, heightened sense of spiritual purpose, and a greatly reduced fear of death.
Another example comes from space exploration. In The Fifth Discipline (1990), Peter Senge quotes a story told by astronaut Rusty Schweickart who was one of the first humans able to look at the Earth from the space. In 1969, he flew test flights on Apollo 9. It took five years before he had words to express in public what he had experienced in space. That happened in 1974 in a gathering at Lindisfarne, a spiritual community on Long Island. According to Senge, Schweickart had realised that what he had experienced was not his story, but our story.
Schweickart had experienced, what he described as an extension of the sensory apparatus of the human species: “I was looking out from my eyes and feeling with my senses but it was also our eyes and our senses”. The story told by Schweickart is not a very long quotation in Senge’s book, but those words represent perhaps one the most valuable and touching pieces of metaphysical knowledge recorded in human history. The following is a shortened version of the quote:
You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you crossed again and again and again. And you don’t even see ‘em. At that wake-up scene – the Mideast – you know there are hundreds of people killing each other over some imaginary line that you can’t see. From where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. And you wish you could take one from each side in hand and say, ‘Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?’
And so a little later on, your friend, again those same neighbours, the person next to you goes to the moon. And now he looks back and sees the Earth not as something big where he can see the beautiful details, but he sees the Earth as a small thing out there. And now that contrast between the bright blue and white Christmas tree ornament and that black sky, that infinite universe, really comes through.
The size of it, the significance of it – it becomes both things, it becomes so small and fragile, and such a precious little spot in the universe, that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing is everything that means anything to you. All of history and music, and poetry and art and war and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it is on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb.
And you realize that that perspective… that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there. That relationship is no longer what it was… Because now you’re no longer inside something with a window looking out at the picture, but now you’re out there and what you’ve got around your head is a goldfish bowl and there are no boundaries. There are no frames, there are no boundaries.
Pragmatic Approach to Transformative Learning
Rogers (1994) suggests that (transformative) learning process can involve the following dimensions (presented by Sterling (2010)):
the cognitive dimension traditionally seen as the core of teaching, which involves the intellect
the affective dimension, when emotions are connected with intellectual knowing
the existential dimension where learners question their values and ways of living and start reconstructing their own sense of self
dimension involving a sense of responsibility, commitment and direction after the existential crisis has been resolved
the action dimension, which, if the questions raised by the first four dimensions have been resolved, involves the development of informed choices at personal, social and political levels
Rogers’s model describes the holistic nature of transformative learning which goes much deeper than traditional learning. It is important to note that the mind shift cannot be achieved without a certain amount of pain and resistance on behalf of the learner. Epistemic learning can be deeply uncomfortable, because it involves a restructuring of basic assumptions caused by the recognition of incoherence between assumptions and experience. On the other hand, this type of learning can also generate excitement (Sterling 2010).
An interesting question is if transformative learning for a sustainable future can take place without facing the feelings of pain or anxiety. Many authors of environmental education highlight the importance of optimistic and solution-based approaches, which is certainly important when educating young people. However, it is important to note that there is a great difference between changing the mind of a young person versus an adult as Gardner (2006) has pointed out. Young people do not have a deeply fixed worldview while adults have to be exposed to the emotional dissonance between new ways of thinking and their current worldview, values, beliefs and theories before transformative learning can take place.
Another way to initiate transformative learning is to understand it as a process of unlearning. At the moment, there does not exist any substantial models or theories for unlearning. However, the elementary components of unlearning have been recognised by many scholars. Unlearning is not about reframing or reconstructing our current thinking but moving away from our existing mental structures towards a position which enables a fundamentally different way of seeing the world.
The essence of unlearning is a journey to ourselves. Instead of reflecting and then criticising our current thinking, we should empty our minds to reach an openness to learning. This stage enables us to create new associations and thinking which is not locked in our current thinking and paradigm. In short, the question is about a spiritual dimension of learning.
Unlearning has to do with intuition. It is a journey from our conscious mind to the unconscious level. The conscious level, on which we usually learn and operate, equals the visible tip of the iceberg and cognitive order of learning. Reflecting our mental models beneath the sea surface (meta-cognitive learning) is a process that is partly conscious, but can benefit a great deal from the contribution of the unconscious mind. Epistemic (transformative) learning is about seeing the sea, our worldview, from a reflective perspective. It can be questioned how well we can do this from our conscious level of thinking. Stepping out of our mental box requires a fundamental shift of viewpoint, unlearning and innovative or intuitive construction of a new worldview.
As we take an organisational or cultural approach to transformative learning, we are essentially creating shared worldviews. This is important from the viewpoint of intuition. The research and theories around intuition arouse interesting possibilities for extending consciousness on transpersonal level. This could lead us to a possibility of shared understanding of the fundaments of our common life, as well as emergence of a new community, collaboration and planetary responsibility. (Read more about intuition in the chapter by Asta Raami.)
Sense of Coherence
One of the strongest leverage points for mind shift lies in the theory of
Sense of Coherence
, which defines subjective wellbeing comprising of the complexity, manageability and meaningfulness of life (Hämäläinen 2014). This theory is especially applicable for explaining the origin of mental health disorders the western world is currently facing. Our consumerist society, rapidly advancing technologies and recurring global crisis have created a living environment in which our sense of coherence is constantly deteriorating.
Despite having more capabilities, choice and freedoms than ever before, large parts of the population in high-income countries experience extended feelings of stress and fatigue, and depression and related mental health problems have become common and widespread (Hämäläinen 2014; Weehuizen 2005). This is a product of the complex world around us and life manageability problems due to our busy lives filled with often superfluous choices. Our modern society is also suffering from a vanishing understanding of what makes life meaningful to which the consumer-centred wellbeing paradigm has been unable to provide a solution.
It seems that we are as much locked in our current way of living on the individual level as we are locked in our prevailing economic paradigm on the society level. Understanding the significance of the three elements of coherence in our lives could open new kinds of possibilities for improving subjective wellbeing in society. Turning our awareness to the inside of our minds can bring us a stronger understanding and sense of the deeper meanings and factors that create true happiness. This kind of illumination could be a way to brake the chains of complexity and manageability restraining our ability to achieve greater wellbeing.
A great hope for a sustainable future lies in the fact that modern research on wellbeing brings strong evidence that the building blocks for meaningfulness and true happiness are mostly in other issues than consumerism and material things. Meaningful and happy life consists of social relationships, encounters with other people, time spent with a family, voluntary work and acting for other people, creative activities, etc. (Salonen and Konkka 2015) In practice, these findings suggest that we are able to achieve a greater state of life satisfaction and happiness in a society that does not base its health on the continued growth of the economy and consumption.
Without a doubt, the emergence of new ways of living cannot be promoted only by improving the consciousness of people. It is also important to provide opportunities by which people can experience the benefits themselves and truly investigate in an intuitive way what really matters to them. We need more examples that show that these better ways of living are feasible now.