Transforming the Perspective Toward an Empowered Mindset

by Linda Dale Bloomberg, EdD

In my book, Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners (Teachers College Press, 2021), I discuss the importance of striving to achieve the kind of “deep learning” that can arise from dialogue, reflection, and critical reflection. What sets apart the transformative learning approach—and what indeed makes it unique—is the strong focus on critical self-reflection as integral to developing your own and your students’ transformative learning. The way I see it, perspective transformation, a core element of transformative learning theory (Kegan, 2000; Mezirow, 1991, 1994, 2000), involves (a) an empowered sense of self, (b) a more critical understanding of how assumptions and experiences shape and influence one’s beliefs and knowledge, and (c) more functional strategies and understanding for moving forward. In sum, transformative learning is essentially about making meaning of our experiences, essentially transforming what we know and understand, which in turn influences the way we think and act. Toward this end it is critical that we work toward actively engaging with our learners so that we develop, right from the start, a sense of self-motivation, and an “I can do this attitude”; in essence, an empowered mindset (Bloomberg, 2021). 

Dweck (2007) wrote about the importance of encouraging a “growth mindset”. In my book,  Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, I take the notion of a “growth mindset” a step further with an “empowered mindset” as the end goal; that is, engendering growth through empowerment. Being intentional in encouraging an empowered mindset in your learners will ensure that you focus your teaching on how they can improve and that you can work alongside them to provide the necessary support and motivation that will ensure ongoing learning and development. The idea of an empowered mindset lends insights for instructors to challenge themselves in fostering growth for both themselves and their learners. Nurturing an empowered mindset applies to all learners and in particular to those who have been historically marginalized and discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, or other realities. The underlying implication lies in empowering all students to advocate for themselves and claim their right to an education that addresses their unique needs. 


Learner Mindset

Mindset encompasses learners’ self-concept and self-efficacy beliefs as well as their persistence at learning tasks. The beliefs that adults have about themselves as learners have a cyclical relationship with achievement; that is, previous academic achievement fosters particular beliefs which in turn predict future achievement. Learners may view failure and having to put in effort on a task as a sign that they lack the ability (i.e., “fixed mindset”) rather than viewing failure and effort as natural elements of learning (i.e., “growth mindset”). Learners with an empowered mindset believe that success can be achieved through experience and effort, and that support from others is beneficial. Because learners who are empowered will feel autonomous, they will view tasks as doable within the scope of their knowledge, abilities, and resources. They will also value achievement, thereby challenging themselves, expecting success, and striving to accomplish their goals.

  • Self-concept: Adult learners may not always identify as academic learners. Moreover, many learners may not recognize their informal learning and knowledge as valuable. Adult learners need support in building a positive academic self-concept, especially if they have had previous negative experiences with schooling.
  • Self-efficacy: Self-efficacy includes a learner’s confidence and belief in their own ability to complete a task. A learner with high self-efficacy holds the belief that they are capable of shaping their academic outcomes. Engaging in meaningful and rewarding learning experiences can serve to improve adults’ academic self-efficacy.
  • Persistence: There is a high rate of attrition in adult education as many learners continue to face barriers to access. Developing self-advocacy skills to be able to communicate their own learning needs will support greater persistence in learning, leading to academic success.


Instructor Mindset

Instructors with a “fixed mindset” can create an atmosphere of judgment and may give up on those learners who are not performing well. Additionally, because they do not believe in improvement, these instructors may not attempt to foster it.  Alternatively, if you are an instructor with a “growth mindset” you will adopt an asset-based approach, focusing on learners’ strengths and not just their deficits. With this approach in mind, you will intentionally identify, communicate, and harness students’ assets in order to empower them to flourish and succeed. By providing strength-based feedback and asking critically reflective questions you will encourage a mindset of leveraging strengths in order to solve problems and overcome challenges. In so doing, you will come to understand that positive, supportive confidence-building experiences help learners believe in their potential to solve complex problems. In your role as a transformative educator, you should believe that all learners can improve and succeed!  

It was the basis of the philosophy and work of educational reformer John Dewey (1933, 1938) who saw reflective thinking as an integral precursor to thoughtful action. In this sense, Transformative Learning is aligned with the view of educators as “reflective practitioners” (Brookfield 1995, 1998; Schön 1983, 1987), who work to engage and empower their learners, resulting in deeper learning and increased opportunities for achievement and success (Bloomberg, 2021). In that context, pause for a moment and think back to some great teachers you have known throughout your life. You will likely be able to think of things they said or did that exemplified an empowered mindset, thereby instilling and fostering motivation, persistence, and deep learning! 

Strategies for Enhancing an Empowered Mindset Through Transformative Education

Transformative learning (Kegan, 2000; Mezirow, 1991, 1994, 2000) encompasses four phases, which are facilitated by a “disorienting dilemma”: (1) an enhanced level of awareness of the context of one’s beliefs; (2) a critique of the assumptions underlying these; (3) the decision to negate an old perspective in favor of a new one or to make a synthesis of the old and the new; and (4) an ability to act based on the new perspective.  Critical self-reflection is precisely the skill students must develop to overcome limiting beliefs and mindsets that compromise their effectiveness as citizens, family members, and employees. Critical self-reflection is the key to helping develop your own and your students’ meta-cognitive ability (i.e., the ability to self-assess their own learning). Critical self-reflection is also foundational for students’ development as more self-aware individuals who possess the skills and desire to contribute to the social good, including their families, and their local and global communities (Brookfield, 1995, 2015).

Brookfield’s ideas about critical self-reflection are very much aligned with an overall transformative learning approach in that perspective transformation leads essentially to an empowered sense of self-based on a more critical understanding of how assumptions and experiences shape and influence one’s beliefs and knowledge, and therefore, developmentally more functional strategies for moving forward. One feature that makes transformative learning theory applicable to teaching adults is the sharp focus on the idea that the most significant learning arises from critical reflection, and to achieve deep learning, ongoing critical thinking is key. It is therefore essential to build critical thinking opportunities into your course content by asking questions and posing content that prompts deeper thinking. Critical thinking occurs through reflection and dialogue, commonly referred to as discourse, and so the implication is to provide opportunities for learners to fully participate in dialogue and reflection (Brookfield, 1995, 2015).

Activities and tasks that require learners to reflect on what they have learned and share their reflections with their instructors and peers extend and enrich their reflections. For instance, blogs and journaling, whether used as group exercises or as individual activities, have evolved into appropriate tools for learners to engage in critical reflection, dialogue, and ongoing learning. Encouraging learners to explain and describe their progress helps them to stay focused on their goals. Helping them think about what they have accomplished and learned also ensures that they are aware of their own progress and what they have yet to complete. Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning experience, requiring them to engage in meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing. This is the very opposite of passive learning, or what Paolo Freire (1970) defined as the “banking model of education”. The concept of active learning, where learners intentionally participate in and contribute to the discussion, and engage in critical thinking, places the learner at the center of the learning experience and has significant applicability to ensuring engagement and an empowered mindset. Remember, to achieve transformation, deep or significant learning, rather than “surface learning” is the end goal.  

Where to From Here?

As transformative educators we strive to meet the needs of all learners, offering them the ownership, agency, and autonomy to actively engage in the learning experience, so that they are empowered to implement changes in their own personal and professional lives, and ultimately in the lives of others. In adopting a transformative learning approach you will be transforming yourself to become the kind of educator that can help your students develop as humans who demonstrate the motivation and skills to work with others to address (and hopefully solve) the many challenges confronting our global communities today. We can help prompt transformative understandings in our students by building learning environments that value critical thinking and human development. Toward this end, and with thoughtful and intentional planning and execution, you can make sure that all learners are provided with a meaningful and successful learning experience! These words still ring true for me since I studied in the AEGIS doctoral program at Teachers College, Columbia University under Jack Mezirow (founder of transformative learning theory) and Stephen Brookfield. My recent completion of the Transformative Educator program offered by www.qedex.org, which focused on the theory and practice of transformative learning, also served to reinforce the critical role played by educators in ensuring that we strive to provide a deep and significant learning experience for all learners. As a transformative educator, what steps will YOU take to ensure this?  

As you think more deeply about your role as a transformative educator, reflect on the following:

  • Do you have the courage to try new instructional strategies that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of your learners? 
  • How and in what ways can you transform your relationship with each of your learners to support them throughout their learning experience?
  • In what ways can you build into the learning experience rich opportunities for dialogue, reflection, and critical thinking? 
  • How does your own mindset impact the mindset of your learners?
  • What are you doing to instill and sustain motivation, thereby building a culture of deep learning? 
  • What kind of learning activities and strategies can you implement that will prompt students to critically reflect on their own learning?
  • What new strategies can you implement to ensure that your learners believe in themselves and their ability to succeed?
  • How can you help your learners develop self-advocacy skills to be able to communicate their own learning needs, thereby leading to academic success?
  • What are YOU willing to try out to make a difference in your practice to facilitate an empowered mindset for ALL of your learners?

Biography

Linda Dale Bloomberg EdD., is a former adjunct faculty and dissertation advisor in the department of adult learning and leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, and currently develops curriculum for qualitative research in graduate online programs for National University, serving as faculty coach, dissertation chair, and doctoral subject matter expert. She also serves as consultant to various research, higher education, and nonprofit advisory boards including The Future Talent Council, and is founder of Bloomberg Associates and ILIAD (Institute for Learning Innovations and Adult Development) and cofounder of Columbia University’s Global Learning and Leadership Institute. As senior researcher for the South African Human Sciences Research Council and National Institute for Personnel Research, Dr. Bloomberg’s work focused on change management; diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; and enhanced workplace learning. She is the author of multiple publications in the fields of qualitative research, organizational evaluation, leadership development, ensuring equitable student success, adult learning, and distance education, and is a contributor to The SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation (2018). Her two most recent books include Completing your qualitative dissertation: A road map from beginning to end. (2023) (5th Ed.). SAGE; https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/completing-your-qualitative-dissertation/book279950; and Designing and delivering effective online instruction: How to engage adult learners (2021). Teachers College Press, Columbia University.https://www.tcpress.com/designing-and-delivering-effective-online-instruction-9780807765289 This publication was nominated for the 2021 and 2022 Division of Distance Learning for the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), one of the premier international organizations for instructional design and ed-tech. Since 2021 Dr. Bloomberg has been a contributor to the Teachers College Press, Columbia University blog, which can be accessed at: https://www.tcpress.com/search?search_term=bloomberg She also presents regularly at national and international professional conferences on topics related to diversity initiatives in higher education, adult learning, qualitative research, and dissertation instruction. She holds master’s degrees in counseling psychology, organizational psychology, and education, and is credentialed with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). In 2006, she received her doctorate in adult education and organizational learning from the AEGIS program Columbia University that was established by Jack Mezirow, founder of Transformative Learning theory. Linda can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/lindadalebloomberg/

References

Bloomberg, L. D. (2021). Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners. Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

https://www.tcpress.com/designing-and-delivering-effective-online-instruction-9780807765289

This publication has been nominated for the 2021 and 2022 Division of Distance Learning (DDL) for the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), one of the premier international organizations for instructional design and ed-tech.

Brookfield S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. (1998). Critically Reflective Practice. The Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 18,197–205.

Brookfield, S. D. (2015) The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (3rd Ed). Jossey Bass.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Revised ed.). Heath and Co.

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and education. McMillan.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.

Kegan, R. (2000). “What ‘form’ transforms? A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning.” In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1994). Understanding transformation theory. Adult Education Quarterly, 44(4), 222-244.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult. Core concepts of transformation theory. In J.

Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Learning as Transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in

progress (pp. 3–33). Jossey-Bass.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Temple Smith.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. Jossey-Bass.

Linda can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/lindadalebloomberg/

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Que sera, sera, and we would be far better served by thinking about what it is we wish to accomplish in our teaching, and in education generally, regardless of the post-pandemic details. It is only then, assuming we can carve out opportunities to influence the future of higher education, that we will exert such influence toward justifiable ends, and that que sera will be something we value.

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