If you are looking for a vivid and inspiring example of transformative learning, then read this young woman’s blog entry. I like how she expresses herself and how she describes her physical and emotional journey in this short piece about her climbing experience with Girls on Ice on Mount Baker.
Merriam & Bierema (2015) define transformative learning as “essentially a learning process of making meaning from one’s own experience.” One of the foremost thinkers about transformative learning is Jack Mezirow. Mezirow (1991) defines the process as “an enhanced level of awareness of one’s beliefs and feelings, a critique of their assumptions and particularly premises, an assessment of alternative perspectives, a decision to negate an old perspective in favour of a new one or make a synthesis of old and new, an ability to take action based upon the new perspective and a desire to fit the new perspective into the broader context of one’s life” (p. 161).
Often the life-changing events that trigger transformative learning are personal crises such as divorce, death of a loved one, natural or man-made disasters and accidents, a health crisis, financial upheaval, or unexpected job changes. It is these changing perspectives which Mezirow saw as the raw material of the changes that occur in transformative learning. Cooper (n.d.) states that three common themes characterize Mezirow’s mechanism of transformational learning: experience, critical reflection and rational discourse.
What is interesting to me in this theory is the rational process of reflection. Mezirow (1991) lists three types: content reflection – on what we perceive, think, feel or act upon; process reflection, an examination of how we perform these functions of perceiving, thinking or acting; and, finally, premise reflection in which we ask why we perceive, think, feel or act as we do. It is in this third type of reflection, premise reflection, that perspective transformation takes place.
There are several potential sites for transformative learning – it evidently takes place at the individual level – it is the person who changes, after all. However, transformative learning has also taken place inside of classrooms, online, at work and in the community. Dirkx and Smith (2009) list techniques that foster transformative learning in the classroom, including the use of messy and badly-defined problems as the central focus, collaborative learning, the use of consensus group writing teams, individual and team debriefs , reflective activities and journal writing. Mezirow (1997), meanwhile, suggests “journal writing, metaphors, life history exploration, learning contracts, group projects, role play, case studies, and using literature to stimulate critical consciousness.” For instructors in such programs, great care must be taken with the ethics of what is being planned and delivered in the classroom. Care also must be taken to prepare and attend to the emotional responses from the student, as well as from the instructor, when transformative learning is achieved.
Mezirow’s view of transformative learning is considered to be a critical, cognitive and rational process. Other thinkers see transformational learning as emotional soul work, or even cultural-spiritual. These approaches fall in the realm of “beyond rational” and draw from Jungian psychology and spiritual sources. In the beyond-rational approaches, Cooper (n.d.) lists the following activities to engender transformative learning: imagery, relaxation, meditation, prayer and spiritual disciplines, martial arts, psychoactive drugs, yoga and body disciplines, breathing techniques, acupuncture, out-of-body experiences, biofeedback, dreams, suggestion and hypnosis, near-death experiences, psychoneuroimmunology and others. Transformative learning has also been studied as a trigger for social change – the writings of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (2000) look at transformative learning as a propellant for large scale changes to create a different and more just reality.
Transformative learning is not without its critics. Some critics have suggested that the label of transformative learning has been applied to too-great of a range of learning. Questions are asked about what exactly is being transformed – identity? Consciousness? Actions in the world? Our broader social context? The boundaries of transformation also are unclear. Is the individual only changing, or are groups changing as well? Can an organization be transformed? And how do we assess this change? Can learning objectives be written and completed to effect transformational change? Wherever the location and however broad the context, Mezirow (2000) suggests that this type of learning leads the individual to a perspective that is “more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change and reflective”.
Dirkx, J. M. & Smith, R. O. (2009). Facilitating Transformative Learning: A Response to Michael Newman’s “Calling Transformative Learning Into Question: Some Mutinous Thoughts,” Adult Education Quarterly, 62(4), 399-405
Freire, P. (1970/2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Merriam, S., & Bierema, L. (2014). Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons
Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Mezirow, J (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74, 5-12.
Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to Think Like An Adult: Core Concepts of Transformation Theory. In J. Mezirow & Associates, Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress (pp. 3-33), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
For the longest time I thought my learning style was visual. I believed that I learned best by reading, and taking notes – and then by reading again. Merely listening is not a full learning experience for me, I have to move my hands, put pen to paper to write or doodle, and later read (and reinforce) what I have written. This is how I learned how to speak my languages, this is how I learned new marketing skills, this is how I learned how to code. Reading. Writing down. Looking at my paper – or my screen – as I wrote, and engaging memory to fingertips to remember, and goading my brain to add to existing knowledge.
But now I read that “learning styles” is a myth. Really? Is this so? I was surprised and needed convincing. Before writing this blog entry I reviewed reference articles to confirm that yes, it appears that the belief in learning styles is a result based on “uniformed interpretations of genuine scientific facts.” According to Howard-Jones (2014) “the brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound.”
Why is this belief so prevalent, and so popular?
Goldhill (2016) states that this belief in learning styles appears to be based on the well-proven fact that different regions of our brain have different roles in processing visual, sensory and auditory stimuli. Howard-Jones (2014) in his exposition of the myth, explains that the belief lies in students being able to learn differently depends on “which part of their brain works better”. The myth has spread probably because it hints at an idea that appears sensible: people learn differently. Unfortunately, there are dozens and dozens of ways to separate people by type, so it’s hard to know which distinctions to use for which learner, for which topics, and which situations.
Reiner and Willingham (2010) opine that “popular current conception of learning styles equates style with the preferred bodily sense through which one receives information, whether it is visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (for some reason, no one claims that there are tactile or olfactory learners).”
Aharonian (2014) believes that the idea may have taken strong hold because it is appealing. It enables us to perceive ourselves as individuals, it is a positive and optimistic proposition that each person has equivalent potential to learn if the instruction can be matched to their individual learning style. It also places the responsibility for students’ achievement (or lack thereof) on the teachers and the educational system rather than the students.
What evidence is there that this approach, around for a few decades now, affects learning outcomes? Hardly any. Studies by Reiner and Willingham and others conclude that “students differ in their abilities, interests, and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles. Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning.”
In a recent TEDx talk, Marshik (2015) states: “The idea of learning styles is sexy. It sounds good. It feels good. Saying that people have different learning styles is another way of acknowledging that people are different, and differences are important, especially when it comes to the classroom. But me saying that learning styles don’t exist is not saying people are the same. People do differ in many important ways; learning styles just isn’t one of them, and just because some ideas sound really good, just because we really want something to be true, doesn’t make it so…. A reason that this belief exists is confirmation bias, that natural tendency we have as humans that we want to be right — or we don’t want to be wrong.”
In conclusion the danger of this myth is two-fold: instructors are wasting time and resources accommodating learning styles, and these accommodations do not help learning. Moreover, the belief in learning styles prevents teachers from trying strategies other than the preferred learning style to help the student learn the information in a better way. Marshik concludes her presentation by stating that “All of us are capable of learning in a variety of ways – we are not as limited as we think we are”.
The 18-minute video is well worth watching, and is linked below:
Motivation continues to be studied in depth by academics. With this post I would like to discuss three theorists who ground my beliefs in what motivates people – and specifically my own students.
The earliest and perhaps most famous theory of motivation is that of Abraham Maslow (1954), who believed that people possess an internal drive that is constantly growing. He defined a hierarchical needs system, usually represented as a pyramid, from the most base to the most aspiring, as follows:
Self actualization (the realization of one’s true potential) Esteem (seeking recognition, awards) Love and belonging (connectedness to others with love and/or friendship) Safety (security, shelter, health) Biological and physiological (hunger, thirst, sleep, sex)
Each new level of needs builds upon the previous one. Needs are arranged according to their importance to sustain human life. Maslow (1943) and his followers believe that if one level is not fulfilled, it is not possible for a person to attain the next level. For example, if a person is not feeling safe or adequately sheltered, their focus will be on remediating this situation rather than striving for recognition or self actualization. However, the further up a person can successfully progress on the hierarchy of needs, the more psychological health and individuality they will be able to manifest.
Maslow’s theory is certainly a great start to understanding what motivates people, but I also look to other thinkers for additional dimensions. A theory that is of great interest to me trains its lens on the motivation to achieve. Douglas McGregor (1960) proposed his famous XY theory in his book “The Human Side of Enterprise”. Theory X (authoritarian style) posits that the average person dislikes work and will avoid it if s/he can. Therefore most people need to be forced to perform work, or else they will be punished. In Theory X, the average person needs to be directed, naturally avoids responsibility, is not ambitious and wants security above all else. This is an ineffective way to motivate a worker – or learner. Threatening students with bad grades is an ineffective way to motivate them to learn, and may make them overly anxious, further impeding their ability to learn and create. A more progressive approach with positive motivation will enable greater learning.
Continuing with McGregor, we now turn to Theory Y, where the effort in performing work is as natural as play. In Theory Y, the average person self-directs in the pursuit of their objectives without threat of punishment. People are committed to their objectives and seek further responsibility, and want to use their imagination, ingenuity and creativity. Managers, as well as instructors, who follow Theory Y are usually more successful at motivating their charges.
And finally, according to David McClelland, there are three types of needs: achievement, affiliation and authority. These needs are found in all workers and students. Understanding a learner’s needs will help the instructor to motivate them: a student with a high need for achievement will relish challenging projects with reachable goals. Students with a high need for affiliation will do well in a cooperative team-based environment. And students with a high need for authority or power will also do well in team based projects, and will gravitate to positions of leadership within them.
The three academics whose major theories I just mentioned are only three of many, many great thinkers who studied what motivates people at different times, and roles, during their lives. I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, McGregor’s Theory XandY (well, my belief is in Y and not X) and McClelland’s three needs theories in my classes when instructing on topics of technology management – or refer to them when working in teams in my consulting practice.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.
McGregor, D. (1960) “The Human Side of Enterprise” New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
McClelland, D. (1961) “The Achieving Society”, New York: Free Press
In my technology management classes at BCIT I seek to create an environment where my students are open to learning. I strive to create a climate where students are comfortable, feel free to express their opinions, and share stories about business situations which lead to classroom discussion.
At the beginning of each term I start my courses with a round of introductions, ensure I learn my students’ names, create clear expectations for assessment and coursework, and nurture opportunities for students to meet one another in paired discussions, create trust and bond during the course, and learn from one another as well as from me.
I am always keen to learn more on the topic of creating a positive learning environment for students, so I turned to scholarly papers as well as to online articles on to see what other tools and techniques I could adopt to facilitate my students’ learning.
Barge (2014) presents a handy one-page checklist for teachers to create a “well-managed, safe and orderly environment that is conducive to learning, and encourages respect for all”. He bases his list on “good discipline, effective routines, smooth transitions and ownership of the environment”. Some of the tactics that he proposes involve creating a comfortable physical environment and “preparing and organizing the materials and framing the lessons in a logical and coherent manner”.
He notes, however, that a positive learning environment is not simply a matter of organization and class layout. Trust is important as well. In a positive learning environment “risk-taking is welcome, engagement is the norm and authentic conversations occur”. This can only happen in a nurturing space where students feel psychologically safe, where their self-image is preserved, where they feel they belong, the lessons and actions are purposeful and where learners derive a sense of competence.
Taylor (n.d.) believes that learning is facilitated by humour. It “facilitates retention of novel information, increases problem solving, relieves stress and increases perceptions of teacher credibility”. One does not need to become a stand-up comedian to use humour in the classroom: a simple attitude of smiling often and being light-hearted, spontaneous and natural may suffice. Relaxing control, opening conversation with humour – perhaps by using stories or relating everyday events – works well. Adding a touch of tasteful humour into lectures also helps relax the mood in the class, and opens students to new information.
In a short article for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alfred (2008) draws a short list of actions to enable learning: present a classroom code of conduct during the first class, make classes relevant, teach positive actions, reinforce positive behaviours, be a good role model (and point to other positive role models), and always remain positive.
An article on the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness (n.d.) web site also underscores respect for the individual as a building block for learning environment – learn the students’ names, encourage them to participate in class, listen to what they have to say and incorporate highlights into teaching materials and respect their contributions. Also, organize the physical environment, be organized, involve some humour in class and encourage the students to loosen up as well; establish norms of conduct, be respectful of students’ inputs, and highlight their contributions.
In summary, creating a positive learning environment requires attention to a number of important vectors: creating such an environment is not only a matter of maintaining a comfortable physical space, but also requires organized lectures with clear expectations, a lighthearted environment where the student is respected, engagement is encouraged and two-way communication is highlighted. The focus is not only on the physical space, but also on the climate of the heart: a space where, as Barge(2014) reminds us, a class can meet in an atmosphere of “trust, fairness, caring, respect and enthusiasm”.
As I prepare for a new set of classes beginning in April, I will keep these wise directives in mind. I will continue to prepare my classes and set expectations ahead of time, I will work on instilling a light-hearted yet focused learning environment with diverse activities to engage my students, and I will continue to encourage discussions.