Thursday, March 15, 2018

Transformative Learning and the Parkland Kids

Mezirow's Transformative Theory

I've been reading lots of Jack Mezirow lately. Mezirow is a guru of adult education, and has gained renown for his formation of what is known of as transformation theory.

According to Mezirow's (1997) transformational theory of education, whose goal is to prepare people for social change, three things are necessary for transformative learning - reflection, awareness of fields of reference (i.e. discourses), and participation in social change. Although Mezirow published his initial work in 1990, the clearest formation of his theory can be found in his 1997 formation, "Transformative Learning: Theory to practice," which appeared in New Directions for Teaching. Mezirow (1997) notes,

"Transformative learning is not an add-on. It is the essence of adult education.
With this premise in mind, it becomes clear that the goal of adult education
is implied by the nature of adult learning and communication: to help
the individual become a more autonomous thinker by learning to negotiate his
or her own values, meanings, and purposes rather than to uncritically act on
those of others. This goal cannot be taken for granted; educational interventions
are necessary to ensure that the learner acquires the understandings,
skills, and dispositions essential for transformative learning. Critical reflection,
awareness of frames of reference, and participation in discourse become significant
elements in defining learning needs, setting educational objectives,
designing materials and methods, and in evaluating learner growth using nontraditional 
methods such as portfolios." (Mezirow 1997: 11)

There are two problems with Mezirow's theory as articulated. First, he applies it only to adults, when in fact we had better provide Transformative Learning for our children, who face changes we cannot even foresee, if we want to build a better, lasting society. Second, Mezirow's definition of 'change' is narrow. Mezirow (1997) cites US Department of Labor and Australian government data on workforce preparation (7) as indicative of the changes people face, and for which they need Transformative Learning.  Not only is this complicit with capitalist valuation, which is precisely what causes inequalities and rapid change requiring Transformative Learning in the first place, it also ignores the pressing concerns of environmental degradation, growing inequality, and the erosion of democracy that we currently face worldwide.

Parkland Kids and Transforming America

Looking at the Parkland kids protesting now in the US, I can see ample proof that Transformative Learning is not only for adults, and that it can tackle more than job-readiness for labor market changes. The Parkland kids have undoubtedly been transformed by their (sadly traumatic) experience on February 14, 2018, just as the US has been transformed by the mounting toll of gun violence. Now, they have mobilized to shake the foundations of their society and demand change that protects their life.

These kids are showing an instinctive grasp of the tenets of Transformative Learning, as can be seen in the speech of student leaders (available HERE). First, they have reflected critically on the problem, how it affects them, and how others like politicians have failed to do so. "The adults have failed us," their representative intones, "This is in our hands now. And if any elected official gets in our way we will vote them out and replace them ourselves" (2:09-2:17), implying a transformation both in the status of the kids from powerless to powerful, as well as signalling their intent to enact a change in the status quo.

Second, they are aware of the fields of reference that dominate the discussion, and they know that guns in the US are seen by conservatives as an intractable political problem, as well as an essentialist cultural one. In response they have reframed it as a moral question, stating, "if that's what it takes, we will shame our national policymakers into protecting us" (0:20-0:24). They continue this vein, adding,

"This is about guns, and about our morality as a country. When the commander in chief's solution to this country's gun problem, you know we have a moral problem in the White House. When national policymakers value the blood money of the NRA over the lives of children, you know we have a moral problem in the halls of Congress" (1:07-1:35).

Since research has shown that conservatives respond to moral appeals (Feinberg and Willer 2012), this is a winning strategy for transformation.

Last, they are participating in the national discourse, the societal conversation about guns in all its aspects. The speech above touches not only on the students' own experience with guns, but the toll across American society, from conservative bastions like churches, to different racial communities. The representative asks for protection by policymakers "Not just in schools, but in churches, movie theatres, on the streets, and in the communities of colour, which are disproportionately devastated by the sickness of gun violence" (0:27-0:37). Besides the speech above and student walkouts across the nation, an art protest of 14, 000 shoes has been left on the lawn of the capitol to represent all those who have died in gun violence (PBS News). These multimodal appeals to various strata of American society, giving them a greater chance for enacting transformation.

As I write a chapter on Transformative Learning, and the attempt to codify it called Transformative Pedagogy,  I am inspired by those that have already made transformation a life practice, and hope to bring similar reflection, awareness of fields of reference, and social action into pedagogy.


Feinberg, Matthew and Willer, Robb. (2012). "The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes." Psychological Science, XX (X) 1-7.  London: SAGE.
DOI: 10.1177/0956797612449177

Mezirow, Jack. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult LearningSan Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, Jack. (1997). "Transformative Learning: Theory to practice." New Directions for Adult Learning and Continuing Education, no. 74, Summer 1974. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 5-12.

Open Book Media. (2018). "Student Speaks at US Capital: 'The Adults Have Failed Us. This Is in Our Hands Now'." Youtube Video.

PBS News Hour. (2018). "'The Adults Have Failed Us. This Is In Our Hands Now.' Students walkout over gun violence." March 14, 2018.

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