Our “Liminal State” of Opportunity | Will Richardson | 3 Min Read

As a former English teacher, I love words, especially those interesting sounding ones that live in the shadows of our everyday usage. 

“Liminal” is one of those words that I’ve seen popping up more and more lately, it’s easy to see why. The second definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary reads: “of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition: in-between, transitional.”

Yeah. That. 

We’re no doubt in a “liminal state” right now when it comes to so many aspects of our lives and of our stories. We’re moving from one world to some other, yet unknown, when it comes to the environment, politics, the way we do business, and, yes, education. One of the metaphors we use in our work at the BIG Questions Institute comes from the Indian activist Arundhati Roy, who writes that the pandemic “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” We’re in the portal right now.

Last week in the Harvard Business Review, Laura Empson and Jennifer Howard-Grenville took a deep dive into the anthropological aspects of liminal and found three core characteristics. I want to read these with an education lens.

First,

it involves a forced and prolonged separation from normal ways of being and doing — a physically and emotionally challenging dislocation from familiar roles and structures.

Educators can certainly check that box, and I’ve already argued that we may not want to go back to those “normal ways” in schools any time soon if ever. 

Second,

although a liminal experience involves a prolonged break from the familiar, it does not fully replace it. It is both disturbingly different and confusingly similar.

How hard did we try to recreate the familiar, time-worn practices and rhythms of school in the online delivery space? I think many would characterize “remote learning” as different and similar all at once.

And finally,

“when the liminal experience comes to an end, those who have survived return transformed. When we finally emerge from our time of trial, we will have been changed in lasting ways we may not yet fully understand.”

And this is where it gets interesting, at least for me. 

I’m wondering how many of us in education are beginning to reflect on how we have been transformed by this moment, not necessarily as institutions (yet), but as individuals. And I’m not just talking here about the exhaustion or the pseudo (if not real) PTSD that many teachers and students are experiencing in terms of the stress. More, I’m talking about the many challenges to the way we currently do school that have surfaced and are continuing to be uncovered.

So, how should this last year have changed us in lasting ways? That’s a much different question from how will it change us. But let me take a stab at the first one. 

This liminal moment should make us question deeply whether or not we are preparing students for a world of growing uncertainty and even faster change. 

It should make us rethink our fundamental roles as the adults in schools, to move away from expert content delivery professionals to expert creators and nurturers of the conditions that make learning powerful in our real lives. 

It should propel us to write new narratives for the experience that students and teachers have in school, ones that are steeped in real-world problem solving and global collaboration.

And it should move us to center mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being above everything else we do in schools. If we’ve learned anything, we’ve learned that learning can’t happen if we’re not healthy in all those areas.

I mean, imagine the transformation if we did just that last one. Imagine what we might choose to leave behind as we came out the other side of the portal, the assessments, the chase for grades, the burden of AP classes and voluminous homework, the emphasis on college, and more. So much would change. 

In the HBR article, the authors write

“The big question is: How can we make the most of those changes, both for ourselves and our organizations?”

Arundhati Roy as a suggestion:

“We can choose to walk through [the portal], dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

If we did that, if we were willing to truly “imagine another world” of education worth fighting for, we’d certainly be taking advantage of this “liminal moment” that we’re in.

Will Richardson

A former public school educator of 22 years, Will Richardson has spent the past 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently, Will is a co-founder of The Big Questions Institute which was created to help educators use “fearless inquiry” to make sense of this complex moment and an uncertain future.In 2017, Will was named one of 100 global “Changemakers in Education” by the Finnish site HundrED, and was named one of the Top 5 “Edupreneurs to Follow” by Forbes. He has given keynote speeches, lead breakout sessions, and provided coaching services in over 30 countries on 6 continents. He has also authored six books, and given TEDx Talks in New York, Melbourne, and Vancouver.

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