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In Context #18 (Fall, 2007, pp. 18—23); copyright 2007 by The Nature Institute

Transformation in Adult Learning
Craig Holdrege

The ability to learn is the expression of a tension. Learning is rooted in and emerges out of what we have already learned in the past. The already-learned forms the ground from which further learning can take place. Upon this ground we can take new steps. A child who can walk can learn to run. An English-speaker can learn French. A botanist who knows the lily family has mental and perceptual tools to recognize and delineate other plant families. We always build on what we have. The past lives on in us as memory, as experience, as capacity, and as knowledge. Without the past being active in our present we could not learn.

However, if we were "filled" or "consumed" by what we already knew - what we have become - we would be unable or unwilling to learn. Learning presupposes not only a ground but a wide, ever receding horizon. Our gaze and our interest are directed toward this horizon as toward a realm of possibility. It is the realm of the "not yet," what still can become. It is the open future that can bring new experiences, new meaning, and new life. As the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1977) writes,

There is always a world already interpreted, already organized in its basic relations, into which experience steps as something new, upsetting what has led our expectations and undergoing reorganization itself in the upheaval. . . . Only the support of familiar and common understanding makes possible the venture into the alien, the lifting up of something out of the alien, and thus the broadening and enrichment of our own experience of the world (p. 15). . . . We are possessed by something and precisely by means of it we are opened up for the new, the different, the true... (p. 9).

Learning itself happens in the now. It is always embedded in the tension between "what has become" and "what can become." Learning is in the present, but the present as a moment that encompasses past and future.

Tacit Knowledge

Let's look first at the ground of learning - what has become. This is especially important in adult learning, since all adults have so much learning behind them that informs every new act of learning. When we are learning something new our attention is focused on the new experience or on the learning goal. This leads us to overlook how much that learning is informed by our abilities and knowledge.

Michael Polanyi distinguishes between two ways of knowing that we always exercise: tacit knowing and focal knowing (Polanyi and Prosch, 1975, chapter 2). The painter describing the nuances of color in the fall foliage is focusing on that shade of orange in that tree, but she has a wealth of experience and a palette of inner distinctions that she tacitly uses to perceive that particular color right now. Tacit knowing is the largely unconscious field of abilities and perception we bring to bear on any given experience, while our conscious attention is focally directed to a particular perception, thought, or activity.

Since our tacit knowledge is largely unconscious but heavily involved in all learning, we need to pay it due attention if we want to become clearer about the nature of learning and about what can both foster and hinder transformational learning processes. Once we realize that our tacit knowledge - all we bring with us - informs every learning process, we can see how important it is to shed more light on tacit knowledge. While our abilities and intelligence may allow us to open up new vistas of understanding, our assumptions and habits of mind may channel what comes to meet us down pre-defined pathways so that our learning remains narrowly constricted. The way our tacit knowledge is active in us crucially influences our learning: Does what we bring with us from the past and toward the new experience illuminate it, or color it?

On Assumptions and Perspectives

It is far harder to recognize our own assumptions than it is to notice someone else's. We usually wake up to those assumptions and habits of mind that starkly contrast with our own. As Jack Mezirow states, "a habit of mind becomes expressed as a point of view" (p. 18). The market economist notices the slightest nuances of socialist thinking, the evangelical Christian sees all too clearly that the monkey - and not God - lies at the base of the Darwinist's thinking. But this kind of recognition often leads only to a clash of worldviews, since each party is quite clear about one thing: my own views are the right ones and there is no need to further examine or question them. In this kind of clash, holding one's ground, not learning, is the goal.

It is helpful to attend to more innocuous situations in everyday life. A simple example: My car had to be towed once because I'd lost the keys. The front wheels were turned and locked in place. The tow truck driver had to drag the car and was worried about damaging the front axle because of the turned wheels. He admonished me afterwards to always park with the front wheels oriented straight ahead. I'd never thought of this; towing cars was not my world, but it was his world. For him every parked car was a potential towing task.

What's interesting in a simple example like this is to notice that even in such a case I could have remained oblivious to the tow truck driver's perspective. Merely feeling scolded, I could have promised to be a good boy in the future. For a moment the reaction came up in me - who are you to tell me how to park my car? But somehow I was not consumed by my own relation to his statement but was, for a moment, able to see the matter from his perspective. In that moment I jumped out of my own skin - left my perspective and entered his. I learned something.

By entering into another perspective you leave behind your own and in the contrast become more aware of your own assumptions. So one helpful way to make your own assumptions and habits of mind - your own world view - more transparent to yourself is to enter into those of others.

I was fortunate in college to have a number of courses that allowed me to do this. In a course on theories of personality we studied the works of Freud, Adler, Jung, Horney, Rogers, Maslow, and others. With each thinker I felt I was entering into a different perspective on the world. Freud and Maslow could look at the same fact and interpret it very differently. I experienced something similar studying the history of philosophy, where we were introduced to one worldview after another. How do Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Shankara, Lao Tzu, and Kant look at knowledge? Later, when I studied Rudolf Steiner's work, I was confronted with radical ideas that challenged basic assumptions of modern western thought and at the same time opened up a variety of new perspectives on things.

What's important is to practice taking different points of view. Such practice is by no means restricted to the cognitive. When I was a high school student I worked in construction, but I also worked at a fast food restaurant. Later, during a break from college, I worked for a year as a union laborer laying sewage pipes; I also spent a couple of summers working in homes for the elderly. These life experiences were at the time often trying, and I often wished I was doing something else. But since that time a laborer standing in a ditch or a person behind the counter at KFC are not for me just anonymous people doing jobs; I have something of their perspective in me.

Of course we can never enter into all possible perspectives. But that is also not the point. The point is to have enough opportunity to take on different perspectives that you know what it is like to experience the world in a way different from your own. That way you become more able at any given moment to enter into a perspective you have not encountered before. You become more interested in other perspectives and experience joy in recognizing, "Oh, that's how she sees things."

Since most of our assumptions and our way of viewing the world are formed in childhood and adolescence, the significance of education, both informal and formal, during these formative years is obvious. But that is the topic of a different essay.

The reason I have been discussing assumptions and habits of mind is that they form a large part of our tacit knowledge that informs all learning. We use this tacit knowledge - stand on it as a ground - but usually aren't aware of it. By becoming aware of our own assumptions and those of others, we begin to illuminate an area that was previously dark. As Kegan (2000) puts it, "when a way of knowing moves from a place where we are 'had by it' (captive of it) to a place where we 'have it,' and can be in relationship to it, the form of our knowing has become more complex, more expansive" (p. 54). We can then consciously use a perspective - a particular way of viewing - as a way of shedding light on something. The whole process of learning becomes more transparent: I know I am always coming from a particular perspective and I see how others have other perspectives. What I say about the world and what someone else says about the world always has a perspective in it. I begin to relate to myself and to others in a much more conscious and free way. So what were largely unconscious assumptions and habits of mind that limit and color our view of things are transformed into conscious perspectives that illuminate.


Becoming aware of assumptions and suspending judgments is a central feature of dialogue, as formulated by David Bohm (1996). Bohm discusses dialogue as a specific form of intentional human interaction where people get together and converse. There is no goal in the dialogue other than that people "think together":

The object of dialogue is not to analyze things, or to win an argument, or to exchange opinions. Rather, it is to suspend your opinions and to look at the opinions [of others] . . . and to see what all that means. If we can see what all of our opinions mean, then we are sharing a common content, even if we don't agree entirely. (p. 30, emphasis in original)

In Bohmian dialogue the participants intentionally practice the suspension of judgment as a means of recognizing assumptions and setting them aside so that, as Bohm puts it, something can move between people: "Each person is participating, is partaking in the whole meaning of the group and also taking part in it. We can call it true dialogue" (p. 31). In true dialogue there is shared meaning and "truth emerges unannounced" (p. 30).

Dialogue with Nature

I now want to expand the idea of dialogue to include nature as one of the partners in the process. I will do this by discussing a concrete example out of my own work in adult education. Imagine a group of ten to twenty adults, most of them educators and all of them interested in nature and in finding new ways to look at nature. That's an important common ground - everyone is searching; they have a sense that this course - which lasts one week - might help them. But there is also diversity - the molecular biologist, the elementary school teacher, the educator of farm apprentices, the English professor. As the guide in this process I see, despite commonality, how different these people are from each other, not only in their professional backgrounds. How can this learning experience do each justice and yet lead all into new terrain?

To start our process of learning about nature I choose a focus for all of us. We go outside and I ask everyone to look at one particular species of plant - for example, fringed loosestrife or common milkweed. We walk around and look at where it is growing. I ask everyone to take a few minutes, look at the plant, and then pick one specimen to bring inside. Back inside, I give some guidelines for our observational process: we will go around the circle and each person will describe an observation of the plant. I request that descriptions be kept fairly brief, so that every-one gets a chance to share observations with the others. I also ask that we try not to repeat what others have said, which encourages mutual listening. We may end up going around the circle numerous times; we spend at least an hour, sometimes two hours, observing and describing.

Although deceptively simple, this process yields many fruits. An important part of the learning in such a course is that we not only observe nature, but after observing and describing, perhaps at the end of the day or the next morning, we step back and also notice what we have done. In other words, we do not attend only to the "object" of observation but also to ourselves, our thoughts, and our interactions as part of reality. What follows are some of my observations about the process as a whole.

There is no natural end to observing. Even if we don't dissect, use microscopes, or do biochemical analyses, we always find something more to see, smell, or touch. In this sense the perceptual world has endless richness of detail and pattern to disclose. It's only we who choose to stop perceiving at some point. For most people this is a kind of "aha" experience. First, it is a realization that we almost never look at things in a careful and detailed way. How often we gloss over things! Second, one can't help thinking, "Good heavens, this plant is amazing!" This happens with the most inconspicuous weed. So by looking carefully we take the plant seriously - we turn our unencumbered attention toward it. We see the plant as something in its own right and learn to value it for its own sake.

If we look at the plant from too narrow a perspective this might well not occur. If we are only interested in what medicinal properties a plant has, we can get a quick answer from an expert or book. But a question and answer session is not a dialogue. To enter into a dialogue with the plant we must concern ourselves, in an open way, with the plant. This means we must look, look once more, and look again. The basis of a dialogue with nature is that we immerse ourselves in perceptions. Or, to put it a bit differently, through careful observation and description we enter into the plant's perspective - we're seeing what the plant has to reveal. Important in this process is also what we are not doing: we are not trying to explain the plant; we are not asking about causes.

Something else is remarkable in this process. We notice how differently people perceive and describe. Everyone in the circle realizes that alone he or she would not have seen nearly as much. Our senses are opened and directed in new ways by what others perceive and comment on. Some people have an ability to see a great deal in a detail others don't attend to, like the participant who never left the root, even after we'd gone around the circle four times. Or the person who notices the different shades of green, or how the plant feels when she sways it back and forth as if in the wind. So the plant reveals a great deal of itself as different people make different perceptions. Knowledge arises in a community. In this way each person's perspective enriches the whole.

What allows different perspectives to show their best side is the fact that everyone's attention is on a phenomenon that people don't have a great deal of pre-knowledge (prejudices and assumptions) about. They can look in quite an open way. Even people who have studied botany have rarely looked at one plant for so long and in such detail. Also, it's not about what we know out of memory or our book learning, but about what we perceive right now.

Deepening - Experiencing Wholeness

The process we've gone through so far has, on the one hand, an analytical character. Each person focuses on details. On the other hand, through collecting many observations, we are also building up a picture of the overall plant. The question is, how can our picture of the plant be as whole and plantlike as possible? Surely, an agglomeration of details is not the plant. We have to be very aware of how our procedure affects the understanding we gain. In Goethe's Faust, Meph-istopheles (the devil!), disguised as Faust, mocks a newly arrived student who is seeking advice from his esteemed professor about how to begin his studies:

If you want to know and describe what lives,
Seek first to drive the spirit out,
Then you'll have all parts in hand,
Having lost, how sad, the spiritual band.

So if we are interested in gaining a greater understanding of the plant as a coherent whole, we need to make a concerted effort to perceive coherence. This demands a different kind of knowing, a shift in the focus of our attention. In their book, Presence, Peter Senge and his colleagues describe a first stage or level of knowing as "sensing," which corresponds to the perceptual immersion we practice in the plant study (Senge et al. 2004). Then they speak of "presencing," where we "retreat and reflect" and "perception starts to arise within the living process of the whole" (p. 89). This notion is very similar to Goethe's idea and practice of "exact sensorial imagination" (Goethe, 1995, p. 46; see also Bortoft, 1996).

In the plant study we enter into this kind of knowing in the following way. I request that everyone, before the class on the next day, try to form a vivid inner picture of the plant, moving from one detail to the next and creating an image of the whole. The next morning I ask for descriptions of the plant out of memory. One person gives her picture and another fills in until we have before us as vivid an image of the plant as possible.

The first time we do this we are often more aware of "holes" or vagaries in our perceptions than of their overall coherence. We didn't look carefully enough. The plant demands more of us! So by inner picturing we notice not only what we saw but also what we did not perceive. Our limitations become clear and we overcome them by returning to the plant. In this approach we return again and again to concrete perception. And because we are working in a group, we notice, through the contrast with what others report, our own special way of picturing and our tendencies to pick things out or overlook them. So we continue to increase our awareness of our own particular way of looking at things. Both the other people and the plant, if I let them, become my teachers of self-knowledge.

Inner re-picturing serves holistic knowing because we inwardly connect the parts that are connected within the plant. The more we practice it the more the plant stands before us as a coherent whole with a unified character or way of being. This "seeing" can occur during the re-picturing or while we are directly observing the plant. What happens is that we become aware of patterns and connections that we don't see if we are only focusing on details.

The unique character of a plant becomes all the more visible to the mind's eye when we compare different plants with each other. In a course like the one I have been describing, after two days of studying one plant we may turn our attention to a second plant. We describe it and we re-picture it. Then we hold - outwardly and inwardly - the two plants before us and see not only their different characteristics but get a glimpse of what makes each unique. We experience both ourselves and the plants in a deeper way. Something of the wholeness of the plant has touched us.

Transformational Learning

A learning approach such as the one I have been describing places a phenomenon of the world into the center of awareness of a group of people. We become active in perceiving, listening, and picturing. We want greater understanding of the plant, and we notice that in order to gain this we must adapt ourselves to the plant. If we do just an analysis, we have the parts but not the coherence. So we need to find ways to overcome that limitation of method. We develop a different method: mindful re-membering in order to embrace coherence.

This kind of learning is transformational. When we become increasingly aware of our own assumptions and viewpoints, we notice that they only illuminate certain aspects of the phenomena. We realize we need to change our perspective in order to do justice to other aspects. So we search for more adequate or more illuminating perspectives, methods or practices that can help deepen the dialogue between us and the phenomenon.

By increasing our awareness of our own assumptions and perspectives we participate more consciously and carefully in the way we interact with the world. By entering into the perspectives of other human beings we try to understand how they see and judge things. And through the kind of study of nature I have described, we engage in a dialogic relation to the phenomena of the world. In these ways we become more conscious as participants in the world. Or we could also say: we develop a participatory consciousness of the world. In Kegan's terms (2000), we can characterize the plant study course as both informative "because it seeks to bring valuable new contents in the existing form of our way of knowing" and transformative because it is "aimed at changes not only in what we know but changes in how we know" (p. 49). And, I would add, the world informs our knowing more and more as we transform ourselves.

We begin to transcend the ingrained habit of mind that says: The world is "out there," separate from me and I am "in here." We begin to take our lived experience seriously, which tells us that as human beings we are always engaged in the world - as thinkers and as doers. Many of our contemporary problems arise because we do not recognize that we are - even in thought - truly participants in the world. As David Bohm puts it radically:

The whole ecological problem is due to thought, because we have the thought that the world is there for us to exploit, that it is infinite, and so no matter what we did, the pollution would all get dissolved away. . . . Thought produces results, but thought says it didn't do it (p. 11). Thought is constantly creating problems that way and then trying to solve them. But as it tries to solve them it makes it worse because it doesn't notice that it's creating them, and the more it thinks, the more problems it creates - because it's not proprioceptive of what it's doing (p. 29). I mean that thought is a real process, and that we have got to be able to pay attention to it as we pay attention to processes taking place outside in the material world (p. 58).

Transformational learning can help thought become more proprioceptive - more aware of itself as a process. A century prior to Bohm, Steiner spoke of the observation of thinking as a kind of "exceptional state," since thinking goes largely unnoticed, and remarked that the observation of the thinking process is the most important kind of observation a person can make, because only then does the process of knowing become fully transparent (1964, chapter 3). In this heightened participatory awareness we can invite the world in and enter into an open-ended dialogue with it. We begin consciously transforming and informing ourselves with the qualities and characteristics of the world in which we are embedded.


Bohm, D. (1996). On Dialogue. New York: Routledge Classics.

Bortoft, H. (1996). The Wholeness of Nature. Great Barrington MA: Lindisfarne Press.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1977). Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goethe, J. W. von (1995). Scientific Studies. Edited by D. Miller. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kegan, R. (2000). "What 'Form' Transforms? A Constructive-Developmental Approach to Transformative Learning." In Learning as Transformation, edited by J. Mezirow (pp. 35-70). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2000). "Learning to Think Like an Adult: Core Concepts of Transformation Theory." In Learning as Transformation, edited by J. Mezirow (pp. 3-34). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Polanyi, M. & Prosch, H. (1975). Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Senge, P., C. O. Scharmer, J. Jaworski, and B. S. Flowers (2004). Presence. New York: Doubleday (Random House).

Steiner, R. (1964). The Philosophy of Freedom, translated by Michael Wilson. Spring Valley NY: Anthroposophic Press. (Other English translations of this book, which was originally written in German in 1894, are also available.)

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