According to my research, it is usually some experience with “otherness” that becomes, as Mezirow explains, a “disorienting dilemma” which initiates the journey of social conscience. For this reason I frequently take students on service trips to China that provide such a striking contrast to their own lives.
The most practical way for me to help students to begin the journey of social conscience is to take them on service trips outside of Hong Kong. Invariably, students have much to think about when they return from these trips and resume their normal lives. While these experiences are often a vital first step, teachers need to ask how can these kinds of short-term experiences can most effectively move students towards long-term growth and even transformation.
Applying Mezirow’s Theory to High School Students
Fortunately, there is a helpful theoretical starting point to discuss such concepts related to long-term growth. In the 1970’s Columbia professor Jack Mezirow postulated his Adult Transformative Learning Theory; now more than 30 years later there is a journal, the Journal of Transformative Education, devoted to the study of this topic as well as annual conferences. The theory is also quite user-friendly. Here’s the framework:
1) A disorienting dilemma,
2) self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt or shame,
3) a critical assessment of assumptions,
4) recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared,
5) exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions,
6) planning a course of action,
7) acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans,
8) provisionally trying new roles,
9) building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships,
10) a reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s perspective.
Steps 1-4 happens quite naturally on most service trips and, of course, it is vital that teachers process these experiences with their students. However, the real value of service experience needs to be developed in the long-term as students move through steps 5-10, which requires sustained attention from teachers. This is where more attention is needed in schools. Students often come back and say, “My life has been changed,” but what I think they really mean is that they have had a temporary altered shift in perspective, and they desire to integrate this change into their daily life. However, reality sets back in and that glimpse of a new perspective is lost by their return to a busy routine. Teachers need to give students a place to continue this internal search for a new equilibrium. This is why integrated service learning program is far superior to one-off service outings.
It is important to note that Mezirow’s work explicitly states that this is an adult learning theory. However, my research found that genuine transformation can occur in high school. I was able to demonstrate that certainly some adolescents who take social conscience courses at HKIS go through what Mezirow calls a personal transformation. This is important for 21st century schools to consider, for the global challenges we face are so threatening that we need to offer students access to higher levels of consciousness at a younger age, so as to give them the chance to consider their own contributions to the global community earlier in life.
The Joy of Transformative Learning
Finally, teachers should feel inspired that such an all-encompassing learning theory has the potential to direct students as young as high school age towards a path that can lead to lives of purpose and joy. Perhaps no statement better summarizes the vision of transformative learning than that of O’Sullivan (2003):
Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race and gender; our body awarenesses, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our sense of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy.
This statement describes not only the great change that teachers of service-learning oftentimes witness in their work, but also speaks to the intuitions and rewards experienced by educators when study and service are successfully integrated. This is the “pearl of great price” for social conscience educators.
O’Sullivan, E. (2003). Bringing a perspective of transformative learning to globalized consumption. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 27, 326–330.
Note: The picture above comes from a trip some years ago when which a group of HKIS teachers, parents, and students visited western Guangdong Province in southern China to meet and support scholarship winners. Teacher Bill Jordan (in foreground) trained students as clowns to entertain students at a school we were visiting.
Additional information on this site:
- To gain an overview of my research, visit “What is Social Conscience?”
- To read my literature review about the roles of the social conscience educator, which includes a reference to Mezirow’s work, click here.
- To read a summary of my research findings about the roles of the social conscience educator, click here.