On Transformative Learning Experiences

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I have been reflecting on what makes a transformative learning experience, having had the joy to be involved in a number of them over the first part of this year - some as teacher, some as learner. Enough of them that it’s worth teasing out some patterns to see what they might have in common.

I’ve also experienced a bunch of perfectly normal, everyday learning experiences, of course, where you make useful progress but don’t feel things have fundamentally changed. These provide a useful comparator for the transformative experiences, of course, but I think they’re also key an important part of their context. You wouldn’t want – couldn’t cope with – every learning experience making fundamental changes to how you relate to your praxis. The regular week-in, week-out work is what sets you up for the great leaps forward, and what allows you to consolidate them and embed them in your musical identity.

Key elements to these experiences include:

  • Learning readiness. This I think is the most important thing. Every transformative learning experience I’ve encountered is fuelled by a clear sense of need in the learner. They/I have developed to a point where they can see across to where they want to be next and are seeking help to get there. This underpins everything else: how they choose their teachers/coaches, how they articulate their agenda and needs, how they respond to the input. You could give exactly the same input to someone else and it would be merely useful because it wasn’t the specific thing that they were looking for.
  • Expertise and experience. Teachers who facilitate transformative experiences do so from a deep fund of knowledge and experience, and both are significant. Technical knowledge permits precise analysis and clear concepts to aid the learner, but you need experience to figure out how best to use it in this particular circumstance with this particular learner. Experience gives you a deep well of possible approaches to draw on, but you need technical expertise to wield it precisely in the context of the situation in hand.
  • Trust. Making fundamental change to your praxis makes you feel vulnerable: you have to take off your psychological armour and trust that your teacher isn’t going to prod you where it hurts. Trusting the expertise is part of this – one can choose a teacher on the basis of their track record without knowing them personally first. But there’s also a decision you don’t make until you have met them in person as to whether you’re going to let them take you to new places or whether you’re going to just enjoy an ordinary, useful learning experience.
  • One or two key points make most of the difference In any learning experience, you’ll cover a bunch of details, but most of these will stay in the ‘merely useful’ category. The transformative experience will be precipitated by one or two key concepts that unlock a whole new level of capability, and that can be wielded by the learner at will thereafter to access that level for themselves.

So the things that make a learning experience transformative aren’t entirely in the control of either teacher or learner, but emerge from the interaction between the two. There are certain qualities on each side that need to be in place to supercharge the learning experience, but the magic happens in the way that they meet.

And, whilst I have found reflecting on these recent experiences useful, I find myself left with the thought that we should be wary about going out trying to make transformative experiences happen. Particularly as teachers, if we think of ourselves as the kind of person who goes around changing other people’s lives, we are arrogating a lot of power to ourselves that properly should belong to the learner. We will do better to keep our focus on: what does this person need right here, right now, to help them get where they want to go? Most of the time we will be merely useful, and that’s a good use of a life. When a learner is ready to leap out into space, they’ll let us know.

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