If you’ve ever tried to teach someone something, in or out of the classroom, you might know that sense of frustration that one feels when a student ‘just doesn’t get it.’ For centuries, men have argued about the right way to impart knowledge. Some learning theories focus on the material, many on the teacher, others on the student, while some take a mixed approach.
Most great thinkers understand that education is more than a set of methods by which knowledge is transferred. One good example of this is Albert Einstein who said
“Education is not the mere learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”
Transformational Learning Builds on Adult Learning Theory
Indeed, if learning were merely about good habits, students would remember everything they ever saw written on a whiteboard or heard during a lecture. Unfortunately, accrual of deep knowledge doesn’t happen this easily. To help learners, especially adults, retain information something transformational has to take place.
It’s a scientifically proven fact that we learn differently as adults than we did as when we were younger. According to the latest research in educational neuroscience, for adults to move from simple processing to real understanding of a concept:
Transformational Learning: A Theory
1.They need to know WHY they are learning the information. Why is the information relevant? How will this learning help them in the future? For an adult to retain something you’ve taught them, they have to know ‘what’s in it for them.’
2.The lesson must be connected to the real world. How is this information orientated to their everyday lives? What real-world problems will it help them solve?
3.They must be ready and motivated to learn. Have internal pressures motivated them to seek knowledge? Are they prepared to take on the challenge? If not, it might be difficult to teach them anything. Transformational learning takes care of this part of adult learning.
Jack Mezirow (1923-2014) understood the importance of motivating the learner. An American sociologist and professor of adult learning, Mezirow believes that to be successful, educational methods and media must persuade and inspire. They must become the catalyst which permanently improves lives. In short, Mezirow held that true and successful education must not be informational but transformational. It is out of this belief that the theory of transformational learning (AKA transformative learning) was born.
The critical thoughts of this theory are that:
• There are two types of learning: Instrumental and Communicative. The first is related to procedural and problem-solving tasks. The second focuses on the communication of feelings, needs, and desires.
• All students come into the classroom with different assumptions and expectations when it comes to learning. These are all shaped by past experiences.
• For learning to take place, a change of perspective must happen. Outlined below is the step-by-step process.
The Ten Phases of Transformation Learning:
Just like there are phases of development as a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly, there are steps that happen as a learner’s perspective is transformed. The following case of a student learning about the Civil Rights Movement serves as a good example.
1. First, there is a disorienting dilemma. This is the fog that rolls in when a person has an experience that doesn’t make sense to them. This dilemma cannot be resolved without a shift in view that brings clarity.
Let’s take an education major enrolled in an American History course at the university level. She knows little about the Civil Rights movement other than general information like the story of Rosa Parks. This student erroneously believes that Rosa was the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on a public bus. During class, the student hears her teacher talk about Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old who refused to give up her seat on a bus nine months before police arrested Rosa Parks for the same thing.
This lecture presents a disorienting dilemma that challenges what the student believes she knows about civil rights events.
2. Learning about Claudette leads the student to self-examination with feelings of guilt or shame. She begins to question her own belief and knowledge. Who is right, she or the professor? How could she have been so foolish not to know this information? What other wrong facts might she pass on to her own students in the future if she doesn’t learn more about the Civil Rights movement?
3. The student critically begins an assessment of assumptions. What other information might she have misconstrued?
4. Raising her hand shyly, the student shares her discovery with her teacher. Several other students share that they too thought that Rosa Parks was the first to refuse to give up her seat, leading to the bus boycotts. The student realizes that she shares her discontent and the process of transformation with others in the class who ashe realizes are negotiating a similar change.
5. In phase five, there is an exploration of options for new roles and actions. The student wonders, ‘what next?”
6. This question is answered by planning a course of action. The student might check out a book from the library that talks about Claudette Colvin or plan to Google her name once the class is over.
7. The student’s quest for info will lead to the acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan.
8. In phase eight, provisionally trying new roles, the student might discuss what she’s learned with other students in greater detail and connect the dots to other events.
9. This will lead to the building of competence and self-confidence in the new roles and relationships. Now the student is prepared to write a paper on the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement.
10. She now understands the Civil Rights Movement from a different perspective and what she has learned is reintegrated into her life.
Ways to Make Your Teaching Transformational
Transformational learning can be seen as a bridge. It helps students transition from simply accepting whatever information the teacher is presenting to a state of being a critically engaged, independent learner.
Like our history student above, when transformational learning takes place, there is a shift in internal beliefs that happens deep inside the minds and hearts of the learner. This allows the information given to them to move with them long after they leave the classroom.
To help this type of change occur, educators can:
• Learn more about students’ backgrounds and prior knowledge so you can identify current assumptions are beliefs they are holding.
• ‘Activate’ an event by providing a lesson that challenges their views.
• Provide different viewpoint examples and allow students to figure out where ‘they stand.’
• Teach critical thinking techniques that will strengthen their abilities to make sense of things.
• Ask students to talk things through when problem-solving.
• Encourage reflection and journaling.
• Keep the conversation going outside of the classroom if possible.