Written by Trevor Cox, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Organizational Leadership, Adult Education and Safety Sciences –
For me, the beginnings of a transformative experience is when I have new questions — questions I had never thought about before and questions I do not quite have the answer to yet. So I want to share some of the new questions I gained at the International Transformative Learning Conference (ITLC), because I think they are questions we all can benefit from as educators.
I had the opportunity to attend ITLC in November 2018 with several colleagues from UCO. This was my first time attending and presenting at the conference, and I was excited for the unique perspective of the conference itself.
Located on the campus of Teacher’s College at Columbia University, this year’s conference was the 20th anniversary of the conference. In a way, it felt a bit like a Transformative Learning pilgrimage: taking the New York City red line subway, walking the beautiful orange, red, and yellow tree-lined streets of Riverside Park, then finally entering into the very building where Jack Mezirow did his TL work.
I had several questions going in: Will the conference be true to transformative learning? Will it be any different than other conferences I have been to?
Most of the conferences I go to are leadership conferences. They are the traditional conference format where there are multiple options to sit through where 3 or 4 people take 10 minutes to run through a paper they wrote. The conference had these options for sure (which raises some questions about the traditional system of research and conferences, but we don’t have space for that here), but a majority of the sessions I attended were creating space for transformation.
You always wonder in a setting like this: Do the people who we rely on in research actually put it into practice? As I sat with some of the “big names” in the field, it was encouraging to see the ways these scholars and practitioners were putting transformative learning into practice.
An Open and Honest Conversation
One of the standouts of the conference to me was an interesting moment at the first morning keynote. ITLC had formed an inclusion committee trying to think about how the conference itself could be more inclusive. After a quick skit of how to welcome new community members (the highlight of which was the acting of UCO’s own Dr. Ed Cunliff), the chair of the committee went on to share the feedback they had received about the conference itself.
This was striking because much of the feedback was about the ways people did not feel included. I found this to be so refreshing – an open and honest conversation about the realities of the ways things are done and the actual experiences of the people participating. Not too many conferences begin with a PowerPoint describing some of their flaws. The inclusion committee then explained how they were working to address the feedback they had received, and how they were going to continue to listen to the participants’ perspectives.
Sessions of Questions
One of my own primary research areas is inclusion, so I attended several sessions which were in that realm. The first was a group of professors from a social justice and transformative learning based institution doing research around the question: Are we really as inclusive as we think we are? They talked about how social justice, inclusion, and transformation were a part of the way they talked about the school, but they had been tasked with asking students: Do you experience that here? As it turned out, many did not and so the research group was also part of the task force to address the issue.
Another session asked questions about the way we teach students about privilege. We were walked through all of the traditional ways of teaching about privilege, then asked about what it felt like to go through those experiences and then collectively critiqued the effectiveness of these methods.
Finally, I went to a session on inclusive leadership and we were led through a heartfelt discussion on what the experience of inclusion was like and began to identify the ways our identities exclude or include us in various settings. Tears were shed and we were all given the space to be honest about our fears in different settings and what prevents true authenticity.
As I reflected on what I needed to walk away with from the conference, I realized this strong theme of making sure we are listening to the voices of others, specifically those we are educating.
I realized this strong theme of making sure we are listening to the voices of others, specifically those we are educating.
We can easily begin to convince ourselves that we are transformative educators or educators who seek to include everyone. But are we really? And how do we know?
Even if we are genuinely gifted educators who have a track record of transformation, or inclusion, or whatever kind of education we value, we still need to be listening to the voices of our students and a broader range of voices informing our practice. We need to know that our educational and even institutional practices are doing what we hope they are doing. And the only way to do that is continually ask the people with whom we are engaging.
My new questions that I want to share with you are: How do we continually put things in place to make sure we genuinely hear the voices of our students when it comes to their experience of us in the classroom? Are we willing to create that kind of space? Are we willing to hear what they have to say? What are their experiences in our classrooms really like?
My time at ITLC opened me to these questions both by the experiences I was able to have, but also by observing people I greatly respect model the willingness to answer these questions well. As I continue to reflect on the conference and ask these important questions, my hope is that the answers I receive will serve as further disorienting dilemmas to continue to transform me as an educator.