Center for Spiritual Inquiry and Integral Education

R. Michael Fisher
Coffee Room Concept: Transformative Education
by R. Michael Fisher - Thursday, December 15, 2011, 06:40 AM

What if there was a 'place' located in every building, in every faculty, and even spaces on campus grounds for "convivial community" (Ivan Illich's term). The notion would be that in such places there was no need to isolate oneself, to work more, to dope-up on caffeine and sugar to cope, but the atmosphere and intention of such places was designed for learning together without a rush. No need to rush the conversation, no need to get a rush chemically, and no need to "do" anything but "be." That is, to be together, whether talking or not talking with each other. The space would be designed for conviviality beyond the globalizing market place and economic ideology of neo-liberalism that says, "If you are not busy, you are wasting time." And, not to mention, such a 'place' as the coffee room would be out of bounds from any corporate security and surveillance. It actually would be a place based on trust, that adults have a role in their own well-being, if they are given the properly designed spaces to dwell-in together. I am thinking of how they would be spaces like multifaith (inter-spiritual) sites that are being set-up all over the world, in airports, in government buildings, and so on, where a sacred place is provided for people's right to hold religious ceremonies, pray, or merely chill out with a spiritual intention.

Not that there is an easy way to come up with the design of such a coffee room, or sacred place, in our institutions, there is a way to do it. It is being done. At least, that is the idea of Elizabeth Yeoman (2008), an academic and educator, who wrote of the role of the Coffee Room concept for transformative learning. The transformative learning is learning that is beyond coping, beyond meeting the economic criteria and logic of the global marketplace, and the insanity of safety and security (fear-based) systems. I'd like to share some excerpts from her article to inspire us at CSIIE and to ask ourselve how we can better create such learning spaces.

Yeoman wrote, "Of all disciplines, education is perhaps the one in which human interactions are most fundamental. In education, research and teaching are inseparable since each constantly informs the other. For transformative education, as well as any other domain in the disipline, this is true. However, transformative education in particular does not lend itself to the goal setting and measurement of results so crucial to the logic of global marketplace. Rather, although its practice might draw on measurable scientific research, its own research and its pedagogy are, by definition, open-ended and creative. This may be a drawback in the current university climate, which so emphasizes measurable productivity; yet it should be a strength if we see education as an ecozoic process and its ultimate goal as transformative."  O'Sullivan in Transformative Learning, writes of "ecozoic education" as challenging our 'western hierarchical view of the human above other species and above the natural world itself' and instead focuses on the ieda of 'an interacting and genetically related community of beings bonded together on the inseparable relationship in space and time' (pp. 178-9)

"Illich [critic from the 1970s] could be considered a founder or a least a groundbreaker of transformative education. He defined conviviality as 'autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with the environment.'" This is an intercourse of our being, and learning, our community of commonality and differences.

"Although Illich was stringently critical of societal institutions such as hospitals, schools, and universities, he did not believe in their total abolition. Rather, he critiqued the process of institutionalization and its extreme forms. He argued that this process kills convivial relationships and creativity. Illich believed that places of learning, whether institutions or informal networks, should enable people to redefine their questions, rather than focusing on immutable answers. He also emphasized the importance of local groups in sustaining learning." (p. 182).

Naomi Klein in her 2001 book No Logo, like Illich, calls for a critique of commodification of education and the marketing of learning, what Klein called "branding" of learning. "Klein, like Illich, calls for a reordering of society based on human needs rather than overconsumption and excessive social control." (p. 182)

Having spent 3 years volunteering at Gaia House Interfaith Center (Carbondale, IL), from which CSIIE evolved as a 'center within the center'--there is no doubt that we all have a good handle on the basic notions of what this convivial learning space and community, a Coffee Room feel, could be. Yet, we are always looking to improve it and attract more people to it. If you have further ideas about this, I'd like to get a conversation going around it.


Yeoman, E. (2008). Coffee room talk on efficiency, conviviality, and transformative learning. In M. Gardner, and U. A. Kelly (Eds.), Narrating transformative learning in education (pp. 173-84). NY: Palgrave/Macmillan.