Episode 104: Powerful Questions + Transformative Learning
Guest Peter Tate – a member of our International Certified Network – shares his experience facilitating faiths and cultures trainings in Southall, London. When facilitating change, Peter says “the outcome is not guaranteed” – but combining a blended approach with powerful questions enabled him to create a safe holding environment for transformative learning.
Warning for some parents: powerful questions about Santa Claus within!
Theme music: ‘Pretty Face’ by Una Walkenhorst. You can hear more of Una’s music on her website!
Read transcripts for the episode below.
Meg (10s): Hello and Welcome to Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast, where we talk about the revolutionary power of a learning-centered approach. Through this podcast, we hope to inspire creative thinking and provide practical tools and techniques to deepen learning through dialogue. We are your hosts Meg Logue and Peter Noteboom. We’re joined today by a member of our International Certified Network, Peter Tate to talk about a recent blog he wrote on Digital Learning and Powerful Questions. Welcome Peter, why don’t you kick us off by briefly introducing yourself and telling us a bit about your background.
Peter Tate (43s): Yes. Well, my name is Peter Tate I’m from Northern Ireland originally, hence the accent, and I’m now living between Oxford and London in England. So I work as an adult and Digital education consultant doing a lot of work for universities at the moment, before that I did faith and cultures training. So a similarity with yourself Peter, and I worked in quite a diverse area in London and Southall near Heathrow airport. It has four major faith group’s in one area. And I was training charities and other faith groups and colleges, and how to interact with different fits in cultures.
Peter Tate (1m 28s): And that’s what I base my blog post on it. We also did a lot of work for this one local council. They were dealing with the aftermath of a major Farr in their area, and that training was a blend of online learning and face-to-face training when they actually came to Southhall. And while I was doing that, I was also doing a part-time master’s in Digital education at Edinburgh University.
Meg (1m 56s): Peter, I would really love to hear a little bit more, many of our listeners have probably not read your blog post. Right. And so I’d love to hear a bit of background about your work in Southall and these discoveries you had about Powerful Questions.
Peter Tate (2m 12s): Right. Okay. Well, Southall, there’s four major faith group’s in Southhall and they were roughly around the same size. So one of the really great things was that it was a good illustration of how a different faiths can work together. And there was a lot of that activity. So it also meant that it was a great place for people to come and learn about interfaith work and how to interact with different faith. So groups would come, but what I find in the early days of my role was that some people find it very difficult to go into faith centers. It was just so culturally different to what they had been used to.
Peter Tate (2m 57s): And I think there were a couple of issues that I observed. One more is that it can often be a highly sensory experience. People were experiencing all five senses at once. You know, there’s a sight and sound and smell. They were asked to sit on the floor and sometimes there were food’s involved as well as far as tests. So that was quite a lot for people to take on board. The other thing is that for folks who are not familiar beforehand, it was a potentially a highly confusing experience because there were things going on and they didn’t really know what was happening.
Peter Tate (3m 38s): And that got me thinking a lot about online learning and tie that good benefit folks coming. And I thought particularly of two aspects of online learning and one is to do with space and the other has to do with time. And first of all, the space, it means that you can introduce the experience of coming to Southall without people, having to experience all five senses. So you could use things like photographs or videos or recordings, and therefore people would have a much more limited set of senses involved. The other aspect was a time that I would ask Powerful Questions as well before and not give people time to think in a safe environment.
Peter Tate (4m 27s): And the analogy that I use as a rock climber, that when you’re doing rock climbing, you normally have all four extremities on the rock face, and then you only move one at one time. Whereas when we bring people to Southall, they’re facing a new environment, they may be with a new group of people and they are experiencing a lot of sensory input. And that’s a lot of change all at once. Whereas if you have the Powerful Questions beforehand, it really helps people to think about those questions within an environment that they feel safe within their own environment.
Peter Tate (5m 7s): So I asked these Powerful Questions maybe about a week or so beforehand and for the interfaith training. And one of the other thing’s that Jane says is, is to always start where our learners are at, and in a British context, I started with the topic of curing British people, always love a que, and I would ask folks, why do people queue? Which seems, you know, people may not have thought about before. And then the typical answer would of been, we do because everyone else does it, which is a really good answer. But then I take it as a bit further back, and then I would ask, well, why did people in this country start to queue from the first place?
Peter Tate (5m 52s): And then we start to think about different values that might express. And then I’d ask the question, is it possible that in countries where people do not queue, but they’re also expressing cultural values and beliefs and, you know, people haven’t thought of that before, it leads to send it to the idea that we don’t all just do things at random, we are influenced by our culture and we may not even be aware that we’re being influenced by a culture. And so then we use a video and we look at the things on the video that may seem odd to the people from one culture.
Peter Tate (6m 32s): And we start to explore what is the cultural basis for why people would do those things. We look at it in terms of an iceberg there, what do you have visible parts of an iceberg, but do you have hidden parts as well? And the hidden parts are the values and the beliefs that people have influence what they do and what they say, what they were, what they eat, everything. So that’s really helpful. Then when we take people around the fifth centers and we give people a learning task when they set off to the faith center’s and we say that your role today is to find out what is the beneath the iceberg.
Peter Tate (7m 13s): If you see something that you don’t understand, can you work out, and what is the value or the belief through dialogue, why people do things like that. And that brings up lots of interesting findings. We would typically take people to see the Islamic prayer session and for people who are not used to it, that can be quite challenging to see, to see a group of a man who are all pointing in the same direction and same time. And then we can people to think, what are the values underneath some of the values that expresses and doing it at the same time, expresses a sense of unity.
Peter Tate (7m 55s): What’s called Irma, that people want to do that together. And then we think-quite often, people would be coming from a Christian tradition. And we think then about communion, the active communion. And that’s also an expression of unity that Christians everywhere around the world eat one bread as a part of one body. And then the other thing is about pointing in the same direction. And I know that here in England, a lot of the old churches will point towards Jerusalem. And that’s the idea that it’s an acknowledgement, that something that he was praying, Consider it to be important top in there.
Peter Tate (8m 36s): So you can see that there’s commonalities there. When you look at the values and the beliefs that people are expressing in their actions, they then start to see that there are commonalities. Some of the things that they can identify with, and that helps them to understand the different fear stand. But that starts off by the thought that people do things for cultural reasons, expressing values and beliefs that they hold. But because you can introduce it well before they come, it gives them time to work through that, to think it through, Oh, that’s such a powerful and such important work.
Peter Tate (9m 18s): I’m just thinking about the depth of work that, that involves acknowledging that there’s a religious and faith communities often have this very, very deep iceberg and many people go through lives in that iceberg and they themselves don’t actually know what’s under the surface anymore. So then to actually work with people so that they together figure out what’s under a different icebergs, that’s got to be very meaningful and valuable work. And I think to that, one of the benefits is you become more aware of your own culture. Sure. I used to say to a group of Dutch students who came to England every year, you don’t really know what it means to be Dutch until you live outside the Netherlands.
Peter Tate (10m 4s): And I think that that’s true about ourselves by interacting and help starting to understand different fears in cultures. And one of the rich rewards is that we understand our own much better as well.
Peter Noteboom (10m 20s): That’s really great. One of the other metaphor, that you mentioned that’s living in my visual brain at the moment is what you talked about. Rock climbing, the four extremities in that you only move one at a time. I wonder, you know, is that something about liminality that you talked about, the kind of change that you encourage or facilitate a growth or a critical thinking that helps people see things in a new way? Could you tell us something about that concept of liminality that you write about and what that is as the zone of change and transition?
Peter Tate (10m 54s): Yes. Yes, of course, as you may gather from the word, it is something to do with light, and there’s one sense that learning can involve adding new skills and knowledge, but sometimes also learning involves seeing the world in a different light in some area. And the example that I use is off Santa Claus and I need to be very careful what I say here, because I don’t know who’s listening. For many years I believed what I was told about Santa Claus, but then I heard people asking Powerful Questions particularly to do with logistics and that raise doubts within my mind about what I had been told.
Peter Tate (11m 45s): It took me a while to wrestle with that part of the learning involves emotions, because what I’d been told Santa Claus up to that point, I had done very well from that. And one of my concerns moving forward was, will I do as well in the future, if I change my view and that can involve alternating back and forward between two different sets of beliefs is a time of uncertainty there, but that’s very much a liminal space for learning. It involves emotions. It involves seeing things in a different light, and you may hold on to things that were there before, but they just look very different in the future.
Peter Tate (12m 33s): And I think that online learning is ideal for that because you can raise questions well, before the actual face to face learning time happens and it provides time and it provides a safe space for that oscillating to occur. And one of the things that I developed within online learning was to do it in staging and the scaffolding. So for example, with the faith awareness training, rather than having people just coming to the fifth center and experiencing everything at once, I was able to help them to experience it in stages. And then I was able to build scaffolding around that and to examine each of those stages and to prepare them to learn about these particular aspects slowly, rather than all at once.
Peter Tate (13m 25s): So that’s what liminality means. It’s effectively like a holding environment. It’s a time when learners can feel very vulnerable. So it’s really a way of creating a holding environment to keep learners onboard and to help them to process that uncertainty. And I should say too, if there’s anyone listening and we’re going to have said about Santa Claus is we ask questions. They can speak to someone in your family about it, and they will tell you.
Meg (13m 56s): Well, we can keep the Powerful Questions about Santa Claus to a minimum.
Peter Tate (14m 7s): Right.
Meg (14m 7s): Thank you so much! Peter, this concept of liminality is so powerful and I liked that you also called it a holding space because as the facilitator, that is really your role when you’re encouraging this kind of deep transformation as a facilitator, you’re holding that transformation and that’s a great responsibility, but you’ve managed to make it sound also like a beautiful responsibility. So bringing this back to learning and learning designers, you’ve shared a little bit about why this idea or concept is so important for learning designers, but I wonder if you could expand on that and then also share with us how you see learning designers, ways that they could be more attentive in these digital and online learning environments to facilitating change and transformation to creating that space of liminality.
Peter Tate (15m 1s): I think it’s important for learning designers and facilitators to pay attention because the outcome is not guaranteed. And there were folks who came in the early days before I develop the online training and they just felt that it wasn’t safe to go into the faith centers after experiencing one, maybe so people can reject the Learning and it’s not a guaranteed in another sense as well because people can also adjust their cognition afterwards. And they may say, well, what I’ve learned about faith is true, but it’s true in this case. And it may not be true in my case or in other cases.
Peter Tate (15m 45s): So one of the big issues is generalization, you know, that’s what people learn when they come to Southall or how can they apply that in their own context. And there’s a lot of work has been done around what’s known as cognitive dissonance theory and how that when people come to experience something that doesn’t fit with how they view the world at the moment, there can be different reactions to it. And only one of the reactions can be that they take it on board. So I think we do need to pay attention. And I do feel that online learning can give a lot to helping that to happen, but certainly being my experience in Southall.
Peter Tate (16m 30s): My advice for learning designers, one would be, I refer to the example of curing. That’s a very safe example. And that’s an example of what’s known as a Threshold concept. And it’s something that is maybe very every day when you sit down and you think about it, ask questions about it. It’s actually a little bit odd. You know, that a group of people in one country decide that this is the way we do things. Whereas maybe another group decide that it’s not, and it’s effectively like a doorway into new ways of thinking. And if you can find a Threshold concept for your learning design, it can be incredibly powerful for the learners.
Peter Tate (17m 14s): That’s like a stepping stone. And the other thing that I would suggest is the process of staging and scaffolding, trying to build out into your online learning, rather than having people having a full experience, they can take it in stages. So mapping out using all of their senses all at once. And then at each of those stages, you can build a scaffolding around it. It’s a bit like building scaffolding around a big band clock tar, and you can go and examine the different parts in detail, and it’s really giving opportunity to do that. But I think Jane Vella writes about the tension between giving learners a challenge, but also making it safe.
Peter Tate (17m 59s): The issue is if you give them too much of a challenge than there’s the risk that you lose your learners, but if you make it too safe, then we lose your learning. Something like online learning gives extra options. It gives extra space and time for that to happen. Whereas a few of just one event and the classroom learners don’t really have the time to process in this space either. So that would be the two things I would say, look out for threshold concepts and also try to build staging and scaffolding into your learning. P
eter Noteboom (18m 35s): I don’t think I’m going to ever forget that idea of, if you have too much challenge, you might lose your learners. And if you have too much safety, you might lose the learning. That’s a good one. I like that
Meg (18m 50s): A new Axiom credited to Peter Tate.
Peter Noteboom (18m 53s): You know, those building words that you use, Threshold, Staging, Scaffolding. That sounds like a theory you are working with maybe that’s another whole podcast episode, but could you give us the short form of that one more time? What is the threshold, scaffolding, and the staging and how do they fit together?
Peter Tate (19m 13s): The basic concept is one of troublesome knowledge. What’s known as troublesome knowledge and the idea that certain knowledge can affect the way that people think. And then you can then introduce threshold concepts in order to do that. There is a group of thinkers who would be involved in this whole area, but I can get the names of his people like Rayland and Meyors. I’m not aware of that, this one uniform name for this whole area. Just the whole concept of liminal spaces is one that is very prominent within our adult education.
Peter Tate (19m 53s): Thinking at the moment it’s quite a hot topic. People are just seeing how powerful they can be in the adult learning.
Meg (20m 1s): Well, I’m going to shift gears a little bit here and take us back to this whole concept of a learning-centered approach. And the name for our podcast of course, is Shift the Power. And we’ve talked a lot about safety together today, and it does seem sort of counter-intuitive in a lot of ways, this idea that centering the principle of safety can actually lead to shifting the power in a learning environment. I wonder if you could illuminate for us the connections that you see between safety and shifting the power?
Peter Tate (20m 36s): Yeah, I think that providing a safe environment and I referred to a digital environment that increases the possibility of learners, seeing the world in a different light, you know, different or whatever issue is that the learning is about. And I think that gives people a power to deal better with the world around them. I suppose, as there is a couple of things that I would add onto that we may think that well we’ve provided learning or maybe one particular issue, maybe on faith. And does that mean then that we have to provide learning on other issues as well. And there was one paper that I read particularly by Pedigree and is really intriguing.
Peter Tate (21m 22s): His findings were that when attitudes change towards one group. So when people go through a liminal space with one group, but quite often their attitudes change towards other groups as well. So it means that learners don’t have to keep going through liminal space for every issue, but often change in one area, say for now the attitudes towards faiths can also change our attitudes towards race or culture as well. So there can be surprising secondary effects. It doesn’t change every issue, but it can change in some.
Peter Tate (22m 4s): The other thing is just how significant the change can be in the learners. And again, an example that I use as one that’s familiar with in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, and in a very familiar story of Adam and Eve in the Genesis account, and they wanted knowledge. And in order to achieve that, they ate some fruit, that’s a classic example of a liminal space. Suddenly they saw the world in a different light and they became aware of forces in the world around them and even within themselves, but they hadn’t been aware of before.
Peter Tate (22m 48s): And I suppose a couple of observations from that would be the world that they left behind was a much simpler world world, a much more complex place and helping learners to go through a liminal space means that we may be introducing them to a much more complex world. The other thing is that once learners have been through a liminal space, it can be very hard for them to go back. So the changes that can be introduced through a liminal space can be very profound changes.
Peter Tate (23m 30s): And hopefully it means that they can interact in a much more meaningful way with the world around them, as well as the power and the privilege. It also brings a greater responsibility on donors as well.
Meg (23m 47s): And that’s not a responsibility that facilitators take lightly I’m sure either taking learners on that journey, it can be like you said, very Powerful, but underscores the importance of as a facilitator, taking the responsibility in respecting your learners enough to prepare thoughtfully, to make sure that you are aware of all of everything that you just said. If this is a powerful transformation that has very broad implications for all of your learners. And so we must all feel that responsibility and some of the tools that you have given us today and that dialogue education and a learning-centered approach give us means that you can do that in a way that will be powerful and safe for your learners.
Meg (24m 34s): Well, Peter, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. This has been such a fascinating conversation and has certainly opened my eyes and given me some new language to, to talk about a lot of these very important things that come up in learning design. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing all of your knowledge.
Peter Tate (24m 55s): Thank you, it has been a privilege.
Meg (24m 57s): So we’ll close out today with, as we always do an away question or two for our audience, we want to invite you to consider how this information can be relevant for you as a learner and as a learning designer. So here are your aways for today. How could you use digital interaction to help learners prepare before an event? How can you use this idea of safety, threshold, staging, and scaffolding to help learners transform and change in a digital online or blended learning environment?
Meg (25m 40s): Thank you for tuning in to another episode of Shift the Power: a Learning-Centered Podcast. This podcast is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton with music by Una Walkenhorst to find out more about Global Learning Partners, whether it be our course offerings, consulting services, free resources or blogs, go to www.GlobalLearningPartners.com. We invite you to sign up for our mailing list, subscribe to our podcast and find us on social media to continue the dialogue. If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving us a review on Apple podcasts or your preferred podcast player.