I am trying to map the important disruptions and turning points in my life that have caused me to either change direction and / or change myself. One disruptive moment occurred when I was 16. Because I had not applied myself at school I had performed dismally in my GCE exams. I had hoped to go into the 6th form but knew that I would probably have to repeat the year as a friend of mine, with equally dismal results, had been told to do. I had to attend an interview with the head master and his deputy. It did not go well and I could see the headmaster was on the point of deciding I had to retake the year when he asked his deputy for his opinion. Much to my surprise he stood up for me and said he would welcome me into his A level geology class. The head master decided to let me go through to the 6th form, telling me it was against his better judgement and I would not get another chance like this. That moment changed my life. I stopped messing around and became a serious student. I retook and passed the GCE's I had failed and immersed myself in geology which became my best subject. That moment disrupted my life. It caused me to become a different person because my attitude to studying changed because someone believed in me and my potential. It caused me to change my perspective on what formal education was all about and it created a new context and opportunity for me to achieve something of value. This was the second time this teacher had given me a second chance and it proved to be a defining moment in my life. A few months into the 6th form I started going out with one of my classmates who became my wife and after A levels I progressed to university and a career as a geologist. I suppose this is another example of a being given an opportunity to disrupt and change my life.
I recently came across a research paper on autobiographical reasoning in life narratives(1) in which participants in the research where invited to write down the seven most specific memories, put them into chronological order, and then narrate their life story in 15 mins to include these specific events. They were asked to tell their life story to explain how they had become the person they were at present. Inevitably, events that were chosen were times of significant change - disruptions and points at which directions changed. I tried the same approach and came up with seven significant disruptions/turning points each causing me to create a new pathway though life and several causing me to change the direction of my life from what I, and my family, had anticipated. Here is the first event that I think changed the course of my life.
When I was 10 I failed my 11+ school exam so, Iike most of my classmates, I went to a Secondary Modern School. It was a good school and it expanded my horizons and opportunities enormously, compared to what I had experienced in a small primary school. I flourished and came top of my class in the first term so I was given a chance to sit the 12+ entrance exam for the Grammar School - one of only six people in the whole town. But I did not want to take the exam, I was doing well academically, I had a lot of friends and I was also playing a lot of sport which I enjoyed. I did not want to abandon what was for me was a good and successful life. My parents new better and sent me to talk to the vicar who I knew very well as I had been in the church choir for several years. He persuaded me that I should at least take the exam. When I went for the exam we had a class taught by the Deputy Head Master and he said a few words of encouragement that gave me the confidence to get involved in his class, which I think helped me pass the day long exam which I think was more about my engagement and how I coped with the material being taught than with what I knew.
When I look back I now realise that I was on a journey and the process I had gone through, the experiences I had, the relationships that helped me think about the situation from a different perspective to the one I held (I had a good life so why should I give it up?) all helped me see that it was worth giving up my existing good life and friendships and starting again - at the bottom of the academic pile at the Grammar School. The process I went through disrupted my beliefs and my life. It caused me to take and create an entirely new pathway which undoubtedly changed my life. That decision and my actions ultimately led me to my wife, university, a career as a geologist and living in Saudi Arabia but not before a few more life changing points.
Since then I have experienced this general pattern of self-disruption many times since then - every time I have thought about and gone after a new job, or made a career change or considered and taken on a new challenge that I know ultimately I will benefit from. I can now see that we have to disrupt our life periodically in order to grow and become the person we want to be.
1) Habermas T and Kober C (2014) Autobiographica Reasoning in Life Narratives Buffers the Effect of Biographical Disruption on the Sense of Self-continuity. Memory Available on line at
I have been working on the next issue of Lifewide Magazine which aims to explore the idea of disruption in life and how individuals cope with and overcome significant disruption, and change, adapt and grow through their experiences. I cannot help but be moved by the personal stories of suffering, loss, fortitude and resilience. Overcoming such adversity in life is testament to the strength and vitality of the human spirit.
The human condition is to try to understand situations in order to make good decisions about how to act or not act. Some situations are easy to comprehend: they are familiar and we have dealt with them or something like them before and we are confident that we know what to do. Others are more difficult to understand and some are impossible to understand until we have engaged in them. The amount of stability will vary from one person's life to another. Instability leading to disruption is not something that can be controlled, and there are many things in life that we have little or no control over. But some aspects of our life we can control and we can actively seek stability by avoiding putting ourselves in situations that might lead to disruption. We might hypothesize that people who behave conservatively, who do not take risks or venture into situations of uncertainty, are less likely to encounter self-created disruption. But also perhaps, they are less likely to be able to deal with it when they encounter it. On the other hand, people who go looking for adventure and change, who are willing to take risks, are more likely to encounter self-created disruption in their life. And because they have experienced it before and dealt with it, they are better able to cope with it should it happen again.
This post is concerned with how we might understand stability, change and disruption in our personal life using complexity theory to help us appreciate what is happening and why it is happening. Complexity theory is 'a set of concepts that try to explain complex phenomenon not explainable by traditional cause and effecttheories. It integrates ideas derived from chaos theory, cognitive psychology,computer science, evolutionary biology, general systems theory, fuzzy logic,information theory, and other related fields to deal with the natural and artificialsystems as they are, and not by simplifying them (breaking them down into theirconstituent parts). It recognizes that complex behavior emerges from a few simplerules, and that all complex systems are networks of many interdependent parts which interact according to those rules(1).
Interpreting life disruptions using the Cynefin framework
The Cynefin sense making framework, developed by David Snowden (2&3) is a simple tool to help us explore and appreciate the nature and level of complexity in any situation. It was originally developed to aid understanding of organisational change, but the conceptual tool can also be used to evaluate personal situations. A life is after all made up of many situations of differing levels of complexity all being enacted in real time. Fortunately, for most of us, most of our life is made up of situations that are fairly stable and we can reliably predict what will happen within such a situation and we can behave accordingly. We are not challenged to invent new behaviours or learn new things in order to act appropriately and effectively.
Disruption occurs when events and circumstances cause the patterns, routines and relationships of everyday life to fundamentally change and we are forced to relinquish our existing life, or significantly adapt it, or invent an entirely new life for ourselves and perhaps reinvent ourselves in the process. In such situations we are we are challenged to invent new behaviours and learn new things in order to act appropriately and effectively.
There are four domains within the Cynefin framework which we might equate with different types of situation in our life. In the simple domain things have a simple cause and effect – you do X and you are very likely to get Y. The environment - contexts and problems - are familiar and understood. You will probably have had many similar experiences that can be directly related to the situation. You know that ‘what you do’ is likely to have a particular result. And if you do the same thing in a similar situation the same result will happen. This is the situational domain we most commonly experience in our everyday life when life is not so troublesome. In this situation we know what to do, we know how to respond because we have been there many times before.
At the other extreme is the chaotic domain where there is no perceivable relationship between cause and effect. If this situation happens in your life, you feel totally out of control and overwhelmed physically, intellectually and emotionally. We encounter this out of our depth, never experienced before, situation in some life changing experiences. In these situations we sometimes do nothing, either because we do not want to exacerbate the situation or we feel so overwhelmed that we can't imagine anything we do will beneficially affect the situation. Alternatively, we may feel that we have to act, believing that it is better to do something than nothing. In fact it is only by doing something and seeing the results of what we do that we know whether what we did was effective. The feedback we get from our actions enables us to see what we need to do next. It's a trial and error suck and see, who can help me process. It won't get us out of chaos but it may well take us one step in the direction we need to go.
Between these two extremes there are two other types of situation depicted in the Cynefin framework.
Complicated situations are not single events but involve a stream of interconnected situations linked to achieving a goal, like solving a difficult problem or bringing about a change in one's life. An example might be the way someone searches for, finds, applies for and eventually, after a long recruitment process, manages to secure a new job which will bring about a significant change in their material circumstances. Searching for, finding and buying a house might also fall into this category of life challenge. In such situations there are cause-and-effect relationships but sometimes you have to invest effort into working out the relationships by gathering information about the situation and analysing it to see the patterns and look for possible explanations of what is happening. Engaging in these sorts of challenges is the way we become more expert in achieving difficult things, including finding a job and being a parent with teenage children who are trying to find a more independent life.
Complex situations are the most difficult to understand. They are not single events but involve multiple streams of variably connected situations linked to achieving a significant change or, in the context of life disruption, a collection of situations that have coalesced and conspired to make a situation very messy and difficult indeed. In their article Jan Gajeel and Keith Chandler (4) describe life scenarios where a severe illness, leads to depression, leads to loss of job, leads to economic problems and perhaps loss of home, leads to relational problems in the family or the loss of job leads to economic problems, leads to health and social problems like clinical depression and family problems; a divorce leads to loss of family identity, leads to a depression, leads to loss of job. These are complex and very messy situations that may tip people into chaos and without help, few people are able to create a new and better life for themselves. In such situations the cause-and-effect relationships are so intermingled that things only make sense in hindsight and sometimes well after events have taken place. The results of action will be unique to the particular situation and cannot be directly repeated. In these situations relationships are not straightforward and things are unpredictable in detail. People involved may not know the cause of the change that they have been involved in or ascribe the source of change to something that is quite removed from the trigger for change. The way you make progress in understanding what is happening is to sense the patterns of change and respond accordingly. This is exactly where the construction of narratives can help especially if the process is aided by a trusted empathethic facilitator.
Learning for a Complex World
I like the idea of learning for a complex world (5) because it embraces learning and development needs for a lifetime of working with complexity rather than merely studying to pass exams.Traditional academic forms of higher education are founded on stability and certainty and seek to control learning and development within prescribed outcomes-based models of education. They work predominantly with abstract book knowledge and theoretical approaches to problem working. In terms of the Cynefin framework higher education tends to position learning in the simple and complicated domains. Consequently, these forms of education do little to prepare people for the really significant disruptions they will face in their life. Formal education can equip us with knowledge, understanding and ways of thinking that can assist us in particular contexts but it is limited in so far as it cannot offer us the experiences of actually dealing with complex situations as they emerge in the social world that is our life outside the classroom.
The real educational challenge for higher education is to help learners prepare themselves for the disruptions, some forced some chosen, that they will undoubtedly encounter in their lives. In helping learners develop the knowledge, capability, creativity, will and resilience to deal effectively with the full range of life situations we are developing their ability to comprehend and appraise situations of different levels of complexity, and act appropriately and effectively. We do this intuitively throughout our lives because that is what life is about. It stands to reason that a university that adopts a lifewide concept for learning and development (6) extends the opportunity to engage students with the situated and contextualised environments in which such complexity emerges. That is why institutions that seek to encourage learners to draw on their whole life experience for their own development are moving in the direction we need to go if we are to create an education system that will really help people prepare for their uncertain and unknowable futures.
Biographic Note: Norman is the founder and leader of Lifewide Education
2 Snowden, D. (2000) Cynefin, A Sense of Time and Place: An Ecological Approach to Sense Making and Learning in Formal and Informal Communities. Conference proceedings of KMAC at the University of Aston, July 2000 and Snowden, D. (2000) Cynefin: A Sense of Time and Space, the Social Ecology of Knowledge Management. In C. Despres and D. Chauvel (eds) Knowledge Horizons: The Present and the Promise of Knowledge Management, Bost on: Butterworth Heinemann.
3 Snowden, D. J. and Boone, M. (2007) A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.Harvard Business Review, November: 69–76.
4 Gajeel, J. and Chandler, K. (2014) Helping People to Fix their Broken-Life. Lifewide Magazine Issue 12 December 2014 available on line at:http://www.lifewidemagazine.co.uk/ to be published Dec 15th 2014
5 Jackson, N. J. (2011) Learning for a Complex World: A Lifewide Cocept of Learning, Education and Personal Development Authorhouse
6 Jackson, N.J. (2014) Lifewide Learning and Education in Universities & Colleges: Concepts and Conceptual Aids in N Jackson and J Willis (eds) Lifewide Learning and Education in Universities and Colleges Chapter 1 available at:http://www.learninglives.co.uk/e-book.html
Like many people as I have got older I have become more interested in my family's history, perhaps it has something to do with wanting to know how it all fits together. A year ago my sister took out a subscription on the Ancestry website and this has greatly facilitated the process. Over the past year I have been gathering together family stories, photos and information through the 'Ancestry' database. I recorded conversations with my mum and dad about their early lives and this provided me with the starting point for a 'book' that looks back through our ancestral and my own history and forwards through my own children's lives. I must say at the outset that we are a very ordinary family - no-one yet has impacted on history beyond our family.
For me writing is the creative expression of my learning. It gives me pleasure to crystallise what I have discovered in words that enable me to create meaning in the narrative of our family history which is actually an amalgamation of the histories of many families through time. And publication, using technologies such as LULU Publish on Demand, Web 2.0 websites, social media and dropbox is the means by which our history is being communicated to members of our large family scattered all over the world.
There are times where I have become obsessed and so deeply engrossed that everything else gets neglected. There are also times (lots of it) where progress is slow or none existent. Yesterday I spent 6 hours searching Ancestry before I found something useful. But there have also been times in recent weeks, when I have been full of joy at discovering new and significant things about members of my family. For example after my fruitless searches yesterday I discovered a Welsh census document that gave me the full structure of my first wife's grandparents family in 1911. And on another occasion, thanks to the existing family trees on the Ancestry website, I pushed the maternal side of my first wife's family back 12 generations to1590.
But the process of writing a family history can also be incredibly painful and sad as feelings are engaged through reliving or imagining the past or empathising with the plight of family members as they fought in the trenches, were destitute, died young, or lost children to some terrible disease, as so often happened in the days before antibiotics.
I have spent a lot of time looking at photos of my own family, digitising them and then using them as prompts for my stories. The process has filled me with a deep sense of the passage of time as the years, populated by events and moments, births, marriages and deaths fly by. While there are many happy moments in fulfilling this task, what came to dominate my feelings was the sense of loss - those moments spent or not spent with my wife, my young children, relatives or friends have been and gone and cannot be repeated. A sense that is heightened by the death of people whom I have known and loved.
Such emotions are as much a part of my ecology for learning about my family history as the people, artefacts and data-bases I am using. I can now see more clearly that my learning ecology involves people I will never know who have poured effort and energy into researching their ancestors and shared their discoveries through the Ancestry website so that people like me might one day benefit from their effort and ingenuity. My ecology for family history also involves distant relatives and family connections, like the cousin of my first wife whom I have not met or spoken to for 40 years but who still remembered me and who was willing to share what she had discovered about her family and the family and ancestors she shared with her cousin.
My ecology for learning about my family is being enabled by the social technologies that are available like 'friends re-united' which enables people to tell me stories of their friendships with my first wife before I knew her. Or the local community websites where stories of the past and photos are shared which give you a sense of what it was like to live in a place a century ago. And it involves 'google street level' that enabled me to drive around the country lanes above Llanfairfechan to relive my visits to my first wife's parent's caravan more than forty years ago. All these things enrich and enliven my experience of enacting my ecology for learning.
A few weeks ago I visited my mother in Australia and when I arrived home I discovered an envelope from an uncle (father's brother) which enclosed a little red wallet, stamped WAR PENSIONS. My uncle knew I was researching family history so he had sent me my grandfather's war certificates which gave me his regimental number and told me he served in the Kings Own Border Regiment in the Great War. I immediately went on the Ancestry website and began searching World War I military records and because of the information I now had, I was able to locate my grandfather from the thousands of other Thomas Jackson's who served in the army. It was quite an exhilarating moment to discover new facts about him. He lied about his age he was no more than 16 when he signed up and was posted to the front in 1914. He was wounded twice but fortunately for his descendents survived nearly 4 years in the trenches. In working through the on-line archive I also discovered more information about the role my other grandfather played in the great war. It was altogether a humbling experience. Inspired by the progress I had made I then started a new chapter on my first wife's family and again I struck lucky in the on-line documents finding a treasure trove of papers relating to the emigration to Canada in 1924 of my wife's father when he was five. These experiences demonstrate the value of the Ancestry portal to the massive on-line historical documentary data bases for researching family history.
I once read that as parents we are custodians of our family's digital records, in other words one of our responsibilities as a parent is to create and curate the records, photos and other artefacts that preserve important and incidental moments in our family history. Photograph albums, maintained over the years, together with school reports and examples of school work we kept as our children grew up, together with a few toys and clothes, all help preserve the memory that was our life and the meanings and significance of the life we co-created as a family.
In the Social Age we have a wealth of technological aids and social media to help us in our curatorial role and tools like 'Lulu.com' which enable us to publish and share what we find. As I have been doing this, I have been conscious of the way an ecology has been created to achieve this purpose. My ecology includes - my parents, siblings and children, and more distant relatives, who have shared their stories about the family, the on-line record systems that I have accessed via 'Ancestry', personal artefacts - like letters, photographs, 35mm slides, video tapes, cards for special occasions and postcards, music, clothes, and sometimes objects that were collected and brought back as mementoes of visits to faraway places - all meant something in the past and can be used to re-create our sense of history.
My father and my grandfather's had no choice but to go and fight in the two world wars but I owe my existence to their survival. This year Remembrance Sunday will hold more significance for me because of what I have learnt about them. None of them wanted to talk about their wartime experiences when they were alive, but I have recorded their stories, as much as I have been told and have gleaned from their military records. Knowing what I now know about my family makes history much more personal and meaningful, and shows me that history is not just about the people in our text books, it is about all of us.
Jackson, N. J. (2013) The Concept of Learning Ecologies in N. J. Jackson and G.B. Cooper (eds) Lifewide Learning, Education and Personal Development e-book Chapter A5 available on-line at http://www.lifewideebook.co.uk/conceptual.html
Remembrance Sunday held more significance for me this year because I have taken the trouble to learn about my grandfathers' involvement in the first world war (both in the army) and my father and father in law's involvement in the second world war (Royal Navy and Merchant Navy respectively). None of them are alive now, and none of them particularly wanted to tell their story, but I have recorded their stories, as much as I know, so that in future my children and their children will learn what I have learnt.
The field of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London representing the 888,246 British and Commonwealth servicemen killed in WWI.
To develop my understandings of how I learn and develop through all parts of my life by recording and reflecting on my own life as it happens.
I have a rough plan but most of what I do emerges from the circumstances of my life