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Paper 29: Learning by Doing Migration: Temporal Dimensions of
Life Course Transitions
Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany
The increasing speed of societal, environmental, technological, and workplace changes brings
into sharper focus the question of how people shape and learn from transitions, such as
migration. Taking a doing transitions and doing migration perspective, I assert that transitions
and migration do not simply exist but are constituted relationally through social practices and
accompanied by learning processes. This paper reports findings from qualitative research into
the question of how people learn and transform their understandings of (life)time when moving
to a new country. The study used the documentary method to analyse data from 20 biographical-
narrative interviews with people who moved to Canada as adults. Findings indicate different
modes of dealing with shifts in temporal contexts during migration as decompressing life-time,
losing time, and going with the flow. These modes are associated with positive transformative
learning, negative transformative learning, and learning through participation in practices.
There are implications for theorizing learning during transitions as a socially embedded
phenomenon in which others appear as models that irritate preconceptions, are absent
instructors, and participants of practices into which one is gradually socialized.
Learning by doing transitions and adult migration
Transitions in the life course have long been a focus of research. Yet, the increasing speed of
societal, environmental, technological, and workplace changes brings into sharper focus the
question of how people experience, cope with, and learn from those changes. One such change
with impacts on both an individual and societal level is migration. When individuals move into
new geographic and social spaces, they often encounter multi-faceted barriers associated with
work and learning. These include the non-recognition of previous education and skills (Shan,
2013) and wide-ranging learning demands (Barkoglou & Gravani, 2022; Shan, 2017).
Although research exists on adult migrants integrating into the labour market (cf. Kloubert &
Hoggan, 2021; Nohl et al., 2014) less attention has been paid to how these transitions are
constructed and how individuals learn in the process of redefining their place in work and life.
The work and learning transitions of migrants have become increasingly non-linear,
unpredictable, and associated with a range of structural barriers (Guo, 2013; Morrice, 2014). As
Morrice (2014) observes, “learning and development are inescapable facets of the upheavals which accompany the migration process” (p. 149). Although there is potential for transformative learning when moving to new countries (Eschenbacher, 2020), there is also a “darker side of transformative learning” in migration (Morrice, 2012, p. 252). Learning to adapt to new contexts
and reshaping one’s own identities may be associated with significant emotional cost and “hidden injuries of migration” (Webb, 2017, p. 157).
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The experience of moving to a new country is not only geographically and socially situated but
also a process with temporal dimensions. First, people may encounter and must deal with
different understandings of time-related concepts such as efficient use of time and norms
regarding appropriate age for significant life events (Levine, 1998). Because these
understandings often remain implicit, they can be regarded a silent language (Hall, 1959) to be
learned. Second, the biographical learning processes itself have temporal dimensions as the
learning occurs over the span of the lifetime and is recollected and narrated within a specific
timeframe (Biesta et al., 2010).
Although there is some recent research on the nexus of learning and temporality in the context of
migration (Rawinski, 2022; Sun, 2021), these studies focus on aging within the context of
multiple places of belonging. Thus, there is a need to further explore learning in the context of
migration. This paper aims to contribute to a better understanding of learning in migratory
transitions against the backdrop of temporality and discrepancies of understandings of (life)time:
How do people learn and transform their understandings of (life)time when moving to a new
country? This focus on temporal dimensions appears valuable for the study of learning in the
context of migration as shifting perspectives on time may point to the ways in which people
To pursue this question, I will first outline the theoretical perspectives on migration and learning.
Second, I will describe the research design. Third, I will share the empirical findings. Fourth, I
will discuss these findings, pointing to different ways in which temporal dimensions transfuse
the learning processes during adult migration.
Theoretical Perspective: Doing Migration and Learning
Following a doing transitions approach, I assume “that transitions do not simply exist but are constantly constituted by practices” (Walther et al., 2022, p. 2). Migration as the movement
across national boundaries can be explored as a particular form of doing transitions. Such a doing
migration perspective views migration as the result of social practices that “turn mobile (and often also immobile) individuals into ‘migrants’” (Amelina, 2020, p. 2). Migration can then be
understood as “a relational process that constitutes migrants and within which individuals
actively (re)position themselves regarding markers of differences” (Bernhard, 2022, p. 47).
While constructing and shaping their transition across boundaries, people “put into relation their individual experience, interpretation, and socially situated practices” (Bernhard, 2022, p. 47).
This process of doing migration is associated with a variety of learning demands as both a barely
escapable imposition and as an opportunity space.
Life course transitions, such as migration, can serve as an impetus for learning (Hof & Bernhard,
2022). Seeing transitions as periods of uncertainty brings transformative learning theories into
view. Transformative learning according to Mezirow (2012) refers to the
process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference (…) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and
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reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or
justified to guide action. (p. 76)
However, the perspective transformation associated with migration does not always lead to
growth but may also have negative consequences. As Morrice (2012) observes, the learning of
contradictory and largely deconstructive. Much learning is concerned with recognizing
that their previous learning counts for very little and involves having to “unlearn” and let go of much of who and what they were; it is concerned with subjectivity and with
identity deconstruction. (p. 267)
Similarly, Webb (2017) identifies challenges and “hidden injuries” of migrants “holding onto multiple identities in order to learn to be one type of person in the public domain and someone
different in their hidden worlds or private spaces” (p. 173). Transformative learning in the
context of migration is thus ambivalent with potential for growth but also with risks to the sense
Learning in transitions, however, is not only an individual process of transformation and
acquisition of knowledge but rather a social practice (Hof & Bernhard, 2022, p. 187). Thus,
perspectives on socially situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991/2008) and theories of social
practice come into view. Relationally speaking, learning can be understood as “being stirred into the practice (. …) [through] a process of co-production that occurs through co-participation with
others and the world in the unfolding of the practice as it happens in physical space-time” (Kemmis et al., 2017, p. 47). In migratory transitions then, people become participants in the
“sayings, doings and relatings that take place amid the cultural-discursive, material-economic
and social-political arrangements” (Kemmis et al., 2014, p. 60) of the new space they inhabit.
Against the backdrop of these sensitizing concepts, I conducted qualitative research into learning
processes as I will outline next.
Method: Narrative Interviews and Documentary Method
I gathered data through 20 biographical-narrative interviews (Schütze, 1983) between February
and August 2021 with persons who moved to Canada as adults. As this study is interested in
processes post-arrival and in the (non)transfer of previously acquired skills and experiences, I
selected participants based on having moved to Canada three or more years ago and on having
obtained postsecondary education outside of Canada prior to initial arrival. I recruited study
participants through iterative theoretical sampling (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 45) with the goal
to include participants from different countries of origin, genders, and occupations.
This study follows the qualitative approach of the Documentary Method (DM). The DM aims to
analyse not only the reflexive or theoretical knowledge but also the “conjunctive knowledge as implicit or tacit knowledge which guides our practical action” (Bohnsack, 2014, p. 220). Applied
to the reconstructive analysis of interviews, DM presupposes that “what is communicated verbally and explicitly in interview texts is not the only element of significance to the empirical
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analysis, but that it is above all necessary to reconstruct the meaning that underlies and is
implied” (Nohl, 2010, p. 200). Thus, I interpreted not only what is being said but also reflected
on how it is being said. Of interest were modes and figures of speech, such as positive or
negative images, so-called counter-horizons, which point to participants’ implicit knowledge and frames of orientation.
Findings: Different Modes of Dealing With Time
The findings reveal that migration processes involves different modes of learning, particularly
regarding aspects of temporality and life-time. I identified three modes of adult migrants
changing their perspectives regarding temporality in the context of shaping their own life. The
first mode, decompressing life-time, is marked by broadening time horizons and a perceived gain
of time for the remaining life. The second mode, losing time, is marked by non-recognition of
previous life-efforts and invested time. The third mode, going with the flow, is marked largely by
an ambivalence regarding the flow of time.
Although these modes were found among different participants in the sample, I will in the
limited space of this paper illustrate them through presenting and contrasting the stories of Ning,
Chima and Sabar.
It is important to note, that the identified modes are not static qualities or
personality types. For Ning, norms on age and life stage are challenged by new counter-horizons.
She adopts new norms on decompressed life-time and aligns her choices regarding family and
career planning. Being confronted with conflicting norms during the transition can been seen as
an irritation or crisis which functions as an impetus for learning and transformation. In contrast,
Chima experiences repeated setbacks and lost time due to the non-recognition of previous life-
efforts and invested time. She learns that her qualification and work experience do not count –
even if gained in a country resembling Canada. Sabar avoids these setbacks by suspending her
planned return to her country of birth and instead is going with the flow trough an extended
Her stay becomes permanent only gradually due to partaking in Canadian life
and a longer view towards her childrens’ future.
Ning is in her early fifties, was born in China and moved to Canada in the early 2000s. Whereas
Ning initially pursues efficiency regarding family and career planning, these orientations shift
over the course of her narrated life story. She observes different approaches to life and after
several years in Canada learns to decompress her life-time:
If I knew in Canada you're not limited by your age. For example, in China women
over 35 if you want to go to look for a job it's almost- it's very difficult unless you
have a very good network. But in Canada no, even you can look for a job after you are
45. And I have a colleague she looked, she stayed home for 30 years and she started to
look for a job after her children are grown up after 55. And now she becomes even a
manager. That is something very new. But I didn't notice that. (Ning, lines 529-535)
Names of persons, places, and organisations are pseudonyms.
Excerpts in quotation marks without line numbers are from interview passages of this person shared in this paper. Excerpts with line numbers are from other parts of the interview with this person.
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Ning had been unaware that a career change was possible at an age over 35. As becomes clearer
in the next passage, she not only appears surprised by this but also regretful of her rush to „grab something“ instead of exploring new possibilities. Against the counter-horizon of China which
represents her implicit knowledge upon arrival, Ning does not see age limitations in Canada. Her
earlier perspective on the meaning of a particular age has been irritated by contradictory
observations and broader than expected possibilities: ”But in Canada no, even you can look for a job after you are 45.” There are first signs of Ning reflecting her preconceptions when she later says: “that is something very new (…) but I didn’t notice that.” Continuing in her narration, Ning describes her broadened perspective on time and expresses regret about reaching these insights
If I knew that I have so much time I wouldn't rush myself, I want to say. I wouldn't
rush myself jumping to something to grab something, like "I have to take this, I have
to take this program, I have to learn this." But after it turns out I didn't like it that
much. Actually, at the age of 35 I can start brand new to learn something new I always
dreamed of to study. I didn't know that. I re- regretted that, I- if I knew that, maybe I
don't know, I- until I become- until (.) very recently I know who I am, like who- what I
want to do. But before I didn't know, I thought "ok whatever comes to me I have to
grab that" because of my age. Because I have stayed at home for so long, whatever
opportunity comes to me, I should grab that, I shouldn't let it go. But actually, I should
take it, take time and to think what I really like to do, what I really want to be. (Ning, l.
Only in hindsight Ning recognized the opportunities that were available but not taken by her: “at the age of 35 I can start brand new to learn something new I always dreamed of to study.” New ways of thinking and acting, along with broader time horizons appear when Ning recognizes her
past orientation to age and life stage as not the only possible one: “But before I didn't know, I thought ‘ok whatever comes to me I have to grab that’ because of my age.” The shift in her
perspective becomes apparent when she shares: “But actually, I should take it, take time and to think what I really like to do, what I really want to be.” This also documents newly found agency that Ning can now use to actively shape her life-time.
Ning’s story shows that changing contexts and observation of other ways of life can bring about new patterns of orientation and practices–here regarding temporality. The transition thus shapes
an opportunity space within which previous orientations to temporality can be questioned and
changed. Her new perspectives lead Ning to enact practices that use her life-time more actively,
to test her new views on age, and to make previously unconceivable changes to family and
career: having a child at a later age and making a career change.
In sum, Ning’s earlier orientation regarding age and life-time are challenged by new counter
horizons. She adopts a new orientation to decompressed time and lets this orientation guide her
practices. Being confronted with contradictory values during transitions, as happened to Ning,
can be seen as a crisis that acts as an catalyst for transformative learning. Here, time in the sense
of remaining life-time appears as a newly found resource that allows Ning to shape a life course
which previously seemed impossible. Ning could not have anticipated this perspective shift – she
was unaware of what she did not know – and therefore did not have an impetus to prepare and
learn about it.
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Chima is in her late forties, was born in Kenya, and moved to Canada in the early 2000s. A few
years after arriving in Canada, Chima moved to work in Western Europe for several years before
returning to Canada. Over the course of her transition, Chima experiences repeated setbacks and
learns that her qualification and work experience do not count. This is even more surprising to
her, as she gained some of the experience in a “westernized country” (l. 973) resembling Canada.
Early in the conversation, Chima talks about the discrepancy between her expectations regarding
„greener pastures“ – a better life – and the disappointing experience she made upon arrival in
Canada. She notes an absence of being informed about the challenges that she ultimately
Nobody schools you about that nobody gives you that information just when you move
it's gonna be greener pastures you did your studies (…) and actually when I came because I already had my degree in Kenya I was not anticipating that outcome and be
stuck, I had this picture in my mind of coming and start working immediately. but then
when I came here nobody even cared they didn't understand when I told them what my
degree is (…) so I started feeling like I almost didn't have any schooling after all those years of schooling in Kenya and that was a little bit uhm devastating to say the least.
(Chima, l. 47-60)
Chima expected that her previous investments in time and educational efforts would be
recognized and valued in Canada, which turns out not to be the case. This also documents a
perception of education in the relation to its valuation in the labor market. There is a tension
between her expectation and the disappointing reality she encounters. This tension is
documented not only regarding the recognition of skills and experience but also regarding past
memories and future retirement planning. Towards the end of her narration, Chima returns to the
topic of lost time, this time against the backdrop of losing out on retirement savings from the
work that she completed in Western Europe:
My retirement is slowed because of moving around. Because if you no- because if you
haven't had the education to know how to contribute to retirement everywhere you're
working and to find a way to transfer it when you move (.) like transfer it to [Western
European country] transfer all that bulk then to here it gets lost and your years whole
of work get lost. When I came back here I was starting almost like somebody who-
who just finished college in terms of retirement because when I went to [Western
European country] I didn't have- nobody educated me about that. (Chima, l. 920-933)
Against the counter-horizon of someone who remained in one location for a long time, her
memories and proof of invested life-time appear fleeting. Beyond the loss of past life-time and
efforts, which will never be fully recognized, Chima anticipates future losses of retirement
entitlements. Of interest here is the expression “my retirement is slowed“ which implies an orientation on a potentially faster speed toward retirement. Parallel to the beginning of the
interview, Chima describes her situation against a positive counter horizon in which someone
else would have instructed her: “nobody schools you about that” and “nobody educated me about that.“ Similar to Ning, there are things that she was unaware of not knowing prior to arrival in
Canada. However, while Ning learns and transforms her perspective with little reference to
others, Chima points to the role of others as instructors. For Chima, learning thus appears as a
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reaction to being taught rather than a positively transformative experience. As there is nobody to
instruct her, Chima repeatedly experiences being set back to the position of a college graduate
losing “years whole of work.”
Throughout her narration, Chima’s experience is one of being set back due to the non-
recognition of previous efforts and invested life-time. This non-recognition runs counter to her
orientation on upwards social mobility. Although she used her time for further education and
gained additional work experience, this time appears lost and not recognized. During this
experience, she appears to have limited agency: despite her continued efforts, external factors
devalue her time. Chima thus learns that her degrees and work experience do not count even if
obtained in a country resembling Canada. This experience is shared by several persons in the
sample. Whereas the nuances differ, they have in common that time appears lost and devalued.
Going with the flow
Sabar is in her mid-forties, was born in Turkey and moved to Canada in the early 2000s to follow
her husband who pursued postgraduate studies. Because they had planned to return to Turkey,
Sabar did not experience any pressure to settle into the new environment and describes this time
as a “honeymoon.“ Over the years, however, Sabar and her husband “got used to it in Canada“ (l. 492) and they remained there:
When I came, I wasn't very young. I was 26 when I first came to Canada. But I think
my mindset was maybe in my 19s or 20s, I didn't really do any research before I came,
I came because my ex-husband expected a program at the university in Kingston. I
didn't do research, he finished his- he was supposed to finish his task and we were
planning to go back but we stayed longer and life plan has been changed in a good
way. So we were lucky. One thing I remember, the only thing I knew about Canada, it
is very cold country. So before I came I went winter clothing shopping but it was too
much that I did. I don't know. Like when we came, maybe we didn't really need to do
that much research because we weren't looking for a job immediately. You know,
sometimes people come with savings, and then they establish a life, and they have
short period of time uhm we were just married, and we came to Canada. It felt like a
honeymoon to us. We were very relaxed mood. I wasn't really rushed for anything so it
was just enjoying the life and not very stressful even that we were making survival
jobs we weren't really worrying about it. It was a very easygoing life and so I didn't
think what I should know before I came to Canada, I was just happy to be here at that
time. It was like a- it was an adventure for us. (Sabar, l. 260-270)
Sabar first positions herself regarding age and life stage, opening a tension between her
biological age and her “mindset” age. Whereas Sabar judges her age of 26 at that time as not very young, she places her „mindset“ age at around 19 or 20 years which to her stands for a more adventurous and open-ended approach to life course decisions and planning. Her stay in Canada
was intended to be only temporary, thus she “didn’t really need to do research.” Against the counter horizon of people who come with the goal of starting a new life, Sabar describes her
experience as “very easygoing.” Sabar lets events emerge and evolve at their own speed. She
was in a „very relaxed mood (…) wasn’t really rushed for anything.“ Consequently, the agency of Sabar initially appears ambivalent: on the one hand, she is rather passively enjoying the flow
of time. One the other hand, she did create the conditions for this open-ended “adventure” through her shaping of the move to Canada.
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Sabar’s perspective on time is slowly shifting as her stay in Canada is becoming more permanent:
We were planning to stay maybe for five years and going back and then while we were
staying in Canada our children was born in Canada, they became Canadian, and we
were able to apply for PR
and after we applied, we wanted to get the citizenship and
citizenship takes another three years. By the time you are waiting for your PR
application and then you need to live another three years, we get used to it, living here,
we established friendships at the community and also my ex-husband has been
building a career, started building a career and he got a position at [a factory] that was
paying really well. So, when we compared things that if we go back to Turkey, we
need to start all over again and we weren't able to make that much in income and we
already had a house and friends, and we didn't want to move back after that. (Sabar, l.
Sabar and her husband do not follow through on their initial plan to return to Turkey after five
years. Sabar explains this with the birth of her children and the option to obtain permanent
resident status. However, the permanent stay in Canada is not the result of strategic planning.
Instead, it emerges through letting things happen, making small consecutive decisions and
comparing the situation with the counter-horizon of life in Turkey. Sabar’s sequential narration of the steps – permanent residency, waiting period, citizenship – indicates an external framing of
the experience and a primarily passive embracing of the new situation: Time goes on and
gradually new possibilities emerge.
In sum, Sabar initially intended to stay in Canada for only a limited time. Therefore, and in
contrast to Ning or Chima, she at first had little reason to learn and invest in making a life in
Canada. She “didn’t really do any research” in preparation of this move and learned only about the things that one might need to know for a “honeymoon” or “adventure,” such as the weather. Going with the flow, Sabar continues to gradually gain experience and a position that she does
not want to lose again by returning to Turkey. Thus, a return appears as the negative counter-
horizon which represents a stepping back and starting over under difficult circumstances: “if we go back to Turkey, we need to start all over again“ (l.71). Ultimately, Sabar remains in Canada to secure better employment and education opportunities for herself and her family.
Discussion and Conclusion: Learning by Doing Migration
The findings suggest that learning during migratory transitions takes different forms. There is
potential for positive transformation (Ning), negative transformation (Chima), and primarily tacit
Ning first focuses on efficient use of time, drawing on her original frame of reference that indicate
norms regarding life stages and appropriate ages for having children and changing careers.
Through her move to Canada, she questions previously held assumptions, changes her meaning
perspectives, and learns transformatively (Mezirow, 1978, 2012). Ning’s orientation on norms regarding chronology in the life course is socially embedded and was irritated when moving to a
new space in which these norms differ. She navigates the chrononormativities (Freeman, 2010) of
PR is short for permanent resident status.
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different social spaces, her view on available life-time broadens, and new opportunities for future
learning and action arise. Others function as models for different approaches to life and thus lead
Ning to question her preconceptions.
In contrast, Chima experiences her investments in time as repeatedly lost: first her education is
devalued, then her work experience in Western Europe not recognized, and finally the enjoyment
of future time in retirement reduced. Her perspective on time remains focused on the return on
previously invested time and biographical efforts. Chima’s biographical learning resembles that of many mobile “individuals [who] have to adjust their sense of who they are and what they can be
in the world” (Morrice, 2012, p. 267). Consistent with Webb (2017), this points to the potential
for negative transformative learning with the often “overlooked negative consequences, both
personally and socially, of a perspective transformation” (Taylor, 2007, p. 181). Further, Chima
appears dependent on others who repeatedly turn her into a migrant (Amelina, 2020) and who
refuse to recognize her skills and experience. With a decentered view on learning (Lave, 2019,
p. 134), Chima’s learning arrangement appears incomplete because–contrary to her expectations–there is nobody to “educate“ her. She does not find a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991/2008) that would have helped her deal with the repeated loss of time. The dependency on
others is emphasized by Chima’s subjective theory on learning which draws on being “schooled” and “educated”, following an “acquisition metaphor” (Sfard, 1998). In this mode, the role of formal learning becomes salient in two regards: first, through a focus on the (de)valuation of
formally obtained qualification. Second, the subjective theory of learning points to an expectation
to be taught, rather than learning in a self-directed way.
For Sabar in turn, time initially has little significance because her stay in Canada appears to be an
extended “honeymoon.” Only gradually she „gets used to” Canada and avoids a restart that would have been associated with a return to her country of birth. This “getting used to” can be understood as learning by “being stirred into practice” (Kemmis et al., 2017) and being “en-abled to participate
in practice” (Alkemeyer & Buschmann, 2017, p. 22). Because she did not plan to stay permanently,
Sabar has little initial impetus to either actively direct her learning nor to expect instruction by
others. Nonetheless, by participating in social practices she is tacitly learning to permanently be in
Limitations and further research
This research is based on narrative interviews conducted at a certain point in time. Therefore, the
narrated life stories are situated co-constructions through the interaction between interviewee and
interviewer (Charmaz & Belgrave, 2012). Further longitudinal or ethnographic studies could
address this limitation.
Building on the findings presented here, continued work could focus on the relational dimensions
that support or constrain positive transformative learning which have received little attention in
the research on transformative learning (Taylor, 2007, p. 187). In this regard, one could also study
more closely the effects of subjective expectations on learning: Are there culturally mediated
understandings of learning that lead individuals to pursue perspective transformation or rather
await instruction from others? Put differently: what comes into view, when one studies learning in
migratory transitions through perspectives on learning closer to the countries of origin, rather than
through transformative learning theory?
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In this paper, I took a doing migration perspective to study learning in migratory transitions against
the backdrop of temporality and discrepancies of understandings of (life)time. The analysis shows
that adults who migrate find different ways to learn the silent language of time (Hall, 1959) and
acquire play-ability (Alkemeyer & Buschmann, 2017). The findings point to three modes of
engaging with time as decompressing life-time, losing time, and going with the flow. There is
evidence for positive transformative learning in the mode of decompressing life-time. Conversely,
the mode of losing time is associated with negative transformation and a reliance on instruction by
others. In the mode of going with the flow, learning initially plays a small role and occurs tacitly
through increasing participation in practice.
Taking a perspective that considers the social dimensions of learning in transitions (Hof &
Bernhard, 2022), the role of others are multi-faceted: they appear as models that irritate previously
held notions on life-time, are absent instructors who do not educate on differences, and are
participants of practices into which one is gradually socialized. Learning during transitions in the
context of migration is thus a socially embedded practice that can be positively or negatively
transformative but may also remain ambivalent and tacit.
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