Shifting the Paradigm: Transformative Learning Theory

This morning I read an article by Kelly McGonigal posted at Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning, called “Teaching for Transformation: From Learning Theory to Teaching Strategies” [note: this link opens a PDF File]. McGonigal outlines “transformative learning theory” — a concept developed by Jack Mezirow — in order to argue that teachers should not just “unload” new information on students in a blind hope that they will absorb it, but that they must instead “transform” the knowledge and skills they already bring with them into the classroom into something new. McGonigal elaborates a solid outline of the process by which students can best revise their assumptions and adopt a new paradigm, by discussing the five key conditions which enhance transformative learning:

1. an activating event that exposes the limitations of a student’s current knowledge/approach;

2. opportunities for the student to identify and articulate the underlying assumptions in the student’s current knowledge/approach;

3. critical self-reflection as the student considers where these underlying assumptions came from, how these assumptions influenced or limited understanding;

4. critical discourse with other students and the instructor as the group examines alternative ideas and approaches;

5. opportunities to test and apply new perspectives.

McGonigal gives some great pragmatic examples of how teachers can enable these conditions. I think my favorite is the “edgy” approach to designing the “activating event” which is intended to shake a student out of their habitual patterns of thought. (See my earlier post on “Outrageously Theatrical Teaching”). She recommends, for example, creating disorienting dilemmas through examples or evidence which challenges what students believe. More controversial, perhaps, she talks about setting students up for failure so that they must seek out new methods to succeed, or new paradigms for understanding a concept.

As a teacher of thinking and writing to entering college freshmen, I think transformative learning lies behind a great deal of what I do. To some degree, I spend more time prompting students into critical thinking (by staging active discussions of issues raised by a text), and on critical discourse in the class (by hosting peer editing workshops) than I do rotely teaching basic writing skills…and it often pays off in a student’s desire to refine those skills on their own along the way.

The most complicated area of this theory, I think, lies in the “critical self-reflection” component. McGonigal offers good strategies for this (keeping an intellectual timeline, assigning a reading journal, etc.) but when it comes right down to it, students often fake transformation in an effort to mollify the teacher, instead of genuinely examining the state of their learning — which they would rather have the teacher do. I tend to assign a number of “reflection” papers, and sometimes a student’s self-confessed “transformation” rings hollow in my ears when they tell me they suddenly can “see the light” thanks to something I’ve assigned or something we’ve done in class. Sure, some students may very well feel like their composition class was their “salvation” or something. But many students will simply play the role of the transformed thinker, and I’m skeptical of that performance when it’s an emotional appeal designed only to persuade me that their lives have been changed by my teaching. Transformative learning should not be about converting their identities into something a teacher wants them to “become”. The fact is, we are constantly transformed by what we learn — change is never total. One isn’t transformed their freshman year and then over and done with learning. Rather, it’s the structure of their thinking (often concretized during high school into patterns of “survival” or assumptions about “success”) that I seek to transform. And it’s only in grading the actual writing itself across the term — tracking the stages of the revision process and engaging in process-oriented assessment — where I have to look to find evidence of student transformation. A “transformation narrative” or memoir of enlightenment is not what I’m after at all.

McGonigal’s article is chock full of teaching strategies for all five of the conditions she outlines, and it’s definitely worth a review. It made me think about whether I’m following through on the “activating events” I stage in class and given me reason to think more carefully about how I try to teach reflective thinking.

For more on this theory, see Susan Imel’s “Transformative Learning in Adult Education”. For further reading, a primary source on this concept is Mezirow’s 1991 book Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

3 thoughts on “Shifting the Paradigm: Transformative Learning Theory”

  1. I agree with the fact that, we as teachers need to be very engaging and motivating. We need have our students actively involved in critical thinking skills so that they can develop their perspectives and world views. The active, constructive and critical discourse opportunities are usually what encourages students to look at things from different perspectives. The “critical self-reflection” is really the most complicated area in the transformative learning process. It is very difficult to have the students examine and reconstruct their perspectives. Learners need to become aware of the fact that they need to build upon their existing knowledge in a constructive manner.
    I really like the way you are expressing your ideas about transformative learning when you describe it as: Transformative learning should not be about converting their (the students) identities into something a teacher wants them to “become”. The fact is, we are constantly transformed by what we learn — change is never total.

  2. THANK YOU Sevtap…your commment arrives as I am working on a paper presentation on this subject, so it is very inspiring to me to know that my thoughts are shared by another teacher. Bravo.

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