Transformative Education – It’s Not Just for Our Students

Written by Rachelle Franz, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Health Studies –

Nearly three years ago, I bumped into two colleagues at the shared-office printer, and we began a casual conversation about Mind Brain Education (MBE). The term was fairly new to me, but my colleagues had already begun exploring this concept and began to share their insight. I was hooked. I wanted to learn more about how MBE could benefit my practice and my students’ learning. This casual conversation led to what we now call The Embodied Brain faculty study series. Our group is an organized, intentional, and diverse professional learning community, meeting every other week to discuss what we are learning in light of MBE research and practice. This collaboration represents five departments across the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) and is comprised of faculty interested in understanding how MBE can assist us in transforming our classroom environments. Our latest book of interest is NeuroTeach, Brain Science and the Future of Education (Whitman & Kelleher, 2016). Personally, I have been most impacted by this book, so I would like to highlight several of the main points here in hopes that you too will be intrigued.

Our Embodied Brain group committed to meet regularly for lunch [thanks to the support of the UCO Center for Teaching and Transformative Learning (CETTL)], discuss our thoughts and ideas about assigned reading, and share these ideas with others both on and off campus. This year, we presented at the annual UCO Collegium. Thankful for the willingness of a Nursing colleague and our friends in Music, we embarked on singing (and I use this word lightly) our version of “The Twelve Research-Informed Strategies Every Teacher Should Be Doing with Every Student.” Take a moment to read through these strategies and then sing the song. This will be good for recall, but I can assure you it will be equally as good for your spirit. Enjoy!


* The bolded text (listed below each strategy) should be sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

  1. Class periods should be designed with an understanding that what students will recall most is what takes place in the first part of the class and what students will recall second most will take place in the closing minutes of class.

The FIRST research strategy my colleague gave to me – start and end successfully.

  1. Students should be given more frequent, formative, low-stakes assessments of learning.

The SECOND research strategy my colleague gave to me – low-stake assessments are good for me.

  1. Students need more opportunities to reflect, think meta-cognitively, on their learning and performance.

The THIRD research strategy my colleague gave to me – reflect metacognitively

  1. Students need to know that the pervasive way they choose to study is actually hurting their ability to learn for the long term and that self-questioning is much more effective than reading one’s notes.

The FOURTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – self testing more effectively

  1. Students need to know the anatomy of their brain, especially the role of the Prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus play in their learning.

The FIFTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – love my Amy G (amygdala)

  1. Students, parents, teachers, and school leaders need to understand that sleep is critical to memory consolidation. Without sufficient sleep we create a system that perpetuates the illusion of learning.

The SIXTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – sleep consolidates memory

  1. Students need to know that “effort matters most,” and that they have the ability to rewire their brain to make themselves better learners and higher-achieving students (the concept of “neuroplasticity”).

The SEVENTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – effort makes me brainy

  1. Students need more, but well judged, opportunities for choice in their learning, which enhances engagement and intrinsic motivation.

The EIGHTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – autonomy motivates me

  1. Students need to love their limbic system and recognize the impact stress, fear, and fatigue have on the higher-order thinking and memory parts of their brain.

The NINTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – manage stress, fear, and fatigue

  1. Students need opportunities to transfer their knowledge through the visual and performing arts.

 The TENTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – the value of creativity

  1. Students need their teachers to vary the modality of teaching and assessment based on the content (as well as the time of day). What methods suit this topic best? What methods have I used and will use again soon so that I can provide a range of challenges? All students learn best when taught in a variety of modalities, and when the modality is chosen with the content in mind rather than the student.

The ELEVENTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – the spice of life is variety

  1. Students need frequent opportunities during the school day to play.

The TWELFTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – play regularly


Whitman, G., & Kelleher, I. (2016). Neuroteach: Brain science and the future of education. MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

*Special thanks to Dr. Nancy Detlinger for the “jingle” above

Why include Health and Wellness in the Central Six tenets of Transformative Learning? (Part 1 of 2)

Written by Christy Vincent, Ph.D., Professor, Organizational Communication – 

Percentage of UCO student survey respondents who reported these factors affected their individual academic performance (e.g., received a lower grade on a project or in a course, dropped a course, received an incomplete).

My students are stressed out. They do not get enough sleep; they do not eat nutritional foods; they rarely exercise; they suffer from illnesses, many of which are stress-related; they worry about not having enough money; they attempt to balance full-time jobs with 15, often 18, hours per semester; they have troubling relationship issues; they care for their elderly relatives; they take care of their own or relatives’ children; they are not self-reflective; they are emotionally drained; they do not have methods for self-renewal.

Have you noticed the same characteristics in your students?

My observations are corroborated with survey results. As a part of our UCO Healthy Campus initiative, we ask our students dozens of questions about their health status and health behaviors via the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA) survey. One question asks students to identify a variety of health-related factors that have affected their individual academic performance in the past 12 months (e.g., received a lower grade on an exam, an important project, or a course; received an incomplete or dropped the course). Results show repeatedly that the top factors affecting UCO students’ individual academic performance are: stress, work, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and depression.

As they enter their early career-building years, their situations will not likely become better; they will become worse. My students are typically not in a learning mindset when they come into my classroom. They are in a survival mindset. How likely is it that our students will take advantage of the transformative learning opportunities we provide them—how likely is it that they will be transformed by them—if they are just trying to survive?

The inclusion of the Health and Wellness tenet in our Central Six helps us all be continually mindful of the relationship between our students’ health and their academic success. UCO uses a comprehensive definition of health to include multiple facets of health in addition to physical health.


Health and Wellness integrates the physical, spiritual, environmental, emotional, intellectual, and social/interpersonal well-being of students to help them live, learn, and work effectively, living life with vitality and meaning so that they may reach their goals as scholars, employees in the workplace, citizens in the metropolitan areas and beyond.


As faculty members, we witness the relationship between student health and academic success every semester as we counsel students who have fallen behind as a result of various health problems. We would prefer students to be proactive and consider their health status as they make decisions about the number of obligations they take on each semester. We more often see their expressions of stress, regret, and fear after they have taken on so many commitments that they begin failing to meet them early in the semester. They often view completing their degrees as a series of hoop-jumping activities they must undertake in order to get a diploma and “get on with their lives.” Conversely, we want them to learn, to be transformed by their academic assignments, and to be qualitatively different people as a result of their experiences at our university.

The university provides support to help students maintain their health and well-being in the form of resources, programming, facilities, and staff. Our students are fortunate to have so many quality programs and resources available to them. Faculty members who question the inclusion of Health and Wellness as a transformative learning tenet contend that addressing student health and wellness falls in the purview of Student Affairs rather than Academic Affairs. I understand that sentiment. My question is: does it have to be either-or? Are there ways that faculty members, even those of us not teaching in health-related disciplines, can play a more prominent role in helping students focus on their health and recognize its importance in their ability to succeed in our courses? I suggest that there are, and I will give suggestions in my next blog post.

The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance

A Hypothesized Model of How Five Noncognitive Factors Affect Academic Performance within a Classroom/School and Larger Socio-Cultural Context

Diagram showing the interplay of student background characteristics, school and classroom context, and socio-cultural context. The factors in this triad mix are: Academic Mindsets, Academic Perseverance, Academic Behaviors, Academic Performance, Social Skills, and Learning Strategies

From Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review (2012), Fig. 2.1, p. 12: A Hypothesized Model of How Five Noncognitive Factors Affect Academic Performance within a Classroom/School and Larger Socio-Cultural Context.

Student Engagement, Critical Reflection, Transformative Learning: What’s the Key?

Student engagement is a good thing. We’ve heard that for decades. Alexander Astin asked the question, “What matters in college?” then answered by saying a big percentage of what matters is student engagement (Astin, 1997). Pike & Kuh (2005, p. 186) agree in a summary statement about this issue, saying, “. . . students learn from what they do in college.”

But is what leads to Transformative Learning (TL) merely just being engaged in student activities, being active learners, sitting on the Student Council?

Dr. Vincent Tinto recently answered that question: It’s not simply the engagement; it’s the meaning students derive from the engagement that matters (Tinto, 2017). A highly regarded researcher, writer, and theorist in this area (e.g., Tinto, 1994; Tinto, 2012), Dr. Tinto’s statement about derived meaning from engagement is noteworthy, especially for institutions, faculty, and staff working to operationalize TL.

It’s not simply the engagement; it’s the meaning students derive from the engagement that matters (Tinto, 2017)

How do we help students derive meaning? Regarding TL theory, critical reflection is a key aspect of what students must do to understand how the activities they’ve engaged in — in other words, what they’ve done in college — have made a difference in their lives.

There is a certain spontaneous nature to this process in the absence of intentionally designed critical reflection activities for students. It could be, for instance, that a student does not realize the impact a college activity has had on her until years after her graduation — some triggering event all those years after getting her diploma causes a realization about how she was changed in college.

That’s a hit-or-miss proposition, however. Will there ever be a triggering event to prompt this realization? What will be the quality and depth of her reflection? Will she document her a-ha moment?

Faculty often know that these hit-or-miss moments do happen, though: we get those letters or emails saying, “Dear Dr. ___, You may not remember me, but I took your ___ class in Fall of ___. Something you had us do for an assignment really made a difference in my life . . .”

At least in those instances, there is a written document, and the faculty member does receive that record of the student’s realization that turned out to make a difference in her life.

But as Tinto suggests, if we focus in college simply on providing experiences to students that we believe, or research suggests, will make a difference in their lives, we have only gone half way toward the successful outcome we seek. We must provide the reflection opportunity; further, we must help students learn how to reflect in order to derive meaning from their experience.

We must provide the reflection opportunity; further, we must help students learn how to reflect in order to derive meaning from their experience.

After all, post-graduation is not a time we’re there to take these actions.

Here at UCO, this is where and how our Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR) initiative as an institutional process serves as the mechanism to ensure students evaluate the impact an activity has, or has not, had on them. The STLR process, whereby students create a learning artifact to be assessed using STLR rubrics, is the place where the reflective opportunity lives. That learning artifact, which can be a written critical reflection on the activity or some other kind of artifact that prompts the same thing (pecha kucha*, poster, presentation, etc.), is — in Tinto’s estimation — the key thing about helping students derive meaning from their engagements in the classroom and out of the classroom during college.

If helping students derive meaning from their engagements on our campus and at other places in which they participate in UCO-directed activity is the key thing in their personal development, then we must plan and execute the ways this will happen. Our approach happens to be via STLR. Other institutions who are adopting/adapting STLR have slightly different ways, but they all involve critical reflection to help students derive meaning.

But “STLRized institutions” are not the only cowboys in this rodeo. Effective institutions have for decades been involved in helping students derive meaning from their experiences. The approaches are many and varied, but it is always the case that intentional design and execution around critical reflection are needed to avoid the hit-or-miss, by-accident approach to whether students come to any transformative realizations about themselves.

No matter the approach taken, though, it is not simply having students engage in a bunch of activities that ultimately leads to transformation. Students must also be provided help and given the opportunity to reflect on the engagements in order to derive the meaning such activity is having in their lives.

What better college education than one that educates students in how to make meaning of their lives?

*pecha-kucha: a presentation utilizing 20 Powerpoint slides during which the presenter has only 20 seconds per slide to speak before the slide advances to the next; total presentation time is thus 20×20 = 400 seconds = 6 min, 20 sec



Astin, A. (1977). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pike, G. R., & Kuh, G. D. (2005). A typology of student engagement for American colleges and universities. Research in Higher Education (46)2, 185-209. Available:,%20Kuh%20(2005)%20A%20Typology%20of%20Student%20Engagement%20for%20American%20Colleges%20and%20Universities.pdf

Tinto, V. (1994). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tinto, V. (2012). Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V., Johnstone, S., & Siemens, G. (2017, April 10). Access, Equity, and Completion: Innovations and Challenges on the Road Ahead. Keynote plenary session, Civitas Learning Summit. Austin, TX.

TL Abroad: Applied Research in London

Written by Mark Janzen, Ph.D. and Michael S. Springer, Ph.D., History & Geography – 

Summer break provides a great opportunity to get out of the classroom and engage students in transformative learning experiences. In May, Dr. Mark Janzen and I took a group of students to London to work on the Dutch Church Library Provenance Project. The students, History and Museum Studies majors, worked on the project, which is a collaboration between the Dutch Church in London, the oldest Dutch-language Protestant church in the world, and Lambeth Palace Library, one of England’s oldest public libraries.

All students enrolled in HIST 4940/5940 Applied Research, and we build the coursework around four TL tenets: Discipline Knowledge; Global and Cultural Competencies; Research, Creative, and Scholarly Activities; and Service Learning and Civic Engagement. The project entailed identifying and researching provenance of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books that were given to Lambeth Palace Library by the Dutch Church following World War II. In addition to the cataloging work, the students learned about book history as well as acquisition, provenance, conservation, and collection management. During their time in London they also had a chance to interact with librarians and archivists from Lambeth Palace Library, the London Metropolitan Archives, the British Library, the Heinz Collection at the National Portrait Gallery Archive, and the Institute for Historical Research.

Assignments ranged from exercises in archival research to reflective journal and essay assignments. In addition, we worked closely with the students on the project, providing multiple points for feedback and evaluation. One of the excellent opportunities afforded by international travel is engaging students in trip planning, understanding of local customs, and even things like currency exchange and knowing which way to look when crossing the street. The students took to British culture and standards without a problem and are excited by the possibilities for the future.

For Museum Studies students, the course has an added career development component. A common industry practice is for museum professionals to help each other out when it comes to identifying, cataloging, or researching collections. In addition to learning, the student provided a valuable service to Lambeth Palace Library in the management of the collection and developed their professional networks internationally. The information gathered will be used to update the library catalog and may pave the way for some of the books to be added to the Dutch Short Title Catalog, making these works more accessible to scholars around the globe. By the end of the two-week project, the group had cataloged 240 books and identified about 60 more works not previously known to be from the church. There is much more work to be done, and the efforts thus far suggests the Dutch Church collection is larger than former estimates of 200-300 books.

Dr. Janzen noted, “As a museum professional and Director of the Museum Studies program at the University of Central Oklahoma, it is my primary goal to find ways to inspire and energize students as they prepare for careers in museums and archives around the nation and world. It is always gratifying to see students go out into the field and excel, and I offer my thanks to both Lambeth Palace and the Dutch Church for their generous inclusion of their time, expertise, and materials.” There is more work to be done, and we plan on returning next summer to continue working on the project. Although the goals of the project remain unchanged, the unexpected scope of the project, as well as the enthusiastic response from our British peers, has led to several exciting possibilities for development and expansion.

The Rise of the Learning Architect


In this article, I introduced the concept of The Learning Architect as a path forward for the learning design profession. Educators and learning professionals are working in situations where there are few reliable and tested methods for solving the learning problems people encounter. A path towards preparing learning architects sets forth a renewed vision for how learning professionals add value. We need a holistic view of learning and a dedication to designing collective environments that employ simple solutions and are value-driven.

Picture of pencil on architect designs


I’ve spent my entire career working with educators and organizations to design successful learning experiences. Throughout these many opportunities, technologies have changed, “best practices” have come and gone, and the knowledge base has grown exponentially.

What always surprises me is that in this field of progressive innovation, the decisions that must be confronted are more complex now than ever before.

As we add new technologies and learning design practices, we have failed to consider how these tools and knowledge integrate with one another.

In this article, I introduce and explore the idea of “the learning architect” as a possible way we might redefine the role of educators and learning professionals in the future. To fully unpack this concept would require a much larger forum; however, in this article I introduce the concept and establish a basic foundation for future discussion.

The Learning Design Profession

Why does learning design matter? One could argue that learning is one of the most fundamental human processes. We learn from the moment we are born and encounter many different types of learning situations and experiences throughout our life. So, if learning is so common and natural, why does the design of learning experiences matter, and why do we need of profession of people who focus on this?

While we learn every single day, the reality is that we are generally not very good at planning learning experiences on our own. We often lack the ability to create our own signals and organize experiences that lead to efficient and productive learning outcomes.

Today, the access to information is not the problem. Making sense of and structuring experiences in ways that lead to the most meaningful and efficient learning experiences is the challenge. As information and technology options grow, so too is the need for professionals who are skilled in designing environments that are supportive of diverse learning experiences. This requires a design perspective that extends beyond information and instruction, to one that focuses more on experiences and competency development at a broader level.

Towards A Holistic Perspective

A quick search through recent instructional design or educational practices literature reveals a major barrier for learning design. Much of the literature in these areas focus on researching and discussing individual strategies. While this often yields productive insights into a particular area of learning design, the literature often fails to relate how those findings may have value in more connected learning environments.

For example, most learning experiences are a combination of many different strategies, resources, and technologies. Without examining the collective learning experience, the knowledge about specific elements become limited.

In addition to the need for a holistic perspective on learning design, we also need to consider how to promote simplicity and value in learning experiences. There are many choices and options people have when learning something new. They might attend a class, watch a video, enroll in an online course, or conduct an online search for resources. Great learning design anticipates the needs of learners and creates the most simple, understandable, and valuable experience.

The Learning Architect

To realize the complete value of learning in today’s environments, we need to envision a new path forward for learning design professionals. I suggest the best way to think about this new role is “The Learning Architect”.

A great architect is tuned into the experience people have when they enter a building or stroll through a park. While the individual elements in the environment are important, the true value comes from the collective space. Learning architects should think about the holistic value of learning environments and how individual design choices have a collective impact on the learning experience. This requires the development of new skills and preparation of learning professionals.

Broadly, the preparation of learning architects should not be based on knowledge of theories or use of technical skills, but rather the application of design-based abilities that promote the creation of successful learning environments.

How might we begin promoting the preparation of learning architects? To begin this transition, we first need a strong commitment to growing true design (problem solving) skills. This means thinking about learning situations as problems that need creative and effective solutions.

Second, learning needs a marketing campaign that helps people connect with the value and process of learning. This brings learning to the forefront of conversations where it may have not been considered previously. Learning is the glue for solving many problems people face in their personal and professional lives.

Finally, learning architects need to establish professional practices and norms that communicate their value to stakeholders. To simply answer the question: “how do I create value?” can have transformative effects. The learning architect movement should be bigger than one person. It needs to be a collective redefinition of how we design environments that support learning.

Implications for Transformative Learning

The relationship between Transformative Learning and the concept of the learning architect is quite harmonious. Transformative Learning is about deeply meaningful and connected learning processes. It is about realizing new ways of seeing the world.

Our traditional ways of designing instruction don’t often address these deep learning approaches well. Transformative Learning requires connecting and making new meaning from diverse learning opportunities.

This approach is well-aligned with how a learning architect approaches design opportunities. The goal is not to instruct a student, but to rather create environments that are conductive for transformation. A learning architect would approach this opportunity with the assumption we cannot teach someone to transform; however, we can design environments where Transformative Learning is more likely. Educators who wish to advance Transformative Learning in practice must first embrace their role as a learning architect.


Seven Steps for Decoding Student Misunderstandings

David Pace and Joan Middendorf created a model for decoding the disciplines as a method for faculty to uncover the ways students think and learn in various disciplines. Following their seven step process allows faculty members to understand the role they play in students’ misunderstandings of course content.

Did you ever wonder why students don’t understand what you have told them over and over? When did you first notice that students were getting lost in your course? Recognizing the bottleneck is the first of the seven steps.  The second step is uncovering the assumptions you make about what students need to know to understand further the new knowledge. One way to determine your assumptions is to repeat the same explanation to someone, not in your discipline. Then, ask them what part they don’t understand. Suddenly you realize “Oh, I have to explain this first, so that can understand that.”

Step three then is to model your thought process or the mental tasks in your explanation. The fourth step involves having the students through exercises or some other type of reinforcement practice and receive feedback on what they just learned. At step five, you need to consider student motivation and work on their resistance.  Here Pace and Middendorf discuss three potential emotional bottlenecks that may be further complicating their learning: their lack of motivation, procedural bottlenecks, or narrative bottlenecks. To reduce these sites of resistance, they suggest to increase visibility, address preconceptions and model conceptions, and discover the preconceptions preventing overcoming the bottleneck, respectively.

In step six we pause to assess the students’ mastery of thinking and learning in the discipline. Lastly, Pace and Middendorf ask how you will share the decoding model with your colleagues.  As a faculty member, how will you spread the word to your colleagues so they too can discover their course bottlenecks? Rather than say, “Yes, this point is where most students have trouble, wouldn’t you rather say, “This point used to be a problem for students until I realized they also needed to understand X?”

The book can shift faculty perspective of thinking some students just don’t get it, to realizing more can get it if faculty do more to help students understand the disciplinary way of thinking.

Decoding Website.


Pace, D., & Middendorf, J. (Eds.).  (2004). Decoding the disciplines: Helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

David Pace, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor, Dept. of History, Indiana University – Bloomington

Joan Middendorf, Instructional Consultant, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Indiana University – Bloomington

Playing Chicken: Knowing When to Adapt Your Teaching Strategy


Much of my professional research and career interests have focused on planning and designing education and training experiences. While research consistently supports the importance of effective instructional planning, there is also much to be said about mastering the role of adaptability in teaching. In other words, knowing when to change and adapt “the plan” is the art of teaching.

Those educators engaged in the study and practice of transformative learning can certainly relate to the need for adaptive teaching and learning methods. In many ways as we develop the skill of adaptability in learners, we also must become more adaptive as educators.

In this post, I unpack the idea of adaptability in teaching and highlight several ways learning technologies can serve as supports for this process.

Picture of chicks


Playing Chicken

I can remember as a kid playing the game of chicken on my bike with by neighborhood friends. The biggest challenging in the game of chicken is not only knowing when to move, but which direction to go. The same goes for teaching. We’ve all been in situations where our original plan was not working like we intended.

It may have been a reflection of quality of the plan, but most often the reality we face in the classroom is much different than what we anticipated. This might be due to the physical room environment, but often it is the characteristics or background experiences of learners.

Knowing when and how to adapt in teaching is often something that is acquired over many, many years of practice.

How can we accelerate this skill for educators so they can use adaptability effectively as a teaching tool?

What is teaching adaptability?

Adaptability is making an effective change when something does not quite go as originally planned. Collie & Martin (2016) explored the role of adaptability in primary and secondary school teachers.

Of particular note for adult educators is managing the thinking, behavior, and emotions that are often involved with changing an instructional strategy or approach.

Change Isn’t Easy… But There’s Hope

Once you’ve determined a teaching change is needed, how you approach the next steps are critical. Communicating why you’re making the change and addressing the thinking, behavior, and emotional aspects set the foundation for adaptive teaching.

For example, let’s say you have decided to adapt an assignment to better meet the needs of learners. First, communicating why the change will help their learning connects the reason for the change to a fundamental purpose of the course – helping the students learn. Next, clearly addressing what behaviors the student will need to change so they will be successful provides a clear orientation point and roadmap to follow. Finally, placing any emotional responses in the context of learning and their success will help to manage the change process.

In addition to the general change management skills, learning technologies can often play a role by providing a mechanism to personalize instruction and create alternative learning paths.

For example, carefully curated videos provide an often engaging means for supporting learners through an adaptive teaching experience. Learners can often have some of the most effective ideas about how to adapt their own learning. Technology can provide a means for educators to connect with this insight.

Using technology such as social media platforms or learning management systems can place the learner in more control of their learning experience. This means educators adapt from the role of teacher to that of coach and challenger. Learning technologies allow educators to take on multiple roles for different learners and adapt these personal learning environments appropriately.


Adaptability is an essential function of transformative teaching and learning experiences. Learning technologies provide a layer of flexibility for creating environments around learners where they can customize and adapt their own learning experiences.

Scaffolding Eats Coddling for Lunch

[W]hy would we expect students who have come of age in neighborhoods and schools surrounded by people who largely look and think as they do to be highly skilled at handling personal insults hurled by those with different, yet similarly narrowly shaped, experiences and beliefs? Why should we expect that people who have experienced different outcomes of a society still struggling with racial and class issues will magically know how to get along? Why would we expect students to arrive a[t] college skilled at civil discourse when their only understanding of political debate consists of well-compensated people on opposing sides shouting to drown one another out? (J. C. & C. K. Cavanaugh, 2017)

John and Christine Cavanaugh (2017) worry that calls from many quarters for college students to grow up and get over insults imply a character defect among many college students and/or a poor job being done on campuses by institutions whose duties should include cultivating critical thinking and reflection. Whether the topic is supposed whiney students complaining about micro-aggressions or supposed over-protected adolescents requiring trigger warnings in syllabi or — in an opinion piece that may raise hackles for its implication that therapy dogs constitute coddling — coloring in coloring books and playing with puppies to help soothe the trauma of the Trump election (Ciccotta, 2016), there seems to have been a piling-on lately about this topic.

What is the Transformative Learning (TL) lens through which this can be viewed?

The quote from the Cavanaughs at the start of this article lays out an argument for why colleges and universities face the challenge of walking the correct, fine line on this issue: many students are simply not prepared to engage with a broad diversity of opinion.

Yet such preparation is necessary for life as a citizen, as an employee, as a life-long learner. And college seems a logical place for the preparation to occur.

Most germane to this discussion, though, is that helping students develop appropriate coping and thriving strategies in polarized and incivil times offers a multitude of opportunities for faculty to lead students to transformative realizations and subsequent internalizations.

In other words, we may be living in a Dickensian best-of-times-worst-of-times post-secondary milieu: societal events are providing a best-of-times opportunity to prompt transformative learning amidst a worsening-of-times environment in which hurtful, hateful speech and action have seemed to gain traction for some reason. In such times, how do we help our students develop the skills and perspectives they need?

Helping students develop the ability to observe non-judgmentally, and from that basis, begin the process of considering others’ beliefs, actions, and opinions, is at least a good first step. It is just as important that learners develop this capacity when considering their own beliefs.

be curious not judgmental image

You may recognize “non-judgmental observation” as a technique to help focus, to become mindful, and/or to meditate. Ellen Langer (2016) has long maintained that teaching students to observe non-judgmentally while looking for differences and similarities is one of the best ways to help them develop mindfulness skills.

Is a controversial speaker coming to campus? That’s an opportunity for students to dispassionately consider the speaker’s viewpoint, compare and contrast such a stance with their own, and draw reasoned conclusions in an atmosphere absent the poisonous rhetoric that might otherwise infect the classroom.

But helping students learn to disenthrall themselves from taken-for-granted assumptions developed during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood can be challenging. This is where faculty can scaffold developmental practices that will help students abandon the need for any coddling.

Scaffolding means providing a structure that initially props up student learning but is eventually removed because the learning has instantiated to the degree that it and the learner stand on their own, with new knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes in place and securely anchored.

Langer (2016) provides specific advice to teach students how to observe dispassionately in order to search for differences and similarities. This is a form of scaffolding the ultimate ability to engage with personally unsavory ideas in order to form reasoned conclusions. Students with such ability would not need to be coddled from contrary opinions in a protective cocoon.

Scaffolding eats coddling for lunch.

See Langer’s work (2014, 2016) for more ideas, but know this: the very act of searching for ways to compare and contrast two things privileges prefrontal cortex engagement over emotional center activity in the amygdala and other limbic system brain regions. That in itself launches, then reinforces, dispassionate consideration.

The power and importance of dispassionate observation is addressed eloquently by Zajonc (2006):

One of the most powerful transformative interventions developed by humanity is contemplative practice or meditation. It has been specifically designed to move human cognition from a delusory view of reality to a true one: that is, to one in which the profound interconnectedness of reality is directly perceived. Global conflict has its deep source in the privileging of worldviews, in the reification of our particular understanding and the objectification of the other. Such ways of seeing our world are, at root, dysfunctional and divisive. Contemplative practice works on the human psyche to shape attention into a far suppler instrument, one that can appreciate a wide range of worldviews and even sustain the paradoxes of life, ultimately drawing life’s complexity into a gentle, non-judgmental awareness.

“Gentle, non-judgmental awareness” sure sounds nice in an age of often high-volume, low-reasoned debate in which the other’s opinion is pilloried simply because it is “the other.”



Cavanaugh, J. C, & Cavanaugh, C. K. (2017, May 11). Not coddling but learning. Inside Higher Ed. Available:

Ciccotta, T. (2016, November 12). Report: University of Pennsylvania offer puppies, coloring books to students distraught over Trump win. Available:

Langer, E. (2014). Mindfulness (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.

Langer, E. (2016). The power of mindful learning (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.

Zajonc, A. (2006). Contemplative and transformative pedagogy. Kosmos Journal, 5(1). Available:

Transforming Students into Self-Directed Learners

I recently had the opportunity to read “Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Students and Teachers”, by Malcolm Knowles. It was a quick and easy read that reminds us both as learners and instructors the need for learner-centered design. One of the best ways to encourage transformation in a learner is to put them at the center of their own learning. As a lifelong learner and a grad student, I find it most transformative when I am allowed a role in the learning that takes place in the classroom or online environment. I want a say in what is taught as well as the activities used during instruction. I am confident in my ability to direct my learning.

Knowles suggests in his book many practical tools to create an environment in which the learner is the focus. One of the tools is the learning contract, a negotiation between faculty and learner where the learner articulates their desired learning objectives, evidence of learning, and means of assessing that evidence. The faculty is there to guide the process and provide a framework in which the learner can develop learning objectives. Many courses call for learning objectives developed by the faculty to meet specific standards; this does not mean that some learning objectives cannot be contributed by the learner in addition to those faculty-set objectives.

“It is a tragic fact that most of us only know how to be taught; we haven’t learned how to learn” (Knowles, 1975, p 14).

Self-directed learning is a skill that all learners must acquire. With technology constantly changing and information rapidly increasing, the ability to direct one’s own learning must be a priority. An incoming freshman may not yet be ready to take on the role of self-directed learner, but you can teach them how. Faculty must first teach their learners how to learn, and then empower them with the tools necessary to become self-directed learners. As your learners become self-directed, they will transform into lifelong learners who maintain the capacity to stay relevant in an ever-changing world.

Try experimenting with a learning contract in one of your courses. Allow your learners to be part of deciding what and how they will learn. Below is a sample learning contract template you might wish to use.

Learning Contract

For more resources on self-directed learning, join one of CETTL’s 21st Century Pedagogy Institute book discussion groups: “Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills” by Linda B. Nilson, and “Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses” by L. Dee Fink. Check out the Pedagogy Institute calendar and sign up for one of these book discussion groups at:



Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-Directed learning: A guide for students and teachers. Chicago, IL: Follett Publishing Company.