Shifting Perspectives: When Teachers Are Learners

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 Jennifer Ahern-Dodson and Joan Clifford

As educators, we often talk about being “life-long-learners.” (That’s why many of us go into education.) Often, we learn from students in our classes, and we learn alongside peers in teaching collectives. But how often do educators step onto truly unfamiliar terrain and learn? Putting ourselves in the learner role in practice can be challenging. We wanted to try.

After members of the Transformative Learning Intellectual Community (TLIC) read and discussed Cranton’s book, Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide to Theory and Practice (2016), we became curious about how art could be used to facilitate additional reflection about our own teaching–of particular interest after the tumultuous spring semester. After concluding emergency remote teaching in the spring, many of us have been trying to process the experience. What did we learn? How did it challenge our assumptions and practices? A myriad of questions floated among our group, and we were eager for meaningful reflection to inform how to move ahead for the fall semester.

That is how six of us in the TLIC found ourselves gathered via Zoom for a Soul Collage workshop, taught through The Art Therapy Institute.

In advance of our workshop, we gathered the art supplies that we would need: magazines, scissors, 5X8 cards and glue sticks. Some of us were dubious about how these supplies (reminiscent of our childhood craft projects) would help us explore our professional identities. After the facilitator introduced the process of personal reflection, we were provided guidance on making our collage cards based on two questions: (1) Who are we as learners? and (2) Who are we as teachers? We worked independently on our collages and then formed two groups to discuss our artistic endeavors. All of us were unexpectedly engaged and motivated to share explanations of our final products. The images that each of us gathered from catalogs, magazines, photos and other printed materials that were laying around our homes now provided original and defining representations of who we are as teachers and learners.


Joan's collage of a stone archway, an eclipse, the ocean, a kayaker, and a sunset.
Joan’s Collage: Who Am I As A Learner? Images include: a stone archway, an eclipse, the ocean, a kayaker, a sunset.

Once I heard the two questions that we were supposed to explore in our collages, the collection of print materials that I had available did not seem likely sources of images for this project because they were a random assortment of catalogs and magazines. I leafed through the pages looking for images that connected with me in some way. One of the first images that I found was the stone archway and I cut it out thinking that it was a known visual for academic settings. During my search I also selected the images of the ice bridge and the sunset because I am a nature lover–but so far I didn’t really seem to be complying with the focus of the activity. At this stage it appeared to me that my images were unconnected to the two questions so I paused and I began to consider possible connections between the fire, ice and stone images that would relate to my teaching and learning. When I found the eclipse photo I immediately recalled the 2017 solar eclipse and the large crowds of people who gathered in Duke Gardens to view it. I remembered that I was fascinated that day with the unusual shadows cast on the ground during the eclipse and this memory triggered a domino effect for piecing together a narrative of how the found images reflected who I am as a learner.

Teaching and learning are all about being open to the journey–passing through different phases and seeing things with new eyes. Navigating the waters and paddling under natural ice bridges; walking through doorways to embrace knowing the unknown. There are many different ways to see the world–and the inverted shadows created during an eclipse are a reminder of that fact.  How I arrived at my description –and the fact that my story really reflected elementary parts of who I am as a learner– was unexpected. It turned out that the process of selecting images and pasting them on a 5X8 card actually led me to reflect on my relationship with teaching and learning. It was a good reminder of the importance of being open to the process of learning, especially knowing that we will all need to adapt our strategies for teaching and learning in the fall semester. At the beginning of the semester I will talk with my students about cultivating ways to make the most of the current academic ecosystem.


Jennifer's collage of volunteers on the Appalachian Trail, a jeep stuck in the mud, hiker, sunrise, flower and butterfly.
Jennifer’s Collage: Who Am I As a Learner? Images include volunteers on the Appalachian Trail, a jeep stuck in the mud, hiker, sunrise, flower and butterfly.

As I was flipping through Our State magazine looking for pictures for my collage, I noticed a story about favorite hiking spots in North Carolina. The pictures reminded me of my volunteer work on Appalachian Trail crews years ago. My first crew included 15 people ranging in age from 18-72, with different skills, interests, experience levels, backgrounds and personalities. That first night we had to hike in all our tools, water, food and camping supplies for a full week, build our base camp, cook dinner and prepare for a full workday on the trail the next day. As I sat in my tent the night before, I had some regrets. What was I thinking? Could I carry the tools for the three-mile hike to the work site? Would I be able to sustain energy all day? Blisters? Bathroom in the woods?

Over the course of the week I learned how to dig a community privy, use a rockbar to move stones and build rock steps, chop tree roots with a Pulaski, and work collaboratively with people I’d never met before. So many new things. But in those moments when I got stuck, when I didn’t know how to use a tool or worried about the bears, peers were there to teach me. The crew leaders set the expectation that we all work together, build together, make meals and clean together, share frustrations (rainy days, ticks, blisters) and have fun together (campfire stories, name-that-tune, spontaneous music jams). The product (restore the trail) and process (have fun, be safe, learn some things, take care of ourselves and each other) were equally important.

When I think about myself as a learner in that environment, I remember my discomfort and worry about trying new things but also the exhilaration of having done it. I needed to get stuck, ask for help from those I trusted, and work through it. I walked alone. I walked with others. Most importantly, I felt like I belonged. I discovered I can learn from the process of getting stuck (and problem-solving my way out) when participating in a supportive community that helps me put things into focus, and we expect to teach and to learn from each other.

What stands out to me is not the skills I learned on the Appalachian Trail, but my experience learning. How can I make space for those things I most want students in my courses to experience: community, curiosity, openness, joy? What comes forward when I value these most?  What falls away? As I develop my fall course, I am asking these questions for each reading selection, writing assignment, assessment practice, and faculty-student and student-student interaction.

Looking Ahead to Fall

In the end we didn’t walk away from the art-therapy workshop with concrete answers, but this experience has zeroed in on the building blocks that define how we think about teaching and learning–a foundation that is even more necessary to shore up as we adapt to online platforms. Cranton argues that:

In some situations, consciousness-raising is promoted by exposure to new information, knowledge, insights, or values, especially those that are discrepant with our currently held points of view. But more commonly associated with consciousness-raising is seeing familiar things from a different perspective, thereby increasing one’s self-awareness regarding familiar things.

(Cranton 111)

When we put ourselves in the learner role and get curious about the process, remembering what it’s like to learn something new (and even to resist/question/doubt), we can reinvigorate our teaching by both reexamining our familiar practices and exploring the interconnection between our teaching and our learning through new eyes. We will continue to explore these issues in the TLIC and also write in our blog series about practices we are implementing this fall.