Exploring Transformative Learning as Life

Anneloes Smitsman, PhD
16 min readNov 29, 2021


Image by David Marcu via Unsplash

Have you ever considered what it means to learn as life? Transformative education begins by becoming aware of the transformative dynamics of life itself. Life-centered learning is the foundation for holistic human development. We form part of an amazingly intelligent and evolutionary coherent universe. Let us act accordingly as well! Facilitate and design education that bridges and integrates science, spirituality, artistry, culture, technology, and indigenous wisdom.

When we grow and develop our human societies in ways that are not coherent with the way life evolves, our impacts will cause harm.

Learning for regeneration and thrivability should be the primary focus of education today, which goes further than mere sustainability. To explore the developmental patterns and evolutionary wisdom of life — and not just academically, but also musically, artistically, and physically through movement, dance, and sports. Draw and dance the spirals of life, play the notes of dotted harmonics, score the ball in a circle. Put the qualities of life into action, relate from these qualities and facilitate learning and development as an evolutionary process of life.

The explorations of this article are based on chapter 3 of the r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint, which launched 7 September 2021. This Blueprint includes 7 Transformative Learning Perspectives for Regeneration and Thrivability, the second of which is “Learning as Life” and the focus of this article. To read a brief introduction of the Blueprint, click here. And to read about the first perspective, “Learning as Context,” click here.

Learning as Life

Image design by Anneloes Smitsman for the r3.0 BP9 Educational Transformation Blueprint

Learning as Life reveals how learning and development are intrinsic to life and the universe, and how it unfolds as a transformative and future-creative process that we can apply in education — as well as for our societal development, and to become a wiser species. We’ve explored Learning as Life through the following perspectives, which are further explained below:

  1. Three Evolutionary Principles of Life.
  2. Five Stages of Transformational Change.
  3. Five Syntony Spheres of Evolutionary Learning Ecosystems.

1. Three Evolutionary Principles of Life

You may have heard before how our state of consciousness influences how and what we learn, yet do we understand what consciousness is? There is a growing body of research — also referred to as New Paradigm Sciences — that suggests that consciousness, and not materialism, is primary (Penrose, et al. 2017). We could even say that consciousness is who and what we all are, and not something that we have. The following section is going to be a little complex (and scientific), but if you continue reading, you’ll find out why it matters to understand this…

The New Paradigm Sciences is a growing body of research that includes fields such as — cosmology, quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, complexity sciences, and complex adaptive systems research. What this research reveals is:

The universe exists and evolves as a unified entity through implicate orders of reality that literally in-form the emergence and evolution of life.

This is best understood through the holographic principle in physics, which suggests that the appearance of our physical universe as a three-dimensional space (with the flows of time as the fourth dimension), originates from a two-dimensional holographic surface or boundary that is mathematically encoded at the smallest level of physical reality (Smitsman and Currivan, 2021). This mathematical encoding consists of digitized information that acts as a numerical alphabet that fractally in-forms how life comes into being and evolves.

In simpler words, it appears that our universe is not composed of separate parts and particles, held together through mechanical processes and random events (as was the classic scientific worldview). Introducing children to the understanding that we’re all learning and growing up in an intelligent, whole, and unified universe is the first step towards nurturing their trust in life.

The informational architecture of the universe is digitized (numerical), which generates fractal patterns that can be observed in the ways trees grow, cyclones form, weather patterns develop, our bodies grow and evolve, and also in the ways our body-mind complex learns and develops. What this reveals is that there are deeper implicate orders of information that are whole and unified, and which in-form how (our) life manifests, unfolds, and evolves. When children discover these deeper patterns in nature and their own inner being, it can inspire a sense of awe and incredible connectedness with life.

The informational patterns of life also exist in the classroom and in the playgrounds where children learn — and yet are students ever made aware of this? And in our dreams, ideas, and thoughts, and the ways we communicate with each other. We have summarized here below this new paradigm perspective of evolution and evolutionary development in the form of three evolutionary principles (Smitsman, 2021):

  1. The universe exists and evolves as a single unified entity, an undividable wholeness. Cosmologically this means that both energy-matter and space-time are complementary informational expressions of that underlying wholeness — This evolutionary principle helps us understand how life evolves as a unified reality at all scales and levels of existence.
  2. The universe evolves coherently through increasing embodied complexity, as space expands and through the flows of time, precisely tuned to make life possible — This evolutionary principle helps us understand how complexity and diversity become generative, to co-create coherent systems that remain rooted in the underlying unity and wholeness of our universe..
  3. The universe learns and develops its evolutionary capacities by actualizing its cosmological potentials through systemic autonomy and autopoiesis — i.e. self-creation, self-regulation, and adaptation — This evolutionary principle helps us understand the systemic conditions for learning and development as well as how we grow, expand and evolve as a self-actualizing process of consciousness.

To summarize, living systems are informational systems in the literal sense of being formative; creating order from the diversification that is generated by the growth process of life. Economic and educational systems are also informational systems, yet based on which growth patterns? Growth through competitive dynamics that divide and polarize our natural diversity?

Systems that are not coherent with life, cannot create futures for life. It is that simple.

Exploring the qualities of Life as an Evolutionary Process

Image design by Anneloes Smitsman

Learning for regeneration and thrivability begins by showing children how we form part of a large family of life that includes countless other species and nature herself. Life is all about learning; each new day brings another opportunity to learn how to care and love more fully. We offer the guidelines below for exploring essential qualities of life, based on the 3 evolutionary principles mentioned earlier:

  1. Life is Consciousness — Life is the dynamic expression of consciousness, which is the source of our being and who we all are.
  2. Life is Unity — Life is unified at all levels and scales of existence, we are the diverse expressions of the unified consciousness of life.
  3. Life is Community — Life forms communities of being and interbeing, including all the non-human ecologies of life and the animals, plants, insects, trees, rivers, oceans, planets, suns, stars, galaxies, and all other expressions of our universe.
  4. Life is Wholeness — Life is whole and undividable and so are you. You cannot be separated from life or consciousness no matter what you experience or do. When parts of your body are sick, disabled, dying or missing, and when you feel loss, division, or separation, know that you remain whole and undividable.
  5. Life is Relationship — Life is always in relationship with us and itself as a whole. Life communicates, senses, informs, responds, and listens. Life is an ongoing and evolving relationship. Partnering life is the essence of learning and acting for regeneration and thrivability.
  6. Life is Change — Life is a continually unfolding journey of change, letting go, and becoming through which we and our universe regenerate, renew, evolve, and actualize the potentials of consciousness that we are. There are no end goals or final destinations on the journey of life.
  7. Life is Choice — Life gives us the power and possibility of choice. Life is not a deterministic or computational program, life enables choices through which old ways die and new futures are made and born. We can choose to co-create a world in which all of us can thrive together.
  8. Life is Creativity — Life is a future creative and possibility-increasing process that creates the conditions for us to thrive and evolve. Your creativity is the power of life within you, through which you can learn, grow, and evolve by exploring, creating, transforming, dissolving, renewing, rebirthing, and generating life.
  9. Life is Learning — Life is a continual journey of learning, discovery, and development. All expressions of life learn, from the tiniest cells and microbes to the largest galaxies, we are always learning and evolving. Your capacity to learn is intrinsic to life.
  10. Life is Healing — Life heals the deepest wounds, those of the flesh as well as those of the heart and mind. Your capacity to heal is intrinsic to life. We heal with the structures and potentials of wholeness and unity. In healing we learn how to trust, let go, surrender, open, renew, and evolve ourselves.
  11. Life is Love — Life has an enormous caring capacity and is always sourced in unity while manifesting wholeness in diversity. In other words, life is a great force of love, a force of deepest cosmic coherence. You too can learn how to become a force of love.
  12. Life is Wisdom — Life generates wisdom by converging knowledge into knowing and information into experience, which combined matures as wisdom. You too have this capacity to become a force of wisdom, by learning the ways of life. Call upon the wisdom of life for guiding your life and the choices you make.
  13. Life is YOU — Continue your exploration, enjoy!

2. Five Stages of Transformational Change

Exploring transformational change as a process of future becoming can empower us to work with the dynamics of evolutionary change, and become more conscious of our evolutionary capacities and potentials.

The five stages that are explored in the r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint are inspired by the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly (read the Blueprint for a more detailed exploration). The caterpillar transformation provides a powerful metaphor for our societal transformation, especially during this phase of increasing crises and systemic collapse (Sahtouris, 2000). (Of course, as with all metaphors we need to be careful not to use all of it literally, and rather work with it to stimulate new ways of thinking and being).

As a narrative, we can make the comparison of how the always hungry overeating caterpillar mirrors our always hungry overconsuming economic systems. Both lead to collapse of the old systems when the physical carrying capacity is exceeded. Only the caterpillar is a wiser creature by spinning its cocoon when it is ready to surrender to its transformation. In contrast, our human world has been cocooned since the onstart of the coronavirus pandemic, and yet we fight this restrictive phase, at the expense of our planetary threshold boundaries and carrying capacities.

The five stages are visually explained in the figure below, based on the research of the five archetypal stages of actualization by Anneloes Smitsman (Smitsman, 2019; Smitsman and Houston, 2021).

Source: 5 stages of Transformational Change by Anneloes Smitsman

The imaginal discs of the butterfly are like stem cells, which later become the imaginal cells that form the organs and body of the butterfly. The imaginal discs are kept in a state of dormancy by the juvenile hormone of the caterpillar. When the caterpillar grows older and increases in weight, the juvenile hormone decreases and a molting hormone called ‘ecdysone’ is released. The ecdysone is what activates the imaginal discs. Once the juvenile hormone drops below a critical threshold, the next wave of ecdysone hormone catalyzes the change of the caterpillar skin to transform into a chrysalis. When the chrysalis has formed, the caterpillar’s body releases specific enzymes that turn its body into a nutrient soup, which the imaginal cells then use to start forming and growing the butterfly body.

The cocoon of the caterpillar serves as a womb (for the development of the new butterfly), as well as a hospice (for the dying body of the caterpillar). This perspective emphasizes how we need to develop both capacities for working with the unique and often challenging transition dynamics of our current tipping point time. During transitions between major eras, paradigms, and worldviews, also called a Renaissance period, there is much collapse, death, and breakdown.

Many of the new futures people are envisioning (and aspiring to) will have to be born within cycles of death, decay, collapse, and breakdown. The ways that birth and death are now taking place simultaneously — and across our world — are unprecedented. The pattern of metamorphosis offers a powerful narrative and understanding for working with the transformation dynamics of this transition period. The caterpillar pattern of transformation reveals many lessons for how to create the appropriate conditions for actualizing our future potentials within systems and cultures that are no longer sustainable (or desirable).

Tipping Point Dynamics

The 5 stages of transformational change can also be linked with a growing body of research on social tipping points, and particularly the irreversibility of tipping points. Metamorphic transformation can be seen as an irreversible tipping point — i.e. once the caterpillar body starts to dissolve inside the cocoon to become a butterfly, it can no longer return to its earlier state (which is true for many developmental processes).

The following questions are worth exploring for educational transformation and transformative education:

  1. Can educational transformation become a generative tipping point for creating an irreversible change process in people’s values, behaviours, and actions towards regeneration and thrivability?
  2. How can education prevent people from reverting back to earlier states, stances, and behaviours that are no longer sustainable or not regenerative?
  3. Can education become a tipping point for the required economic and political transformations towards regeneration and thrivability?

Research on social tipping points suggests that one of the key differences between ecosystemic tipping points and social tipping points relates to the underlying mechanisms of feedback-driven non-linear change (Milkoreit et al., 2018, p.10). It is often assumed that social tipping points form as thresholds of critical mass, in such a case the non-linear feedback dynamics are attributed to a committed minority reaching a critical group size. Centola (2018) attributes 25% to the critical mass for effecting tipping point change. Once this tipping point is reached, it is said that the actions of this minority group can trigger behavior change in acceptance of a minority view (Centola, 2018). This theory is also applied to explain the adoption curve of new technologies — i.e. once a critical mass is reached the uptake by the masses accelerates significantly.

However, the butterfly pattern, as explored above, reveals a different pattern and dynamics for non-linear feedback that drives tipping point change.

In metamorphic transformation, it is NOT the critical mass of the present state, or critical group size, that generates the new feedback-loops that drive change, but rather the degree of coherence of new future states in relation to collapsing or decreasing coherencies of the old states of a system.

Once future potentials become embedded in present states and are able to link up and coordinate the activities and potentials of the existing system, a tipping point is reached that transitions the system into a new state and developmental direction. This is similar to what happens when the imaginal butterfly discs link up to form the imaginal cells and organs of the butterfly.

3. Five Syntony Spheres of Evolutionary Learning Ecosystems

Learning for regeneration and thrivability requires that the institutions and systems that provide such education do themselves mimic the collaborative learning capacities and patterns of natural ecosystems. People learn as much (if not more) from the dynamics of the environments in which learning takes place, as from the learning content or tasks.

Educational transformation starts by understanding how schools and other learning organizations can become learning ecosystems. When the emphasis is on becoming a learning ecosystem, and not just an isolated institution offering education, we start to design education from the connective patterns of nature.

Unfortunately, many schools and educational institutions have been forced to be highly competitive and by making themselves stand apart from others, which is precisely what ecosystems do not do. We offer here a couple of questions for stimulating ecosystemic perspectives of learning and development:

  • What can we learn from a forest about how to collaborate and regenerate?
  • Why do you think that we as a species are destroying our own habitats and that of other species? What are we not (yet) learning about this or ourselves?
  • If we, like our planet and universe, are also a living system, then how can we (better) develop our ecosystemic capacities through education and from an early age?
  • How does education need to change in order to facilitate the development of our ecosystemic learning capacities for regeneration and thrivability?

Another topic worth exploring with students is what we can learn from ecosystems about adaptation and resilience. And whether adaptation is always a good thing, or if there are ways in which we are adapting to conditions that are not healthy? You can provide examples of how people have been adapting to violence, rather than peace, and accordingly have normalized violent behaviour. The same can be said for pollution and environmental degradation.

Adaptability is essential, yet it is important to discern the directions to which we are adapting. We offer once again some questions for transformative learning inquiries — in this case, to stimulate a deeper comprehension of what we mean by concepts such as adaptability and resilience:

  • How are we forcing nature to adapt to our human impacts?
  • How are our planet’s climate systems, forests, oceans, and tectonic plates adapting to the impacts we have created and continue to create?
  • Could the COVID-19 pandemic be nature’s response to a larger change process that we as humans have catalyzed?
  • How is nature learning to live with humans?

By exploring how the dots connect and by revealing the many complex interdependencies and interconnections of our interwoven worlds, we can support people to develop an ecosystemic understanding of the nature of reality and our roles and responsibilities as humans. To ground these explorations, help people to apply their discoveries to their personal life contexts and those of their communities or bioregions:

  • How are you, your family, and the communities you form part of, adjusting and adapting to the ecosystemic changes that we as humans have catalyzed, including climate change and biodiversity loss?
  • Are you learning from the harm we are causing? And how about other people in your life?
  • Do you believe we are becoming wiser and more mature as a species? If the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, then why and how so?
  • Do you believe that it is part of human nature to be destructive? And again, if ‘yes’ or ‘no’, to explore why and how so.

The Five Syntony Spheres of Wellbeing and Transformative Learning

Working group member Alexander Laszlo, developed a valuable integral framework titled “The Syntony Spheres” for describing the evolutionary development of becoming an evolutionary learning ecosystem. According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (1979), syntony can be defined as in radio, resonance, while to syntonize is to tune or harmonize with each other. As such, syntony can be understood as a creative aligning and tuning with the evolutionary processes of which we are part. Syntony involves listening to the rhythms of change and learning how to play our own melody in harmony with the larger whole. It is about finding and creating meaning and evolutionary opportunity, both individually and collectively (Laszlo, 2015).

Developing a keen syntony sense is not some mysterious art that only a shaman or high priestess can access. It’s like a muscle of your consciousness, but since most of us don’t flex it very often it tends to atrophy. Alexander developed the 5 Syntony Spheres to help people develop and hone their syntony sense (Laszlo, 2020).

The First Syntony Sphere

  • Focus: The intra-personal dimension of sustainability; thrivability within yourself.
  • Ask: What brings meaning to my life? To what do I feel called to contribute? What are my talents and how can I use them to live into my highest calling?

The Second Syntony Sphere

  • Focus: The inter-personal dimension of sustainability; thrivability with your communities and social systems.
  • Ask: What common cares bring us together? What defines our shared sense of humanity and makes for our shared vision? What do we want to create?

The Third Syntony Sphere

  • Focus: The trans-species dimension of sustainability; thrivability with the more than human world.
  • Ask: What gifts do I receive from nature that I have not acknowledged? What relationships and connections need to be restored? What would a thriving relationship with nature look like?

The Fourth Syntony Sphere

  • Focus: The trans-generational dimension of sustainability; thrivability with past and future generations of all beings.
  • Ask: What would my ancestors think of my work and life? What would our children’s children think of my choices? What does it mean to be a Future Ancestor now?

The Fifth Syntony Sphere

  • Focus: The pan-cosmic dimensions of sustainability; thrivability with the deep dimension of the cosmos.
  • Ask: What messages come to me in flashes of insight and sudden inspiration when I feel truly aligned and connected with something greater than myself? What dreams give me a feeling of déjà vu and what is it about them that makes them seem so familiar?

A deeper understanding of syntony shows it to be a powerful organizing force in societal evolution (Laszlo, 2001). Syntony involves diachronic harmony and evolutionary consonance at various levels of an interconnected complex dynamic system, providing coherence and consistency to change efforts.

To summarize, learning as life helps us explore how, through an engaged syntony-based process, it becomes possible to consciously evolve our human development to become more consonant, coherent, and connected with the underlying warp and weft of cosmic emergence and evolutionary consciousness.

Source: Extracts from chapter 3 of the r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint.

Other articles in this series


Centola, D. (2018). Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention. Science, 360 (6393), 1116–1119. DOI: 10.1126/science.aas8827

Laszlo, A. (2020). Practices that Ensoul the Cosmos: Expressions of Connectedness. Medium. https://medium.com/@Alex8er/practices-that-ensoul-the-cosmos-f36f4217f00b

Laszlo, A. (2015). Living Systems, Seeing Systems, Being Systems: Learning to be the systems we wish to see in the world [special issue on Systemic Change]. Spanda Journal (6:1), 165–173.

Laszlo, A. (2001). The epistemological foundations of Evolutionary Systems Design. In Systems Research and Behavioural Science (18), 307–321.

Laszlo, E., ed. (2016). What Is Reality? The New Map of Cosmos and Consciousness. New York, NY: SelectBooks, Inc.

Milkoreit, M. et al. (2018). Defining tipping points for social-ecological systems scholarship — an interdisciplinary literature review. Environmental Research Letters, 13 (3). https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaaa75

Penrose, R., et al. (Eds.). (2017). Consciousness and the Universe: Quantum Physics, Evolution, Brain & Mind. Cosmology Science Publishers.

Sahtouris, E. (2000). EARTHDANCE: Living Systems in Evolution. Kindle version.

Smitsman, A. (2021). Economy of Life -The architecture of wholeness for an economy that is life sustaining and regenerative In Eds. Klomp, K & Shinta Oosterwaal, S. THRIVE — Fundamentals for a New Economy. Business Contact Publishers: the Netherlands.

Smitsman A. (2019). Into the Heart of Systems Change. Ph.D. Dissertation. Maastricht University, the Netherlands. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.28450.25280

Smitsman, A. & Houston, J. (2021). The Quest of Rose: The Cosmic Keys of Our Future Becoming. Book 1 of The Future Humans Trilogy. Independently published via Oxygen Publishing.

Smitsman, A., Baue, B., and Thurm, R. (2021). Blueprint 9. Educational Transformation –7 Transformative Learning Perspectives for Regeneration and Thrivability. r3.0.



Anneloes Smitsman, PhD

Futurist, systems scientist, award-winning author, coach, CEO & founder EARTHwise Centre