Shifting Perspectives: Introduction

As part of our mission to promote new approaches to student-centered teaching, Learning Innovation is publishing this series written by members of Duke’s Transformative Learning Intellectual Community. The TLIC is a group of faculty in the humanities and social sciences whose primary goal is to identify transformative learning moments among Duke students. Through this blog series, they will share what they learn about this approach so that more Duke students can benefit from it.

By Cori Crane and Deb Reisinger

At the beginning of this year, in late January, a group of Duke educators sat down to consider the question of transformative learning in higher education. We had received a Provost’s Intellectual Community Planning grant to deepen our understanding of how perspective transformation happens in educational settings. According to Jack Mezirow, the founder of this adult learning theory, transformative learning begins with a “disorienting dilemma”—an unexpected, discordant experience that unsettles us in some way and causes us to rethink our way of seeing or of being in the world.

Our group’s initial goal was to create conversations on campus about this theory and to begin to identify the conditions in which our curricula and our pedagogies may contribute to changing perspectives. However, between January and May, of course, much happened.

Our March meeting was interrupted by the global pandemic, followed by a stay-at-home order that provided us with an opportunity to explore transformative learning from more personal perspectives. COVID spun many of us into distinct, discordant experiences. Students on spring break were told not to return to campus; many grappled with lost independence as they returned to their parents’ homes, while others found themselves isolated and far from home. Educators—many new to teaching online—scrambled to convert their courses to emergency remote instruction, and while some sought balance as they juggled parenting duties, others struggled with isolation.

Transforming our courses into emergency remote offerings was disorienting for many educators who were used to face-to-face environments. How do we connect with our students through a green button at the top of our screens? How can we maintain the sense of community in a class when there is disparity in access? Larger questions loomed as well. What is a university beyond a physical place? How can we be effective educators from afar and still bring authenticity to a virtual environment? Given the sudden technological shifts in our work lives, we felt especially called to process together the major disorienting dilemmas we experienced collectively as educators. Many of us were still seeking to process these experiences when the murder of George Floyd laid bare once again this country’s racism and the socio-economic inequalities that plague our society.

In such moments of uncertainty, confusion, and anger, there is a potential for transformation, especially as we seek to understand the perspectives of others. Recent events are an invitation—and a wake-up call—to imagine that institutions, activities and relationships can and should be different than they are. In the coming months, members of our Transformative Learning Intellectual Community will reflect on our ways of seeing and being in the world through a series of blog posts. As we explore how transformative learning may help us gain insight into our work as educators, especially now as we move forward into the unknown of the fall semester, we hope to spark further reflection and a sustained and collective exploration about perspective-shifting.

For more on Transformative Learning:

To learn more about transformative learning and the theories associated with it, we recommend Patricia Cranton’s foundational book, Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults (1994).