Environments and processes that help people learn something that transcends their comfort zone and makes sense to them and in their world.
tempo di lettura 15′
Back in 1960, American essayist Paul Goodman published ‘Growing Up Absurd’, a passionate critique of the American education system that immediately became bible of the New Left counterculture. In it, he wrote that all young people by nature are eager to learn — they want to search for truth and imagination — but are instead forced by an institutional public education system to accept a code of social engineering and learn meaningless activities, leading to mass alienation. In one section, he highlighted the short- comings of modern schooling by contrasting and analyzing the behavioral patterns of artists.
“All men are creative but few are artists. Art-making requires a peculiar psychotic disposition. Let me formulate the ar- tistic disposition as follows: it is reacting with one’s ideal to the flaw in oneself and in the world, and somehow making that reaction formation solid enough in the medium so that it indeed becomes an improved bit of real world for others. This is an unusual combination of psychological machinery and talents, and those who, having it, go on to appoint them- selves to such a thankless vocation, are rarer still.”
Bastian Küntzel in many ways fits the above description. Raised in a rather academic German milieu, he found early in his childhood that his mind just wasn’t fit to excel in institutionalized schooling. His teachers found him pleasant and participatory in class, but he never did well in tests. He was suggested to go to vocational school, which he did and enjoyed. Yet, he knew somehow that there was something in institutionalized education that worked for some, but not for most. He set about trying to understand what it was and then to make his vocation that of nurturing and actualizing the creative potential of people.
His purpose now is to create environments and processes that help people learn something that transcends their comfort zone and makes sense to them and in their world.
Let’s begin our talk by having you describe your early life influences.
I was born and raised in Lüneburg, a relatively small city in the north of Germany, 60 km south of Hamburg. However, I think the most important influence was my involvement in an international youth exchange organization from the age of 15. It was spending weeks with people from all over the world, doing fun things together. Just simply being with people from all over the globe gave me an intense feeling of “Ah, this is where I belong.” It still has a strong impact on me today.
This sounds like you were destined to be a global citizen.
I get frustrated sometimes when people say, “Ah, I’m a global citizen” or a “citizen of the world” because it negates some of the privileges that you may have been born into. I’m certainly a product of Lüneburg, West Germany, and grew up as a white heterosexual male in a loving and supportive family with all the advantages that come with that. Many other people didn’t and don’t have that. I have a lot of privilege based on where, when and how I was born and I think that comes with a responsibility of using that privilege. I try to do that, but definitely often fail.
This brings up the question of family background. Did you grow up in an environment that made you con- scious of those privileges?
Well, I come from a very academic background. Basically, my entire family consists of teachers, writers, artists, authors, re- searchers, etc. My grandfather and great uncle were professors as was their father, my mother is a teacher and an author, as is my uncle. Academic achievement was considered the norm. But after elementary school I did not go to the Gymna- sium. I went to a school preparing students for professions, jobs in the office. And that wasn’t probably easy for some of my family to accept, even though they never made me feel that.
However, after finishing the professional school, I went to the Gymnasium. There the standards were a bit tougher. I was never very good in formal educational structures be- cause I don’t react too well to being told what to do with- out having my interests or needs taken into account. I was never a rebel, but I also didn’t do very well there. I managed to get the Abitur, but not with very good grades.
But grades are something that are needed to get to the next thing. They don’t have a value in and of themselves. A grade opens doors. If you manage to get to the door and it opens, that’s fine.
The best lesson I got from the formal educational system is that it taught me how to navigate a system that wasn’t designed for me. That was an incredibly valuable lesson because, as an adult, you have to navigate through many systems that weren’t designed for you. I try to avoid those as best as I can, but still, sometimes it’s good to know how to wiggle through and know what ‘good enough’ looks like.
If you learn in school how to make friends and develop support systems with people who are better at something, help them with something you are better at, or how to understand which teacher needs what from you, then that’s a pretty good life lesson.
Did you study immediately after doing your Abitur?
Not exactly. The law back then required me to do one year either of military service or community service. I didn’t want to go into the army, so I was a bus driver for a kindergarten for children with diverse access needs. After my year of service, I went to live in San Jose, Costa Rica, for four months to study Spanish and I took a course in intercultural communications at the university there. Then I returned to Germany to study intercultural commu- nications and adult education in Chemnitz.
When you finished your studies, did you have a plan for what you wanted to do?
Well, I knew that I wanted to try be independent right away. During my last couple of years at university, I was doing oc- casional freelance work in the European youth work field. Upon graduation, my now-wife and I chose to live in Wro- claw because she is Polish and owned a flat there. This gave me a good starting point with little fixed costs and al- lowed me to start as an independent trainer and facilitator.
Starting without a job is something a lot of young people might find stressful. Were you afraid?
I probably couldn’t have done what I do today if I didn’t have the infrastructure to support me. I might have had the intellect, and talent but, as they say, talent is universal, access to oppor- tunities isn’t. I’m very much aware of the opportunities I’ve had.
It’s possible to go into the unknown, the darkness, the chaos, if you have a balance between security and challenge. If you don’t have the psychological and physical security to know that it’s going to be alright, then the challenge can really put you into the panic zone and immobilize you. Without my partner, my family, my friends in the international youth field who hired me, without all of those people I would not have made it. I still consider it a gift that I can still live on working this way.
I noticed you used the broader term “trainer and facilitator”, not the label “intercultural”. You didn’t see yourself as an interculturalist?
In the beginning, when I worked in the international youth work field, interculturalism was always there but the educational ac- tivities were not about that. It was about citizenship, access to social rights, justice. It wasn’t necessarily about culture as such. It was an intercultural context, within which topics such as human rights would be explored. While I had a formal back- ground in intercultural studies, it only became a major topic when I started to work for corporations. There, culture and in- terculturalism became not only the process but also the subject.
Let’s turn to your passions. About six months ago, you gave a lively webinar for SIETAR Europa on storytelling. What is it that intrigues you so much about storytelling?
Storytelling, or story as a phenomenon, is a fascinating thing. I’d venture to say that as soon as humans started to commu- nicate, they told stories. You can visit cave-paintings that are thousands and thousands of years old and you’ll see stories that are being told visually. Some of the earliest human writings also tell stories. That’s because, as humans, we experience the world around us not as impulses of light and sound that we take in through our senses, but rather as a reality that has a meaning we can make sense of. The world around us makes no sense by itself. We make sense of it by embed- ding what we experience into a story.
This is why the act of storytelling in a training is so important. Every good trainer essentially does it, it’s nothing new. We tell anecdote after anecdote to convey our points, to connect the theory with the model experience. It’s an extremely use- ful tool to convey insight because you detach the inside from its pure theoretical form and connect it to an emotional arch that is a lot easier to relate to. This allows for empathy with another character who has insight on your behalf; you can have the same insight. It works with mirror neurons.
Which makes a course more interesting…
Yes, more interesting, more entertaining, more lively, more memorable. We remember stories better than just a bit of knowledge. However, I think we can utilize this human capac- ity for experiencing life as a story to a much larger degree.
There’s this theory about narrative identity. Essentially, that identity is a story we tell about ourselves as we live life and we categorize different events so that they fit in a larger story arch. This idea that humans experience life as a story resonates very much with me.
So if we take this idea as a starting point, we can look at differ-ent theories for story structures. Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero’s Journey, in which he developed a basic story architecture of 17 steps, is a very well-known approach to understanding stories. A little bit later, Dan Harmon, a Hol- lywood screenwriter and director, took the 17 steps and re- duced them to eight, which are a lot easier to remember for me: you, need, go, search, find, take, return, change.
My first reaction to learning about Harmon’s theory was, “Wow, this is so cool!” I can’t watch movies or read novels anymore with- out constantly thinking about the meta-level of where we are in the story circle and how each protagonist’s journey is presented.
What I’ve done over the last couple of years is take these 8 steps and use them as a design or guiding principle for the programme design of a conference or a training. It worked really well for me, so I also then shared it with colleagues and well, now it’s become a book called The Learner’s Jour- ney (see page 23 for a review).
The premise is the following: we can think of a learning experi- ence as a story and the learners as the protagonists who go on a transformational journey. The programme design then becomes more intentional, more purposeful if we think, “Okay, in the protagonist phase, how will I make sure the learners know it’s about them, that they’re about to go on a journey, that they can trust me to be their companion on their journey?”
In the need phase, we can imagine “How can I make sure that everyone in this room feels a sense of urgency and necessity to go on this journey with me?” By being very intentional, it helps clarify what we need to achieve in each moment of the learning process. I think good teachers and trainers intuitively run their courses according to these steps. For the rest of us, it’s may- be good to have a framework we can use to help guide us.
That’s strongly related to the neuropsychology of learning. I take it you integrate it into your trainings.
I do integrate the little I know about how the brain works into almost all trainings that I run. In the design phase I try to make sure there is a balance in novel and familiar, that I connect to already established neural pathways. The main aspect I try to highlight is we have a certain wiring, a way our neurons are trained to interact with each other that’s been saved over the course of our socialization. In the moment something is hap- pening, there’s not much we can do about the autonomous reactive action potentials that are being transmitted.
Unless you consciously try to override your tendencies…
You can override it, but chances are your prefrontal cortex is a lot slower than your amygdala. What’s important is to un- derstand the relationship between the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system and particularly the amygdala, and how your body is connected to all these areas through the autono- mous nervous system. When you feel under pressure, you can counteract that state by using your body— that is, send- ing signals from your body through the autonomous nervous system to signal back to the prefrontal cortex that you’re fine.
That’s why breathing deep, taking a walk in nature, meditation are good for you. They’re not puffy-fluffy activities to feel spiritual, even though they’re often embedded in spiritual rituals, but rath- er have the biological purpose of calming the body and through that informing your limbic system that you’re not in danger, which then frees resources for the prefrontal cortex. It’s fascinating!
Once we understand all those systems, we’re empowered to make conscious choices about them. We can’t really shy away anymore from making those choices. And if you’re not acting upon it, then that becomes a choice in itself.
When you’re having an amygdala hijack, you may say, “I’m just behaving normally right now. My aggression is fine and justified”. No, your prefrontal cortex is out of the picture now. You’re not thinking, you’re just reacting on a threat-response level. Knowing that requires you to act on that: “I know what’s happening right now. I need to take a walk to calm down so that my prefrontal cortex can come back on line.”
If you can make the point about how we may think that we’re in charge, but in reality we’re not, or how we may think that perceiving the world in a certain way is objective, but it’s not…All this can ideally lead to the perception, “All right, I’m reacting to something right now but I shouldn’t assume that what I’m reacting to is real for others as well.”
That’s really what I try to point out in intercultural sessions, namely, we have to be incredibly humble about our conclu- sions. Become more aware that what we’ve experienced is part of experienceable reality and that objective reality is a myth. The idea that you can have an experience in objective reality is always a subjective interpretation of the visual and auditory stimuli. Reality is interpreted reality.
What you’re saying, essentially, is the more we know, the more we realize how little we know.
Yes, the more we know about how a system works, the less we probably think we are ever objectively ‘right’ about our ob- servation of that system. This is why we need humility in the intercultural context. And what we particularly need is humility among the powerful. And particularly those who think they’re just as powerful as everyone else but actually are more powerful, but who don’t want to be powerful because it means they carry a higher responsibility for changing the system that they benefit from. That’s a very uncomfortable thing to do. We tend to not address this very much in the intercultural field, but power and power-dynamics and the systemic inequali- ties of the world today are, I think, hugely important when we want to foster intercultural relations and champion diversity.
Knowing how the brain works and how it influences our per- ception and we act is just as important as understanding, how systemic racism or white supremacy work. If a well-meaning white person thinks they’re living in an objective reality, and that everybody lives in the same reality, it’s simply not true.
It’s the same thing with understanding how sexism works, how neo-colonialism works, how the global imbalance in in- ternational trade works. As soon as you understand a sys- tem, you’re empowered to act. But you also lose excuses for staying in the comfort zone by not acting.
To me, it’s all connected with understanding the systems we operate in — on a societal level, on a micro-level, and on the most microscopic level of neurology. If we understand these systems, we can more consciously make choices about them.
It’s very thought-provoking. But how do you get the pow- erful to be cognitive of themselves? Let’s say, you’re invited to the White House and asked to try to help President Trump understand himself. How would you go about it?
Well, first of all, I’m not sure if I would accept an invitation from the White House, nor do I think I’d ever be invited. The challenge I see with Donald Trump is that he’s had a lifetime experience of using his privilege to get away with dishonest acts and not be held accountable for them. He always won because we live in a system that’s designed to help rich, white people and not built around seeking justice for white- collar crime. There’s very little acknowledgment, I think, that particularly western society is built around amplifying a certain type of monetary success and not built around those, on whose shoulders that success was built.
I always come back to this point. If you want to help someone to learn something, that person needs to have a per- sonal incentive to learn it. To learn things that are going to make life worse for that person is a difficult process. This explains, in part, why many men aren’t interested in seeing sexism at work, or many white people in seeing white supremacy at work. It’s a lot easier to see their successes as theirs, not as a product of a system built to support them. Coming back to Trump, he has no incentive to learn about doing something for the greater good because for his entire life, he only benefited when he learned something for his personal gain. And he’s done very well by this. The world has done badly by this. So I’m not sure he’d have the openness or the men- tal capacity to learn something about the others, the incentive to develop empathy — because it would be detrimental to him.
I find his life extremely sad, I see him as a despondent, lonely person. But it’s not right the world has to suffer because he’s having issues. It’s an explanation, but not an excuse. If you strive for that position of power, you need to have dealt with yourself.
One last question: When did you become involved with SIETAR and what does it represent for you?
I’ve known about SIETAR since my student time, but it was only in 2016 that I became a member. At the moment, I’m act- ing as the VP of SIETAR Poland and SIETAR Europa.
What I particularly like is that this organization is so diverse. You experience this on the SEU Board — the representative of SIETAR Ireland is American, of SIETAR Spain is Senegalese, of SIETAR Italy is originally from Romania. It’s a very colorful environment. And it’s all volunteers, so every contribution, every involvement is only driven by care. I find it very inspiring.
And this is exactly what I love most about SIETAR — it’s a place of community and solidarity, a tribe of interculturalists who understand each other. All this is emotionally an incredibly important thing for me.