Helping Learners Recognize Their Own Transformations: A Personal Story

Written by Jeff King, Executive Director, CETTL –

What do you recognize now, years later, was a transformative understanding you came to, but which you did not realize at the time? We all have these. Sometimes we express them in a conversation with a colleague that begins something like, “You know, I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a turning point for me now that I think about it.”

The turning point, in many cases, is a transformation. But why didn’t you recognize your own transformative realization at the time?

Sometimes the answer to that question is that nobody helped you to realize it. Do faculty have the opportunity to be the helper, and if so, is there benefit in prompting a real-time realization that might come on its own accord years later?

One would probably not place the Defenestration of Prague as the day’s topic in a history class at the top of any transformative realization. Yet the triggering episodes for Transformative Learning are often uniquely personal.

Such was the case in the early 1970s for me, an undergraduate at the University of Georgia having landed in a particular history course because, well, it fit my schedule. It was way more important at the time to schedule around the orchestra or brass ensemble or the basketball option among the required Physical Education choices than to place the same prioritization energy on choosing a particular history class at a particular time.

The result was finding myself in a wooden chair-desk in a nondescript classroom on the first day of the course hearing the instructor explain he did not have syllabi to pass out yet because he had only learned the night before that he would be teaching the class due to some departmental emergency that had arisen. It was an inauspicious beginning for one of the most transformative classes I took as an undergraduate music major.

And it was also a transformation not consciously recognized until decades later when the experience resonated with a quote from Richard Feynman found in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999): “[E]verything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” (This quote in the book was reprinted from remarks Feynman made in an interview published in Omni magazine, 1979.)

Reading the book made me realize that I remembered more from that history class than from any of my other non-major classes as an undergraduate. The reason was because I allowed my interest to follow the love and passion the instructor had for the topic, thereby discovering that 17th century history held some fascinations that would last a lifetime.

Reading the Feynman quote immediately triggered the memory of that history class, and I realized the truth in Feynman’s words as reflected in my own experience. In that moment I recognized the Transformative Learning experience for me as prompted by that history class.

First, how did the professor make this happen? He was a gentleman who’d married a Russian woman who was still in Russia, something that came to light when a student in the front row one day asked why he wore his wedding ring on his right hand. He explained the custom in Russia, which led to the brief discussion about his wife still being there. This self-revelation was part of what I later realized made him a transformative teacher, at least for me: true passion for his topic and an eagerness and willingness to share that with students.

Beyond that self-revelatory moment on his part (which made clear why he could describe Russian history and Peter the Great’s sojourns to Europe with such enthusiasm), he sparked an interest in historical events as he shared the human side of what was happening at the time. As a result, what many students entering the class, myself included, thought would be a chronological slog through the centuries became a fascinating fly-on-the-wall retelling of human foibles, passions, failings, and triumphs.

Getting thrown out a window in Prague and landing in one of the piles of manure that were common on the streets of Europe at the time had vastly different interpretations depending on which side of the event you sat. If you sided with those doing the throwing, your victims not only deserved being thrown out the window, they also deserved to end up buried in manure. If you were on the other side, however, it was angels that suddenly appeared to guide the defenestratees down to a soft landing, thereby avoiding injury or death.

Were you the unfortunate physician accompanying Peter the Great to Europe, where his scientific curiosity led him and his entourage to witness a dissection of a human body, you would have rued the day you made a face at being repulsed at what you were seeing. As the transformative history teacher explained with solemnity, that weak-stomached Russian physician was commanded by Peter the Great to go assist in the dissection — with his teeth.

You can see how these details brought history alive. You can also surmise that such details are infrequently shared in history courses.

Yet this was the reason for the transformative moment I had as a student but which I did not realize as one of my truths until decades later:

Just about anything I encounter can be interesting if I encourage myself to get into it deep enough.

That’s a transformative realization. It has allowed me on certain occasions to forgo motivation-killing resistance to tasks. Yet I didn’t know this until 1) the history class experience, and 2) the decades-later reading of the Feynman book. Further, I seriously doubt the professor knew the effect he had on me. He had surely passed on when I realized my own transformation spurred by his class.

But what if I had seen a question on the final exam in his class that asked, “What has your learning experience been like in this class?” After all, that’s a question that wouldn’t seem out of place on college class end-of-term student surveys, right?

Such a prompt, however, might have launched my transformative realization to consciousness in that moment. If so, maybe I would have approached subsequent classes throughout my formal educational career differently. Instead, it took a chance reading decades later, after all undergraduate, master’s, doctoral work had been finished, to connect the dots for me.

I have two regrets. First, I never had the opportunity to communicate this to that professor. Second, I regret not having had the realization at that point in my educational career.

My personal experience leads me to believe it is a very powerful, positive thing to provide learners the opportunity to reflect on their own learning. Doing so may bring to conscious awareness a life tool that might otherwise lie unused for decades.



Feynman, R. P. (1999). The pleasure of finding things out. New York, NY: Perseus Publishing.

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