Learning Life History: Revisiting the Past to Build a Better Future

Learning Life History: Revisiting the Past to Build a Better Future

“Now where was I? I wonder which way I should go?”

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

In Learning from Our Lives, Pierre Dominicé suggests that our life history, especially the history of our learning, can be a powerful resource for understanding the future we want to build. Dominicé exhorts educators to encourage adults to explore their educational biography. When adults reflect on their “life journey in learning,” he says, they “become authors of their lives.”

Research shows that individuals and groups benefit when they get together to share their life histories. In a learning life history exercise, adults revisit and exchange formative learning experiences from childhood and beyond. These experiences do not have to be formal in nature – in fact, much of our learning occurs outside the classroom, whether it’s advice from parents or mentors or merely lived experience. The goal is to systematically answer Alice’s question: Now where was I? We can do this by exploring some key questions about our learning:

  • What kind of past learning experiences are meaningful in light of my present life?
  • What learning experiences have contributed to my sense of self as an adult and as a learner?
  • Are their themes and questions about my learning that interest me?
  • Can I think of ways to reorganize and re-interpret my past experiences by reflecting on how they relate to the present and the future?

The result is something of a self-portrait. How did we become the adults we are today? How have our various ways of learning shaped us?

Alice in Wonderland, Box cover of 1882 Selchow & Righter game

Recently, the Books@Work staff engaged in a learning life history activity to give us greater insight into how learning really works. Although we have worked together for quite some time, we discovered that our widely-varied learning experiences directly impact how we approach our work and shed light on our similarities and differences. One person learned that being methodical was the way to be successful; another learned very well when reading or studying at home but was frustrated by the rigidness of her formal education; still another said that she thrived on solving difficult problems. Not only did we have a new appreciation for the diversity of our stories – we also learned something about how to build a better team by maximizing our strengths and addressing our challenges.

The discussion of literature provides another path to explore life experience in the workplace. Narratives explore human themes that remind us of ourselves or of people we have known. When a Books@Work professor invites participants to talk about the connections they see between the text and their own life, they engage in another version of learning life history. The most powerful results come not from reading the printed story alone, but from the understanding that emerges when a group makes connections between the story and their own experiences, using those insights to shape their future interactions.

Each of us is a product of our biography. But often the vivid details of our individual identity remain obscure, sometimes even to ourselves. Once we value the details of our history, we interpret our experiences to help people recognize what they already know and what they want to learn. That’s the key to building a new future.

By encouraging us to explore where we’ve been, learning life history can help point the way to where we should go. Echoing Alice herself (though perhaps in more adult language), James Baldwin wrote, “If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

Image: Alexander Lieberman, Time, 1952, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org

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Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. She recently completed a doctorate in human and organizational learning, with a focus on how people repeatedly reshape their lives throughout the lifespan.  Karen is a member of the Board of That Can Be Me, Inc., the facilitator of Books@Work.