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Transformative Learning as relational, or connected learning

Mary Field Belenky & Ann V. STanton

 A Missing Dimension – Getting Ready for Transformative Learning

 In their chapter in Mezirow and Associates' book, Learning as Transformation (2000), Mary Field Belenky and Ann v. Stanton open with a provocative challenge, ?How can we develop adequate and reliable knowledge in a world that is changing at an ever-accelerating rate??   Today, with ambiguity, change, and multi-cultural social and business networks, we try to navigate new waters without current maps, since the stream is changing so often!  

Mezirow tells us of our need to ?develop the capacity to reflect critically on the lens we use to filter, engage, and interpret the world.   

When our old ways of meaning making no longer serve us, then we need to work with others in reflective discourse, assessing how we know what we know, and assessing how valid those ?frames of mind? are to our current thinking and situations.   ?Reflective discourse develops best when participants are well informed, free from coercion, listen actively, have equal opportunities to participate, and take a critical stance toward established cultural norms or viewpoints? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 71).

                    While Mezirow's Theory of Transformative Learning provides a rich description of what Belenky and Stanton call, ?one important endpoint of a long developmental process, it (Mezirow's theory) does not trace the many steps people take before they can ?know what they know' in the highly elaborated form he describes? (Belenky & Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed. P. 72).

                    Like many well-meaning misuses of Malcolm Knowles work on his theory of adult learners (that they all know what they want to learn, that they are all self-directed, for example), practitioners who use transformative learning theory need to become aware that at the point the adult learners arrive in their learning, may or may not be an appropriate starting point to experience transformation.   Many adults have not yet reached a point where they have ?developed their capacities for articulating and criticizing the underlying assumptions of their own thinking, nor do they analyze the thinking of others in these ways.   Furthermore, they many never have had experience with the kinds of reflective discourse that Mezirow prescribes.   This may be particularly true for adults who return to school relatively late in life.   Many adult students delay their education because of traumatizing early school experiences.   Many are the first in their families to seek further education.   They often come from cultural communities that do not stress the kinds of values and activities associated with reflective discourse when, in actuality, most human relations are asymmetrical.   Mezirow's example of a university seminar, which he holds up as a model of presumed relations of equity among participants in reflective discourse, doesn't consider those individuals who may have wanted to go to college, but due to the college's selection process, were left by the wayside.   Preconditions that are required for realizing these values and finding one's voice include: elements of maturity, education, safety, health, economic security and emotional intelligence.   Hungry, sick, frightened adults are less likely to be able to participate effectively in discourse to help us better understand the meanings of our own experiences?   (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 73).

Asymmetrical Relationships – Unbalance of Power and Voice  

                    Belenky and Stanton discuss how ignoring the problem of asymmetrical relationships has serious consequences for society, since we as a society fail to support many people in developing their range of potential.   They mention our failure to harvest knowledge from mostly women, who are engaged in maternal practice in a democratic milieu: raising children in ways that will enable them to fully participate as adults in a democratic process; through ?full and permanent equality with others in society.   Belenky and Stanton argue that discourse communities can include the immature and the marginalized.   ?Participation in this kind of reflective and on-going dialogue would enable them (and us) better to understand the meaning of their experiences as well as the nature of the society they live in. Not only would participation and reflective dialogue support their development as individuals, it could also support the development of a more inclusive, just and democratic society? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 74).   

                    Belenky and Stanton introduce ?women's way of knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule, 1986; Goldberger, Tarule, Clinchy and Belenky, 1996), a theory of development tracing the struggles of women to gain a voice and claim the powers of mind.   We also draw on experiences of educational programs (Stanton, 1996) and community organizations (Belenky, Bond and Weinstock, 1997) that are well designed to grapple with the problems of asymmetrical relationships.   As a consequence, these programs have been highly successful in drawing out the voices and minds of marginalized peoples, enabling them to participate in reflective discourse communities and become more fully integrated into the social, economic, and political life of the whole society? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 74).   

                     Belenky and Stanton call for ?equality to be proclaimed and ingrained.   It should become the very bedrock of institutional life in any democracy.   At the same time we must cultivate tools for dealing with the inequalities that exist and the new ones that are bound to arise.?

                    Belenky and Stanton cite feminist philosopher, Nel Noddings, who argues ?that many people do not understand the processes involved in bringing people into maturity and relationships of equality.   Lacking that knowledge, they assume that the process must be a dictatorial one? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 75).   Unfortunately, often we have a difficult time trying to understand asymmetrical relationships due to the issue being seen as one of dualistic thinking, where the categories are seen as polar opposites, and one is usually seen as preferential while the other is seen as to be avoided.   Belenky and Stanton tell us that historically the two polarities may seem complementary, but in actuality they are hierarchal so one takes precedence over the other.   In an either/or world, Belenky and Stanton finds the valued pole is ?regularly and profoundly identified with maleness.   In conversation and literature we almost always find, men/women, male/female, as well as ?mind/body, thinking/feeling.   As a follow up to this thinking, Belenky and Stanton discuss ?metaphors of pollution? that emerge from hierarchal models immersed in duality and polarity.   Barrie Thorne noted many of these metaphors while studying children's play. She gave the name, ?girl stain? to this phenomenon.   Boys are ?contaminated? when they play with girls or girls' things.   Girls may increase in stature when they dress in boys' clothes, join boys' games or play with boys' toys.   Thus things identified with males are ?unmarked? while feminine things are ?marked,? so one must be wary.

                    Belenky and Stanton note that due to this hierarchal duality, and the difference between unmarked and marked, many men avoid asymmetrical relationships and caring work due to their association with women.  

Early thinkers divided the world up into what we call public and private sectors.   In the early democracies, men (who also owned property) entered the public arena as rational and autonomous individuals with citizenship and rights, while women, children and slaves were confined to private life.   While women were a subordinate class of people themselves, they worked to raise their children to learn to take responsibilities as fully enfranchised citizens within a democracy for permanent equality.   While raising the young, women gained extensive knowledge about human development.   There knowledge later became known as ?maternal instinct? thus giving the women no credit for the kind of reflective thinking process that mothering is.   Belenky and Stanton cite philosopher Sara Ruddick who examined mothering as work and realized that maternal work is a discipline with a body of knowledge, philosophy and a set of practices.

Discovering New Meaning Through Inclusion of Women in Study

                    Carol Gilligan researched women's approaches to serious moral dilemmas based on their reasoning of work by Lawrence Kohlberg's map of moral development (based on extensive interviews with all boys and men) and came up with questions that invited discourse, and alternatives to the options originally conceived by Kohlberg's original study and interviews.

Gilligan developed an approach called ethics of care based on her work.   Using this mode, resolutions are arrived at through conversation, storytelling, and perspective sharing. ?One works especially hard to understand and present the perspective of those who are incapable of articulating their own thoughts well.   This approach is questioning rather than assertive.   Decisions are always changing because people and circumstances keep changing? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 79).   

                    Kohlberg's study used an ?ethics of justice? or rights mode, whereupon individuals arrive at solutions based on supposedly impartial judgment.   This echoes what Patricia Cranton would call a Thinking approach, as opposed to a Feeling approach, one more identified with women, while studies historically align men with the ?thinking function.?

Moral decisions made in the rights mode appear to be clear and unambiguous while the ?response mode? or approach often favored by women appears to be weaker or indecisive and thus aligned with a ?marked? alignment. Belenky and Stanton say of the ?responsibility mode stresses listening.   Nurturing the development of immature and subordinated peoples require a profound openness to dialogue and connection rather than monologue, exhortation, and distance.   Articulating what she heard in women's voice, Gilligan was able to describe aspects of moral thought of great importance to both men and women. It was however, thinking that had been muted and hard to hear in studies that looked only at men and men's experiences? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 80).   

                    Gilligan's research stimulated a new study and book, Women's Ways of Knowing, (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule, 1996) questioning ?if the inclusion of women's voice might expand and elaborate another important developmental theory constructed out of data from Males: William Perry's (1970) theory devised after interviewing college students each spring about how their thinking had changed during the past year.   Perry's scheme showed students outgrowing the simplistic dualisms at once led them to see the world as sharply divided between ?Authority/Right/We? and ?Illegitimate/Wrong/Other.? Perry's work seemed especially important to the WWK collective because black and white dualistic thinking under girds authoritarianism and many forms of prejudice besides sexism? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 80).    After extensive interviews of numerous women from all walks of life, the WWK collective researchers found that their interview results included many experiences that weren't even found on Perry's map of development!   The researchers ?began sketching in the missing details. The revised scheme grouped women's perspectives on knowing into five major epistemological categories of meaning-making frameworks.   Although WWK looked only at women, it revealed aspects of thought that are of the utmost importance to all humanity, even if these qualities have been less prominent in the thinking of men? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 82).   

                    Belenky and Stanton advocate a process they call, ?connected knowing? that provides a means for individuals to use procedural knowledge that provides ?tools for providing the very young and silenced in our society into voice so that they might develop their capacities for participating on an equal basis with others in society? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 82).  

                    Belenky mentions that when Perry conducted his original study, he never encountered a phenomenon that they termed, ?silenced.?   This term describes women who may ?see themselves learning from their own   concrete actions, but do not believe themselves capable of learning from experiences mediated by language.   Unable to give words to what they know, these women think of themselves as voiceless.   They also find it difficult to acquire new understandings by listening to what others have to say.   Feeling both incapable of both hearing and speaking, these women live profoundly isolated lives? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 82).   Since Belenky et al's research indicates that silenced women invariably grew up in homes where words were used as weapons and not for meaning making context, the silenced do not have the tools to participate in the kind of discourse community that Mezirow proposes.   Belenky and Stanton suggest that creating extremely safe and caring communities where the silenced may be drawn into engagement are effective ways to start the process for the silenced, on their way to becoming engaged as transformative learners.   Another group of learners, known as the Received Knowers, are people characterized by a learning style consisting of listening to others (authorities, experts) and remembering what they have to say.   These women assume that the authorities got their knowledge by listening to others, too!   They seem to rely on others for both direction and knowledge.   Received Knowers have a very black and white orientation to the world, where things are either right or wrong, black or white.   Many Received Knowers believe that it is actually immoral to question authority!

                    Subjective Knowers are characterized as people who are aware that they themselves can think up ideas of their own, listen to their own inner voice, articulate their own thoughts and criticize their former dependence on authorities for knowledge and direction.   This can be a very liberating experience for anyone!   Subjective knowers, however, lack the ability to reflect and consider others points of view and frames of reference.   While they believe they know what they know through their own intuition or sense of things, they are unable to separate themselves from their thoughts and ideas.

                    Separate Knowers work towards critiquing what they hear or read; they tend towards assessing intention behind the words; the coherence, veracity and appropriateness of what is being communicated.   This requires critical reflection on the part of the separate knower, and the ability to arrive at understanding through rational discourse.   The objective of evaluating various options through dialogue and discourse is to achieve consensus for the best choice.   ?Mezirow places this kind of critical thinking at the heart of transformative learning, as it provides the tools for analyzing the weaknesses in current arguments and points the way to more adequate conceptualizations.   As such, it provides many of the tools one needs for continued development, but not all.

                    Connected Knowing provides another set of procedures for developing and testing ideas, but it takes a radically different stance.   People who take this approach play the believing game.   They look for strengths, not weaknesses, in another's argument.   If a weakness is perceived they (the Connected Knowers) struggle to understand why someone might think that way?the more the Connected Knowers disagree with another person the harder they will try to understand how that person could imagine such a thing, using empathy, imagination, and storytelling as tools for entering into another's frame of mind.   We call them Connected Knowers because they actually try to enter into another's perspective, adopting their frame of mind, trying to see the world through their eyes ? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 87).    Perry's original study hadn't identified some of these other ways of knowing, including Connected Knowers.   Connected Knowers suspend judgment of another's ideas when they are working to make sense of that person's ideas.   Since the Connected Knower projects empathy and true respect for the other, the other person may find voice or feel appreciated for their idea contribution.   The ?Believing Game ? encourages listening and encourages a high degree of collaboration and may stimulate an unusually high degree of creativity and solid intellectual work; in contrast to cultures or learning communities that are characterized by Separate Knowing, where creativity may die due to a highly competitive atmosphere.   Dualism of thought and feeling may provide a difficulty for traditionally oriented people who may not have experience with a culture that honors the personal experience, the narrative over abstract, or a paradigm shift from competition to collaboration!

                    Finally, a category called Constructivist-Knowers provide a perspective for people whom see themselves, and everyone else, as co-constructors of knowledge.   The Constructivist-Knowers ?actively cultivate the whole range of approaches.       They learn from concrete experience as with the Silenced; they learn by listening to others as with Received Knowers; they learn from experience, intuition, feelings and insights as well   as with Subjective Knowers; and they learn from both the Separate and Connected approaches to Procedural Knowing.   They stand back, question, take apart, and criticize points of views they see as partial, unfair and/or destructive.   They also move inward, see the whole, listen, understand, integrate, build up, and create. . . It is clear that transformative learning – that is, the capacity for reflective discourse, critical thinking, and evaluating one's basic assumptions and meaning-making frameworks, as described by Mezirow-places Separate Knowing in a central role in the construction of new knowledge and adult transformations.   It seems equally clear that there are other processes that are equally vital but less well described in this body of work? (Belenky and Stanton, 2000, Mezirow, Ed., p. 90-91).     

For more information on Mary Belenkey and Ann Stanton:

Mary Field Belenky    


Ann V. Stanton

Union Institute & University: Directories