How to make adult education transformative: Asking the right questions

The challenges facing education demand responses that are genuinely transformative. But how should we understand transformative education and what can we do to promote it, asks Katarina Popović

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The crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic inspired a wave of new and revived concepts, ideas and practices in education. The need for a new approach had been highlighted in response to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and our likely failure to deliver against Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education by 2030. Continuing educational disparities and exacerbated gaps and setbacks underscore the urgent need to promote adult education and lifelong learning for all.

One of the ideas born out of this sense of urgency is ‘transformative education’, which UNESCO defines as teaching and learning ‘geared to motivate and empower happy and healthy learners to take informed decisions and actions at the individual, community and global levels’. The concept dominates discussions about post-crises education and is perceived as a panacea for many of today’s problems in education.

A closer look at transformative education reveals the power of the idea, but the question is: is there anything innovative about it? Education that is transformative supports and enables learners to grow and develop at individual and social levels. It motivates and empowers them in all aspects of their lives. Transformative education seeks the betterment of people and the planet and supports the eradication of inequalities, oppressions and injustices.

It might be said that none of this is new. Shouldn’t all education aim to be ‘transformative’? And if it isn’t, doesn’t that suggest that we have failed spectacularly? What was education doing, if not transforming lives and making them better? If it did not empower people to transform societies for the better, what was our education about? Was and is the height of our ambition to equip people with skills, help them adapt to challenges and chase technological development? In that case, it would be better to ask ourselves about the quality of education, consider what is missing and critically examine existing concepts and approaches, instead of just introducing a new label?

If the point of transformative education is its depth – the aim to create deeper, more profound changes – this suggests we do not so much need a new concept but a critical review of the current ones and of the practices of rote learning, collecting and memorizing information, skills development without reflection and its false neutrality. However, doing things at a deeper level cannot alone transform a superficial and boring education into a ‘transformative’ one. It cannot just be a matter of recognizing or indicating the level at which transformation starts. Education that is transformative must not only go into things more deeply, but also do things differently.

That said, it cannot simply be a matter of teaching different things. Adding new fields of education, such as education for sustainable development or global citizenship education, does not make an education ‘transformative’. After all, anything can be taught in a repetitive, demotivating or shallow way.

We must be mindful then not to use ‘transformative education’ as a kind of label we add to the education fields, topics and ideas that we wish to strengthen or imbue with more profundity, ambition or achievement, such as: generating more engaged, motivated, knowledgeable and skilled learners. Shouldn’t all forms of education do this? Isn’t this what education is for?

We need to look to different theoretical understandings of how to better conceptualize transformative education. Jack Mezirow and others subscribe to an understanding of ‘transformative learning’ that focuses on the type of learning that occurs when new information or insights clash with existing systems of knowledge, beliefs and values (the so-called ‘disorienting dilemma’). In other words, the critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural and other assumptions inspires new learning and brings about qualitatively different changes.

Can education be based on a similar approach? If crises (whether the pandemic or another) lay bare the weaknesses of our education systems, take us out of our comfort zones and challenge many of our basic assumptions about how learning takes place, is this not a kind of disorienting dilemma?

The education crises that we continue to face as a result of COVID-19 have revealed some unpleasant truths about popular educational paradigms and forced a critical review of the common discourse surrounding education (questioning, for example, the dominance of skills building, the emphasis on measurement and quantification, and outcome-based approaches). A transformative learning approach would require us to focus on the root of the problems facing education instead of only solving current issues, to look for the causes and structures behind inequalities instead of merely mitigating their consequences, and to develop critical autonomy and not only resiliencies. In other words, to ask the right questions instead of chasing answers to the wrong ones.

Katarina Popović is Secretary General of the International Council for Adult Education

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