Education as Transformation: An Aspiration in Need of Operationalization

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 David Malone, Joan Clifford, and Deb Reisinger

Aspirational and operational – these are the two primary aspects of any curricular project or strategic educational initiative. Aspirational connotates a vision, desired outcomes, hopes and dreams. How will students be different as a result of the experiences we have designed for them? Operational includes the steps, actions and logic model that one will use to achieve this vision. How do we go about fostering the development of these outcomes? Both aspects – aspirational and operational — are essential to the actualization of any initiative – articulating “the why” and planning “the how.”

The 2017 strategic plan of Duke University Together Duke – is a deeply thoughtful, aspirational statement of a vision for Duke – in large part focused on the student experience and our hopes for their personal growth and educational transformation.  The University’s plan only has four goals – so it says something important when one of those four is entirely focused on “providing a transformative educational experience for all students.” Written in a way that is often inspiring and stirring, Together Duke has much going for it – there is much to celebrate about a university that chooses to place the well-being, holistic development and educational transformation of its students at its very center.

But what exactly is educational transformation?  What areas of our students’ lives are we hoping to transform? Can transformative education be “provided”, and if so, is it accessible to all students? And through what means and intentional design is this transformation occurring? It is with these questions in mind that the Transformative Learning Intellectual Community (TLIC) was formed – a small group of Duke faculty and administrators who for the past year have explored research literature, conducted surveys, held campus conversations, co-sponsored conferences, met with college administrators, and hosted visiting scholars in order to gain a better understanding of what transformative learning is and how it occurs.

Together Duke is a wonderful statement of purpose but it is by no means a perfect document. It falls short in some areas – particularly in terms of outlining how the strategic plan for a transformational undergraduate education will be operationalized. While the aspirational side is clearly stated, the operational side at times lacks a clear articulation of the specific steps we need to take to attain our aspirational vision. In the area of curriculum development, operationalization is often thought of as the process of articulating desired learning outcomes, then creating strategies for assessing the attainment of those outcomes. The challenge is that our most desired learning outcomes (such as educational transformation) may need new measurement tools – their existence must be inferred through the examination of learning artifacts and student behaviors over time. So how do we go about doing this?

To examine more closely these challenges and the vision for educational transformation that is presented in Together Duke – and to more deeply understand the concept of transformative learning in general, the TLIC group used a critical reflection model known as What? So What? Now What? (Rolfe et al, 2001). In this blog we share with you the thoughts and insights which resulted from our TLIC reflections.


One of the primary goals of the TLIC is to collaboratively develop a common understanding of and a shared discourse at Duke around transformative learning. As we explore what transformative learning can look like in our specific disciplines, we are researching, critiquing, and developing instructional strategies and assessment tools (surveys, reflection prompts, rubrics) that can help facilitate transformative learning and assist us in capturing how student learning may be occurring within and across various majors and disciplines.

One curriculum design theory that has been helpful to the TLIC group in framing an analysis of transformative learning is a model known as “backward design” (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). Backward design is a three-step process that begins at the end of the learning process. We start by first articulating the desired transformative learning outcomes we have for our students. How will our students be different at the end of four years and three summers as a result of the learning experiences we design for them? What new knowledge, skills, values, dispositions, and ways of seeing and being in the world will our students develop as a result of Duke transformative undergraduate experience? The second step involves thinking through how we might be able to assess and evaluate the extent to which we are successfully achieving these desired learning outcomes? How do we go about determining the extent to which transformative learning is occurring? How do we best benchmark progress? What are the recognizable signs and visible indicators of educational transformation? Finally, we take on the third step – designing instructional activities and learning experiences that we believe will foster the development of the desired outcomes. What needs to happen inside and outside the classroom to bring about this transformation? How do academic, co-curricular, residential, and summer learning experiences come together to form a transformational education where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts? These are the questions that drive the TLIC group as we examine the degree to which transformative learning is occurring at Duke.

So What?

So what’s the big deal about transformative learning and why begin by focusing on Duke’s use of transformative learning as the goal of undergraduate education? If so many good things are already happening here at Duke in terms of student learning – which they are – why the critique? Because perhaps we are not yet the best version of ourselves as a University. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being a place where young people go to simply acquire knowledge and skills to prepare for a career and 10 being a college that truly changes lives – what ranking would you give us?

We raise this question to point out that there’s so much more we need to do – and can do – to better understand how transformative learning works, how we can be more intentional about creating opportunities for transformative learning, and how we can establish the enabling conditions and cultural norms which facilitate transformative learning. After all, bell hooks wrote that there is really is no true love without a critique – and all of us love Duke.

So what exactly does Together Duke mean when it asserts that a primary goal of the University is “providing a transformative educational experience for all students?” Some form of the word transformative appears at least 12 times in the Duke strategic plan. Yet despite the emphasis on “transformative education” nowhere in the document is the word transformative succinctly defined. As readers we are never told exactly what transformative learning is. There is little discussion of the impact transformative learning may have on students, because the document fails to fully answer the question “transformative learning towards what end?” The plan does not fully operationalize transformative learning in ways that clearly outline the desired outcomes of all this transformation. The principles and values undergirding transformation are not fully identified. Finally, the strategic plan fails to provide a complete explanation of how the process of transformative learning works. What are the enabling conditions, the campus cultural norms, the instructional strategies, the student life experiences – key things that produce transformative learning during students’ four years and three summers? What are the intentional actions we as an institution must take to engage students in activities, experiences, spaces, places and mindsets that foster transformation?

This is not to say that many folks both on and off campus are not working thoughtfully to engage Duke students in transformative ways. They are – deans, faculty, staff, student leaders, our co-educator community partners – all are facilitating opportunities for transformative learning. Moreover, this is not to say that the college doesn’t already have in place several curricular and co-curricular programs that are potentially transformative. The college does. The strategic plan does a good job of identifying existing high impact educational experiences and signature learning communities such as Bass Connections, Focus, Duke Immerse and Spring Breakthrough. Finally, this critique of the strategic plan’s lack of specificity isn’t meant to suggest that many of our undergraduates aren’t having transformative experiences. Many are. There are a significant number of Duke students who arrive on campus with unexamined assumptions and limited capacity for perspective-taking – yet they graduate with deeper and more nuanced ways of seeing the world and approaching social and intellectual problems. Transformation is occurring – at least in some of our students. But how can we strengthen our efforts?

Now What?

What are the next steps for TLIC in its efforts to lift up within the Duke community the complexities, nuances and potential power of transformative learning? These steps come to mind:

1. Invite faculty, staff, community members, and especially our students to more clearly define transformative learning in the specific context of an undergraduate education at Duke.

2. Develop a set of benchmarks and assessments to determine the degree to which transformative learning is occurring– we need to elucidate what outcomes transformative learning is leading to.

3. Further explore and deepen our examination of the relationship of privilege and transformative learning – by filtering our conceptualization of transformative learning through lenses of critical theory and anti-racist pedagogies.

4. Build bridges between academic affairs and student affairs so that our efforts to promote transformative learning are more integrated and coordinated. It will take a whole village to deconstruct Duke’s bifurcation of academic life and student life.

5. Find ways to move our campus’s most transformative educational experiences from the margins to the center of the student experience. Make what may be happening for some – possible for all. Programs such as Duke Immerse, Bass Connections and Focus may indeed be transformative, but they aren’t normative for all of our students. The tenets of transformative learning should become the norm at Duke – all students should have opportunities to experience educational transformation. Best practices to engage in transformative learning should be baked into the everyday structures and systems of our undergraduate education.

We invite you to join TLIC on this journey. Watch for future talks and conversations on the Duke Event Calendar and join the Duke Service-Learning listserv to receive announcements. We look forward to partnering with you to operationalize programming in academic and student affairs that evolves students’ educational transformation.


Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D., & Jasper, M. (2001). Critical reflection for nursing and the helping professions: A user’s guide, Palgrave Basingstoke.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Backward Design. In Understanding by Design (pp. 13-34). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.