Philosophy of being and becoming: A transformative learning approach using threshold concepts.
Transformation has been the fundamental basis upon which education has always stood, as without transformation in mind, education would seem purposeless and undirected. This would imply that the objective of providing information in education is not just to gain knowledge but to achieve the desired transformation in character or behaviour by applying the knowledge learnt within ourselves. Based on how information is interpreted and managed, the philosophy of information influences our states of being and becoming which have an impact on our understanding of the information world. This paper discusses the philosophical aspects of being and becoming in relation to transformation, and threshold concepts are explored as a means of achieving transformative learning.
Even though humankind has evolved over the years the subtle changes of the ontological self through education and personal experiences are not fully realised. More growth is required through formal education to transform the way we think, as we have been programmed into viewing human advancement in the physical sense for far too long. Rapid transformations are needed at a personal level to adjust to worldly changes and an exploration into new innovative methods is required for transformative learning.
Based on how information is interpreted and managed, the philosophy of information plays a strong role in transforming individuals. Being in the digital age and with the growing trends of the virtual worlds (de Villiers, 2009), challenges are experienced virtually. The nature of being and becoming plays a critical role in understanding the challenges of the metaphysical information world. This paper discusses the philosophical aspects of being and becoming in relation to transformation. Threshold concepts are explored as a means of achieving transformative learning.
According to Doyle (n.d.-a, n.d.-b), the philosophy behind information is to transform through the ‘act of informing — the communication of knowledge from a sender to a receiver that informs (literally shapes) the receiver’. The shaping that takes place at the receiving end is transformation based on how the information is interpreted, processed and understood. No doubt the context in which the information is received, the channel of communication used and how well the information is interpreted plays a strong role in influencing the recipient. Doyle (n.d.-a) also explains that information philosophy is about ‘how new information is constantly being created’, although this notion would be challenged by Vivekananda (Natanasabapathy, Bourke, & Joshi, 2011; Prabhananda, 2003) that information is never created but only discovered through various means of research, reflections, connections and human activities as answers have always been there in the universe in the first place and learning is the manifestation or inner-awakening of the Self.
The challenge arises when influential forces have an impact on senders and receivers to work effectively and authentically with information either in the way it is meant to be understood and/or communicated or in the way it is interpreted at the receiving end. The challenges not only affect human cognitive capabilities but also affect interfaces and technologies which are used for the communication. Dretske (2008), highlights that information is an ‘epistemologically important commodity’ (p. 29) and that introspection defined as ‘mind’s awareness of itself’ (p. 32) is important in the communication of information. Introspection is not only important to maintain or strive towards individual authenticity but it also helps in rising above the challenges in an effort to remain connected with the environment and understand the metaphysical communication taking place. This is particularly important when working in virtual environments where face-to-face contact is minimal. Implications of events become more significant than the events themselves.
The type of information, how the information is presented or communicated, and the level of openness or disclosure contributes to the significance of the implications and the understanding that can be gained from a source of information and about the subject that is being discussed or communicated. Dialogue or communication cannot take place without some level of openness to the process of communication (Freire, as cited in Peters & Roberts, 2012). Freire points out that openness is linked very closely to ‘the very essence of being human: ontological and historical vocation of humanization’ (Peters & Roberts, 2012, p. 48). According to Peters and Roberts (2012), Freire conceives the meaning of being human as ‘a process of becoming more fully human through critical and dialogical praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it’ (p. 48). Indeed, Freire (1972) in his discussion about liberation and education, describes problem-posing education as the educational goal of posing the problems of human beings in their relations with the world.
In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation. (Freire, 1972, p. 83). In fact, transformation has been the fundamental basis upon which education has always stood. Without transformation in mind, education would seem purposeless and undirected. Considering our inner world of thoughts and feelings are constantly changing (Peters & Roberts, 2012), a critical orientation (i.e. or a shift in consciousness) towards our mind’s awareness and inner-dialogue is becoming increasingly important to achieve the level of being that is required to understand the metaphysical information environment that governs the virtual environment.
Philosophical perspectives of being and becoming
There is a distinction between being and becoming. The state of being reflects how a person’s nature or behaviour is at present. Becoming is a transition towards an embodiment of the desired change which will demonstrate a transformative movement. A changed behaviour, belief or attitude could take place over a prolonged duration to demonstrate that transformation has successfully taken place for the purpose of verifying its authenticity. This would imply that the objective of providing knowledge is not just for students to gain knowledge but to become the desired transformation in character or behaviour by applying the knowledge learnt within ourselves. So it would seem that the information provided is best when it is transformational if we are serious about meeting the education’s fundamental goal of transformation.
Martin Heidegger’s philosophical study was predominantly on the ontological self of being. His philosophy questions the state of being and compares it against all that is not in a state of being in an effort to understand the precedence placed between the physical and the metaphysical. The truth of being has its roots in metaphysics and it carries a metaphorical and spiritual inquiry into the state of being. He highlights that if our thinking explores the grounds of metaphysics and observes the involvement of being in human behaviour, then it could bring about a change in human nature in the way we behave and operate (Heidegger, 1960).
In studying Heidegger’s philosophy, Hornsby (n.d.) points out that ‘all human beings are continually oriented towards their own potential, among which are the possibilities of authentic and inauthentic existence’. We need to strive towards our own potential to fullfil our own destiny in order to differentiate ourselves from the masses and emerge as the self-realised, authentic, distinctive entity (Hornsby, n.d.). Heraclitus’ philosophy of becoming accepts that change is inevitable and that all matter undergoes change constantly (“On Truth & Reality,” 2012a; Rose, 2006). The Bhagavad-Gita also affirms this notion by highlighting that since the human body is made out of matter, it is ever-changing, caused by natural factors of growth and old age and prone to external influences (Prabhananda, 2003). Changes in matter can affect the state of being and if an emotional state of being is a result of some influence then that state of being could be regarded as an illusion. Parmenides acknowledged the concept of becoming but believes that the changes or becoming that we perceive with our senses is deceptive and illusionary and that there is an absolute eternal truth behind nature (“On Truth & Reality,” 2012b; Palmer, 2016). So Parmenides’s theory tends to emphasise the need to understand being as a quest towards the truth. Becoming is a continuous process of transformation involving both physical and metaphysical changes and it makes external appearances and what is perceived to be a reality, questionable (Carlisle, 2005; McFarlane, 2004). Although there is a difference between one state of being and another state of being on a time scale, the state of being itself signifies a particular ontological presence at a particular point in time, whereas becoming is a continuous moving presence of the ontological or subjective self.
Subjectivity is a direct result of the mind’s ability to be aware of its own representations. This is particularly true in the social sciences, in which research is often criticised as being ‘subjective’ and, thus, as not having much validity as research in the ‘hard’ sciences. (Matusitz & Kramer, 2011, p. 292)While this may be true, it should be noted that the process of becoming involves elements of striving and effort (either cognitively or physically) to achieve a particular goal and ‘hard’ sciences miss the insights that emerge during the continuous moving presence of the ontological or subjective self. The ontological self is a form of subjectivity which is ‘sensed rather than intellectually grasped. … the ontological self cannot be treated as an object without forfeiting its essential nature: not being part of the material aspects of reality, it is not capable of objectification’ (Klein, 2013).
McLaughlin (2010) argues that the inner quest to achieve satisfaction drives the evolutionary development of an individual as life’s achievements and challenges are experienced. In both cases, the evolutionary development is the result of constant learning, reflection and transformation. If the evolutionary process is viewed from an individual’s perspective, the individual evolves according to the degree of learning and transformation.
Nature of knowledge
Due to the interpretive nature of knowledge, debates and discussions are not uncommon as researchers strive to reach the ultimate truth. The quest towards truth can be enhanced through reflections and connections, and can be explained using the concept of relative and absolute forms of truth. Karl Popper, a philosopher of Science, questions what truth is and how to best pursue it, but he rejects any discussion about it for fear that it would lead to an ‘essentialistic and diversionary argument’ (Swann, 1995, p. 45). Usher, Bryant, and Johnston (1997) point out that, ‘knowledge does not represent truth of what is but rather constructs what is taken to be true’ (p. 104). If everyone takes what he or she believes is true, then it would seem that truth is a relative phenomenon. If one’s beliefs govern what is said and done, then surely truth is within oneself and to seek truth, one needs to look deep within and study one’s own thoughts, words and actions (i.e. to gain self-knowledge). Donald Davidson argues that the truth of beliefs is simply relative to one another and this relativism can only exist if there is no common ground (Bilgrami, 2002). However, if people can be drawn together, for some reason, then it would seem that there is some common element which cannot be ignored.
Analogy: If we compare the earth’s soil at various points on the earth’s surface, we will find diversity and variations in the type of soil. If we were to hypothetically travel deep to the centre of the earth from any point on the earth’s surface, the discovery of each and everyone would be the same. The diversity and variation in the soil would decrease as we travel closer to the centre of the earth. So relativity of the soil is higher on the earth’s surface than it is in the earth’s centre. So even though the journey from the earth’s surface is different from different points on the earth’s surface, the destination and the goal is the same.
This would imply that if one’s thought is deep enough, then it is possible to reach the same truth as someone else because there is one truth in the absolute sense but many truths in the relative sense. In relating this analogy to Donald Davidson’s argument that the ‘truth of beliefs’ is relative to one another (Bilgrami, 2002), it could be argued that truth is perhaps relative on the surface (like the diversity of the soil on the earth’s surface in Figure 1) but at a deeper level, truth must converge to become absolute if it has the power to draw people together by their common nature or to respond to a particular event in a similar fashion. Cunningham (2001) believes that everyone has a piece of the ultimate truth that unites everyone in spite of the differences. Therefore, the ultimate truth that Cunningham (2001) refers to surely cannot be relative but it must be in its absolute form from which everyone accepts, agrees and potentially seeks sustenance from, that is, a notion that links well with Parmenides’s theory of being.
Being a knowledge repository
Knowledge is intangible until it is externalised. From a teaching-learning perspective, the passing of knowledge or knowledge acquisition leads to enlightenment where people, as a knowledge repository serve as a source of light for others. With regular and continual acquisition of knowledge, individuals continuously build on their knowledge repository and draw energy from their intangible knowledge repository (i.e. from the intangible form of the Self). Findings from multiple sources report that the Self is ‘technically a unit of light…’, and that we ‘… are in essence the soul, the creator and generator of light and joy’ (McLaughlin, 2010). Covey, Merrill, and Merrill (1994) describe the inner self using the words ‘fire within’ which can be identified as a source of light also. The gaining of knowledge drives the Self down an evolutionary path towards potentially enlightening discoveries.
As the learner moves from one state of being to another through knowledge acquisition, the learner’s identity evolves, as snippets of information and knowledge are gained through various threshold points in one’s life that marks a turning point in one’s learning journey. It is no wonder that learning is considered a lifelong process. Meyer and Land (2003) define threshold concepts as a ‘transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress’ (p. 1). They are stages in the learning process which, when grasped have an impact on the way a learner thinks or understands the subject matter. They are crucial milestones where understanding (or the desired change in thinking) must take place in order to be assured that the desired transformative outcome will be reached in the end.
While the concept of introducing or identifying threshold concepts in a course makes sense, it is not commonly practiced or formally introduced in most courses. However, if understanding was gained due to a transformed way of thinking, then it raises a question about whether a threshold concept was overcome?
The attractive characteristic of threshold concepts is their ability to influence the development of personal identity in a manner where it is transformative and irreversible with a shift in the learner’s subjectivity, cognition, identity and thinking leading to a new positioning and discourse of the self. The challenge is in clearly identifying the threshold concepts, particularly with online courses which can be used to influence online behavioural patterns. No doubt when the threshold concepts are identified, it would not only speed up the learning process but would also result in sustained transformative learning where sustainable outcomes or practices can be achieved.
If learners are informed about the purpose of threshold concepts within a course, then they could assess their own progress in understanding the subject matter on their own especially since a simplistic ‘learning outcomes’ model cannot be used when threshold concepts are introduced explicitly (Land, Cousin, Meyer, & Davies, 2005). Land et al. (2005) have questioned the troublesome aspects of using threshold concepts – Are the difficulties due to our insufficiencies or the lack of our own understanding? If this is the case, then the threshold concepts could become less troublesome as individuals gain greater understanding or progress further on their transformative path towards freedom (Land et al., 2005). Could the inherently problematic areas be reduced by introducing the content and key points gradually with supporting illustrations, symbols, metaphors, examples and/or diagrams to ease the integration of ideas?
After all, learning by means of symbols and signs is considered powerful as they enable learners to perceive the imperceptible (Semetsky, 2007). Being able to communicate knowledge through ‘language’ is what sets human beings apart from the animal world. The National Association for Student Personnel Administrators and The American College Personnel Association (2004) argue that to ‘support today’s learning outcomes the focus of education must shift from information transfer to identity development (transformation) (p. 9). ‘There is an issue with this notion because the nature of threshold concepts requires that learners adopt a recursive approach to learning, and using a ‘learning outcomes’ model will not work with this approach because any engagement with threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge will result in ‘post-liminal variation’, a term used to describe significant variation in the conceptual stances and outcomes reached due to the recursive and excursive journeys taken in the learning process (Land et al., 2005). Furthermore, the timeframe to grasp the threshold concepts may differ between individuals depending on the extent of the recursive approach to learning.
The learning outcomes model imposes predetermined transformative points on learners which can lead to learning barriers in the transformative space between states of being. These transformative states have been termed ‘liminality’ (Land et al., 2005), because the learner may end up adopting alternative approaches to overcome the immediate barriers in learning. In an effort to progress, the learner could adopt shallow learning techniques such as mimicry rather than the desired deep transformative mechanisms which will lead them to authentic learning and a grasp of the perceived troublesome knowledge. So rather than predetermining the points, the phenomenological tradition involves letting the phenomena reveal themselves rather than predetermining what the phenomena are before revelation (Wallgren, 2006). These will be different for each individual’s transformation.
As humans, we have the potential to excel and achieve goals beyond our own expectations through training, discipline and various forms of learning. Rhizomes, a term originally used in biology, symbolise ‘unlimited growth through the multitude of its own transformations’ by simply thinking differently (Semetsky, 2007, p. 198). This helps to map our journeys, movements and paths as rhizomatic lines lead us towards various destinations in our lives. Semetsky (2007) discusses rhizomes as an example of the potential to think differently. If this is the case, then rhizomes must be points before the threshold concepts are grasped after which thinking changes due to some understanding gained and due to rhizomatic connections made in the learning process.
When we learn, cognitive psychology research has shown that there are two categories of memory processing; one is declarative which involves facts, people and events and the other is non-declarative which involves memories for behaviours. These behavioural memories are created through skills and emotional learning. As an individual moves from a stage of being to a stage of becoming (i.e. where transformed actions are applied), the individual gains behavioural memories to the extent where progressively less effort (or conscious thought) is needed to perform in the desired transformed stage. The stage of ‘non-thought’, in a way, demonstrates that transformation has taken place where the individual has moved on from a particular way of thinking to a new way of thinking in relation to a subject matter, that is, a shift from a state of becoming to the next state of being. The behaviours learnt inform us that the rhizomatic connections which contribute towards changes in thinking, are a progressive step in the learning process and possibly to overcome or grasp a threshold concept along the evolutionary path from novice to mastery.
Interpretive research paradigm
The threshold concepts theoretical framework has significant potential and application for discipline-based learning. Social learning theory is reflected in threshold concepts where learners undergo transformation as new knowledge is encountered and the acquiring of knowledge, practices and behaviours of a disciplinary community is embraced through the learner’s acceptance. This is similar to learning the customs, norms and behaviours of a culture to gain approval.
Researchers and scientists through the nature of their disciplines strive to find answers or truth as it stands at the time, in an effort to seek authenticity and meaning from the environment and the world at large. Although their work can be influenced by various factors (such as capitalism, policies, environment, deviations in findings and so on) the journey in their quest for answers takes on an evolutionary path as understanding develops. This practice is no different in the subject of information management. Burke (2007) highlights that philosophical questionings help to gain a meaningful understanding of a particular field. Any decision-making is based on the validity and reliability of the information at hand, including the context in which it can be understood, accepted and applied. Burke (2007) points out that the interpretive research paradigm is the most appropriate paradigm for information management research, because it is ‘concerned with understanding, and interpreting the world and each situation that are dependent on the tangible and intangible variables that are present at the time’ (p. 479). Burke also regards this paradigm to be the most useful approach towards obtaining the richest results because it seeks a subjective view from within the frame of reference of the participants. This method ‘allows the most natural behaviour of those seeking information and thus helps researchers to make key decisions about information needs, information satisfaction and information fulfilment’ (Burke, 2007, p. 481). However, many of the information management books and literature are predominantly focused on information technology as the primary and/or the only means of managing information. The intangible aspects associated with information management are not covered, not considered or they are neglected. Phillips, Brantley, and Phillips (2012) point out that by ‘definition, an intangible is a measure that is not converted to money.
If the conversion cannot be accomplished with minimum resources and with credibility, it is left as an intangible’ (p. 184). Phillips et al. (2012) also highlight that the presence and implications of intangibles are profound but due to the difficulty in converting intangibles to monetary values their economic benefits and returns on investment are not fully realised. While information technology is used widely to process and manage information, the interpretation and assessment of the information for final decision-making should remain with the individual to seek validation and authenticity in cases where extenuating circumstances resulting in inconsistencies or misinformation are experienced (such as technical glitches, malfunctions, or limitations).
Most of the literature predominantly covers how information can be managed with the use of technology and fails to provide sufficient focus on how intangibles are managed metaphysically for appropriate application in society. ‘Phenomenology seeks to portray the essential or necessary structures of phenomena (objects) and to uncover the meaning of lived experience (feelings, thoughts and physical awareness) and the everyday lifeworld’ (Wallgren, 2006, p. 3). This takes into consideration the tangible (objects) and the intangible aspects.
So in considering the application of threshold concepts in an information management course for the purposes of transformative learning, it is essential that both the tangible and intangible aspects are embraced to raise the awareness of how they play their role in information management and decision-making. This will not only help to identify gaps in learning but also enable appropriate measures to be taken to develop and enhance the skills required to achieve the learning necessary for sustainable outcomes. The question is how we can apply threshold concepts to achieve transformative learning in information management.
Relationship with technology
Zitzelsberger (2004) believes that the ‘the essence of technology and our relationship to it remains concealed’ (p. 250). Perhaps this is because the intangible aspects are not considered sufficiently to develop the connectedness with technology. Our relationship with technology could be unconcealed by studying how technology interacts and presents itself to the user or with the Self. For example, we can study the speed of responses received or the interactivity of the technology, the types of messages received, the patterns and nature of the interactivity experienced with the interface and so on. Such a practice is about our engagement and connectedness with technology.
It is also about being conscious about our presence, and about ‘being with the technology’ we use and with our environment. Merleau-Ponty (as cited in Svanaes, 2011) discusses how the body has an ability to adapt and extend itself through external devices and that when we have learned skills to perceive the world through the device it ceases to exist and has become part of what it means to be. This would support hermeneutical analysis from a technological perspective and the phenomenological tradition where objects get their meaning through use and social interaction. In being connected with the technology we often talk about the ‘look and feel’ of an interface or product or we sense its speed. These observations represent the technological behaviour of an object.
The technological behaviour influences how we work with our information, the decisions we make and how we manage the information. The way information is presented influences the way information is received, processed and understood. Sicilia, Ruiz, and Munuera (2005) highlight that the level of interactivity on websites influences how information is processed which in turn has an impact on decision-making for product sales. Similarly, interactivity can be used to control and regulate information transfer in a manner where threshold concepts are grasped effectively during the learning process. Heidegger, Husserl and others, would argue that to understand the meaning of these interactions with information, the lifeworld (i.e. the significance and meaning things have in our experiences) of the individual would have to be considered and understood.
Threshold concepts are intangibles which do not surface until there is a problem. This could mean that threshold concepts encountered during a course would be troublesome for some students but not others. Learners need to be made more conscious of their ontological self to achieve critical reflections and connections needed for meaningful transformation. In mastering the threshold concepts in a course, the learner is moved from novice towards deeper understanding. The authors believe rapid transformations can be brought about through the use of threshold concepts as they can help improve the learner’s introspection and shape critical aspects of their understanding.
However, it needs to be an evolutionary change rather than a radical one to allow room for sufficient reflections and connections during the process. By grasping the threshold concepts, the skills learned become part of the learners’ lifeworld and they have a better chance of achieving the desired transformation.
In an effort to further develop the thoughts presented in this paper, it is suggested that courses that use threshold concepts validate the understanding derived from the figures introduced in this paper. This would help in developing or enhancing the figures further as part of future research. It would also assist in evaluating if the desired transformation is achievable through the use of threshold concepts.
Notes on contributors
Puvanambihai Natanasabapathy teaches management courses at Open Polytechnic, New Zealand. She is a member of the Project Management advisory group and the Policy Review Team for Project Management Institute of New Zealand. She holds a BSc from University of Canterbury, MBA and Postgraduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching from Massey University.
Sandra Maathuis-Smith studied a Master’s of Information Management at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, and taught in the information studies domain at Open Polytechnic, New Zealand. Sandra has now moved into the design area of information delivery eLearning and is currently an Educational Designer at Charles Sturt University, Australia.
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By Puvanambihai Natanasabapathy and Sandra Maathuis-Smith