Redesign (education)

Transformative learning

Stuart B. Hill (see Contributors), for years one of the world's leading thinkers on education for sustainable food systems, understands transformative learning as a critical path to save the planet and the human race.  A social ecologist with training in ecology, psychotherapy, and agricultural sciences, he offers a unique interpretation of the redesign of learning processes to advance food system change (cf. Hill, 2001, 2003, 2011, 2012, 2014).  His work fits broadly (but more deeply) in the literature of inside-out sustainability and the neglect of our inner worlds in sustainability research and action (cf. Ives et al., 2020; Woiwode et al., 2021).

Hill (2020) draws on the work of psychologist R D Laing (1971) to underscore the importance of personal reflection and healing in the learning  process. Laing concluded that it is as if each of us has been hypnotised twice, firstly into accepting pseudo-reality as reality, and secondly into believing that we have not been hypnotised. States Hill (2020),

This personal (and cultural) adaptive behaviour is a coping response to discomfort and stress. Although it protects us over the short term from the responsibilities that flow from our experiences, over the longer term, such adaptive responses contribute to our disempowerment, loss of awareness, and our confusion about our visions and values; and to our being in denial about any of this. These losses of our potential give rise to a diverse range of (subconsciously developed and actualised) compensatory behaviours, such as attraction to symbols of power and the need to appear in control to mask our disempowerment. Such attractions are widely relied on in advertising, and are responsible for much of our consumerism and attraction to material and economic growth. Changing these behaviours would significantly contribute towards our living sustainably; and enabling such changes is central to the design and implementation of ... transformative education .....

Hill believes that Social Ecology provides a comprehensive framework for understanding and action. He sees social ecology as: “the study and practice of personal, social and ecological sustainability and ‘progressive’ change based on the critical application and integration of ecological, humanistic, relational, community and 'spiritual' (the unknown) values to enable sustained wellbeing of all” (slightly updated from Hill 2011). He and colleagues at Australia's Western Sydney University championed for years this approach, helping students develop three interrelated metaskills:

1. Understanding and working with complexity, power, gender and otherness/difference;

2. Exploring diverse ways of knowing; and

3. Creative visioning and designing.

This is because, "[t]he foundational task of an effective educational system is to enable learners to understand the breadth and depth of our situation and the future possibilities; and to develop the competencies needed to individually and collectively design and implement responsible and effective actions and systems that can meet our needs equitably and sustainably." (Hill, 2020). The adaptive behaviours essentially limit one's ability to think and behave collectively and understand oneself as part of natural systems. Their efforts at Western Sydney University demonstrated it is possible to completely redesign traditional educational institutional processes, albeit not without struggles given frequent institutional hostility to such innovation and the associated marginalization of social ecology units.

Hill (2020) advocates for 4 priority areas to include in curricula:

  1. Social ecology frameworks that include the personal (our psychosocial histories and conditions) and the social (including unprivileged treatment of historical, political, economic, business and technological factors), and environmental and spiritual factors; recognition of the vast unknown; and the need for competencies in system design, collaboration (across difference), and respectful and caring communication
  2. Equitable well-being for all humans (and well-being enabled design)
  3. Sustainability, with responsible design and management of four interrelated factors that underlie the sustainability of other species: our numbers, distribution, activities, and the carrying capacity of the support environment.This requires that humans construct and maintain personal, social and natural capital (soil, fresh water and marine ecosystems).
  4. Wise leadership, " .... concerned with integration (rather than separation and fragmentation), enabling balance (rather than just control and efficiency), and attention to local, global, and short- to long-term, diverse expressions of feedback (rather than focusing only on naïve measures such as productivity, profit and power)." (Hill, 2020).

Based on his experiences as a teacher, Hill's web site (click on Contributors, Stuart B. Hill) offers many tools for bringing these priorities to life in classrooms, workshops and other learning venues.

Hill (2020) observes that there is relatively little research on the kinds of broad changes to processes and institutions that will be required to implement transformative learning.  A part of transformative learning that has received some attention is Environmental education, which has a 40-year history but there remains significant debate about what it is and what should be included in schooling.  Stevenson et al., (2013) propose that EE has five core themes: 1) normative questions, 2)  interdisciplinarity, 3)  developing “the agency of learners” to take action on environmental issues (what public education often does not offer), 4) education in  formal and informal settings, and 5)  global and local scales. According to Orr (2004), education helps us master ourselves and  knowledge to make a difference in the world.  Education should be “the process by which we transform problematic frames of reference (mindsets, habits of mind, meaning perspectives) - sets of assumptions and expectation - to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective and emotionally able to change” (Mezirow, 2009:92).  Hill's (2020) understanding of the personal is particularly important here, especially having teachers and learners with the capacity to communicate from their core selves, rather than from maladaptive behaviours.

Critical place based pedagogy, within a progressive environmental education framework,  builds on environmental and social justice, critical pedagogy, and place-based education (Gruenewald, 2003).  It combines “reading the world” and decoding the world through the process of conscientization (Freire, 2000) with place as a context for learning.  Critical food pedagogies apply the same process to understanding the food system.

Given the distance from today's public education to these transformative concepts, it is hard to imagine what this might look like in practice, but it could include:

  • A total restructuring of the school, the school day and the school year.  The goal is to optimize opportunities for experiential learning, both in natural environments (broadly defined to include urban environments) and internships.  Schools would need to be structurally redesigned, the hours of school time would change and the current Sept - June school year would be altered.
  • A total revamping of the process of assessing learning.  The use of traditional testing instruments would be significantly dialed back in favour of more qualitative assessments.  Standardized testing would be eliminated.
  • A total reconfiguration of the training of teachers and ECEs to reflect the ideas above, particularly the need in the teacher training process for a deep exploration of the personal, and how it affects one's ability to engage in the change process.
  • A reimagining of the place of schools in communities. Schools become centres of learning for the entire community, people of all ages.

Many alternative and some private schools have adopted some of these dimensions but certainly the scale and cost of private vs public education are significant obstacles to bringing transformed approaches to the public system.  The challenge is to take the best ideas and practice and construct a plan for the long term redesign of the public school system.

For indigenous learning, the transformative learning approach may need some modification.  Williams and Brant (2019) reported on efforts to integrate transformative learning with traditional Haudenosaunee teachings and contemporary thought on food systems  at the  First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI)  in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Ontario.  They found that because .. "an Indigenous approach to farming and food gathering positions humans in relation with rather than separate from the natural world .... food systems classrooms, that reinforce hierarchical con-structs could plausibly serve to reinforce the Western human/nature dichotomy that, arguably, is associated with the dispossession of Indigenous people from the land ...."(p. 136). In their experience, " Transformative learning theory’s focus on the individual rather than the collective is at odds with Indigenous relationality." (p. 137).  Using the 11 phases of transformative learning, they proposed ways in which transformative learning could be helpful within Indigenous food system education contexts.  As amended by Hill (see above), transformative learning can potentially make a greater contribution to integration with indigenous ways of knowing and learning.