«Facilitating Higher-Order Thinking: Synthesizing Pedagogical Frameworks for the Development of Complex and Coherent Conceptual Systems Michael A. ...»
The Psychodynamics of Cognitive Transformation In this section, I describe how evidence that contradicts our beliefs (leading to cognitive disequilibration) can be used to trigger the "unlearning" of dysfunctional cognitive schemes, in order to allow the learning of new ones that can be applied more coherently. I will relate this (transformative) type of learning to the notion of using education to emancipate students from authoritative knowledge regimes through the development of critical discourses, deep reflection, and the renegotiation of meanings.
The Possibility of Transformative Learning Cranton (1997) wrote, "We need to be open to alternative perspectives in order to transform our own" (pp. 2-3). Several theorists have stressed the educational importance of surprising evidence, events which apparently disconfirm our beliefs; such experiences indicate (to analytical thinkers) an opportunity to modify our conceptions to improve their consistency and coherency. Piaget (1971) wrote of disequilibration, which stimulates cognitive restructuring until one's ideational processes achieve reequilibration. Schon (1987) remarks upon the element of surprise, the failure of events to meet expectations; he points out that unexpected confusion is a result of an inadequate hypothesis. This experience leads to reflection-in-action, a pattern of inquiry and rethinking which leads to unlearning. Learning is cognitive work, the reconstruction of experiences in order to arrive at new understandings of action situations. It is questioning the assumptional structure of knowing-in-action in order to restructure strategies of action, and it serves to reshape what we are doing while we are doing it.
Mezirow described the importance of disorienting dilemmas, which occur when present experience invalidates old understandings; this produces a sense of inadequacy, a realization that one's old ways of seeing meaning are unsupportable, and that one's old patterns of response are ineffective (in relation to one's aims). Such an experience may be very painful, and threatening to one's identity (since we identify with our frameworks of belief and meaning). Reflection on potentially dysfunctional assumptions is central in the transformation of meaning schemes and perspectives; validity testing "may result in the elaboration, creation, or transformation of meaning schemes" (Mezirow, 1991, p. 6).
Transformative learning is the revision of meanings through the alteration of meaning schemes and meaning perspectives; the former are particular beliefs, judgments and habits of expectation, while the latter term represents tacit and presumptive conceptual structures (interrelated meaning schemes), within which ongoing events are being dynamically related to past experiences. Mezirow acknowledges that people construct reality dynamically through different discursive contexts associated with various types of activities. "As far as any particular individual is concerned, the nature of a thing or an event consists of the meaning that that individual gives to it" (Mezirow, 1991, p. xiv).
Mezirow's transformative learning theory concentrates on how meaning is developed ("construed, validated and reformulated"); it was designed as "a firm foundation for a philosophy of adult education from which appropriate practices of goal setting, needs assessment, program development, instruction and research could be derived" (Mezirow, 1991, p. xii).
Meaning perspectives are akin to Kuhn' s paradigms, Goffman or Bateson's frames, and Wittgenstein's language games. In a shared social reality, where meanings are continuously negotiated through communication, values (definitions, assumptions, categories) are internalized by each individual; personal history determines what we can know and how we can know it. As historical authorities break down, new meanings are negotiated, and new authorities may be more democratic/educative. "Thus it becomes crucial that the individual learn to negotiate meanings, purposes, and values critically, reflectively and rationally instead of passively accepting the social realities defined by others. Transformation theory provides a description of the dynamics of the way adults learn to do this" (Mezirow, 1991, p. 3). "Transformative learning is learning through action, and the beginning of the action learning process is deciding to appropriate a different meaning perspective" (Mezirow, 1991, p. 56). Thus the application of reflective retrospective analysis to one's conceptual frameworks, in order to modify one's ways of thinking, can produce discontinuous leaps in cognitive development.
Communicative action (Habermas, 1984, 1987), the intersubjective construction of consensual meanings, requires agreed upon means of validity testing, the application of validity criteria (or grounding) which are refined through speech, to explicit and implicit claims. Transformed meaning schemes lead to assessing and redefining critical assumptions, "becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand and feel about our world. Changing our structures of habitual expectation makes possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective; and finally, making choices or otherwise acting upon these new understandings" (Mezirow, 1991, p. 167). Transforming our meaning perspectives give rise to new ways of experiencing and of interacting with people and things, ways which may allow us to resolve previously insuperable difficulties.
Education as Emancipation Some view education as providing an opportunity to escape the domination of those who wield authority and power in social groups, since the dominance of power brokers has not always served the majority of citizens. Foucault (1980) wrote, "[TJhere are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize and constitute the social body, and these relations cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse" (p. 93). Perhaps the most relevant discourse in this respect is that which deals with the object to which we refer as truth. "We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth... in the end, we are judged, condemned, classified, determined in our undertakings, destined to a certain mode of living or dying as a function of the true discourses which are the bearers of the specific effects of power" (Foucault, 1980, pp. 93-4). Power has evolved from the exclusive property of theocrats and aristocrats to a more widespread form of domination, namely disciplines, which require that people comply with various authoritative regimes. Emancipatory, or autonomous, thinking is the process of creating idiosyncratic and creative conceptual frameworks.
As Jefferson and the American founding fathers created a framework of freedom from oppressive sovereign authorities, Foucault's discourse has formed a basis for the contemporary ideal of emancipation from oppressive and authoritative knowledge regimes. As the reliance on scientific truth provided the justification for enlightenment philosophers to wrest intellectual authority from the ecclesiastics, the critics of scientism (who deplore the elevation of science as the sole source of epistemic truth) contend that post-modern criticism justifies the devolution of responsibility for knowledge construction from authoritative instructors to inquiring learners. Freire (1970) has inspired contemporary proponents of emancipative education to overcome the "fear of freedom" (doubts with regard to possible outcomes of overcoming oppressive authorities), acknowledge their victimization, and "find through their struggle the way to life-affirming humanization" (Freire, 1970, p. 55). Freire (a Brazilian) was concerned about the economic exploitation of powerless peasants by oppressive sovereign regimes;
his successors in progressive pedagogy, observing the globalization of power and authority, have expanded the discourse, examining the hegemonic perspectives which have the effect of dividing people into sectarian, ethnic, racial and gender groups.
Cultural hegemonies apply at practically all levels of social interaction (including, of course, our universities). McLaren & Giroux (1997) credit language as the vehicle for identity, knowledge and power.
As a political issue, language operates as a site of struggle among different groups who for various reasons police its borders, meanings and orderings.
Pedagogically, language provides the self-definitions upon which people act, negotiate various subject positions, and undertake a process of naming and renaming the relations between themselves, others and the world...
As the cultural mask of hegemony, language is being mobilized to police the borders of an ideologically discursive divide that separates dominant from subordinate groups, whites from Blacks, and schools from the imperatives of democratic public life. (McLaren & Giroux, 1997, p. 16) These authors claim that many progressive education theorists have failed to theorize for schools while theorizing about them. The importance of (nonfoundational) pragmatic philosophy is emphasized in the recognition that social reality is constructed through linguistic discourses, which reify various authoritative ideologies. "In order to break free from the prison house of language as students, teachers, and researchers, we need to understand that reality is not co-extensive with the categories of discourse, since failing to do so means limiting social change to the permutations of discourse within the same set of categories" (McLaren & Giroux, 1997, p. 29).
Transformative and emancipatory education clearly goes beyond furnishing knowledge to inquiring learners in the hope that they will adopt the methods and the understandings of their intellectual forebears. Teachers may learn to recognize the philosophical fallacies and the psychological barriers (their own, and those manifested by their students), which prevent the recognition of dysfunctional conceptual frameworks (maladaptive beliefs accompanied by a psychological reluctance to adapt); inconsistency and incoherency may be corrected through reflection, re-evaluation, problem solving and validity testing. The job of an inquiring learner is the continual creation of transformed knowledge frameworks, which are established by modifying prior understandings through critical assessment. However, this cognitive work is hampered by affective processes; as Boler (1999) has described, emotional attachments to our historical understandings may pose barriers to learning new perspectives.
Teaching for Transformation Schon describes the activities of the reflective practitioner as a form of artistry.
His construct of reciprocal reflection-in-action (like Habermas' communicative action and Mezirow's reflective discourse) depicts an ideal educational commitment; instructors are coaches who suit their discursive actions not only to the actions of their students, but who also take into account the learners' tacit understandings (and their own presumptions as well). Self-critical analysis allows coaches and students to adapt their skills to situational contingencies. "Reflection-in-action becomes reciprocal when the coach...
responds to [a student's] interpretations with further showing or telling, which the student may, in turn, decipher anew and translate into new design performance" (Schon, 1987, p.
101). The artistry is collaborative, as instructional methods, desired outcomes, and assessment criteria are invented through co-operative practices.
Brookfield (1995) elucidates his own experiences of being a reflective practitioner, describing the process for those who recognize the importance of continually adapting to the contingencies of teaching and learning situations. "Critically reflective teaching happens when we identify and scrutinize the assumptions that undergird how we work. The most effective way to become aware of these assumptions is to view our practices from different perspectives" (Brookfield, 1995, pp. xii-xiii). These perspectives comprise various dimensions; some are autobiographical, others are gained from students, colleagues and literature. In particular, Brookfield recommends the literature of critical pedagogy as a tool for the facilitation of practitioners' development; he describes critical reflection as "anchored in values of justice, fairness, and compassion... critical reflection urges us to create conditions under which each person is respected, valued and heard" (Brookfield, 1995, pp. 26-7). Critical discourse is essential to development, in that it is used to illuminate the deleterious effects of power structures (and their associated hegemonic precepts), and to validate our justifications in all areas of inquiry. The possibility of reciprocal criticism (based on consensual reasoning) places responsibility upon all discussants to clarify their own perspectives, and to modify them when they are exposed as being inadequate or inappropriate to the (most benevolent) purposes at hand.
Learning different perspectives on our practices, and reinterpreting the assumptions that underlie them, exposes the errors of our ways, which only become subject to correction after they are revealed through criticism, analysis, and reflective evaluation. For example., Brookfield realized (after interviewing his students specifically to learn their perceptions of his methods) that his commitments to humility and to allowing his students to express themselves were perceived as evasion of the issues at hand, and that his intentional avoidance of autobiographical disclosure was seen as a failure to participate authentically. These (transformative) revelations allowed the author to improve his practice in these areas.