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Profound learning

October 15, 2013
By: 
Stephanie Harrington

Bob Kull won the Kelly Outstanding Teaching Award.

Ordinary is a word seldom used to describe Royal Roads associate faculty member Bob Kull.

Scuba instructor, logger, organic gardening teacher, firefighter, photographer and truck driver are but a handful of jobs the California-born Kull has had over the years. At age 40, he started undergraduate studies after losing his lower right leg in a motorcycle crash in the Dominican Republic. Several years later Kull spent a year in solitude in Chile for PhD research and later wrote a book, Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes, about the experience.

His teaching mantra is: question everything, including him.

“I tell my students, challenge everything,” he says. “I try to deepen awareness and invite students to reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions about the world. Some students disagree with me profoundly and that’s okay. I don’t believe it’s my job to tell people what the truth is.”

The School of Environment and Sustainability academic was awarded the Kelly Outstanding Teaching Award this month for making a positive contribution to the overall health and culture of the university. Associate faculty Liza Ireland and two alumni, from the Master of Art in Environmental Education and Communication (MAEEC) course in which Kull has been teaching for seven years, nominated him.

“Dr. Kull inspires deep transformative learning experiences for his students,” the nominators say in the submission. “He demonstrates teaching excellence and unique dedication to his learners. Valuing the distinctive journey of each individual, Dr. Kull encourages students to embody their learning experiences, and to cultivate personal meaning within the context of their own lives using research-informed evidence.”

Course evaluations for Kull’s systems perspectives class have identified it as the most significant course in the MAEEC degree for its “authentic, collaborative, engaging, and challenging learning climate.” Making abstract concepts such as systems thinking, an approach that examines issues as a whole rather than in isolated parts, relevant to learners is no easy feat. Yet Kull manages to make the abstract personal and, for some people, profound.

“In systems thinking, everything is connected. There are no isolated parts of the universe,” Kull says. “Many of the difficulties we have in culture, politics and economics are because we’re operating in silos as if we’re not connected to each other and to the non-human world.”

Take ecosystems, for instance, he says.

“Because everything is connected there is no ‘away.’ We tend to live in our culture as if we can throw it ‘away’ or we can get our resources from somewhere else,” Kull says. “That’s false. It’s still part of our global system. Each of us is embedded in multiple systems. That has some strong repercussions; it matters what we do in our life.”

Kull’s own transformation came when, as a young man, he spent three tough months canoeing and camping alone in northern British Columbia, an experience that changed him. He was tested again during his year in solitude in Southern Patagonia, Chile.

“I saw the world differently after,” Kull says. “We’re often told we have to do something special in our lives to have an influence on the world. But because we’re embedded in multiple systems, just by living  we have an influence in the world. When an individual transforms him or herself, it transforms the world.”

The Vancouver-based Kull is passionate about online learning, saying it allows students to apply theory directly into their working lives. Education, he says, is more about exploration and personal growth than marks.

“The fundamental I teach is transformation of consciousness,” Kull says. “That’s what education is about for me. Learning specific skills and knowledge that’s important, but opening minds and hearts is what it’s really about.”