discerning what might make for human flourishing and committing to change

Continuing our exploration of the working process, here we look at how people come to commit to change – and the role of the educator.

contents: introduction · the educator as someone committed to change and the good · helping people to identify possibilities for a better future · helping people to craft a change agenda · helping people discover incentives for commitment to their change agenda · conclusion · references

photo: the ladder initiative

Our approach is concerned with praxis – informed, committed action. Here we explore a fourth element of the working process. Understanding a situation is one thing – discerning what is good, and wanting to do something about it is quite another. For appropriate action to occur there needs to be commitment. However, we also need to ask about that commitment – and whether it is concerned with well-being (for the person and the community as a whole). 

First I want to look at the person of the educator – and the extent to which they must embody the sorts of commitments and virtues that are required for change. From there we will focus on three aspects of the ‘commitment process’ (after Egan 1998):

Helping people to identify possibilities for a better future. What do you want? What do you need? What are some of the possibilities?

Helping people to craft a change agenda. Given the possibilities, what do you really want? What are your choices? What is good?

Helping people discover incentives for commitment to their change agenda. What are you willing to pay for what you want? How will this really help? What does it add to well-being?

This way of thinking does pay particular attention to goal setting (having a clear idea of what people want to achieve), and goal questioning (checking out whether the goal is good). There are some issues around this. In particular, an emphasis on goal setting can sometimes tend to simplify or trivialize. It can also work to hem people in. Furthermore, it is often easy to slip quickly into setting goals without properly exploring people’s emotional state and motivations. That said, we are concerned with praxis – informed and committed action – and for that to occur in ways that are just and enhancing of well-being we do need to have some clarity about what we want to achieve.

The educator as someone committed to change and to the good

A fundamental aspect of working relationships is the extent to which educators are committed to change for themselves. Are they are looking to learn and to be different - and to embrace the possibilities that come their way (or are inherent in situations)? Being around someone who has these qualities can lead people to question their own situation and attitude. It can provide a positive stimulus to action. However, if this quality is too 'in your face' it can also be a major turn-off. The scale of the change required can seem too daunting. For the most part, an educator's enthusiasm and commitment needs to be experienced rather than made a focus of attention. We need to avoid the 'I did it, so why can't you' approach.

Linked to this is the extent to which the educator has to be a 'safe pair of hands'. They will often need to work to contain situations (or rather to work at creating environments where worries and distress can be acknowledged and explored). Part of this may take the form of explicit questions or statements. However, a great deal of the impact in this area generally flows from the demeanour and presence of the educator. In a very real sense they have not only to appear to be at home dealing with strong emotions and deeply felt issues, they also have to be at home with them. Inauthenticity around this area can quickly show through. 

There is a further dimension here - our authority as educators is dependent upon us 'practicing what we preach'.

If we are heeded it is mainly because people see us as deserving of respect. If we are not then people will ask why should they listen to us; why should our example be followed; and even why bother to engage in conversation with us? It goes without saying that an obese health educator who smokes, props up the bar most nights and avoids physical activity will not find their homilies regarding what to eat or drink given due attention. Neither will those seeking to challenge values and attitudes get far unless they monitor their own behaviour to avoid inconsistencies and double standards. Mission statements on the wall about equality will count for little if people observe us treating secretaries like dogs-bodies and caretakers as skivvies. Attention to our own actions is crucial. (Jeffs and Smith 1999: 84) 

This is a very challenging consideration. It demands a high level of commitment and constant vigilance concerning our own actions and disposition. 

Educators also need to have an appreciation of what might make for human flourishing. They need to have some idea of what is good so that they can judge their response to situations. They have to think on their feet and discern what might be the right response for this person or that. Having an idea of what mightmake for human flourishing doesn't mean that you impose that notion on the other participants. It simply provides us as informal educators with a starting point for conversation.

Helping people to identify possibilities for a better future

We can use various approaches to stimulate thinking about what the possibilities may be, for example, brain-storming, writing or acting out possible stories, encouraging questions that open up different futures. Examples of the latter include:

What are my most critical needs and wants?

What are some possibilities for a better future?

What outcomes or accomplishments would take care of my most pressing problems?

What would my life look like if I were to develop a couple of key opportunities?

What should my life look like a year from now?

What should I put I place that is currently not in place?

What are some wild possibilities for making my life better? (Egan 1998: 235)

One way of thinking about this area (particularly the last question) is as encouraging people to name their needs and dreams, and to then work at building them into some sort of vision. We might also describe the process as encouraging people people to take up new experiences or to explore opportunities - and this features in the work of many informal educators. It provides the rationale for a significant amount of activity such as residentials, trips and other programme activities. It also features in the conversations we have with individuals.  

Helping people to craft a change agenda

One of the first tensions that we need to address is the specificity of the goals that people set. Clearly part of the task is to help people to state what they need and want – but the next step that people like Egan (1998) take is to argue that these need to be put in very specific ways as outcomes or accomplishments. What is it that you actually want to be able to do? In other words, there is an assumption that having broad aims will not drive behaviour in the same way as clear and specific goals. Egan (1998: 250) suggests some questions for shaping goals:

The second to last of these questions is of fundamental importance. Commitment isn’t just the act of promising or putting our trust into some thing, it also involves drawing upon our values and beliefs (our commitments). For informal educators this is a fundamental area. We have some responsibility not just to the individual concerned, but also to society as a whole. This means asking questions about how a proposed action may work to further human well-being as a whole. In Dewey’s terms it means asking whether some proposed action would work so that all may share in a common life. 

Helping people discover incentives for commitment to their change agenda

Moving from saying that we want some change in our lives into taking concrete steps to make it happen is a significant shift. One way of viewing this process is in cost-benefit terms – some goals may ‘cost’ more than they are worth in terms of the benefits to us. For change to happen, goals have to be appealing – and owned by the people that have to carry them out. Classically, change in one area sets off events in others – and it is important that we work so that people can make reasonable assessments of these. There will be competing agendas.

Egan (1998: 264) suggests some further questions here:

What is my state of readiness for change in this area at this time?

How badly do I want what I say I want?

How hard am I willing to work?

To what degree am I choosing this goal freely?

How highly do I rate the personal appeal of this goal?

How do I know I have the courage to work on this?

What’s pushing me to choose this goal?

What incentives do I have for pursuing this change agenda?

What rewards can I expect if I work on this agenda?

If this goal is in any way being imposed by others, what am I doing to make it my own?

What difficulties am I experiencing in committing myself to this goal?

In what way is it possible that my commitment is not a true commitment?

What can I do to get rid of the disincentives and overcome the obstacles?

What can I do to increase my commitment?

In what ways can the goal be reformulated to make it more appealing?

To what degree is the time for pursuing this goal poor?

What do I have to do to stay committed?

What resources can help me?

Within these questions there are a number of important themes. Here I want to focus on three.

First, there is the issue of coercion and pressure. To what extent does the person feel 'forced' into an action (by their peers, family etc. or crucially, by the educator)? Here there are further questions.  Is the pressure real or imagined? How strong is it? To what extent is the person disposed to the agenda anyway?

Second, there are arising out of the feelings and emotions that are associated with possible changes. In doing a cost-benefit analysis there can be a tendency to  focus on concrete aspects and to leave out (or underplay) the emotional well-being of those concerned. We may not pay proper attention to the emotional costs and benefits associated with a particular behaviour or situation (either that we want to move beyond, or to develop). Our questioning and conversation may well need to bring these to the surface, to encourage exploration and to include them in any calculations made. 

Third, virtues such as courage and faith are key aspects of the process. It takes a certain amount of bravery to step outside the norm. Taking such action will also involve hope and a belief that change is possible and will probably come in time. As educators we therefore need to look at how we can work at situations where these virtues can be fostered.  


From this discussion we can see that the person of the educator is fundamental to the process. Their readiness to embrace change and to engage is critical. Beyond that there are some particular aspects of the 'commitment process' that we need to attend to. Egan (1998) provides us with some useful pointers, but these have to be taken out of a individualistic framework and considered with regard to human well-being. As Matt Ridley (1997: 260) has argued human beings 'have some instincts that foster the greater good and others that foster self-interest and anti-social behaviour'. We need to work in ways that encourage the former and discourage the latter. 


Egan, K. (1998) The Skilled Helper. A problem-management approach to helping 6e, Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole. 

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1999) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Ticknall: Education Now.

Ridley, M. (1997) The Origins of Virtue, London: Penguin.

© Mark K. Smith 2001
First published February 2001. Last update: July 08, 2014