Teaching for Transformation

Patricia Cranton is a professor of adult education who adheres to the ideas of “transformative learning” first proposed by Jack Mezirow.  In this article she gives pretty straightforward suggestions about teaching strategies for transformative learning, although she concedes there is no one right solution and much transformation is dependent upon the learner.  I appreciated the practicality of her article, although certain suggestions sound “political” to me.  As I review them here, I will try to also make some connections to the idea of becoming.

Before she lists her suggested teaching strategies, Cranton writes this:

I think it is this environment of challenge that underlies teaching for transformation. Although this challenge must be combined with safety, support, and a sense of learner empowerment, it is, at the center, a challenge of our beliefs, assumptions, and perspectives that leads us to question ourselves. (p. 66)

I have mixed feelings about this.  I do think questioning our assumptions and perspectives is useful.  Without this ability we cannot think critically.  However, the writing I have read about transformative learning stresses this upsetting of beliefs so strongly that it feels like an agenda.  I also think that learners need to come to trust themselves, too.  If the emphasis is always on challenging and provoking, when do they come to a sense of acceptance for who they are and what they believe?

In any case, here are her teaching strategies.  As a teacher, I love it when a theory is applied with specific suggestions:

  • Creating an activating event: “expose students to viewpoints that may be discrepant with their own” (p. 66).  “…[E]ncourage students to seek out controversial or unusual ways of understanding a topic” (p. 67).  I don’t agree with the emphasis on controversy as a value in itself, however.
  • Articulating assumptions: Brookfield’s (1990) technique of critical questioning, student autobiographies, and a process called metaphor analysis are all suggested.  The metaphor analysis sounds like an interesting exercise to do near the beginning of MESA 201 (Introduction to the Middle East).
  • Critical reflection:  She suggests techniques such as critical incidents (Brookfield 1995), reflective journals, and the teacher modeling critical self-reflection and establishing critical self-reflection as group norm.
  • Openness to alternatives:  Cranton says that the instructor must create safe and enjoyable ways to try on different points of view.  Some ideas shared were role plays or critical debates (Brookfield 1990), for which you adopt the point of view discrepant to your own.  In addition, students could write letters or memos from a different perspective.
  • Discourse: Here Cranton lists Mezirow’s ideal conditions (which I wrote about elsewhere). She suggests the use of dialogue journals.
  • Revision of assumptions and perspectives: Cranton says that transformation can be painful or joyful for one’s students.  I do think that learning should affect what we become, transforming us into something better.  However, it also sounds like the teacher playing God in a way.  There are so many agendas that could be behind the desire to “transform” someone else.  So I worry about this.  Cranton suggests that the instruction make time for one-on-one interaction with a student who is changing beliefs (p. 70) — yes, it would be good to support someone going through the wringer of a belief/perspective overhaul!
  • Acting on revisions: Some suggestions here include experiential learning projects, or, when that is not possible, a simulation of a real setting.  Students should be encouraged to create action plans to capture their new goals.

Why do I harbor some reserve when I read the various articles of transformative learning?   I participated in an experience that was especially “transformative” for many of the students (and teachers) involved.  Called “Camp Anytown,” it brought about a dozen teachers and 40-50 students to a retreat for 3 days of intensive discussion, reflection, and activity.  Many of the themes were based around the categories into which we place people: gender, race, class, disability, religion.  In some ways I was in the advantaged group: age/position (teacher, not student), class (upper-middle, educated), race (white).  In some ways, in the traditionally disadvantaged group: gender (female), religion (Mormon), disability (hearing loss).  I still remember some of the conversations and activities because of the power and emotion to them. By the end of the retreat, I felt very “known” by the entire group and especially by the people who had been in my smaller discussion group.  That was immensely rewarding (it’s rare to feel like students know you, a teacher, as a real and complete person!).  But was I transformed?  I don’t think so.  I shared a lot.  I learned a lot.  I became more sensitive to advantages I had received in life which others missed out on (such as having shelves and shelves filled with hundreds, thousands of books in my home growing up).  In some ways, I felt that the better parts of me were reinforced, not transformed.  Sometimes we do need a complete overhaul of our perspective or belief system.  But sometimes we need to have the good and unique and honest within us reinforced.

Resources

Cranton, P. (2002).  Teaching for Transformation. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, (93): 63-72. doi:10.1002/ace.50. http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/ace.50.

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