The role of imagination in autobiography and transformative learning

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By telling and retelling their life stories in everyday social interaction, adult learners describe times of continuity and change in their lives, and give an account of their self-formation. A disjuncture between the learners' life stories and events experienced either in their social context or in their inner life invites their reflection on its significance. Transformative learning occurs when reflection on such experience leads to interpretations which change the learners' meaning perspectives and their social practice. These changes are incorporated into a new version of the life story. Adult education approaches to perspective transformation have generally emphasised the interpretive role of critical reflection and thinking. Autobiography, as a metaphor for transformative learning, proposes that transformative learning also has the quality of a narrative constructed with imagination. Through ongoing interpretation of events in their inner and outer experience, learners compose their lives and their life stories. The social context is a dynamic setting for autobiographical learning. Its structures and institutions concretise the learners' social and cultural tradition, which has been shaped by design and historical circumstance. Through the prejudgments of their tradition, learners perceive reality and construct corresponding lives and life stories. Theoretical approaches to interpreting life experience differ in their estimation of the value of the learners' tradition. In adult education theory and practice, Habermas' critical theory has been enlisted as a conceptual basis for perspective transformation. Little attention has been afforded to either Gadamer's hermeneutic consciousness, or Ricoeur's critical hermeneutics as ways to understand the interpretive activity which leads to the learners' self-formation and the re-invention of their life story. Six former Roman Catholic priests participated in a cooperative inquiry, telling their life stories of remarkable change in life choice. They sought deeper self-knowledge, as well as an understanding of the widespread social phenomenon of Catholic priests choosing to marry. Their autobiographical accounts indicate that, as they gradually composed new life narratives, these learners gained personal authority as the authors of their lives. The stories also indicate that, at one time or other, a state of stagnation developed in the authors' lives. Despite the learners' lengthy periods of consciously attempting to resolve the stalemate, it was an act of spontaneous imagination which illuminated a way through. The explanatory understanding of autobiographical or transformative learning proposed here claims that imagination, which bridges the domains of conscious and unconscious knowing in the author, is a partner with critical reflection in interpreting the life in its social context. Through transformative or hermeneutic conversation, adult educators may foster and promote the formation of autobiography and transformative learning. Further research, linking autobiography and transformative learning, would purposefully explore the role of other internal processes in transformative learning, such as feeling, and examine their relationship with imagination. It is likely that the acknowledgment of imagination as integral to transformative learning would lead to research which considers models of personhood other than those which emphasise ego as the conscious director of knowing and learning.
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