Professor Richard Kiely: A Conversation on Transformative Learning

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

This past fall semester, the Transformative Learning Intellectual Community group at Duke hosted a public talk with Professor Richard Kiely of Cornell University.

Approximately 50 people participated in our 90-minute conversation, which was facilitated by TLIC members Jennifer Hill, who helped guide the conversation, and Alessandra Dinin, who created a series of engaging interactive polls that participants completed at various points throughout the discussion. The majority of the participants were Duke undergraduates who seemed eager from the start to dive into an exploration of the ways their own Duke education has and has not been transformative.

The conversation began with Professor Kiely talking about the importance of stories and narratives in the learning process and the ways in which critical reflection about the stories in our lives can lead to new understandings — to perspective transformation. Kiely shared personal stories of his own study abroad experience as a college student and his decade-long leadership of an international service-learning program in Nicaragua. Kiely noted that he has experienced firsthand the transformative impact that study away and service immersion programs can have on students’ ways of seeing and being in the world. He indicated that upon their return from these types of learning experiences, students often report having a radically different frame of reference or worldview – expressing a rethinking of their educational goals, career aspirations, relationships with others, and the purposes of their lives. Kiely invited participants in the conversation to recall their own stories and to think about times in their lives where they may have experienced perspective transformation.

Professor Kiely then invited participants to think more deeply about how we can intentionally design learning experiences that can encourage perspective transformation. Many students experience some form of transformative learning when they travel to a new place and immerse themselves in a culture and language with which they are unfamiliar, but do we need to travel to new places to experience transformation, especially now, during a pandemic? Not every student has the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time immerse in a culture that is new to them. How might transformative learning occur in a more traditional classroom setting – how can we design more normative curricular and co-curricular learning experiences that purposively transform students? What should the outcomes of this transformation be? What areas of our students’ lives should be most impacted and transformed – political, moral, intellectual, career, personal identity, spirituality? And to what extent should we support students in their efforts to translate their new emerging critical awareness into meaningful action and new behaviors?

Throughout the talk, Kiely called on the participants to think more deeply about these questions. He asked us to engage in a fundamentally radical examination of our unexamined assumptions about what learning is and how we best foster it. He suggested that “unlearning” is a significant and important aspect of learning – and that the path to unlearning is often best fostered through situations that create dissonance, disorientation, de-familiarization, and cognitive disequilibrium. He indicated that these critical incidences of disorientation or “triggering moments” often jump-start the transformative process – causing learners to question existing perspectives and to engage in multi-perspectival thinking.

Professor Kiely frequently referenced the work of Dr. Jack Mezirow, the researcher credited with the initial development of the theory of transformative learning. Kiely reminded participants that Mezirow conceptualized transformative learning as an ongoing process – never leading to an end state – but rather to continual development of higher levels of critical consciousness – leading to more truthful – less distorted – ways of seeing the world.

Undergraduates responded positively to Professor Kiely – as though they were yearning to explore questions about why we are all here at Duke in the first place. Our Duke students pressed Professor Kiely on several occasions on the question of whether transformative learning is really a form of education reserved for those with privilege – an approach to teaching and learning aimed at those who have lived lives of comfort? Some students suggested that it was often undergraduates from white middle class privileged backgrounds who report these types of eye-opening transformative learning experiences in which they become “woke” to new ways of seeing the world. Is transformative learning simply a pedagogy of privilege that is embedded in whiteness? Perhaps as educators we are discounting the diversity of experiences that our students already bring to the classroom. Some participants suggested that professors would benefit from more carefully reflecting on the ways in which they teach to their own fictive representations of the students in their classroom while remaining ignorant of the true lived experiences of the actual students sitting in front of them. Perhaps the most energy we felt during the 90-minute talk occurred in these moments when Duke students questioned the relationship of privilege and transformative learning.

Professor Kiely acknowledged the problematic aspects of transformative learning while also pushing back on the students’ concerns. He suggested that we might look historically at the roots of transformative learning in the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who developed a pedagogy of liberation designed to empower oppressed and marginalized communities. Professor Kiely reminded us that the true goal of transformative learning is liberation, social justice, and the development of greater critical consciousness. As the discussion came to a close, participants seemed energized to apply what they learned to our campus-wide efforts to re-imagine undergraduate education here at Duke – infusing the undergraduate experience with greater meaning, purpose, and transformation.