The literature is chock full of advice for teachers to reflect on what they want their students to learn. It’s an important part of designing a course, understanding what goes into it and then making that clear to students by listing the desired learning outcomes at the beginning of a course. But thinking a bit more ‘big picture’ is also important.
Ideally for me, I want my students to have an experience of transformational learning. I want them to have the opportunity to challenge and test the way they think. To facilitate this type of learning it is important to set up opportunities for critical reflection and to do so in a supportive learning environment.
This, transformation is, of course, particular important for sustainability science because our current state of unsustainable development is the expression or manifestation of the deficient mental models that contributed to it. As Albert Einstein so eloquently said :
‘The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them’
Transformational learning is based students undergoing, not necessarily all, but a number of key steps in their learning journey, originally identified by Mezirow.
The key ways I try to create the conditions for transformation in my courses is to provide ideas that confront student’s assumptions – in particular my courses investigate how our current approaches to environmental management have exacerbated sustainability outcomes. I try to provide my students many avenues to critically reflect on this personally and collectively as a group. This allows them to understand that they are not the only ones with feelings of floundering, being confronted. One example of how I do this is to regularly survey my students asking them for feedback on how they are experiencing the course. I then publish all the feedback that my students gave me (anonymously of course) for all students to read. At the beginning of courses I commonly get feedback like:
‘Very overwhelmed’ and ‘Pretty confused’.
Although the beginning of my courses generally consist of the dilemma’s we face as managers of complex issues the second half of courses always describes practical approaches the students can use to address complexity. The assessment tasks that students do, also make a similar progression i.e. as assessment task at the beginning which asks students to articulate how recent practice and understanding has culminated in our current state of unsustainability followed by a later assessment task in which they identify alternative practice. I survey students iteratively through my courses so that we all continue to reflect. For instance one student told me:
‘read Holling and hated it: I actually scribbled ‘crap’ on the front and moved onto something else. For some reason, I went back to it in doing some prep for the tutorial and I got it, the light bulb went on. I was able to apply my real life case study to Hollings’ model and things fell into place. I think that this reading is probably one of the most significant in the course and needs emphasising as a must-read and do persist’.
I love this quote because exactly the same thing happened to me when I read the book and it took me about 2 years (much more then my student!) to ‘get it’.
I can’t expect all students to experience transformative learning in my courses – it certainly can’t be forced. I can’t provide the ‘right’ set of triggers for every student through the design of my courses. There are also plenty of students who will not be willing to challenge their own way of seeing the world or who won’t be able to move past their particular ‘disorienting dilemma’. The typical rates of transformational learning in courses with good student support is generally moderate (King found less than half of students had perspective transformations in her research) but for me it’s a reminder to both continue to orient my courses to support students to transform if they are willing and for me to be patient and persistent, always having the big picture, long term outcomes continually in mind.