Teaching for Transformation

20 Feb

We humans seem to resist change even as we yearn for the ability to make change. Look around at the stacks of self-help books on the bestseller lists today on making change and you’ll see that they talk almost as much about how to overcome our resistance as they address how to make change in the first place.

Recently, I came across a website committed to helping us make the change we’d like to make in any area of our life. “Join our FREE community” it said and “create a profile, set your goal, receive encouragement, find inspiration” and then “Live the life you were meant to live!”

I was struck by the open-ended, generic nature of this call that seemed to say: we know you want to change your life from its current state to a new one and whatever the specifics of your goals and journey of transformation, we’ll help you get there.

The notion of transformation fascinates me although transformation – as I’ve sometimes experienced it – isn’t necessarily a comfortable thing.  What, then, makes us morph from one state to another? And who prompts that transition?

As a teacher I think about transformation as a process of entering new states of being and am struck by its power particularly as I witness it in the classroom.  The world of education – of teaching and learning – has an implicit goal of transformation. The process of acquiring knowledge and skills and preparing oneself for one’s future, at the very least suggests a change from a current state of not knowing to knowing and being prepared to engage the future.

So what does it mean to intentionally teach for transformation?

Looking back at my own experiences in teaching it seems important to design the moments and experiences where transformation can occur.  When we have experiences that touch our humanity at a deep level, transformation is likely to occur. In four recent teaching experiences, I watched students at the University of Minnesota go through a transformation of sorts.  The transformation was a kind of movement where they were learning to move between worlds, while simultaneously opening up new dimensions in their own skills and capacities.

  • On a Global Seminar to India that focused on the sacred and the sustainable, a physical journey, meeting and working with school children among the urban poor in India and starting to build using local methods on a sacred site there were profound experiences.  Here, it was being in two completely different geographies and cultures of US and India with radically different ground realities that triggered the transformation.
  • In a design studio and seminar course on homelessness I co-taught at the College of Design, spending a day in the life of a homeless person, designing to meet the needs of a homeless person in the street and then designing an upgrade for the space in a local shelter, created powerful experiences. The students interacted with and had their own work reviewed by homeless persons in Rapson Hall. Here, it was the encounter of an alternative life, the meeting of and working for people that often exist as stereotypes that triggered the transformation.
  • With a visiting Canadian colleague, I taught a design studio that brought graduate and undergraduate students together to work with a local Mendota Dakota community. Here, the impact of understanding history from a contemporary perspective, getting to know members of a Dakota tribe, understand their traditions, being mentored in their skills, and designing and building for their sacred ceremony created a transformational experience.
  • And in a recent design thinking based class I taught, freshmen connected to an expanded view of design, engaging their own creativity and visited other places and units within the university’s Twin Cities campus that supported creativity and design.   Here it was the on-going reflection across multiple contexts that led to transformative insights and experiences.

In all of these above stories, the students moved from their current states and ways of seeing the world to new ones. In the process they uncovered new passions, skills and capacities that seemed to empower them enough to want to continue the journey. As I reflect on these stories, a few principles stand out for me:

Principles supporting teaching for transformation

Connect to Life in all its diversity
We often limit our lives and connecting to Life in all its fullness and diversity opens us up in ways not experienced before.

Involve the whole body
Embodied beings that we are, teaching and learning that involves the whole body, engages all the senses and crosses the three realms of body, mind and spirit triggers transformation. Teaching and learning experiences that engage the whole body push our abilities and our comfort.

Connect self to community
We are individuals but embedded in the collective, whether we accept this or not.  Experiences that connect the two are really helpful towards transformation.

Connect to purpose
We each have a sense of purpose and a desire to make a difference and teaching and learning that taps into that can be transformative.

Connect to creativity
We are all creative beings and experiences that lead us to re-discovery our own creativity in different ways helps us transform.

Using the above principles as we plan our teaching and learning experiences will spark questions such as these:

  • Does this course experience try to connect to life in as much of its diversity as possible? 
  • How does learning in this course involve the whole body?
  • Do the experiences of the course foster ways for students to connect self to community?
  • How does the course overall help students connect to their sense of purpose?
  • And finally, how does the work foster creativity, the development of valuable and original ideas?

Continuing my journey in teaching for transformation

In my continuing journey – especially when I encounter discomfort – I seek inspiration from others on this path of working with transformation.  On this journey, I not only look to my students – their work, comments and transformations – but also to other teachers who empower us to discover ourselves and live creative lives to our fullest potential.

Some of my favorite in-print teachers:

  • Frederick Franck, a sculptor/painter/doctor/artist and author of The Awakened Eye, relentlessly helped people to truly see while they also learned to draw and in so doing transform themselves.
  • Jean Houston, scholar, philosopher, researcher in human capacities, primary founder of the human potential movement and author of The Possible Human helps anyone interested in transforming themselves towards capacities they never dreamed of.
  • Michael Gelb, authority on da Vinci, and author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day teaches people to unlock their creativity using principles from da Vinci’s work.

My creative and diverse thinking colleagues here in the university community are those I seek for conversations and brainstorming in person or over a phone call.  As I develop and re-design courses, I seek out teaching conversations with my colleagues at the College of Design, School of Architecture and the Center for Sustainable Building Research; I brainstorm with colleagues across disciplines from the coordinate campuses; I meet with colleagues through the incredible opportunities provided by the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Center for Writing and the Global Programs & Strategy Alliance’s Internationalizing the Curriculum network.

In my conversations with these colleagues I am reminded to not be bound by the confines of my own discipline and to approach teaching for transformation in a fluid and inclusive way.  And then, lest I get comfortable with my role as a university teacher, conversations with teachers from among my community partners in the community-based research and outreach I am involved in across Minnesota remind me to ask the central question:

What does it mean to teach for transformation, in the university and in the world?

By Virajita Singh, who teaches and learns at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design and the Center for Sustainable Building Research. Write to her at singh023@umn.edu with your thoughts or ideas about teaching for transformation or anything else.

Additional Resources – in suggested order for review

  1. Frank CoffieldJust Suppose Teaching and Learning Became the First Priority.  2008.  The “Back to Basics” section develops a robust definition of learning, suitable to transformative learning and teaching practices.
  2. Jean Marrapodi. “An Overview of Adult Learning Theories.”  2002.  This slide presentation opens with a focus on Transformational Learning as one of five adult learning theories.
  3. Kelly McGonigal.  “Teaching for Transformation: From Learning Theory to Teaching Strategies.”  Sets out challenges along with links to teacher-generated strategies from a range of disciplines.
  4. Stephen Brookfield.  “Adult Cognition as a Dimension of Lifelong Learning.” 2000. Addresses student and teacher discomforts with transformative learning as part of adult learning processes and practices.
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One Response to “Teaching for Transformation”

  1. Kirsten 9 March 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    Virajita,
    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful post– so resonant to me on this day where we brought high school writing coaches to campus to meet with our undergraduate and writing consultants here in the Center for Writing. That encounter (across the high school – college divide) opened us all up to new perspectives about ourselves as teachers and as writers.

    How lucky am I to have you in my university community just a phone call away too!

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