During the past decade or so, learning theory experts have articulated something that seems obvious in retrospect; something that has always been true of human beings, but has come into focus only recently. The old idea, which we were all raised on, holds that one teacher, professor, guru, clinical supervisor, or parent holds a certain store of knowledge in his or her individual brain—a cerebral bag of groceries, so to speak—which he or she unpacks and puts on the shelves of your individual brain for you to share with someone else’s individual brain.
In fact, however, this traditional idea of learning really goes against much of what we’ve discovered about how people actually learn, and in what context. We now know that much of what we learn, we learn socially, as members of particular communities of learning and practice. Everybody in such communities takes part of their identity from their connection with it, as they actively practice the skill or knowledge around which the community centers. We’re motivated to learn at least partly because we want to belong to those communities. We want to become part of the tribe that knows how to paint pictures, write books, play an instrument, build buildings, speak a foreign language, do yoga. We want to belong to that confederation of doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, and psychotherapists. And part of that “belonging” means engaging in “shoptalk” with our peers—a form of higher-order schmoozing—because this kind of exchange helps us gain insight and expertise, mastery in our field, and a critical sense of being part of a kind of specialized guild.
At a time when not only our field, but our entire civilization seems to be racing out of our control, we need these communities of practice more than ever. As this year’s Symposium theme—“Braving New Worlds: Journey to a Place You’ve Never Seen”—suggested, our profession needs new maps for negotiating a world that’s increasingly strange and unfamiliar. Indeed, many of us feel a bit like Gary Lockwood, the untethered spaceman in the prophetic movie 2001. In that film, the malevolent computer, HAL, has cut the cord that connects the astronaut to the spaceship and supplies his oxygen, and Lockwood helplessly whirls head over heels deeper and deeper into space. These days, we feel increasingly adrift as the familiar world we used to know slowly vanishes in an Internet cloud of digitized connectivity, which often turns out to foster little genuine human connection at all.
Not only that, the social and economic position of psychotherapy has changed radically over the past few decades. Most of us—if we’re much past 40—came of age when our professional maps pointed the way to a nice, predictable future: once out of graduate school, we’d work in an agency for a few years, then slide easily into a cozy, little private practice, seeing clients with good insurance that covered mental healthcare, and stay put in that office for 30 years, until our slow fade into a comfortable retirement. That old map of our world is now about as useful as medieval Christian maps that schematically depicted the Tower of Babel, the Antipodes, and the shores of Paradise.
So, while we’re supposed to have some advantage over our clients in the Wisdom Department, we don’t always know ourselves how we’re going to bushwhack our way through the terra incognita of these uncertain and confusing times, much less how we’re going to lead anybody else through it. In all this uncertainty, however, two things are certain: we need to find the courage and honesty to realize how much our old maps no longer serve us and we need each other’s help to create new maps.
And that’s the point. Individuals don’t make maps; mapmaking—like learning itself—is a social endeavor, requiring close, attentive, coordinated conversation. We need to pool our knowledge and understanding, collaborate in our own communities of practice, each of us part of this grand mapmaking endeavor. It’s together, all of us doing our small part in a large, collective effort, that we’ll help both our own beleaguered profession and the rest of the poor, geographically-challenged human race chart a way through the wilderness to whatever bright possibilities we all trust are waiting for us somewhere beyond the next bend in the river or over the mountain peak just ahead.
So, at this year’s Symposium, each attendee had the opportunity to discover a doorway—maybe it was a special workshop, a Creativity Day event, a chance conversation with the stranger sitting nearby, a walk with a friend through the blooming trees in Rock Creek Park, a book discovered in the Exhibit Hall—that might lead to a previously undiscovered place. Perhaps you were at the conference and had an “aha” moment yourself, when you got a glimpse, perhaps only briefly, of where you wanted to go and how you were going to get there.
But the immediate, feel-good aftermath of a conference isn’t the most reliable measure of its true import and impact. That requires time, so that the effect of all the conversations generated at the gathering can move out into the profession and the wider world. We at the Networker await the arrival of new charts of the territory ahead inspired by this year’s Symposium, some of which may make an appearance in the pages of this magazine or at next year’s conference. At the same time, we know that the Symposium will live on as a tributary of the ongoing conversation that’s at the heart of our collective community of practice, the tribal connection that gives this profession its vision, direction, and pulse.
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