Transformative Learning: We Teach Who We Are - Sue L. T. McGregor

Vol. 14, No. 2

ISSN: 1546-2676



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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Vol. 14, No. 2.

Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer.

Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2004.

Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review. For more information, see our Call for Papers & Guidelines for Authors.



Transformative Learning:
We Teach Who We Are

Sue L. T. McGregor



If individuals experience a transformation of their paradigm, their practices will transform. I share my own personal transformation as a home economist over the past few years, prefaced with a short discussion of transformative learning. The frame of reference of my work has changed from the principles of technical practices in a consumer rights driven marketplace to one of relational and emancipatory responsibility based on the principles of holism, peace, social justice, and global citizenship.

Transformative Learning: We Teach Who We Are

Examining their perspectives is one way people are able to transform their paradigms and practices and thus grow professionally (Henderson & Hawthorne, 2000; Murphy, 1999). To that end, I offer to share my own personal transformation as a home economist over the past few years, prefaced with a brief overview of the nuances of transformative learning.

My transformation began with critical thinking, which created an awareness of outside pressures and internal constraints on my practice thereby lessening their unconscious influence. I experienced a “a transformative moment”(O’Sullivan, 2001). My frame of reference for home economics has been refashioned from one based on the principles of technical practice and the marketplace to one based on relational emancipatory practice and the principles of holism, peace, social justice, and global citizenship.

Overview of Transformative Learning

 Transformative learning is a shift of consciousness that can dramatically and permanently alter one’s way of being in the world. Such a shift involves an understanding of one’s self; of relationships with other humans and the natural world; of the relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race, and gender; of body awareness; of alternative approaches to living; and of the possibilities for social justice, peace, and personal joy (O’Sullivan, 2003).

Each learner has a “story.” Learners enter each day with what they have accumulated over the course of their lives (Mezirow, 1991). When learners have an “aha” experience, a profound moment of insight that enables them to see the true nature of a situation, their perspectives change. Sometimes, a new insight or collection of insights can be so profound that it affects learners’ entire view of the world (Robertson, 1997). They will have been personally transformed, changed in such a way that they can never go back to the way they saw the world before (Di Biase, 1998). When learners’ priorities or assumptions change, then they have the ability to critically reflect on their own and others’ premises, on things they once took for granted. Transformed learners are closer to being autonomous critical thinkers who can arrive at their own meaning of life events and conditions, instead of uncritically acting on others’ interpretations or doing what they have always done. As a result, learners are more self-aware, more conscious of conditions of society, and more predisposed to continually search for new meanings, not merely more facts and information (Barkmeier, 1999; Mezirow, 1991).

Transformational experiences are often preceded by a catalyst, an emotionally charged situation, that fails to fit one’s expectations. Mezirow (1991) referred to these situations as “disorienting dilemmas.” Learners experience something that makes them completely lose their bearings and become lost. This disorientation occurs because what happened or what they have learned does not fit with their preconceived notions, with their frame of reference or personal paradigm. This perspective change can be triggered by an acute personal or social crisis (e.g., a natural disaster, job loss, divorce, war, or retirement) or a series of cumulative events. What is central to either instance is that the experience can be so traumatic, stressful, painful, or even enlightening that it can threaten the very core of one’s existence. The events have such a profound impact on them that their practices change dramatically. Learners now embrace a completely new way to interpret future learning experiences. There can be no doubt that the process of transformation is challenging. One’s values, deeply held beliefs, and attitudes are very difficult to recognize and also very difficult to change. Reflecting on a disorienting dilemma, and how it affects one, is the key to changing one’s point of view (Taylor, 1998). I offer my reflections of how a disorienting dilemma changed my academic and professional life. My story illustrates that we teach who we are (Palmer, 1998); changing who we are changes how we practice.

A Transformative Story

This story will chronicle the changes I have lived through for the past 20 years, changes that have brought me to a totally new space as a home economics professional. I will weave together how I was, what happened to me, and how I am now. Please appreciate that it is not totally possible to separate these parts of my story.

Who I Was

From 1984-1998, I was a faculty member of the home economics department, renamed human ecology in the early 90s, at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, NS, Canada. When I first started teaching at the university, I was a lecturer working my way to tenure track and assistant rank. Never once, while teaching personal finance for 15 years, did the students and I discuss what it means to live in a consumer society. All I did was give them information, via many long lectures, on how to develop a financial plan. I used corporate material without critiquing the bias or the impact of using the corporate logo in their education process. I used normative test criteria where I tested them on their ability to spit back the memorized material and then compared their scores against the other students—to the point that I even posted them on my door (cringe...). I brought in other experts (e.g., insurance brokers, loan officers) who shared their specialized information with no opportunity for the students to discuss their power overconsumers due to asymmetrical information. I blissfully called consumers “clients” not appreciating that seeing a family as a client or customer conveys an exchange process wherein the client is dependent on the expert.

I would enter a course with a predetermined course outline and evaluation scheme with no room at all for changes or student input. Also, I taught all of my courses from a subject-oriented content approach. I dictated my lectures and waited as students wrote down what I said. There was little room left, in a 50-minute class period, for any kind of discussion.

A Change Begins

After being in this position for a couple of years, my Chair called me into her office for an evaluation of my teaching. I was told I was “too technical” in my approach. When I asked what she meant, she explained that I had far too many true and false, multiple choice, and fill in the blank tests and I lectured too much. I was totally lost because I did not know any other way to teach. I remember going outside to collect myself, walking around and around the building, crying and confused. When I shared this dilemma, this evaluation of my teaching, with two other colleagues, they directed me to Brown and Paolucci’s (1978) three systems of action, saying this would help me. I was so overwhelmed by these ideas that I dismissed them as too hard to figure out. No transformation occurred at that time. I kept on teaching from a technical perspective for another five years.

My transformative experience began with a new teaching opportunity. I was asked to teach the “Introduction to the Profession” course to the first year undergraduate students. I had to read a lot of literature about home economics philosophy; literature I had not been exposed to before. This learning experience was “initially traumatic” because I was annoyed that no one had ever taught me this stuff. In all fairness, I graduated in 1975 with my BSc and Brown and Paolucci’s work was not even published until 1978. But, I still felt vindicated by blaming someone else for my lack of professional growth.

Later, when I turned to Brown and Paolucci (1978), I learned that the technical, expert approach was just one way of knowing. There were two other ways: (a) respecting conversations, values, meanings, and relationships (interpretative) and (b) getting engaged in social political change so power relationships can be changed for the betterment of the human condition (emancipatory). At first, I could best relate to the interpretative approach. About this time I also had the privilege to attend an intense weekend workshop on how to bring a global perspective to home economics practice. I had seen myself as a consumer, but not as a global citizen.

The Disorienting Dilemma

Then I experienced a disorienting dilemma at my university that totally traumatized me and changed my life forever. Foregoing a discussion of the deeply painful politics involved and the shattering breach of trust and lost friendships, suffice it to say the human ecology department was closed after a two-year ordeal of trying to save it. Until then, I had been very happy in professional and personal life, loving the privilege of being a home economist. When the department closed, I was totally devastated. I had never engaged in personal reflection on my role as a home economist. I took it for granted and was very naive about the power relationships involved. Because of this lack of reflection, I mistakenly and irrationally blamed myself for the entire scenario. I was so traumatized that I was on sick leave for four months and had to take my sabbatical again. I could not work, focus, or ground myself for almost a year and a half. As Brookfield (1987) predicted, this trigger event really “shook me up” and forced me to either reject or revise my previous views of myself and the world. I chose revision. I know now that much larger issues were at play and that self-blaming was wrong. But I did not transform overnight. Instead, as Taylor (1998) suggested, several key transformative experiences accumulated over the next four years, leading to a new me, comfortable in my new life and open to future transformation.

How I Became Who I Am Now

When the department closed, I was mentored into being the Coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, mainly because the retiring coordinator was aware of my background in home economics, human ecology, and global education. Since I did not know anything about peace and conflict studies, I began to read and learn. My whole world began to change, especially my world as a scholar, a teacher, and a professional home economist. I can say for certain that I would not have been receptive to this change in perspective if not for the disorienting dilemma of closing the department.

The concepts of peace education, human rights, human security, conflict and violence, non-violence, social justice, structural violence, human responsibilities, and citizenship education opened new worlds for me. Structural violence was especially new and is defined as a situation when a society’s institutions and policies are designed in such a way that barriers are built into society that result in a life of oppression, exclusion, exploitation, marginalization, collective humiliation, stigmatization, repression, inequities, and lack of opportunities due to no fault of one’s own, per se.As I grappled with all of those points of views, I began to realize that I could no longer solely promote the ideas of consumer rights, protection, consumer interests, etc., one of the main foci of my research for nearly 15 years. I began to question the very essence of my professional underpinnings.

I was further prompted to reflect on my orientation to practice when I finally read Brown (1993). She claims that home economists are complicit in promoting postmodern consumerism and that this can be counterproductive to family well-being. She says that the profession “bought into” capitalism and did not critically analyze its impact on families. This was radical for me! As soon as I realized that the globe was a construct created by men to map commerce, I was more cognizant of how destructive “global commerce” can be. My eyes were opened to the holistic idea that I am one of millions of species sharing a planet. With this new insight, I could no longer engage in my consuming role without critiquing “global commerce.” This critique and reflection led me to teach very different courses with names like “Globalization, Consumerism, and the Human Spirit” and “Peace, Human Rights, and Citizenship Education in the Context of a Consumer Culture” (McGregor, 2004).

Upon reading the peace, citizenship, and social justice literature, I began to see myself as a member of the human family and a global community, concerned with the human condition. Also, I continued to critique the “global market” and the role of transnational corporations in the creation and perpetuation of human rights infractions, injustices, and ecological destruction. I came to an earth shattering “aha” experience one day when I realized that we cannot have consumer rights until our human rights are in place (McGregor, 1999a,b). It finally came home to me how important it is to get people to stand back and examine the power relationships in society that perpetuate structural violence, oppression, exploitation, marginalization, and exclusion.

Once I finally internalized this way of knowing, I offered to guest edit a Special Issue of Kappa Omicron Nu’s FORUM on critical science and critical discourse and wrote two primers on this topic for the journal (McGregor, 2003b,c). I can assure you that this transformative process was not convenient; it was not just a shift in subject area as my academic career evolved. I was very content before my life fell apart.

How I Teach Now

Internalizing these new learnings totally changed the way I taught undergraduate students. They became partners in the learning process, and I moved closer to being a facilitator instead of being an expert. As Cranton (1994) said, I started to give up my “position power” but kept my “personal power.” I now try to see students as partners. This perspective conveys a relationship where each party is interdependent on the other to reach their respective goals. This approach assumes that a family member has valuable, legitimate information to bring to the relationship in addition to that of the expert family consumer science (FCS) professor who is no longer the only source of legitimate information and experience.

I also now use the phrase “consumer citizen” to reflect my transition to seeing people as being citizens first, and consumers second. Now, I teach consumer-oriented courses with a profoundly different approach. First, I orient students to the neo-liberal, free market ideology that is shaping the current version of globalization. I call this “unmasking the hidden world view and power structure.” Then, we discuss what it means to live in a consumer society followed by a deep examination of the impact of living in this society on individual and family well-being. This discussion is followed by an even more in-depth exploration of how to create a new approach to consumer socialization so that we can mitigate the impact of living in a consumer society. An example of a course outline for this course is at

In my policy classes, I had students engage in deep policy issue analysis from a values perspective using a dialogue approach. I was not popular at that time with some students because theywanted the answers. I kept telling them it was the questions that were more important. To this day, I still get sporadic letters from those students telling me I changed their lives but it just took them time to realize it! On the other hand, while I kept reinforcing that the role of home economists is to address the larger societal issues rather than just the symptoms, I did not push them to discuss structural violence. I did not learn of this concept until later. I had not yet embraced the emancipatory way of knowing, i.e., helping people free themselves from powers (internal and external) that are keeping them oppressed. It took the closure of my department to help me finally relate to emancipatory knowledge. This personal growth happened partly because of the power struggles in the politics of closing the department and partly because of the new material I was being exposed to in my academic life.

Now, I draft a course outline and attend my first class. Before I hand out this plan, the students and I engage in a concept mapping exercise so we can determine where they are coming from and what they already know. Then, I show them what I thought the course was about and we redesign the course, together. They also have complete autonomy in developing their own evaluation scheme. They come up with what they want to do to illustrate their learning progress, with guidance from me. This is so profoundly different from what I used to do and so rewarding for everyone.

More and more, I now try to teach from an issues or thematic approach. When I do this, I start by teaching the nuances of a broad, universal concept and then facilitate the students’ selection of issues that can be analyzed from this broader level. They pose the problems instead of me giving them the problems. For example, I may help students appreciate the broad concept of exclusion and then the students could examine dimensions of the recurring problem of housing that are related to exclusion (homelessness, low income, public housing, cannot rent if one has pets or children, etc). To that end, I do not go in with a developed lesson plan for content but rather a description of the process to be used to ensure critical learning.

Most significantly, I am much more aware of the language I use in class and am more attuned to the words we use in our discussions. Words can convey the world paradigm that is shaping a person’s position on an issue. If Bachelor’s of Education students say they want their students to “buy into” an idea, I remind them that this is a competitive paradigm term. We discuss it and, eventually, we arrive at the suggestion that they could reflect another paradigm by saying that they want to help their students “embrace” an idea. If teachers doing their Master’s of Education in peace tell me they give their students an award for winning a door decorating contest, we discuss this and come to the insight that they could say they want to hold a community celebration of everyone’s contribution to the learning process (no reward, which is a competitive term). I am much more attuned to the metaphors we use in our daily discussions and the deeper meaning these metaphors convey. My students and I work cooperatively to catch these “slips” and strive to find a new vocabulary for our class dialogue. Also, because I am trying to see myself as part of a learning community, instead of being the expert at the front of the class, I am trying to substitute the word “student” with “co-learner.” That way, I have power with the students, instead of power over students. I lose my position power but keep my personal power. They love it! I love it. It is on the days when I manage to do this that I race home (oops, race is a competitive term)... I journey home and tell my husband what a great class we had (not I had).

Further Reflections

Since I was no longer comfortable in my consuming role, and in my role as an educator perpetuating the primacy of the consumer interest, I needed a way to make this confusion meaningful. I found it in the citizenship education literature. I concluded that we could be citizens first and consumers second. This major conceptual breakthrough led to more scholarly work about a concept I have named “participatory consumerism, linking earlier learnings about international development with citizenship education and the consumer culture literature. I am also working on two new ideas, which I have called transformative consumerism” andconsumer accountability” (McGregor, 2001). These constructs emerged from my reflections about the reluctance to hold consumers accountable for the consequences of their consumption decisions as we promote world-wide corporate social responsibility. Why not hold consumers accountable when they generate more than two-thirds of the Gross Domestic Product?

But I still felt uncomfortable with promoting consumer rights. I was helped in my continuing transformation by learning about being a socially responsible citizen in the alter-globalization, civil society, and global citizenship literature. If we are citizens first, then consumers, we will pay as much attention to being responsible consumers as we do to making sure we have all our human rights. There is a global movement around human responsibility at the UN level, but home economists are not part of this movement. This initiative is encouraging the UN to promote the concept of responsibilities to balance the 50-year focus on rights. With my new insights, I wrote several think pieces about how consumer education and resource management education could change if its proponents embraced this human responsibility perspective (e.g., McGregor, 2003d).

In the last few months, my transformative experiences have been snowballing, leaving me to wondrously ponder how I could have missed all of the synergies before! I have begun to explore the challenges of building a culture of peace in a consumer society. I would never have even dreamed this up before the above experiences. When I submitted a paper on this to a journal, I was challenged to ground my discussion in postmodern theory (McGregor, 2003e). This year, I did a session on this topic at a transformative learning conference. Before my shift in perspective, I attended nothing but home economics conferences. Once I began questioning my former approach to consumerism, and grasped the concept of structural violence, I posed a challenge to the home economics profession to begin to see consumerism as a form of structural violence (McGregor, 2003a).

My home economics students kept asking me about the difference between the right and the left in the political arena. In exploring this new idea, I discovered the literature on neo-liberalism, capitalism, social Darwinism, and corporate-led globalization. The result is two new courses and an opportunity to be a visiting scholar at two Canadian universities. Other scholars and I wrote a paper on this topic (McGregor, Fisk & Doull, 2003). All these insights would never have happened if my department had not closed unexpectedly, forcing me to re-examine who I was as a home economics professional and what I wanted my practice to look like.

A Continuing Journey

My entire self-image as a home economics educator, philosopher, and practitioner has changed forever because of these transformative learning experiences. The last five years have been like a roller coaster ride with one new positive transformative learning experience after another. These experiences drive me to create transformative learning experiences for my co-learners. I feel excited when I create learning situations that do not harmonize with the learners’ present understanding of their experiences, spurring them to critically reflect on the lack of fit between what they are learning and what they already know and believe (Brookfield, 1987; Nyirenda, 1997). As Daloz (1986) suggests, I now find ways to “toss little bits of dither in the students’ path, little facts and observations, theories and interpretations… that raise questions about their world views and invite them to...think fresh” (p. 223).

I am now teaching people how to be family study teachers in a system that is outcomes based and test oriented. Together, we explore leading-edge ideas in home economics and other fields that will change the way they see themselves as teachers so they can work to change the system to one that fosters transformative learning: transformative leadership, human reflective action theory, communities of practice, critical science and critical discourse, citizenship education, service learning. All these are in the context of postmodernism and home economics. I am writing a book with the working title, “Transformative Practice.”

I continue in my role as coordinator of the peace program, using all the insights I gained in my professional transformation to subliminally bring home economics to peace students. I have retained professional membership in home economics and consumer studies associations but have also joined new professional associations in the areas of human security, peace and social justice, citizenship education, and globalization. I attend home economics conferences taking my new frame of reference to them, and I attend these other conferences taking the idea of a new home economicsto them.

Perspective transformation is a process as well as an outcome. Changing perspectives is a process whereby meaning making becomes continually clarified. The transformed learners develop the capacity to be adaptive, more open to other points of view, and more aware of their own expanding frame of reference (Taylor, 1998). My experiences as I have recounted them are evidence of this evolution. I know that my transformation is irreversible. I will not regress to previous levels of understanding because my assumptions are totally altered. I have new habits of the mind and a totally different point of view. If individuals experience a transformation of their paradigms, their practices will transform (Murphy, 1999). That is the essence of my story and the essence of transformative learning.


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