A little over a week ago an article was published in The Guardian pointing out what many changemakers already know- change doesn’t come from information alone.
“…if you delve into the triggers for transformation among business leaders, it is often an epiphany rather than greater knowledge that leads to the raising of consciousness as well as concrete action.”
Whilst many people will be happy to admit this to their close friends, or after several pints, this moment of epiphany is often overlooked in favour of the hard graft of information gathering. As Jo Confino points out in this article, this information gathering is undoubtably important, but without the moment of epiphany it is essentially meaningless and valueless.
One of the many interesting aspects of the short course participants who passed through Schumacher College during my MSc there was how spaces often emerged that became forums for people to share these stories of their own personal epiphanies. On top of this, the whole purpose of transformative education is to foster these moments of revelation. Yet in the wider world, these stories are still met with skepticism, as if it were slightly indecent to raise the topic.
In today’s world our love affair with highly specialised training is losing more and more traction. Philosophically and scientifically there is a growing recognition that an appreciation of systems in their entirety is as important as the ‘factory-line’ narrow learning that characterised the education systems of the industrialised world.
Arne Naess, a central figure in the philosophy and praxis of Deep Ecology, held that the only way that we could understand the actual nature (‘concrete content’) of our relationships to the world through the use of ‘gestalt thinking’. Eric Katz described a gestalt as a ‘spontaneous experience of a whole… at once comprehensive and complex’. In other words, it is a moment of revelation that encapsulates so much more information and meaning than a single moment should be capable of.
Now it is the ability to facilitate these sorts of experiences that is so important to transformative education. There is growing evidence that life choices based on individual moments and experiences have not only cognitive but also epigenetic impacts on our physical selves. These moments of transformation are more than just figurative.
A recent article from the BBC suggests that the concept popularised by Malcom Gladwell that it takes just 10,000 practice to become an expert is less accurate than is popularly believed. Of course, practice (i.e. information gathering) has an impact, and will for example turn a bad musician into a mediocre one, but the genetic factor is far stronger and determined from birth. Yet the article does not look at the potential impact of epigenetics on this, and the cognitive and genetic effects of a transformational experience are potentially an exciting field.
So, to return to Education for Sustainability, the thought patterns for creative and sustainable responses to our world arise from single events that link together all of the information and experiences that we have gathered through our lives. These events are moments of spontaneous gestalt thinking, and if the conditions are favourable whole new patterns of thought and behaviour can be effected. The current approach of bombarding students with environmental facts is not as successful as anyone would have predicted, and new approaches are needed that can place environmental education in more context for each student. Schools must become places of revelation.