Transformative Learning: Four Activities that Set the Stage

It’s thrilling when I, as an educator, witness a student’s transformation from a limiting perspective to one that is broader, more inclusive, and most times empowering and inspiring. I can see that the change in their ways of thinking opens their mind to new possibilities about their lives and their worlds.

The recognized precursors for transformative learning of triggering event (or disorienting dilemma), critical self-reflection, discourse with another, and an action using the transformed perspective (Brock, 2010) provide a helpful framework for viewing the online environment where each may be fostered.

1. Triggering events. Students who feel comfortable and supported in the classroom are more likely to share their thoughts, ask questions, and be open to probing or opposing views. A welcoming email, a structure to share personal information, goals, and a means to become acquainted with others help students to feel comfortable. Taped audio welcome messages allow students to hear the faculty member’s voice, which in turn helps to connect students with faculty. Through the introductory events, students find that they share similar goals, fears, and experiences. They also are exposed to classmates from different backgrounds and cultures and realize that many share the very same goals. This realization in itself expands their way of thinking.

Reading material, conducting role-plays, participating in team projects, conducting research, and watching videos followed by questions and discussion can introduce major opportunities for triggering events. Various and wide-ranging ideas, minority or contrarian opinions, trying on new roles, and the sharing of experiences and assumptions expose the reader to new ways of thinking. Any of these can cause the student to pause and consider what differs from their own way of thinking. Peer evaluations on projects or faculty’s feedback on projects/assignments can also create a triggering event.

2. Personal critical reflection. Online technology offers numerous means for reflection. This is triggered not only through thinking about and articulating viewpoints through weekly discussion, but also through writing papers, using electronic journals, and writing personal blogs. Each promotes reflection and synthesis of thoughts. Asking the student to expand on another student’s comments, share their own thoughts, and be exposed to a contrarian or alternative view also encourages reflection.

Team assignments, role-plays, or otherwise representing and explaining opposing assumptions behind views on a topic can force a student to try out a new way of thinking, and can trigger a reflection on their assumptions. Probing questions from faculty can further reflection about the assumptions held. Unlike a face-to-face classroom, in an online environment the student does not have to respond immediately. Most of the discussions are asynchronous, which allows time to think and reflect critically before answering. This can be a real advantage.

3. Discourse with others. Technology has opened up many avenues for having discourse with others. It is in this precursor that one student will exchange assumptions with another on a viewpoint, will share their disorienting dilemma (triggering event), or probe deeper about why they thought the way they did and how they may be changing their assumptions. Faculty can use their own institution’s technology platform such as Blackboard or other Web-based classrooms or can use some of the social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or the digital world of Second Life (just one of many game-type interactive sites). We are also seeing faculty building their own avatars, using synchronous chat rooms, and taking advantage of Skype, Wimba, Wikis, and audio or video messages, and I’m confident there is much more to come. Technology in the online classroom can give an advantage to students for discourse with others because of how it expands the availability of geographic locations, increases the number of possible discourse partners, and allows 24/7 discourse rather than confining it to a face-to-face classroom.

4. Action. According to the theory of transformative learning, action on the transformed assumption is needed to complete the process of transforming the learning. The needed action can be writing a paper, making a statement to another person, or any other means of asserting the new assumption. For some, the action is a behavior such as joining a professional organization, working toward new goals, changing the declared academic major, selecting a new career, or, in one situation I observed, forming an organization to address an identified need in the community. It is helpful to ask students frequently and at the close of the semester to share what they learned that expanded or changed their thinking on a topic and how they will apply the change in their thinking.

Reflections for educators and educational institutions
It’s a new world in academia, and it is one in which some educators may require critical reflection on assumptions about online learning and outcomes. In addition, educators may need to enhance their technological competencies, and some may need to be more selective and thoughtful with technological applications. Institutions may need to invest more in designing further capability in their computer platforms and ensure that technology choices are conducive to both teaching and learning in the online environment. Opportunities to develop faculty skills for online andragogy and staying current with the ever-changing tools are a must.

I pose a few items for us as educators to reflect upon and be mindful. The reader will perhaps expand the list. Would I know transformative learning if I saw it? Does my classroom foster an environment for transformative learning? Is there more I can do to foster a climate conducive to transformative learning? What assumptions do I hold about learning online? Are my assumptions limiting ones? Am I mindful of the transformative learning experiences of the students in my online classroom? How can I assist students on the edge of transformative learning?

Brock, D. E. (2010). Measuring the importance of precursor steps to transformative learning. American Association for Adult and Continuing Education. Adult Education Quarterly 60 (2).

Taylor, E. (2008). Transformative learning: A critical review. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational Education (Information Series, number 374).

Dr. Joyce Henderson is a professor of human resources at the University of Maryland University College.

Excerpted from Henderson, J. “Transformative Learning in the Online Classroom: Experiences of an Educator” Online Classroom (October 2010): 1-3. Print.