Transformative learning?

At first, I found the idea of transformative learning appealing. The idea that learning could result in changing your life (or result from a major change) makes sense, especially when discussing things like major medical crises. I felt like I experienced a pretty major epiphany during a previous course about gender. It felt sudden, it felt eye-opening. Never before had I thought about the socially constructed nature of gender. I started thinking more about the language I use, ways I code gender and sex every day (“throw like a girl,” baby announcements, calling a male friend a wuss). The more I read about transformative learning, however, the more I wondered.

After reading Newman, I think I find myself agreeing that transformative learning as it has come to be envisioned is really just part of a broader category. Yes, sometimes it seems sudden. But is it really? Although the epiphany seemed to happen from a single course, it was also building on previous learning I had done. It coincided with having a group of fellow grad students who also had similar views and such issues had become more widely discussed in the world around me (making it part of my socio-historical context). So was it really a lightning bolt for me, or was it just the realization that was a lightning bolt?

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by Lucas Marcomini

I certainly did not systematically sit down with the intention of transforming myself. I engaged in the readings my instructor assigned and those sparked thoughts. I researched based on my potential thesis aims. I did not set out to transform my thinking. I did not proceed to social action other than my own awareness.

I also wonder whether it is really always advantageous to have learning be truly transformative in such an explosive manner. Quieter transformations, longterm learning, can have a huge impact. Little by little, we can change our lives in sustainable ways, engage in society differently, watch society change and participate in that. My transformation into an Education major was not a sudden transformation or done quickly. It was not even on anyone’s schedule but mine. That transformation, however, has had a huge impact and education has been a big part of it. The incidental learning, the little pieces here and there, have added up to change my perspective. Does that make that learning any less transformative in hindsight just because it was not done intentionally? Likewise, is learning wasted if it is only a building block for more learning or reaffirms something I already thought or felt?

Sometimes we need a “wow” factor but I don’t think that is always necessary. Quiet moments can have much more staying power. The same thing is said of lifestyle changes. Many of the people who make sudden, drastic changes do not keep them up. Are they really engaging in transformative learning? Does a transformation not need to truly change you in a consistent way? It is nearly impossible to say if something has truly transformed you except with hindsight. Only in looking back can we see with clarity what impact anything had. Planning to transform does not guarantee that there will be a transformation, no matter how much you plan for it.

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