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A curriculum for positive transformation: The praxis of values-based education through the perspective of transpersonal psychology

Written by: Scott Buckler
10 min read
Scott Buckler, Holy Trinity School and Sixth Form, UK

‘What is the point of education?’ How often do we ask this on both a personal and professional basis? With the continual focus on results, performance, attendance, budgets and numerous other tensions, has this question become lost within the quagmire of passivity and conformity? Furthermore, how will education evolve following the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Cambridge Primary Review questioned whether the curriculum should be based on other countries’ approaches, and then garnished with aims, or whether such aims should be based on a framework of values that are central to education (Alexander, 2010). There has been an enhanced focus on character education in recent years through various lenses such as spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) education (Parliament, 2002), British values (DfE, 2014) and the recently released ‘Character education: Framework guidance’ (DfE, 2019), along with their high prevalence within the school inspection handbook (Ofsted, 2019).

A question may thus be elicited: whose values are we basing education on? This article explores not only this question but also how character development may be realised within the curriculum.

Perspective and agency

In returning to the original question, ‘What is the point of education?’, the answer depends on perspective. Is the teacher an active part in shaping the school’s philosophy, or are we expected to subscribe to the school’s philosophy? Do double standards exist, where we facilitate the British value of individual liberty for our students and yet, as teachers, we have no voice in the school’s approach? Perhaps such conformity is the very nature of the education system – a result of apathy to dogma within an overtly bureaucratic system? Yet surely the purpose of education is to elicit challenge in order to move learning forwards.

Consequently, there is a need to develop a sense of agency: the ability to discuss and to be heard, even if this invites criticism or disagreement. Such discussion requires a foundation of free speech: the idea that even through disagreement, a step is made towards seeking the truth. It must be noted, however, that any discussion should be grounded in evidence, as opposed to the whim of any individual. This link between theory and practice is embodied by the term ‘praxis’.

What is praxis?

Praxis is the embodiment of learning, wherein theories or skills are exemplified or applied. It was originally defined by Aristotle, alongside theoria (searching for truth) and poiesis or production (Aristotle et al., 2009).

Praxis has been discussed as a process of critical thinking and resonates through the work of educationalists such as Hannah Arendt, who posits that to realise true freedom, praxis is the highest level of the active life (Arendt, 2018). Therefore, in order to provide the highest standards in education, there is a continual interplay of an Aristotelian search for universal truth (sophia) through theorising (theoria) and rational thinking (phronesis) to promote knowledge (poiesis), which in turn is embodied through correct, ethical action (praxis) to provide the highest standards in education.

While SMSC, character education and British values are commendable, and no doubt there are numerous ways to facilitate these within the classroom, they are not new. One field of psychology with a tradition of research is transpersonal psychology. Through understanding transpersonal psychology, lessons for the future development of values-based education may be identified.

Transpersonal psychology

The field of transpersonal psychology developed from humanistic psychology, notably through the work of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, among others. Most readers would be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from their teacher training days. Yet Maslow criticised his own model, where too much emphasis was placed on self-actualisation, instead advocating a more ‘transpersonal’ psychology, where the focus centred not only on developing the individual but also on the individual in helping others to flourish (Maslow, 1970). Maslow advocated that transpersonal psychology should supersede the field of humanistic psychology. Think about this in relation to education: how much do we, as teachers, focus on our own self-development so that we can help others to flourish?

Within transpersonal psychology, numerous themes relate to the positive personal transformation of the individual, through their connection with an evolving world and through connecting with others at an authentic level. There is a strong tradition of research into such transpersonal and transformative practices spanning decades, including mindfulness, creativity and so forth: themes that have become increasingly prevalent within education.

Understandably, the field of transpersonal psychology resonates strongly with character and values-based education, specifically through uniting the three domains of being: the cognitive (intellectual), the affective (emotional) and the psychomotor (physical). For example, consider stress. Stress may be due to a physical effect such as a lack of sleep, which in turn can cause issues with the cognitive and affective domains. Address the physical domain and the other domains will harmonise. Conversely, stress may be caused by cognitive overload (e.g. too many competing demands), resulting in issues emotionally or physically. Reduce the pressure of the demands by goal-setting, and the other domains should harmonise. Therefore, the aim of transpersonal education is to ensure synchronicity between the various domains of being: a connection of the mind, the body and the emotions. Indeed, can we truly say that education has harmonised these domains of being, or has there been too much emphasis on the cognitive domain? Should education return to a more nuanced balance?

Transpersonal psychology within education

Several authors within transpersonal psychology assert that education is a significant area for future development (e.g. Rothberg, 2005; Cunningham, 2006; Ferrer, 2017), yet research has been constrained to date. Through analysis of transpersonal psychologists’ reflections, several themes have been identified and grouped into general and specific principles, demonstrated in Figure 1, where the outer ring of general principles envelop the inner circle of specific principles.

Figure 1: The principles of transpersonal education

Figure 1 shows a graphic of two circles, with an outer and an inner circle. There are seven boxes arranged on the outer circle. They are labelled: "Joyful", "Intrinsic", "Autonomy", "Self-discovery", "Value free", "Facilitation" and "Lifelong". The inner circle is made up of five parts, labelled: "Inner depths", "Awe and beauty", "Unitive", "Open to experience" and "Theory to practice".

The general principles relate to education at a broader level and may be considered as effective educational practice. These principles are listed below, including the theorist who proposed the principle along with how these may be used in schools. Explicitly, education should:

  • Be joyful (Maslow, 1971; Moore, 1975). What are the enjoyable areas of each subject, for both teachers and students? Has English become too formulaic in understanding the rules of grammar at the expense of just enjoying the writing process?
  • Be intrinsic, where learning is taking place for no external gratification such as exam results or rewards (Rogers, 1961). What are students truly passionate about learning? Can we help them to find their passion, despite the lack of a learning objective/outcome?
  • Provide a sense of autonomy or choice, whereby the student has a range of subjects, and themes within such subjects, that they can study (Kirchschenbaum, 1975). Can we encourage students with a choice of study options as opposed to the narrow curriculum?
  • Be a process of self-discovery, enabling the student to find out who they truly are and how they relate in the world (Deci and Ryan, 1985; Kirchschenbaum, 1975; Rogers, 1961). To what degree are students expected to conform or express their true sense of self?
  • Be a process of facilitation, as opposed to a more didactic approach (Maslow, 1971; Moore, 1975). How can the teacher adopt a more constructivist approach within their classroom?
  • Be lifelong (Maslow, 1970). Are we promoting lifelong learning in students, modelling how we, as teachers, are continually learning?
  • Be value-free (Maslow, 1971; Rogers, 1961). This last principle requires further elaboration, in that the student should be free to develop their own values, ideally informed by what it means to be an authentic, fully functioning human and not indoctrinated by another’s belief system.

The specific principles of transpersonal education provide a framework to facilitate the sense of the transpersonal. Explicitly, transpersonal education should:

  • Enable inner depths to be explored (Maslow, 1971). How can we encourage self-reflection in our students?
  • Promote a sense of awe and beauty (Maslow, 1970). When was the last time your subject was taught outside? Asking students to hold a mirror at eye-level and then walk under a tree has been the most memorable science lesson this year: simple, effective, stunning discussion.
  • Promote unitive experiences, or a sense of connection between the student and the wider world (Moore, 1975; Rothberg, 2005) – for example, lying on the ground and watching clouds go by, questioning the age of a drop of water that forms the cloud and what adventures it has been on, or walking through a woodland questioning whether the trees or the stones have been there longer.
  • Enable a student to be open to new experiences (Roberts and Clark, 1976; Rogers, 1961). What lessons outside of the curriculum can we offer based on our own interests?
  • Develop a link between theory and practice (or indeed, praxis, as previously discussed in this article) (Rothberg, 2005).

Is transpersonal education a valid concept?

Although transpersonal education had been discussed from a theoretical basis, research has been conducted into the validity of the concept through a mixed methodological research design, with a sample of 58 international respondents from 12 counties across five continents (Africa: 24 per cent; Asia: 20 per cent; Australasia: six per cent; Europe: 38 per cent; North America: 11 per cent). The respondents’ experience within education ranged from three to 45 years (M=22.17, SD=10.84).

From the results (Table 1), the majority of respondents agreed that most of the principles central to transpersonal education should be inherent in current educational practice, with the exception that education should be ‘value-free’. One respondent explained that ‘all educators bring with them their own values which inevitably influence’, while another responded that there has to be a sense of values to promote a ‘value-free’ education.

Table 1: General principles
General principles Agree/Strongly agree (%) Mean Std. Dev.
Autonomy 98 4.6 .67
Self-discovery 97 4.7 .68
Theory to practice 93 4.6 .75
Relate to environment 93 4.6 .8
Experiential 93 4.6 .82
Relate to others 91 4.6 .81
Joyful 91 4.5 .82
Value-free 60 3.6 1.14

Respondents were also invited to suggest other activities, which ranged from meditation and the martial arts to the Malaysian ‘Adab’ or ‘personal refinement’, the Maori ‘Mauri Ora’ or ‘holistic wellbeing’ and the Japanese ‘Shinrin-yoku’ or ‘forest bathing’. A recurring theme from respondents was the need to reclaim a sense of agency to create a better world, as opposed to being at the whim of political drivers.

While this research originates from a more in-depth study (see Buckler, 2014), the core findings indicate that education might benefit from being revised to incorporate dimensions advocated through transpersonal education and that resonate within values-based education. Perhaps with the global changes we are currently experiencing, this is an opportunity for education, alongside wider society, to develop and encompass such a direction, as discussed here.


This article has sought to extend the discussion on character and values-based education through the perspective of transpersonal psychology, a field that has a lengthy tradition of research and whose themes resonate within the work of international educational practitioners.

Of course, the identified themes are only as good as the people who embody them within the education system. Therefore, the lesson from this article is to identify your authentic self as a teacher, to be true to who you are, and to find a place to work where your values resonate with others. Be prepared to engage in agency, discussing what education is and should be, in an attempt to find a wider truth. This will enable others, specifically the students you work with, to find their authentic self and to engage with activities that, in turn, nourish their sense of self.


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