Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Facilitation of Transformative Learning Experiences


I wrote this paper for a class in my doctoral work.  I got an A on it.  I have deleted some critique parts.

Abstract

Transformative learning theory, discovered by Jack Mezirow, has produced numerous studies, publications, and debates.  Its original ten-phase model is sometimes collapsed to a four-stage framework of disorienting dilemma, critical reflection, dialogue with others who are interested in or experiencing a similar disorientation, and then reintegration into one’s life with transformed perspectives or ways of knowing.  Other theorists, while not fully subscribing to Mezirow’s framework, have contributed complementary ideas.  The author of this paper desires to investigate the nature of the disorienting dilemma, the processes that facilitate critical reflection, and the standards necessary for dialogue.  She exemplifies transformative learning theory with an incident in adult learning in which she was involved.  She proposes that college faculty need special and specific guidance in dialogue and reflective practice for transformative learning experiences to be accessible in faculty development situations.

Facilitation of Transformative Learning Experiences
In his article, “Calling Transformative Learning into Question:  Some Some Mutinous Thoughts (2012), Michael Newman critiques Mezirow’s prolific theory of transformative learning on the basis of six flaws, fundamentally arguing that what Mezirow has called “transformative” is what would formerly be called “good” learning.  Mezirow has often responded to critics like Newman who take issue with his definitions, his (seeming) emphasis on rationality at the expense of emotional development, his apparent Eurocentric-ness, the practical use of transformative theory in real-life adult education situations, and his perceived lack of emphasis on social action (Mezirow 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2004).  Others, including Mezirow himself, have tried to reconcile or blend Mezirow’s views with Kegan’s constructive-developmental theory, which is founded in Piagetian theory (Kegan, 2000; Mezirow, 2004; Taylor, 2000). 
In reading Mezirow and his many respondents, the outstanding questions for me remain,  “What motivates or initiates truly transformative learning?” “What level of change or alteration must an adult learner reach for learning to be ‘transformative’? “If I desire to facilitate or at least participate in transformative learning with others, are there needed preconditions for it, and are those beyond a facilitator’s control?”  These questions are raised for me on an everyday basis as a college instructor, a learning community participant, and a lay teacher in my church—all adult learning situations.  However, they became especially relevant in reflecting on a year-long experience with my colleagues in an attempt at course redesign.   In this paper I would like to analyze this experience through the lens of Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning.  At the same time, in order to explicate Mezirow’s theory more fully, I will compare and contrast his framework with Kegan’s constructive-developmental approach and make reference to Torbert’s action inquiry, Habermas’ theories of communicative action, Brookfield’s writings on reflective practice, and some other relevant adult learning and communication theories.  My conclusion is that transformational learning (as well as action inquiry processes) can be greatly enhanced if participants are also schooled in necessary and appropriate communication practices. 
Mezirow’s First Step:  The Disorienting Dilemma
Mezirow’s theory is well known for its ten-step schema, which starts with a “disorienting dilemma” and ends with “a reintegration into one’s life on the basis of the conditions dictated by one’s new life perspective”; this new life perspective is the product of such phases as “critical assessment of assumptions” and “provisional trying on of new roles” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 22).  In this same context, Mezirow states that the transformations often follow some variation of the ten phases “of meaning becoming clarified,” which I interpret as meaning that transformational learning does not have to follow the steps in order and, perhaps, may skip one or more.
However, Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) collapse these four phases of “meaning becoming clarified” into “four main components:  experience, critical reflection, reflective discourse, and action” (p. 137).  Mezirow’s transformations largely center around significant—either epochal, rather epiphany-like, and revolutionary, or long-term and gradual—changes in what are termed “habits of mind,” “perspectives” and “frames of reference.  The human action of “making meaning” is central to Mezirow’s constructivist view of learning.  Mezirow states, “Ideally, transformative learning moves toward a frame of reference that is more inclusive, discriminating, self-reflective, and integrative of experience (1997, p. 5).  Elsewhere, he states, “Kegan (1994) would describe perspective transformation as movement toward a higher level consciousness” (1996).
As often noted, Mezirow’s work has been prolific in inspiring much empirical research (for example Brock, 2010) as well as debates and discussions over his definitions and other aspects of his theory.  I would like to first look at the issue of the “disorienting dilemma.”  In some ways, the reading I have done to this point in the primary and secondary has led me to conclude that Mezirow prefers to be open-ended about the nature of the “disorienting dilemma.” Other writers have tried to define it more clearly; in some cases, they have used a similar concept as the basis for their own theory.  Jarvis, in his earliest model of learning, put a specific experience at the beginning of the learning process.  He explained that the adult learner can choose to ignore the experience, in which case no learning happens, or that the learner can address the experience and do the hard work of making meaning, changing, and learning from it (Ileris, 2006, p. 145).  Later, Jarvis (2007) wrote of this beginning experience as a disjuncture: 
In novel situations throughout life, we all have new sensations and then we cannot take the world for granted; we enter a state of disjuncture—the situation when our biography and the meaning that we give to our experience of a social situation are not in harmony—and immediately we raise questions. . . .  Now there are at least two aspects to this questioning process:  I cannot give a meaning to the sensation that I have, and I do not know the meaning that those around me give it. (p. 1)
Jarvis also developed a table of levels of disjuncture, ranging from “harmony” to “total strangerhood” (2007, p. 139).  He associated disjuncture with a sense of unease and disturbance.
            Another theorist who uses problematic situations as an impetus for learning is Kegan, although his constructivist-developmental approach is also tied to age, maturation, cognitive capabilities, and life experiences and does not always a process of reflection and discourse as Mezirow describes.  However, Kegan uses the word “disequilibrium” to define an experience or a period in the process of evolving from one “way of knowing” or “stage of self” to the next.  For example, a child in the imperial stage (roughly Piaget’s concrete operational stage) may have to endure the disturbance of no longer being the center of her parents’ world as part of  moving on to the interpersonal stage (roughly Piaget’s early formal operations).  “All disequilibrium is a crisis of meaning; all disequilibrium is a crisis of identity” (1982, p. 240).  How aware the child might be of this process is another matter.  In the later adult stages of learning that Kegan posits, the adult will be more aware of his or her disequilibrium.
Kegan does not see a transformational learning experience as necessarily synonymous with the movement to the next stages of his constructive-developmental theory, which I find fascinating but too robust to explore in this paper.  In his attempt to connect transformational learning with constructive-developmental theories, Kegan writes: 
Constructive-developmental theory looks at the process it calls development as the gradual process by which what was ‘subject’ in our knowing becomes ‘object.’  When a way of knowing moves from where we are ‘had by it’ (captive of it) to a place where we ‘have it,’ and can be in relationship to it, the form of our knowing has become more complex, more expansive.  This somewhat formal, explicitly epistemological rendering of development comes closest, in my view, to the real meaning of transformation in transformational learning theory. (2000, p. 54).
Kegan further writes, “Much of the literature on transformational learning really constitutes an exploration of what constructive-developmental theory and research identifies as but one of several gradual, epochal transformations in knowing of which persons are shown to be capable throughout life” (2000, p. 59). 
            I call upon these sources to conclude that adult learning is motivated, in the view of these theories and in my own thinking, by some emotional, personal, cognitive, or spiritual “crisis of meaning.”  Although Mezirow’s writings are often criticized for not embracing the emotional, other researchers have explored that subject; for example, Mälkki (2012) researched the transformational learning of women facing unexpected childlessness.  Others have taken the theory into the realm of spiritual growth (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007).  Transformative learning theory seems flexible enough to embrace that the idea that the level or depth of the “crisis of meaning” is personally experienced and constructed.    It seems well established in learning theories that these crises, disjunctures, or dilemmas provide a motivation for persons to do the difficult work of learning. 
The need for learning, growth, or at least more information in the light of cognitive and emotional disturbance is also recognized by researchers in persuasion and communication theory.   Cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1967) theory explores how the human mind adjusts itself to external circumstances and even personal behaviors that it finds internally uncomfortable.  According to Festinger, the human mind seeks a balance of comfort, of consistency and may find it by changing beliefs, values, and attitudes, or by changing the environment, or even by severing relationships.  Likewise, Kegan and Lahey (2000) state,
Although it contrasts with processes of greater complexity and greater disorder, the third force [behind entropy and negentropy] is not about standing still, about stasis or inertia, about fixity or the lack of motion . . . . More precisely, it is about a system of countervailing motions that maintains a remarkably hearty balance, an equilibrating process continuously manufacturing immunity to change [italics mine]. (pps. 5-6)
While transformative learning is a real phenomenon at many levels, and while Mezirow’s theory includes the principle that we engage in the adaptive activities of transformative learning willingly, adult learning theories also struggle with the natural human resistance to change, both in systems and in human lives.  At a certain level of disorientation, frenzy can set in; people can shut down emotionally.  The dilemma can be so personally disorienting to one person (while not to another) that the potential learner is unable to process, either for a short time or a longer period.  For transformative learning to happen, the disorienting dilemma must be of such a nature that the learner is capable of critical reflection, although perhaps over time the pain or disorientation will lessen to where the person can critically reflect.
            For example, a person diagnosed with cancer may be so overcome that she simply obeys the medical profession’s orders and goes through the procedures, almost robotically.  Others of a different mental and emotional makeup and resources may reassess their lives, their health practices, do research, join a support group, process the dilemma, and come out on the other side. The term “transformative learning” is often applied whenever a significant behavioral change is viewed, but that is not Mezirow’s meaning.  To achieve what Mezirow calls transformative learning, the cancer patients will have also had to change in terms of how they think of themselves in relation to disease, their power to make medical decisions, their views of themselves as  agents, or some other “way of knowing,” “frame of reference,” or “habit of mind.”   The cancer patient may become a vegetarian and eschew meat.  A friend of mine did so; she entered into a strict organic, meat-free, sugar-free, and additive-free diet for several years, which held her cancer at bay.  However, little else of her life—her faith, her career, her values, her relationships, her assumptions, her ways of knowing—changed.  The behavioral “transformation” was radical but I would not consider her learning to be truly transformational in the way Mezirow explains it.
Mezirow’s Next Steps:  Critical Reflection and Discourse with the Like-Minded
            From the basis of the disorienting dilemma, the learner reflects, enters into dialogue, and settles into a new equilibrium state, at least in reference to the matter of the dilemma.  What constitutes the middle steps of Mezirow’s theoretical process is critical reflection and dialogue, the internal and external processing of the learners’ response to the dilemma.  Influences like power and influence, ideology, race, class and gender differences, cosmology and other interests may pertain.  However, these influences may be rationally assessed” (Mezirow, 2003, p. 1).  Other theorists (Brookfield, 1987; Torbert, 2004) have focused on these processes primarily.  Often Mezirow has been criticized for emphasizing the cerebral, intellectual, or cognitive side of the reflection equation too much, and he has also been critiqued for not focusing on the social action or emancipatory aspects of transformative learning (Newman, 2012).  However, he is explicit about the requirements—if not the methods for attaining those requirements—of the kind of discourse ideally needed for transformative learning.
              Critical reflection is not an emotion-free process.  As Brookfield states, “Identifying and challenging the assumptions by which we live is central to thinking critically. . .  . Admitting that these assumptions might be distorted, wrong, or contextually relative is often profoundly threatening, for it implies that the fabric of our personal existence might rest upon faulty foundations” (p. 89).  However, the view of critical reflection as primarily or exclusively rational tends to persist.  Habermas’ “ideal speech situation” is truly ideal, calling for “truth, appropriateness, sincerity, and comprehensiveness. . . .  Habermas regards other forms of language use (including humour, irony, or parody) as secondary or ‘parasitic’ presumably because they compromise the lucidity that ideally mark the communicative process, or introduce elements of strategic action” (Crossley and Roberts, 2004, p. 35).  Still, Habermas’ contribution to both adult learning theory and communication ethics theory, while utopian to some, sets a standard in terms of freedom from constraint, coercion, and fear (Griffin, 2006).
The use of specific language strategies and other communication practices is a potentially fruitful area for adult learning theorists concerned with processes of individual and group critical reflection.  Mezirow writes, “Transformation Theory maintains that human learning is grounded in the nature of human communication; to understand the meaning of what is being communicated—especially when intentions, values, moral isues, and feelings are involved—requires critical reflection of assumptions” (1998).  Kegan and Lahey (2000) emphasize the language to which we have habituated ourselves and how it should be altered, even at the grammatical and syntactical level, to precipitate developmental learning. Brookfield has written whole books on the ideal kinds of discourse for critical reflection with others.  Torbert’s work (2004) in developmental action inquiry prescribes the type of communication practices needed to facilitate action inquiry; framing, the first step, is particularly a linguistic exercise, while advocacy and illustrating rely on rhetorical skills.
Communication theorists, of course, while not primarily concerned with adult education theory per se, have much to say about the barriers to the kind of communication practices needed for transformative learning to take places; they also prescribe answers and theoretical approaches to the problems of human communication.  Lakoff and Johnson (2003) discuss our use of metaphors and the hidden meanings they carry; as was seen in class when one student used a marketing metaphor, we often overlook the full ramifications of the figures of speech we adopt.  Tannen’s work (1994, 2001) explicates communication styles—those we use and how we respond to those of others, consciously and unconsciously.  Although her name is mostly associated with the study of gender differences in communication, she actually researches a much wider variety of communication styles, such as co-cultures in the U.S. 
As further examples, Jack Gibb’s work, though dating from the 1960s, is helpful for creating truly open communication climates that could build liberating structures, spaces of discourse where participants in action inquiry or other reflective dialogues could feel freedom from superiority, judgment, and dogmatism.  Watzlawick, Beavin-Bevalas, and Jackson (1967) present their five axioms of communication from the field of psychiatry, including that the nonverbal is operative even if no words are spoken, each communication event has a content and relationship dimension, and communication interactions present symmetrical or complementary power dynamics.  Even a model as simple as the Johari window, which encourages the communicator to be aware of her areas of disclosure to self and others, can be helpful to adult learners (1963).
What is interesting to me in reading the work of the adult learning theorists is that when it comes to the steps or stages where reflective practice and discourse are prerequisites for learning, there is a tacit agreement that these are not natural skills.  The processes of reflection and dialogue are not inherent; they have to be learned because so many issues, even those of which we are unaware, can mar the communicative process. By presenting lists of ideal communication standards, they imply, and often admit, that these are behaviors that must be present but usually are not.  At least this is my reading of them.  Others, for example Torbert (2004), Kegan and Lahey (2002), and Drago-Stevenson (2009), are more explicit about how to achieve the “right” kind of communication practice.
Communicative practice is crucial to transformative learning experiences, and we are often unaware of our own communicative inefficiencies or insensitive to the cultural differences in communication styles.  If Kegan  (1982)  is correct, many adults are at adolescent levels of maturity.   Therefore, I would propose that those who facilitate adult learning do so by addressing some key communication practices and not taking for granted that everyone will enter discourse fully prepared to do so.   Of course, the goal is to guide the learners to question their assumptions and be reflective about their own communication practices even as they reflect on the matter under discussion.  I am not proposing that the facilitator referee or umpire the discourse; in that case, the adult learning facilitator threatens to become a censor.  I only suggest that the facilitator remind the participants of the standards and expectations of good communicative practice, and that perhaps some coaching beforehand might be necessary.
Another fruitful area is the connection between writing and reflective practice (Leamnson, 1999).   Composition theorists have developed a rich field in “writing to learn” as distinct from writing for rhetorical purposes.  My own experience as a writer and writing instructor, and experiences such as the one discussed below, have led me to conclude that if adult learners are expected to use writing for critical reflection and as a precursor to communicative discourse in a small group or learning community, they must be free from the judgment of the red pen; ideally, the written text should be private and used only for reflexivity.  
Last Step:  Reintegration and/or Action
            As with the certain open-endedness about the nature of the disorienting dilemma, my reading so far finds Mezirow vague about how the reintegration after transformative learning or the actions taken actually look in the real world.   While this does not bother me, because I believe that adults are free to experience learning and to make meaning in their own ways, Mezirow often finds it necessary to answer critics who say he does not emphasize the emancipatory approach to adult learning theory; even if he does, some say, it is emancipatory only for the individual.  Mezirow defends himself by saying that not all adult educators are sufficiently trained in the social action aspects of adult education (1998, 2000). 
Incident:  An Example of Transformative Learning Denied
            In Fall 2011, our vice president of academic affairs informed us that our college would be involved in the ---  The subtitle for the --- is ---  In short, we as a faculty were called upon to redesign our core courses for better outcomes (specifically, lower D, W, and F rates and higher likelihood of retention to graduation).  The method for doing so was to increase student engagement in the material and to make the course methodologies more learner-centered.
            There are a number of observations I could make about the process that took place over the next eight months of the academic year.  However, the real critique is over the process as an adult learning venture, because that was the point—faculty were supposed to learn how to create learning-centered courses and implement them.  In my view, the resources and rhetoric involved in the project should have qualified the project as transformative learning, since we were being asked to “re-imagine” our undergraduate courses, to think about them in a whole new way.  The status of equilibrium at the beginning of the academic year should have been different at the end. Not only should course syllabi be significantly changed, but faculty’s “points of view” and “habits of mind” about their classes could have been different.   In looking at this project and its results, however, I believe the potential for significant and even transformative adult learning by the faculty was lost because of a lack of shared sense of urgency (dilemma), a lack of liberating structures for dialogue, a resistance to critical reflection practices, and a paucity of communication ability.
            Can an organization or authoritative structure create transformative learning experiences, if indeed those come from a disorienting dilemma?  How is dilemma created?  Does it need to be created, or simply unveiled because it already exists?  From the viewpoint of the --- at a national level, the dilemma exists in higher education—we have deep philosophical, financial, and practical problems as college and university professionals.  And we as a faculty were informed about the problems, but whether those were internalized is another matter.     The beginning thesis was that we were doing something wrong, or at least not right.  Too many of our students were not graduating, they were not prepared for the upper level coursework, and they were disengaged. 
            In my experience, faculty (and most people) do not like being the primary source of blame for the problems an organization faces.  Because the --- was focused on faculty activity, we were being singled out as the culprits who must be corrected.  I believe the dilemma was not internally experienced, only externally imposed.  Some of the faculty did participate because they truly wanted to learn how to improve their instructional design and delivery and because they felt the dissonance of their own circumstances.  But others joined in because of the persuasive personality of the project leader, the promise of “brownie points” on their promotion and tenure review, or because their dean or department head had enjoined them to do so.  I participated in the --- at two levels.  I joined in with other COMM 1110 instructors to redesign that course, and I led a group redesigning developmental English as part of the SACS accreditation review which we are undergoing this fall.  I did feel a personal disorienting dilemma, as I have written about previously in this class—a dilemma between my own teaching practices and my desire to lead the students to take ownership of their college learning. 
All participants in the redesign effort were assigned to read a book on creating learning-centered classes, which was essentially a workbook with dozens of templates.  We were supposed to fill in the blanks with statements about how we would incorporate particular changes into our classes.  Obviously, the type of learning, or change, required here was technical and instrumental, not adaptive.  What should have been encouraged as a process of critical thought--reviewing assumptions about our courses, rethinking what a college class should do, interrogating our basic beliefs about our students and their abilities and motivations, examining our values and reasons for why we do what we do in the classroom, and “re-imagining” our little part of the world of higher education—was reduced to a short answer test. 
            However, I am not sure that the faculty would have been that committed to questioning our assumptions and interrogating our practices, at least actively and publicly.  They were reluctant to complete a short writing assignment about how they would actually change their courses, which was done for assessment purposes.  As Boud, Keogh, and Walker (1985) state, “It is only when we bring our ideas to our consciousness that we can evaluate them and begin to make choices about what we will and will not do” (p. 19).  Writing and journaling are often recommended ways for early stages of critical reflection to take place, due to the way it can let us see our ideas in front of us and also bring emotions from the limbic system into the frontal lobe (Goleman, 1995).  Considering the value of writing, it is unfortunate that the faculty members were so resistant about exploring their thought processes through writing; possibly it was due to the fact that the journaling would be viewed by others and used as examples.   I believe that a case for more extensive journaling and a promise of confidentiality should have been made
            The phase during which adults engaged in transformative learning dialogue with others was also problematic during the course redesign.  Although we had discussion groups, they were faulty for the purposes of dialogue for three reasons.  First, the discussions devolved into a sharing of “what I do in my class” or complaints about how unprepared and unengaged the students were.  Secondly, listening was not evident; the exchanges seemed like serial monologues rather than dialogues.  Third, equality of participation was nonexistent, as certain faculty liked to dominate and perform.  This experience led me to conclude that one of the best things that could be done for our faculty, and perhaps for all, was faculty development in communicative developmental action inquiry, convening, or some other related methodology for engaging and creating true spaces of dialogue and discourse.  In these spaces participants could feel listened to, their ideas considered, their exchanges challenged in constructive ways, and hopefully, transformative learning achieved.
            It is not really the place of this paper to assert that no transformative learning took place in the redesign project.  Certainly some single-loop learning occurred, and perhaps some faculty engaged, unknowingly, in double-loop learning.  However, interest in the project waned in the spring semester and the number of faculty who will actually implement redesigned courses in Fall 2012 is lower than the original 65 in the project.  What I am concerned with is how transformative learning can become a reality in faculty learning communities or faculty development in general, and how to overcome apparent faculty resistance to the practices necessary for transformative learning. 
            To some extent, transformative learning has similarities with deep learning as defined by Marton and Booth (1997).  College teachers espouse the desire to achieve deep learning with their students, but do they practice it themselves?  Argyris suggests not, affirming that “smart people,” such as college professors, have some inherent resistance to interrogating assumptions, values, and practices  (Argyris, 2000).   Further, Oxenford and Kuhlenschmidt (2011) state, “Some research suggests that individuals attracted to academic careers have characteristics that may exacerbate the effects of environmental stressors.  In particular, faculty tend to be highly intelligent and prone to maladaptive perfectionism . . . “ (p. 188).  Asking such persons to engage in critical reflection in a group setting, where assumptions and deep-seated beliefs are up for interrogation, may be difficult.  It is also a commonly held assumption that professors are more devoted to their disciplines than to their institutions; whether this assumption is true or not, it influences much of the discourse, practice, and motivational systems related to higher education (Cohen, 2012). 
Conclusion
            I have chosen this experience and this analysis through Mezirow’s theory of adult learning because faculty development is my area of research concern.  As I wrote in my application essay, I perceive too much of faculty development to be a hit-and-miss, bring-in-a-speaker, count-the-number-of-attendees, report-it, and move-on affair.  Goals, relevant methodologies, and assessment are fuzzy at best and more likely nonexistent.  Hines (2011) researched the faculty development services of 33 university teaching and learning centers, 29 of which served over 1000 faculty in their respective institutions. Only 45% of these institutions performed rigorous evaluations of the impact of the centers’ activities on student learning.  These measures, as well as those investigating the impact on teacher behaviors, were largely self-reports on satisfaction surveys, although she does note that one used “critical account analyses” (p. 282).  The primary method, Hines found in her research in 2011 and prior research in 2009, was satisfaction surveys, which do not require very much in the way of reflection or discourse.
Much of the philosophy of faculty development is oriented toward bringing in external experts rather than benefiting from the wisdom of instructors and the synergy of action inquiry and action research.  I would like to attempt to revitalize faculty development through action inquiry, critical reflection, and communicative action, even though I recognize that while these methods can be cost efficient, they require the participants to devote time and some emotional fervor to the process.  However, I receive hope from Elizabeth Roderick’s work (2011) at the University of Alaska Anchorage in developing workshops for faculty in leading “difficult dialogues” and then in engaging the Alaska Native community in the same.  She initiated and led a cohort program where elected faculty wrote reflectively and learned “how to talk,” using Brookfield and Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching:  Tools and Techniques for a Democratic Classroom (2005). 
Further encouragement for such a project comes from Kasl and Elias (2000), who write of their experience in a learning community of faculty colleagues who, they believe, moved as a group from Kegan’s Order 3 (socializing knowing) to Order 4 (self-authorizing knowing), especially in terms of their experience of white hegemony. What I have researched so far persuades me that those faculty members who give their time and energy to critical reflection and true dialogue with colleagues will benefit greatly both professionally, personally, and societally. 


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