It’s everywhere. You’ll see his name verified in university strategic plans, library mission statements, and learning outcomes for courses ranging from anthropology to zoology. Even separate academic units were created under his name. Take a step back, active learning. You had a good run, but this is the age of transformative learning.
In some ways, however, the idea that education should transform the way a student is in the world is nothing new; it has a history that dates back to Plato. But if we look past the hype, we’ll see that it’s not all roses and sunshine; transformative learning poses significant ethical risks.
As Yale University philosopher Laurie Paul notes in her philosophical treatment of transformative experience, not all transformations are good. A happy, well-adjusted person can have an experience that spirals into addiction, poverty, and depression. When we have a transformative learning experience, it is assumed to lead to personal and intellectual growth, redefining our sense of self. But in his excellent 2021 book, The Transforming ClassDouglas Yacek, a researcher at the Leibniz University of Hannover, points out a number of ethical dangers associated with transformative education.
Some of these dangers stem from teachers imposing beliefs on students, whether consciously or unconsciously. A student may walk into a philosophy class taught by a hardened materialist and be ashamed of his religious belief because of its obvious irrationality. Or a student’s intuitions for or against universal basic income can be negated by a learning environment that assumes an economic ideology. In such cases, there may be transformative learning, but the student is not the author of the transformative change. They don’t work on problems to understand what they or they think and how they or they should act.
Few would dispute that transformative learning is an integral part of a university education. Without it, learning would be reduced to filling the reservoir of our minds with facts and theories. But if this warehouse is never renovated, our thought patterns will ossify. How, then, can we preserve the positives of transformative learning while mitigating its ethical risks?
I argue that we can do this by considering another popular concept in teaching and learning: critical thinking. By situating transformative learning in an environment that prioritizes students’ abilities to navigate the complexities of an issue to make up their own minds, we have a way forward.
But again, there is a roadblock. Although the concept of critical thinking has been a useful framework for solving theoretical and practical problems, it has another aspect. In addition to solving problems, we need the skills to reveal problems we hadn’t recognized before. The abilities and associated dispositions that most critical-thinking researchers talk about – even thinking and open-mindedness – are largely problem-solving oriented that solve states of doubt and not towards the revelation of new problems which to stimulate states of doubt.
In psychological terms, the dominant concept of critical thinking fails to address the profound challenge of cognitive bias, including how confirmation bias and motivated reasoning distort the seeking, selection, and interpretation of evidence. When students don’t have the tools to challenge their biases, they’re likely to get stuck in their habitual thought patterns. Because overthrowing a belief that is central to our personal identity can be a painful experience, it is much easier to defend our beliefs against objections. We need critical thinking tools that can challenge our cognitive biases and open the door to transformative learning.
In a recently published article, I argue that perspective taking is the missing link. The ability to imagine another individual’s experience—to infer their feelings and thoughts, and to see a problem from their perspective—is a fundamental critical thinking skill that can help address the challenge of cognitive biases. When we adopt the point of view of another individual, especially someone with a different background and worldview, we do not seek to refute their claims to keep our beliefs intact. Instead, our attention is focused on understanding their experience, which can broaden our horizons, trigger a state of doubt, and initiate a transformative learning process.
I believe that we should redesign university curricula by integrating more perspective-taking activities and assessments. In addition to advancing each student’s intellectual and emotional development, perspective-taking fosters an inclusive learning environment, where differences in beliefs are better understood and respected.
In these divisive times, the need for such perspective-taking has never been more urgent.
James Southworth teaches academic writing at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. This article is based on research recently published in Theory and research in education.