In Education for Perspective Transformation: Women’s Reentry Programs in Community Colleges (1978), Jack Mezirow first laid out the premises of what has since come to be known as Transformative Learning Theory (TLT). Unlike previous models of cognitive development which posited that human learning past the age of adolescence was limited largely to the acquisition of new information, TLT holds that human understanding can dramatically change throughout life, and that central to this process is critical reflection of previously held habits, values, and assumptions. Indeed, while Mezirow and his colleagues were ostensibly charged with identifying common traits among highly successful adult education programs across the country, what they discovered was that students who are most successful in any college setting—and in fact, successful learners in almost all contexts—are ones who do not simply try to adapt previous skills, attitudes and methods to new circumstances, but who recognize the need to abandon old habits and beliefs when they no longer work, and then feel supported to actively develop new practices and ways of thinking.
In one sense this seems like the most obvious thing in the world. For most educators in the humanities, it is a deeply held commonplace that college should be a time of experimentation and exploration, where students are encouraged to actively question previously held assumptions and beliefs, and engage in critical reflection and creative problem-solving. But in fact, Transformative Learning Theory adds much to our understanding of the process by which people learn that has important implications for teaching —ones that have been largely overlooked by scholars in my own field of rhetoric and composition.
Indeed, TLT gives us important ways to understand the challenges and needs of students, and compels us to be attentive to much more than simply how we present new information in the classroom. For many students, going to college is itself an extremely complex and disorienting experience—one that requires much more than simply learning to buy textbooks and “study hard.” In many cases, students must abandon deep-seated assumptions, practices and beliefs they have relied on for years in order to engage in the kind of intellectual work the university and their respective disiciplines demand. Learning and change can be unsettling under the best of circumstances, and when this change comes with a host of social, political, economic, and interpersonal reevaluations, it can feel absolutely overwhelming. Thus, in addition to fostering a classroom atmosphere where students feel comfortable posing questions and exploring complex topics without the fear of failure—what Ken Bain describes in What The Best College Teachers Do as “creating a Natural Critical Learning Environment”—I strongly believe teachers must be sensitive to the emotional and psychological stress that all learners endure as part of the learning process itself.
For example, many students in the writing classroom have never thought seriously about writing as a process before, and thus, do not immediately recognize the value of drafting papers in advance. For many of these students, writing has always been something done at the last minute, and if they were particularly successful “cranking out” papers in high school or the community college, the idea of writing multiple drafts over a period of several days or even weeks may seem not only pointless, but seem almost insulting. At the other extreme, for many students writing has always been an extremely fraught, painful activity. For some of these students (particularly those whose home languages or dialects differ significantly from Standard Edited English), writing has often meant failure. Many of these students have been told—often explicitly and repeatedly—that they’re bad writers, and so it is no wonder they often put off writing tasks as long as possible, wishing to avoid the feelings of shame and embarrassment they have often come to associate with writing itself.
These different students exist side by side, often elbow-to-elbow in the same classroom. For both sets of students, learning to see writing as a process involving several drafts and a willingness to substantially revise in light of feedback takes both time and trust. That is, both sets of students may be very resistant to giving up their previous beliefs about writing, and for entirely different reasons. To be effective in such circumstance, teachers must not only be willing to stress again and again the benefits of composing multiple drafts—and be prepared to give students a range of different strategies for how go about doing so—but also anticipate the reasons why their students may continue to struggle with something that to many teachers seems obvious and almost natural. What’s more, teachers need to be prepared for the quality of their students’ writing to actually get worse for a time, as students struggle to adopt new strategies that will ultimately help them become more sophisticated communicators.
I dwell on this topic of learning because while my own teaching has always been informed at some level by a commitment to critical pedagogy, it’s only been in the last few years that I have come to seriously consider teaching in terms of theories of learning in an explicit and systematic way. Indeed, despite the fact that I have been teaching writing at the college level for more than 15 years—and have spent almost six years providing pedagogical training and support to graduate teaching assistants and instructors as a writing program administrator—I was largely unaware of the vast scholarship on teaching and learning until returning to graduate school to do additional work in higher education administration and policy. In a very real sense, then, I’ve gone through a series of important transformations myself, and have had to abandon several of my own assumptions about teaching, learning and administration that simply no longer seemed to work.
For example, while I have always been invested in student-centered pedagogy, I find research on learning-centered pedagogy and design to be enormously important—especially when thinking about online environments. The work by Siemens and Downes on connectivism seems particularly salient in this regard. That is, the notion that learning does not actually describe something occurring within any individual mind or consciousness, but rather, is a relational process in which a diverse range of human and non-human “nodes” engage each other to form new networks of meaning and signification strikes me as potentially revolutionary, even as I can understand why many of my colleagues in the liberal arts find the notion very troubling.
Another belief I have abandoned—although in truth, I’m not sure I ever fully embraced it—is that there is ever a single method, practice, theory, or approach to teaching that works all the time, or that is even inherently better than others. This is actually something I first came to realize from years of observing other writing teachers in the classroom, and seeing all kinds of activities that I never imagined could possibly work end up being incredibly successful. This sense has been further reinforced by my work at the Searle Center for Advaning Learning and Teaching at Northwestern, where the focus of faculty development is on helping faculty to critically reflect on their own goals and beliefs about learning and teaching, and then encouraging them to explore and adopt methods that seem to best fit these emergent understandings. I have come to see that there really are no one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to teaching, and even “best-practices”—while often a useful way of engaging faculty in discussions of teaching—can become inhibitive and restrictive if presented as absolutes.
Which in a sense brings me back to where I began. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey argue in Immunity to Change that successful growth for both individuals and organizations depends on cultivating an environment in which, “people feel safe taking the kinds of risks inherent in changing their own minds.” Ultimately, this probably comes closest to how I understand my own work as a teacher and administrator: my goal is to engage others in a process of reflection and exploration so that they begin to discover for themselves what is meaningful and true.