How did you become the person you are today? What events played a crucial role during your life? And how do you relate to the world around you?
These questions can stand at the beginning of an educational process. For many topics, it is essential to first understand who the learner is and what shaped the lens through which they approach a subject. Self-awareness marks the start to untangling societal issues.
I first came across today’s method Parallel Autobiography in the form of Parallel Citizenship Autobiographies as published in ”Under Construction – Citizenship, Youth and Europe – T-Kit on European Citizenship’‘ by Council of Europe (2003). I was searching for methods that would allow participants to reflect on their understanding of their own citizenship. Ever since I have used it in many different contexts reflecting on a diverse range of aspects. To simplify it I developed this base version just looking at the development of one’s identity, which I want to share with you as my Method of the Month for August 2019.
For Parallel Autobiography, the participants create two parallel running timelines starting from the moment of their birth to the current day. On the top line, they mark moments in their personal life that changed their understanding of themselves. On the bottom, societal or political events are chronologically arranged that affected the vision of their own identity. The participants are given a certain amount of time (usually around 25 minutes) to fill in their individual sheets. After that time, they are invited to share the autobiography if they feel comfortable.
In the debriefing, the trainer guides the group through a reflection of the process by following the experiential learning circle by Kolb. Possible questions could be:
- How did the exercise make you feel?
- Did one of the timeline feel different?
- Was it uncomfortable, and if yes, why was it?
- Was there a difference between the personal and the societal moments?
- Was there something that surprised you?
- Were there things in common within the group, and if yes, why could that be? If no, why not?
- Does this experience impact you beyond the activity, and if yes, how?
- How can you use this experience in understanding yourself or others better?
- How can you use the commonalities with others for building bridges?
- Is there a use for this experience beyond reflecting on your own identity?
- How could you go more in-depth with it?
- How can being aware of the history of your own identity impact the world around you?
As mentioned earlier, this exercise is extremely versatile. You can focus it on any personal aspect. Also, the systemic context of the second timeline can be drafted as narrow or broad as it makes sense. Some examples:
- political beliefs reflected on the global economy
- development as educator reflected on the different learning environments encountered
- relationship to once citizenship reflected on the history of one’s country of residence
It is only essential to incorporate the dichotomy of the individual and the systemic timeline. That will allow the learner to reflect on themselves in the broader context and to find commonalities and differences with others. This last aspect is especially exciting when working with a diverse group.
RISKS & TRAPS
Whenever it comes to self-reflection, there can be triggering moments. Participants can carry past traumas which this exercise can open up. Therefore, a real safe-space must be established beforehand, and enough time must be allocated to address it adequately. One way to lower this risk is to frame the activity more on the surface. Choosing a focus of the reflection that is more general might allow the participants to decide by themselves how deep they go.
Nevertheless, that carries its own risk. Being too superficial might not push the participants enough to actually be challenged. One important thing is not to ”force” them to present their result. Let them choose if they want to open up to the group.
If you want to go even further with Parallel Autobiography, try one of these pro-tips.
- Shared Autobiography: After the participants created their individual timelines, let them group together and create a common one. That could be done either in the whole group or in logical subgroups. These subgroups could be based on geography, age, or similar aspects related to the object of the reflection. It can help the participants to discover patterns in each other’s stories or find something in common with a stranger.
- Be vulnerable yourself: In my experience, it helps the participants to open up when I make myself vulnerable first. That is based on the authority I as the facilitator hold. If it is safe for me, it feels safer for the participants. For Parallel Autobiography, I usually do this by presenting my own timeline first and using it to explain the activity. I always make sure to share things that push my comfort zone but do not overwhelm the participants.
- Give access: If the participants agree, I like to hang all timeline up on the wall. This gallery allows them to discover the stories of the rest of the group during breaks and to approach other participants if they have questions. It can lead to personal connections and more intimate sharing.
- Use it for yourself: I used this exercise also just for myself when I wanted to work on developing in a certain area. So I took it for the base assessment. The gained understanding of how I came to where I was then gave me insides how to move forward. It allowed me to gain insights on my values and priorities through the moments I chose or left away. It can also be a powerful tool in a coaching setting.
So, what do you think about Parallel Autobiography? Do you use it before? What are other variations you can think of? Do you know a similar activity?
Leave me a comment below. Also, it would help me out if you like and share this post with our fellow trainer friends!
You can download the method sheet of Parallel Autobiography here!
Love and appreciation,