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Deconstructing Transformative Learning

Much has been said about this generation’s learners—entitled to a vast plethora of knowledge and skills yet unwilling to put in work, impatient with a need for information now, and in possession of an attention span competitive to that of a goldfish. The typical “You talk, I listen” set-up between teacher and student that has been used for so long no longer holds water. Evolving minds call for a classroom and learning environment that can keep up.

In hopes of engaging the Millennial cohort, De La Salle University adopts the Transformative Learning framework. Here, the focus of the learning experience shifts from the educator to the student. But with complaints from both professors and students surfacing, just how effective is this framework in teaching the youth?

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Transformative Learning explained

Rooted on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), this reform in college courses challenges the ‘banking’ concept of education, wherein students are viewed as mere receptacles of knowledge and information.

Critics of hour-long lectures say that when knowledge is transmitted by the professors to the students, as if they are empty vessels waiting to be filled—often for them to simply recite the lessons back when tested—the learning process is reduced to rote memorization of facts.

The contrasting view of Transformative Learning (TL) puts a premium on critical and creative thinking, as knowledge emerges from the process of inquiry, action, and experimentation. Professor Gladstone Cuarteros, who teaches in the Development Studies program, explains that, “[Transformative Learning] starts from where the students come from.”

Dr. Raj Mansukhani of Philosophy department agrees that students are not passive recipients.  “In the TL approach, you begin with student’s questions. And the teacher, together with the students, try to come up with answers,” he explains.

Crucial also in the TL approach are group dynamics and interactions, allowing the entire class to contribute to the learning process. This leads to group reports, peer discussions, and other activities that hope to foster collaborative learning among students.

 

Active learning: Is it working?

Transformative Learning is a modern style that remains unfamiliar to many, especially in a Philippine setting where people are generally more accustomed towards the tried and tested. Seeing how long it took for the country to make the big shift to the K-12 educational system, it is no surprise that this new approach has met a mixed reception.

For instance, some students find its “learning from peers” aspect ineffective. What is meant to encourage an atmosphere that is supportive and conducive for learning from each other sometimes becomes a cause for demotivation. “Some group activities end up being a waste of time because students just take it as an opportunity to chat with each other,” Justin Lu (III, ENT) shares.

Cuarteros explains that in cases like this, professors need to be sensitive. “[They need] to notice if the students are no longer interested in [group-related] activities,” he shares. The professor must be creative enough to go beyond activities indicated in the modules.

Dr. Mansukhani further expounds on the objective of the professor, saying that they must not ask students to report on certain topics just for the purpose of stating facts. “That is still transmissive. You are relaying the work to the students.”

“[It’s different when] I’d ask you to read that article, and that after that I’d like you to come up with a business plan,” he continues.

Ms. Laureen Velasco of the Philosophy department says that to be in charge of the interaction, rather than just leaving it to students, takes a lot of energy on the part of the professor. “The true spirit of it [is]: even if they’re working, you are there, supervising. And that’s actually difficult. But to just leave it to themselves, is actually laziness.”

 

Culture of inquiry

Dr. Arturo Pacificador of the Mathematics Department says that perhaps it is also the culture of asking questions among students that has to be changed. The quality of discussions, Velasco shares, also depends on the quality of the students’ questions.

The problem, as observed by Andy (II, ISE), boils down to the issue of some students’ lack of interest in discussions, even with all the professor’s attempts of engaging them. Andy asks, “If this is the case, how can a meaningful and productive discussion take place in a classroom?”

Learning that some students are just too shy to ask, Dr. Pacificador suggests that professors could dismiss five to ten minutes early, to open the floor to students with further questions at the end of the class.

 

Should we abandon the lectures?

To lecture or not to lecture—that is the question dividing academic institutions who have adapted the TL framework.  Critics point out that the framework should not be employed at the expense of the chalk-and-blackboard discussion, which some students in the natural sciences believe is still more effective.

While ‘collaborative’ learning could be applicable for some courses, namely those under liberal arts where viewing films, participating in intellectual discourse, and attending forums could aid the learning process, such isn’t the case for some classes in more traditional fields. “The Transformative Learning approach fails as the learner cannot comprehend such complex concepts without the aid of traditional teaching techniques from the educator,” Physics major Joshua Bentulan (V, PHY-MAT) shares. Requirements of going to talks, and writing reflection papers become trivial and vapid.

Joshua further cites classes such as BUSANA1 and ACCTBA1 as examples of subjects with a wide range of technicalities, equations, and formulas, which does not leave much room for the student independence that the Transformative Learning framework calls for. As such, the set-up can lead to a relaxed mindset which is taken advantage of by students and teachers alike.

He adds that the approach’s ineffectiveness also stems from the lack of guidance on the part of certain professors. “Students are often left alone by their educators and are expected to finish and understand unfamiliar tasks and concepts,” he states.

There are certain topics that should be learned by the students themselves, says Dr. Pacificador, but he agrees that the fundamentals, especially in the natural sciences, should be taught first before students can learn on their own.

Other students note that perhaps Transformative Learning is most effective in General Education (GE) courses, where the students do not have to specialize and worry about failing to cover all details.

 

Transformative Learning vs transformative learning

Dr. Pacificador explains how the attempt to put transformative learning into a structure antagonizes traditional lectures. “[The] chalk-and-blackboard method is [still] effective in mathematics, especially when you show proofs, mechanisms, to come up with a very beautiful equation.”

Velasco shares that in Philosophy, the kinds of lectures she uses can still be transformative when they pique students’ interests, encouraging questions, as well as the simultaneous exchange of ideas.

On the other hand, Dr. Mansukhani’s idea of transformative learning is related to reaching a higher level of discussion. “I don’t just tell you what Freud said. What I do is I try to bring out the underlying patterns of thinking, to teach you how [to] think like them.”

Perhaps institutionalizing transformative learning is what makes it problematic, posits Dr. Pacificador. He shares how the paradigm is reduced to labels and structures, when in reality, “It’s a combination of many things that you do to ensure that the students will actually learn.” Transformative learning is not about any teaching method in particular, but in teaching students how to integrate the lessons into the bigger scope of things. Political Science professor Louie Montemar says, “It is not a question of pedagogical method.”

The Freirean view of transformative learning, Professor Montemar says, is the question of how education is being used in the service of changing society. “[What’s important is] how knowledge is anchored to social reality,” he shares, or how students are affected and compelled to go beyond what they have learned and apply it to real life situations later on.

However, Montemar admits that genuine adaptation of transformative learning is difficult, as it entails revamping oppressive structures and overhauling the whole system of education.

 

Transformative Learning as due process

In introducing the TL framework in DLSU, there remains certain kinks that need to be ironed out. “I think it’s a bit ambitious. Not every professor is capable of properly utilizing it without the proper training, and not every student is capable of finding meaning in open-ended discussions without the right primer session,” says Erica Laraya (I, LIM).

The Lasallian education preps the students for “lifelong learning”, and perhaps that is what should be the essence of Transformative Learning. Its ineffectiveness lies in classrooms where professors view their class as an isolated event and a mere job, while the students see it as a chore and mundane stepping stone to getting their diploma. But students have evolved, from white boards just waiting to be written and erased on, to online chat rooms, responsive and completely capable of reciprocating significant input and output. However, they can only do this if the learning environment is one which encourages freedom of discussion and inquiry.

Velasco ends on the topic by saying both professors and students need to meet halfway. She shares how Zen Buddhism puts it: “Education and the process of learning, is like tapping from the outside, and pecking from within. The mama hen taps from the outside, while the chick inside the egg, about to come out, pecks from within.”

By Cirilo Cariga

By Isabella Argosino

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