Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jack Mezirow on transformative learning

I’m in a class on critical thinking, and one of our readings is from educational theorist Jack Mezirow’s book Learning as Transformation. Here are a few snippets that jumped out at me as having particular relevance to us this election season:

“Our culture conspires against collaborative thinking and the development of social competence by conditioning us to think adversarially in terms of winning or losing, of proving ourselves smart, worthy, or wise. Deborah Tannen (1998) writes of ours as an ‘argument culture,’ a cultural paradigm that conditions us to approach anything we need to accomplish together as a fight between opposing sides, like a debate or like settling differences by litigation. Political discourse becomes reduced to negative advertising. . . . We tend to believe that there are two sides to every issue and only two. We set out to win an argument rather than to understand different ways of thinking and different frames of reference, and to search for common ground, to resolve difference, and to get things done.” (pp. 11-12)

“Discourse is not based on winning arguments; it centrally involves finding agreement, welcoming difference, ‘trying on’ other points of view, identifying the common in the contradictory, tolerating the anxiety implicit in paradox, searching for synthesis, and reframing.” (12-13)

“Our values and sense of self are anchored in our frames of reference. They provide us with a sense of stability, coherence, community, and identity. Consequently they are often emotionally charged and strongly defended. Other points of view are judged against the standards set by our points of view. Viewpoints that call our frames of reference into question may be dismissed as distorting, deceptive, ill intentioned, or crazy.

“Who we are and what we value are closely associated. So questions raised regarding one’s values are apt to be viewed as a personal attack.” (18)

“A more dependable frame of reference is one that is more inclusive, differentiating, permeable (open to other viewpoints), critically reflective of assumptions, emotionally capable of change, and integrative of experience.” (19)


Anonymous said...

Al, hows does this sit with your debating history? Can we have debate without winning or losing? I wonder, when we listen to debates, as many of us have lately, do we tend to listen for things that reinforce what we already think - then decide who won based on who reinforced our thinking the most? Interesting quotes, thanks for posting them.

Al Hsu said...

There's no question that people tend to see what they want to see, which is why most people already committed to a candidate feel like their candidate won the debate. And many of us are already predisposed to accept certain kinds of positions and arguments and to reject others. So a lot of the time, "debates" really don't do much more than reconfirm already-held positions.

I'm wrestling with to what extent people need to be displaced out of their normal context in order to truly consider alternate opinions/perspectives, or if we can really be disequilibrated even in the midst of our current contexts. This has implications not just for political debate, but also for evangelism, discipleship, missional work, etc.

It seems like much of the time we need a "disorienting dilemma" (Mezirow's term) to shake us out of our complacency to consider new realities - hence the disorienting nature of short-term mission trips or urban projects or youth camps or whatnot. The challenge for church ministry is that it's hard to disorient believers in the context of the continuity of church worship services, sermons, small groups, classes, etc. And a lot of folks are resistant to disorienting contextual change (whether religiously or politically). So it's an ongoing question for me how much disorientation is required for Christian discipleship and learning.

Unknown said...

I am so happy that you applied these particular snippets to the election... did you know that there is an international conference on transformative learning?

The official website is up for the 8th International Transformative Learning Conference, where scholars and practitioners will converge on the them: "Reframing Social Sustainability in a Multicultural World." Check it out!

Thank you!
William Brendel
Teachers College, Columbia University

Anonymous said...

I came across a definition by Jack Mezirow that explains my condition exactly!
I never finished high school, yet circumstances have jolted my beliefs and perceptions to the point where I question everything; so I may be the perfect 'guinea pig' for you to check out some of your theories on, Al.
For instance, the Queen and the Pope claim rule by 'divine right' yet if they were dethroned, would God Himself defend that 'right'? I seriously doubt it.
The pomp and ceremony is no more than a staged play that is unthinkingly accepted, with no accompanying reality check or proof.
Ditto Christianity, as it exists today. It has nothing substantial to prove it over and above any other religion.
The Way is indeed hard to find, narrow and difficult to keep to, and requires endurance!
There is so much more I could tell you, so if you are interested, please contact me.