Returning to Online Pedagogy after a long break, I found that I was still interested in the learning theories—behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism—that were discussed in the second module (previous post). In the intervening time, I also took a course that discussed Indigenous ways of knowing and passing on knowledge. This led me to wonder if there is research documenting an “Indigenous learning theory.” A search of that phrase in academic databases eventually brought me to Elizabeth Lange’s (2004) article “Transformative and Restorative Learning: A Vital Dialectic for Sustainable Societies,” which, as the title suggests, explores an application of transformative learning theory. Knowing little about transformative learning theory, I also read a chapter of Edward Taylor’s (1998) The Theory and Practice of Transformative Learning: A Critical Review, which I found in Lange’s works cited, for more background. Although transformative learning theory does not exactly satisfy my search for an Indigenous learning theory, it has potentially interesting applications for my work.
Lange, E.A. (2004). Transformative and restorative learning: A vital dialectic for sustainable societies. Adult Education Quarterly, 54(2), 121-139. Retrieved on 26 December 2020 from www.researchgate.net. DOI: 10.1177/0741713603260276
Taylor, E.W. (1998). The theory and practice of transformative learning: A critical review (ERIC Clearing-house on Adult, Career, and Training for Employment, Information Series No. 374). Columbus, OH: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Retrieved on 27 December 2020 from files.eric.ed.gov.
Lange describes her research as a “double spiral-action research model” (p. 124). I was unfamiliar with this research model, but she describes it clearly: the participants in the study were making their own exploration and investigation, while the researcher observed them and collected qualitative data through interviews. The study was based on a continuing education course targeting adult learners. The students in the course were the participants in the study, and constituted a self-selected group, since they were the first fifteen people to sign up for the course. Most of the participants were female, but they represented a diverse population in terms of socioeconomic status and gender (p. 125). The study initially intended to show that Lange’s modification of transformative learning theory could be applied “for revitalizing citizen action, particularly action toward a sustainable society” (p. 121), but encountered limitations around the participants’ perception of their effectiveness in society as tied directly to their employment. This reinforced, for Lange, the need for transformative pedagogy and a sustainable society where an individual’s participation is not limited to their employment (pp. 135-7).
Lange simplified the structure of transformative learning theory for her course, so that her students would begin experiencing the positive effects of their learning earlier in the course (pp. 124-5). Taylor gives the structure, citing Jack Mezirow, in ten points, moving from “a disorienting dilemma” to “a reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective.” Taylor immediately goes on to summarize Mezirow’s theory as “Three common themes of Mezirow’s theory are the centrality of experience, critical reflection, and rational discourse in the process of meaning structure transformation” (p. 8). Lange cites this quote as she explains the transformative nature of her course and the integration of restorative ideas into her application of transformative theory.
Taylor, in his overview chapter on transformative learning theory gives most of his attention to Mezirow’s writings and theories, but he also includes perspectives from Robert Boyd and from Paulo Freire, all of whom were active in the last third of the 20th century (pp. 12-13). While Mezirow treated transformative learning as a very dry, psychological phenomenon, Boyd treated it more spiritually, as a process of discernment, with the teacher acting as a guide or facilitator (p. 15). Similarly, while Mezirow described transformative learning individually, Freire—writing initially before Mezirow—included society in what was to be transformed, not just the student (p. 17). Lange also cites Freire in using transformative learning for social change.
Throughout both articles, transformative learning theory is described as being a learning theory for adults. In multiple places, Taylor describes Mezirow and Boyd appealing to the maturity of their students, Boyd claiming that transformative learning reconciles the first and second halves of life (p. 13). Indeed, as I read both Lange and Taylor, I could imagine using this learning theory with my non-traditional students. I believe that the personal dilemma element that is the launching point for Mezirow is applicable for many traditional college students as well: first generation students, students who change direction, and students who experience setbacks in their education are all candidates for a simplified form of transformative learning. As I strive to instill a sense of vocation in my students, Freire’s idea of “ontological vocation” (quoted by Taylor, p. 16) encourages me to plant seeds in my students to make them receptive to his form of learning later in life, by starting them down the transformational road as they leave college. Where Lange demonstrated that transformational learning theory could be applied restoratively, I wonder if it could be used in the context of vocation with traditional students with a similar effect of promoting civic engagement and a sustainable society.