Learning by Storying our Connections
Now more than ever we need ways and forms of learning that connect us to the living universe, the Earth as our common home, and the wisdom of life. Instead, education in many systems introduces children to a hostile world, a loss of belonging, and disconnected perspectives of life. If education serves to address the root causes of our sustainability crisis, it needs to start by facilitating learning as a story that connects us to the larger realities that we form part of. Sadly, many children today still learn about evolution as a journey of struggle and competition on a planet of scarcity.
The much needed healing of our world and psyche, requires that we learn how to restory our lives with meaning, grounded in place and in ways that open our sense of wonder and appreciation for the miracle of life.
Many people are craving for stories that can provide nourishment for our psyche and give direction through this time of so many challenges. Learning as Story is essential for developing a felt sense of belonging out of which can emerge a deeper appreciation for our Earth and our place within the web of life. People only tend to care for what or who they feel connected to. A major transformation is required in how education stories our perspectives.
Learning as Story is the sixth out of seven Transformative Learning Perspectives that form part of the r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint, which launched 7 September 2021. The explorations of this article are based on chapter 7 of this Blueprint — Learning as Story. To read a brief introduction of the Blueprint, click here.
Learning as Story
The Learning as Story perspectives provide the necessary foundations for developing conscious communication, depth perception, and sense-making capacities and for becoming story creators for regeneration and thrivability. These perspectives are foundational for place-based learning and to foster a deeper sense of connection and belonging. Furthermore, these perspectives and practices serve to develop depth awareness and integral consciousness, and help to decolonize our stories and minds by facilitating learning dialogues for healing the pain and trauma of oppression, domination, and division
We’ve explored Learning as Story through the following perspectives, which are further explained below:
- Learning as Story in Place.
- Exploring the Mythic Structures of Learning.
- Creating New Stories of Learning.
1. Learning as Story in Place
Learning through storytelling has been the focus of indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Indigenous stories tend to cultivate a sense of belonging to life in meaningful connection with the natural places that grow us up. Places of life reveal how our stories interconnect and are woven through multi-dimensional layers of meaning.
Storying our connections — and restorying the dualistic narratives of our mechanistic worldviews— is fundamental for developing ecological awareness and future-creative capacities. Our entire universe is an unfolding creative story that continues to generate new chapters of life. Stories can also engage the deeper mythic elements of our psychological structures, which are essential for processes that involve regeneration.
Imagine how different our focus can become when instead of teaching children about a universe of parts and particles, we share the narratives of a living and conscious universe. The writings of Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, Duane Elgin, Elisabet Sahtouris, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Gregory and Nora Bateson, Satish Kumar, Anita Sanchez, and Donald Trent Jacobs are particularly useful to include in transformative learning curricula. As well as any other literature, film, or medium whereby the interconnectedness of life is naturally emphasized. See also Your life as a Story for Social Change.
Collective Learning through Resonance
There is so much information that surrounds us, and which may even form part of us, that we are not conscious of. Information that may influence our feelings and behaviors in ways we do not know. Some of this information lives mainly in the subconscious or unconscious layers of our mind, which is often the birthplace of our stories.
Deeply engaging stories create morphic resonance fields between people and life through shared experiences of meaning, emotion, and anticipation.
Learning as a story in place can become so much more engaging when we support people to enter into a state of morphic resonance with the information and places they seek to learn from and with (Sheldrake, 1987). Having conducted many group learning processes for decades, I have noticed a significant shift in people’s learning capacities when first supporting people to come into resonance with each other and their places of learning. For example, by relaxing and syncing our attention through a quick breathing exercise, or an imaginal process.
Most formal education is facilitated in classroom settings where people are asked to learn in groups, sometimes up to twenty years of our lives. A huge amount of time is spent in group learning contexts, often facilitated by educators who are themselves unconscious of the collective field dynamics in which this learning takes place. Few teachers work with processes for harmonizing the collective consciousness of their groups and the places in which learning is facilitated. The impact of unhealthy or dissonant group dynamics can significantly impact people’s learning experiences and developmental capacities — in particular children who are more sensitive. Group dissonance can make people feel tense, argumentative, out of sync, and unsafe.
When people learn collectively through harmonic and resonant group dynamics and places of learning, it can uplift the entire group. The following guidelines can be applied to enhance the group dynamics of collective learning:
- Prepare yourself — Get present to yourself and your body, release your own tensions, and harmonize your awareness through some relaxing breaths. Form a clear intention for the kinds of learning experience you wish to facilitate and support. Connect with your inner wisdom, the collective wisdom of your group, and the wisdom of the land on which you are. Now form the intention for this to harmonize and align.
- Prepare your learning space — Whether your learning space is a physical classroom or an online learning space, create a healthy and welcoming atmosphere. Find creative ways to bring nature into the classroom (if possible). For online learning, a screenshot of nature and harmonic music while people are entering, can also create a welcoming feeling.
- Prepare your students — When your students have entered, ask them to become present in their bodies here and now; to relax for a moment and let go of whatever it was they were doing. You can give your group a quick breathing exercise for harmonization: “Breathing in, connect with life within and around you, revitalizing you energy and awareness. Breathing out, relaxing and let go of any tensions you may feel.” If appropriate, you can also ask your students to form a clear intention in their heart and mind for what they like to receive from this class, and how they like to support this time together for everyone here.
- Create meaningful connectedness through storytelling — If the collective field of the group still feels unsettled or dissonant, share a heart connecting story that gives voice to the feelings of unease in a way that makes it okay to talk about it, and perhaps even laugh about it together. If the group is tense because of any hardships they have experienced lately in their lives, find some time or a special occasion to invite a conversation about this, and again in a way that is safe and supportive.
- Healing collective places of hurt — When facilitating a learning process in places where there has been violence, conflict, trauma, or life-threatening situations, connect with the collective field of that place and acknowledge the trauma and those who have suffered there. Invite the collective consciousness of that place to respectfully share what it needs to heal. If appropriate, you can facilitate this as a group exercise for your class by asking the students: “If you were the place where all this hardship happened, what would you need to heal and feel safe again? How can we help to restore the healing power of life here? And how can we help to regenerate the collective consciousness of this land, which also includes all the people, animals, and other life forms who experienced these hardships?” Then allow your students to spontaneously share their ideas and feelings. You can also ask them to draw this or write a letter to this place, or to share/write/draw this together on a collective storyboard. Show them how by doing so you are together co-creating a new story for this place and each of us, one of healing and the renewal of hope.
- Regeneration by seeding new life — To complete a healing process, explore how together with your students you can plant new life in the places of hurt and harm. For physical places of trauma or in a physical classroom you can plant a flower or some herbs or other plants through a collective agreement that this plant represents the new life that is entering to bring harmony, peace, and healing. For online places, you can share an exercise for planting your intentions for the regeneration of life in the collective fields that need our help, by planting a smile, joy, love, care, peace, and seeing this collective field regenerate with vitality and come alive with all the beautiful qualities of our consciousness and loving intentions for wellbeing.
Collective Learning Inquiries
Learning and development happen by sensing, processing, coupling, structuring, and integrating information to become knowledge, wisdom, meaning, and understanding. Storytelling is really the art of cohering all this information into meaning and understanding. Leading cosmologists and physicists suggest that the nature of consciousness, matter, and reality is in-formational, see also article 3 of this series. This informational understanding of life and reality also raises several fundamental questions for collective learning:
- How does the information of our past through collective memories influence how and what we learn today?
- How does the information of our futures through shared imaginal spaces influence how and what we learn today?
- How can we become more conscious of the presence and influence of the past and futures within ourselves, within the groups and cultures we form part of, and within the morphic fields of the places in which we learn, live, and evolve?
Collective learning is intrinsic to life itself — i.e. complex living systems learn as a collective. What gets learned becomes part of the field in which learning takes place. In article 2 of this series, I shared about the Noosphere: a global mind that is becoming conscious of itself in the human experience. If we combine this with the idea of a global learning mind, we may find ways to accelerate our human development through carefully curated collective learning experiments. Particularly by cultivating the coherencies in collective learning that enable this Noosphere to manifest more directly within and through us.
Our innate ability to access, process, and integrate information through resonance with the field dynamics of life or consciousness offers a whole new frontier of learning and development. This understanding is hardly being utilized in mainstream education. Furthermore, many children are forced to learn in environments that hinder, instead of facilitate, our resonance with nature and each other. Dissonance from nature can lead to the shutting down of vital brain-heart coherencies which also affect our learning and development capacities. For example, a walk in the forest provides a much better learning environment for learning about and from nature than learning about a forest in a cemented stuffy closed-off classroom without the presence of nature.
Our human attuning capacities to the field dynamics of collective consciousness can also be seen as an innate musical ability that we share with other species and organisms. It may also explain why sound harmonics can so powerfully alter our consciousness states, and can bring large crowds of people into a shared experience of meaning. For example, it only takes a few beats to sweep a large group of people into synchronized movements during a rock concert.
Furthermore, collective learning can also enhance the evolutionary coherence of the systems we form part of, by creating a deeper harmony and fine-tuning between all the members (elements) of a system. Similar to how people in an orchestra learn to play together, without this being imposed from above or through a central organization.
Collective sense-making practices and opportunities can help people to become conscious of the information that forms part of their identity and development. This can take the shape of storied forms of learning that helps us access and become aware of the archetypes and information that lives in our collective (un)conscious as well as the places where we live and interact.
The following recommendations can be used for exploring how you can apply these ideas in education, as well as for your personal development:
- Explore the presence of the past — Support students to explore the presence of the past in their places of learning and development. For example, by asking students to connect with their elders and learn about the stories, dreams, and cultural heritage of those who lived here before them. Explore what animals and ecosystems lived in their country or place before them, and let them reflect on what happened to the information of the animals, plants, insects, and ecosystems that are no longer there or went extinct. Consider whether and how this information, or these earlier abilities, have now become part of another ecosystem, and may even form part of latent qualities and capacities within us. Inquire why stories of dragons, and other mythical animals, continue to be part of our human collective imagination, myths, dreams and stories, and what these qualities represent in us today.
- Explore the presence of the future — Support students to explore the presence of the future in their places of learning and development. For example, by asking students to share their dreams, hopes, visions, and ideas for the future. Envision the multiple futures that live within us; those that are ideal or optimal futures as well as desired, undesired, unknown, and probable futures. Explore how these futures are present in our stories, narratives, feelings, and dreams.
- Explore the narratives and archetypal structures of our stories — Support students to become aware of their own life as an unfolding story that forms part of larger stories and places. Discover how stories connect us to places, people, and possibilities. Explore the deeper archetypes of our stories and how this evolves over time, and how we can change our stories — personally and collectively.
- Explore how our stories can help heal trauma and suffering — Support students to become aware of the traumas and suffering of the places in which they live and grow up, as well as the trauma of our collective injuries and inflicted harm. Focus on narratives that provide a safe space for expressing, sharing, and revealing the many layers of our personal, cultural, and collective traumas. Raise awareness about the ways that trauma and pain may continue to be part of us, and how this requires sensitivity, care, empathy and compassion. Help students understand the indigenous principles of our relatedness and interconnectedness; how the hurt of one is the hurt of all.
- Enhance the harmonics of unity in our places of learning — Support students to safely enter into collective consciousness states of unity and harmony, through collaborative activities in arts, storytelling, poetry, music, dance, theatre, and sports that can create shared experiences of meaningful togetherness and a deeper appreciation for each other and life.
- Include nature in our places of learning — The presence of nature in classrooms and places of learning has a remarkable effect on our state of learning, as well as opportunities for learning outdoors and being immersed in nature. Create spaces for nature in our schools and other learning environments, for example by including animals, plants, trees, ponds, and food gardens.
2. Exploring the Mythic Structures of Learning
Mythic structures can connect us across time and space to the deeper transformative powers of life and our universe. According to mythic scholars like Carl Jung, Jean Houston, and Joseph Campbell, mythic structures are archetypal psychic structures that shape our collective unconscious. Myths can take the forms of allegories, fables, and even fairy tales. As mentioned by Jean Houston:
“The realm of myth exists beyond time and space and daily reality. It is a symbolic world that dwells within us at levels deeper than our normal consciousness. And yet, it can be openly and vividly engaged in ways that expand the possibilities of every aspect of our lives. But to reach these depths and heights, we must pledge our commitment, our theatricality, our excitement. We must not bore the gods — or ourselves. When we energetically and dramatically encounter this mythic realm and the beings who dwell there, we begin to understand that our individual lives — our personal stories — echo the events and truths of their lives and stories.” ~ Jean Houston (2009, preface).
Myths can provide powerful means for collective sense-making, especially for exploring the archetypal structures and potencies of our cultures and identities.
By working with myths in education, we can learn how to access latent and new capacities, both personally and collectively. However, myths can also unite people and cultures in acts of harm and violence, exactly because so many people are searching to belong to a myth that tells a more powerful story of their lives and countries. Myths form part of our cultural heritage and contain essential teachings and wisdom from our ancestors, especially for times of challenges, trials, and hardships.
The Mythic Structures of Trading Life
For thousands of years, people have believed that sacrifice of people and animals was necessary for religious reasons or to settle a balance with the spirits of nature. This was often done by sacrificing a life in exchange for protection, fertility, or power from gods, deities, spirits, and supernatural forces. One could say that sacrificial exchange formed part of the earlierst forms of human trading. Trading has been part of human development since our early beginnings, even though not all cultures chose the sacrificial route for their continual development.
The belief in sacrifice continues to dominate in many of our human cultures today, and even more so as an economic doctrine where the lives of many are sacrificed for the gain and influence of a few. This also raises the question whether the mechanistic scientific worldviews really did transcend the mythic belief systems it sought to replace (as is often suggested). In particular the religious belief in blood sacrifices or self-harm, in order to cause a greater good for others. In many of the modern cultures of today, people are raised with belief systems such as: “No pain no gain, and success comes with a prize.” Sacrifice, as a form of trading for success and progress, is still part of the dominant economic narratives. And this narrative also features in many of the stories and films children read and watch.
In a world where people and the planet are expendable and replaceable, and the value of securing dominance and superiority outweighs the value of life, education becomes marginalized and reduced to ‘factory learning.’ We offer the following questions for inquiry to become more aware of our (hidden) assumptions about life and development:
- Do you believe that sacrifice in some way or form is necessary in order to advance or progress in life? If yes, why? If no, why?
- What do you consider the difference between a ‘sacrifice’ and an ‘offering’?
- Do you believe that participating in economic activities requires sacrifices from you, and if yes in what ways?
- Do you consider that reciprocity is an important principle of life that also needs to apply to our economic systems?
- What do you believe needs to change in order for our human societies to become reciprocal with all who form part of it, including nature and non-human life?
- If you were to design an economic system without sacrificing life, what would be the qualities of such a system, and what design principles would you apply?
3. Creating New Stories of Learning
Now more than ever we need stories and narratives of hope, unity, love, courage, creativity, compassion, and collaboration. Stories that celebrate who we can become as human beings and provide an education of the heart. How can you help to co-create a new story of learning?
Even old stories can become new by sharing them in new ways. In indigenous communities, a child is often told what may appear as the same story over many years. Yet, it is only upon listening more closely that you’ll discover how the child is being introduced to new elements of their story each time the story is told again.
How can we each become story stewards for life-centered learning and the journey of our transformation?
Decolonizing the Mind
Transformational learning begins within, and this also includes ‘decolonizing’ our mind from all forms of dominant views and practices. Decolonizing our mind begins by bringing in the ways of knowing and understanding that have been severely constrained and suppressed by the doctrines of domination and control. This includes indigenous knowledge, perspectives from the Global South and developing countries, feminine perspectives, and perspectives of non-human life.
The colonization of our minds goes further than the impacts of the colonial era of Western imperialism, and includes a critical review of dominating patriarchal narratives that have harmed our diversity in human cultures for thousands of years. When searching for the roots of this human pattern of violence and domination, it appears to originate from the very beginning of our human species, including our treatment of the Neanderthals.
We highly recommend a deeper exploration of how patterns of dominance, colonization, violence, and division have been able to develop so strongly in our human species. And how we keep this alive and pass it on to the next generations. The following literature may support this exploration further: Resmaa Menakem, “My Grandmother’s Hands”; Vandana Shiva, “Earth Democracy”; Tyson Yunkaport, “Sand Talk”; Rigoberta Menchu, “Crossing Borders”; Wangari Maathai, “Unbowed.”
Dominance and violence have formed part of the human experience since our beginnings, and yet do we fully understand why this is so? How can we change this story into one that is more peaceful, caring, and compassionate? The following questions mat stimulate the kinds of conversations and inquiries that support this process. For those working in education, you can also explore these questions with your students:
- What role do we each play in the old and new stories of violence and division?
- What can we learn from more peaceful and caring cultures in the ways they educate their young to learn about the dangers of violence and domination?
- How does the colonial pattern or impulse of domination live in you and in each of us?
- What do we seek to achieve and gain by feeding these impulses, how do we transform this (starting with ourselves)?
- What can we learn from Global South perspectives regarding the impacts of colonialism and postcolonial global capitalism?
- How can we co-create new stories of learning and development that are truly inclusive of our diversity and united in shared principles of care, compassion, and respect?
The doctrine of dominance that is at the root of the colonization of our minds, doesn’t stop until we stop acting this out. Until we transform the patterns of dominance and oppression — and the dualities between the oppressed and the suppressed — these patterns will continue to find new ways and expressions. The roots of our disunity and divisions are not outside of us. This is the long road to freedom that every person needs to learn how to take — as Nelson Mandela so powerfully demonstrated through his life.
Internalization of colonial dynamics happens subconsciously, where it shapes our beliefs, memories, and dreams — until we decide to consciously descend into those inner spaces and befriend the shadow within. The suppressed often become the next oppressors when the politics of power turn the tables. Students at school may learn about colonization during history classes, while not made aware of how these same colonial dynamics continue to form part of their culture and ways of thinking.
The colonialism of the past is the global capitalism of today. The economic agendas have not significantly shifted behind the geopolitical agendas of many nations and groups. Global capitalism has overturned local food production, cuisine, and all forms of cultural expressions, as well as destroyed many indigenous communities, languages, and practices.
For those living in the Global South, younger generations often seek to be part of the global world that is portrayed through their television, social media, and movies, without realizing the social engineering behind it. Many are unconscious of the deeper manipulation that is happening with the economization of our cultures.
Education needs to play a leading role in preparing younger generations to reclaim their minds, by fostering self-agency of their lives and interests. When people do not know how their engagement is being manipulated for corporate interests, they become even more susceptible to being colonized in whole new ways.
To summarize, education for decolonizing our minds and cultures is a process of deep unraveling of the multiple interwoven strands of violence, domination, trauma, division, and harm.
This process of unraveling and healing requires safe learning spaces for exploring these deeper issues, as well as for exploring how together we can heal the harm and multiple layers of trauma. Only then can we genuinely co-create a world based on freedom, mutual respect, and dignity for all people and non-human life. We offer the following guidelines for creating such safe learning spaces:
- Explore freedom and wellbeing from multiple perspectives — Explore with your students what freedom and wellbeing mean for them, and what it may have meant for their parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Explore how the pursuit of freedom and wellbeing shaped the lives of their families and cultures, and the impacts of this pursuit on the lives of others, including our planet.
- Make the narrative patterns visible — Explore the underlying assumptions, expectations, belief systems, and cultural and ancestral doctrines of the narratives we feel attracted and repelled by. Explore the relational dynamics of dominance and suppression and polarities of the oppressor-oppressed, and how this affects our sense of agency and trust in ourselves, life, and others.
- Facilitate Third Way approaches to heal the dualization of pain — Share about the dynamics, feelings, and impacts of the colonization of our minds through Third Way approaches that help to heal the divides. In particular to make conscious, and eventually transform, the intertwinement between victim-perpetrator and oppressor-oppressed.
- Introduce new perspectives and mutual learning opportunities — Explore how through digital learning opportunities students from various cultures, countries, backgrounds can exchange with each other about these topics, and especially with indigenous communities and those living in the Global South or former colonies.
- Co-create new stories of learning and connection — Facilitate the co-creation of new stories of identity belonging, healing, and how we ‘humane’ together, which emerge from learning collectively how to heal the traumas of our pasts and nurture into being the future worlds we seek to become. Explore with your students the multiple creative ways for crafting, creating, sharing, and expressing these stories as (short) films, poems, art, plays, articles, blogs, books, paintings, sculptures, and more.
Storying our Connections through System Sensing
Developing integral consciousness while learning for standardized tests and rigid learning outcomes through standardized curricula is challenging at best. Developing integral consciousness requires being able to freely enter into flow states, without pressures of rigid expectations. It also requires developing system sensing capacities, which are quite different from the more commonly known system thinking capacities (Smitsman, 2019).
We develop system sensing capacities by becoming aware of:
- the informational flows and dynamics that form part of our experiences;
- the archetypal structures on which we base our beliefs and sense of reality, and;
- the presence of past and future potentialities within and around us.
Many people have not learned how to work with complexity, non-linearity, and think systemically. Furthermore, many have not learned how to trust their subtle intuitions and sensory awareness of the systems they form part of and bring into life. Even though we are all born with the sensory organs for developing system sensing capacities.
Children are natural system sensors, and immediately notice subtle changes in the expressions and feelings of their parents and caregivers. Children also know intuitively how to employ their systemic sensing capacities for exploring the affordances in their inner and outer environment, including how to adjust their bodily stances to reach for new goals (Smitsman and Smitsman, 2020).
System sensing also helps us to become aware of all kinds of subtle nuances that form part of our lives, and inform how we feel about ourselves, others, and our world.
Whether we are conscious of this or not, we all form part of social systems and fields that we together weave into being, and which become our stories.
When our focus on life is predominantly intellectual we miss out on all these subtle dimensions of being and interbeing. To summarize, learning for regeneration and thrivability requires that we become aware of the many subtle nuances of how the dots connect, and the dots we each are in the larger patterns of life.
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Source: Extracts from chapter 6 of the r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint.
Other articles in this series
- Article 1 — The Call for Educational Transformation
- Article 2 — Creating Contexts of Meaning for Transformative Learning
- Article 3 — Exploring Transformative Learning as Life
- Article 4 — Future Creative Learning and the Power of the Imaginal
- Article 5 — Learning as Agency for Transformative Change
- Article 6 — Learning as a Pattern that Connects
- Article 8 — Learning as a Community of Life
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Sheldrake, R. (1987). Part I: Mind, memory, and archetype morphic resonance and the collective unconscious. Psychological Perspectives, 18(1), 9–25. https://doi.org/10.1080/00332928708408747
Smitsman A. (2019). Into the Heart of Systems Change. Ph.D. Dissertation. Maastricht University, the Netherlands. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.28450.25280
Smitsman, A. & Currivan, J. (2019). Systemic Transformation — Into the Birth Canal. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2573.
Smitsman, A. & Houston, J. (2021). The Quest of Rose: The Cosmic Keys of Our Future Becoming. Book 1 of The Future Humans Trilogy. Independently published via Oxygen Publishing.
Smitsman, A., Baue, B., and Thurm, R. (2021). Blueprint 9. Educational Transformation –7 Transformative Learning Perspectives for Regeneration and Thrivability. r3.0.
Smitsman A. & Smitsman A.W. (2020). The Future-Creative Human — Exploring Evolutionary Learning. World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research. https://doi.org/10.1080/02604027.2020.1810536