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GROUP LEARNING AS TRANSFORMATIVE - KASL & ELiAS

  While much of transformative learning theory is based upon the individual experiencing deep and transformative learning, Kasl and Elias propose that small groups can learn as entities (Kasl and Elias, ed. Mezirow, 2000, p. 229).   They suggest that the ?health and effectiveness of our organizations and communities depend on the capacities of small groups to be transformative learners.?   Citing isomorphism among levels of human systems (individual, group and organization), the Kasl and Elias suggest that in addition to shared systems characteristics, that small groups may also have a ?group mind.?   Accepting these premises, a small group, like an individual can learn collectively, as well as an organization or community.

Transformative and Constructivist-Developmental Model

Kasl and Elias based their group learning practice on two theories of individual learning:

Transformative learning

Constructivist-developmentalism

Kegan's model of categorical consciousness

Bennett's developmental model of growth from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism

Bennett suggests that the experience of being marginal to a dominant or mainstream culture serves as a catalyst for movement from ethnocentricity to ethnorelativism.  Kasl and Elias suggest that while Mezirow's theory of transformative learning ?addresses the content of consciousness; both Kegan and Bennett address the structure of consciousness, especially the structure that engages a system with understanding its own identity (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.232).

           Expanding on Mezirow's initial definition of transformative learning, Kasl and Elias define transformative learning as:

?Transformative learning is the expansion of consciousness in any human system, thus the collective as well as the individual.   This expanded consciousness is characterized by new frames of reference, points of view, or habits of mind as well as by a new structure for engaging the system's identity.   Transformation of the content of consciousness is facilitated when two processes are engaged interactively: the process of critically analyzing underlying premises and the process of appreciatively accessing and receiving the symbolic contents of the unconscious.   Transformation of the structure of consciousness is facilitated when a learner is confronted with a complex cultural environment because effective engagement with that environment requires a change in the learner's relationship to his or her or the group's identity? (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.233).

In their chapter, Creating New Habits of Mind in Small Groups, (Learning as Transformation, Mezirow & Associates, 2000), Kasl and Dean recount the experience of creating a new school within a school.  Culturally, the new school exemplified a diverse student body, with a majority of students of color, a unique cohort design and a pedagogy that emphasized a highly collaborative learning experience.  Additionally, the school pioneered a hybrid structural design that emphasized on-line learning combined with three day weekend residencies.   Staff and faculty were inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the school, in a way that emphasized full participation in the process.  From a developmental constructivist lens, the unique school within the school provided a unique and student focused program; however acceptance by the other schools within the institution of learning was tenuous at best as the other schools suffered budget cut-backs to fund SHE, the School for Holistic Education, the unique school within a school.   The staff and faculty were committed to collaboration and support. ?Because the Center prides itself as embracing spiritual dimensions of reality, labeling us as ?not spiritual' was a way of expressing judgment that we were markedly different.  

From our perspective in SHE these factors that made us different were marks of educational vision.   Were quite full of ourselves and sometimes a bit arrogant, thus exacerbating the animosity and our position in the institutional margins? (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.236).

Influence of Kegan's Categorical Consciousness and Bennett's Model of Ethnocentrism to Ethnorelativism

           Dean Elias reflecting on the roots of marginality for SHE, remembers that the group's first disorienting dilemma (according to Mezirow, a critical component of transformative learning, was a budget shortfall in the educational center. This meant other schools within the education center would incur staff and faculty reductions, an event that caused an animosity towards SHE on the part of those individuals most affected by the budget cuts.   Additional negative perceptions arose from the other schools faculty and staff due to the experimental and innovative methodologies used with SHE.   The fact that SHE had a majority enrollment of people of color and a very diverse faculty provided another difference between SHE and the larger educational organization.  

           In the following year, financial necessity caused the school to dismantle SHE and a few other programs, reorganizing the school into five divisions.   The curricula and vision of SHE now was given to another program.   During this period, the SHE faculty managed to stay together through a number of retreats, and made a visionary change to ?we agreed that we would no longer base our group's identity on our role as faculty but rather on our activity as a learning community committed to generating new knowledge about transformative learning.   Our identity would be linked to shared praxis; our relationship with each other would be independent of any particular project or employment institution.   This rather homely realization was a revelation to us and we felt exhilarated, as if a new being. Our frame of reference for our collective identity was transforming? (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.237).

 In looking back at their experience, Dean Elias commented that he saw their group functioning at what Harvard professor Robert Kegan calls, ?Fourth Order Level of Consciousness,? characterized by a group's sense of self-authorship, identity, autonomy, and individuation. Seeing fourth order as a refuge, as a group marginalized by the larger organization, the characteristics of Fourth Order consciousness provided a cohesion and reinforcement of shared values and a sense of uniqueness.

Dean saw the challenges of their group being absorbed into larger organizations as a transformative experience for the individual group members.   When faced with thereality of the small, cohesive ?group from the margins? being absorbed into larger programs within the school, Elias noted a movement towards what Kegan calls Fifth Order Consciousness, as they collaborated with their new colleagues in crafting   a new identity, moving from Fourth Order Consciousness, characterized by group identity to Fifth Order, a categorical   consciousness characterized by structures in ?which a group has identities that can be the object of its own self-reflection? (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.238).

           Dean also mentions? ?Bennett's model (1992) of ethnorelativism also helps construe the meaning of this experience. Bennett describes the ethnorelative person as always in the process of becoming a part of and apart from a given cultural context (p.64).   The experience of being marginal stimulates capacity to use frames of reference of various cultures as situations demand.   In our group the faculty learned to function with goodwill in the Center system while becoming increasingly aware ofhow marginal our deepest values were to that system.   Our capacity to inhabit different identities that matched the challenge in different situations is akin to what Bennett calls, ?constructive marginality'? (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.238).

Content of Consciousness and Transformation - Kasl

Elizabeth Kasl focused on the content of consciousness and transformation.   ?Using Mezirow's ?lens of transformation? as a process in which learners elaborate existing frames, learn new frames and transform their points of view,? Kasl explains what was learned (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.238-239).   Another observation of Kasl's was ?how critical reflection and discernment facilitated the group's movement to a more inclusive, differentiated, permeable, and integrated perspective? (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.239).

When the initial faculty came together in 1993, they used common definitions, and phraseology, yet they realized later, that due to their different interest areas and training, that the definitions meant quite different things to all of the faculty members.   Additionally, they had little common understanding of either the program's vision or its learning strategies.   Unfortunately, Dean Elias, program initiator, was dealing with financial issues and wasn't available to the faculty group, thus exacerbating any confusion and lack of common focus.   Kasl noted a significant change between the first year struggles of the incipient faculty, and their later maturation as a larger group, including two new faculty of color, and three other new faculty members as well as the addition of two teaching fellows.   During this period, Dean Elias provided a leadership role and also worked as an active participant.   Kasl reflected on the growing sense of efficacy during this period, as the group took more initiative for the shape and content of the program.   Discussion provided a venue for the faculty to arrive at common definitions and reflection the group developed a mutual understanding of the program's content and pedagogical intentions.   The group experimented with new and innovative ways of knowing, ad developed learning strategies that expanded beyond the workplace.

Big Changes

During the fourth year, financial challenges mandated the dismantling of the unique program and the faculty decided to maintain itself as a group, and reserved 50% of meeting time for professional learning, as well as the adoption of the premise that ?the group needed to be developing the capacity to form and nurture itself as a learning community ? (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.241).   During a subsequent retreat, Elizabeth Kasl was dismayed when she saw the very structural and programmatic agenda revealed by Dean Elias.   She spoke her voice, and soon the group, in a very organic fashion, found themselves first hand experiencing ?transformative learning as a group.?    Finally, after another financial challenge, the group, now calling themselves ?The Cohort 13,? reinvented themselves as a true learning community, recognizing:

?As we resumed discussion under the peaceful embrace of the spreading oak, an intuitive knowing that had been incubating became articulate.   The idea seemed to spring full-blown that our work as a learning group did not have to be linked to our work as a faculty.   Within moments we birthed and named the Transformative Learning Collaborative – separating the identity of Cohort 13, which we associated with our role as Center faculty, from the identity of the Transformative Learning Collaborative, which we conceptualized as a group of scholar-practitioners engaged in an inquiry about transformative learning.   When we made this separation it became clear to us that our survival as a group did not depend on moving our academic program to a more supportive institutional environment.   We created a name for this new conceptualization of identity, ?praxis collective,' and committed ourselves to three annual retreats.   Since that time we have been actively engaged in inquiry about what it means to be a praxis collective ? (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.243-244).  

In processing the group transformation process, Elizabeth Kasl reflected upon how the group, focused on their initial frame of reference about its faculty identity, focused on the role of teaching.   Over time the group elaborated its frame of reference, to include shared responsibility for program development and leadership in directing its own work, yet still their identity was that of faculty.   Kasl noted that they had learned a new frame when they created the Cohort 13 after rejecting Dean Elias' planned agenda and dealt with incipient issues including their own racism, as experienced by Tingli, a member of the group with Chinese ancestry.   At this point the group realized they were not just faculty, but a group like their student cohorts, facing the same challenges of learning-in-relationship.  

           Over a year later, Kasl and the group they imagined themselves as a praxis collective, they has now experienced a transformation in their point of view, because they had changed the perception about the locus of their identity.   They had a realization that their collective inquiry about the theory and practice of transformative learning could go beyond institutional context, that their   ?locus of inquiry? came not from the institution and its curricula, but rather through the group's own inquiry agenda.   Kasl commented on the liberating sense they felt from the experience: ?The startling revelation was emancipatory because it freed us from our assumption that the survival of our initiating vision depended on moving the program to a new institutional context? ? (Kasl & Elias, Mezirow, ed. 2000, p.244-245).

           Issues of race and culture within the program emerged when two faculty members shared their struggle with these issues, possibly initiating reflection on the part of others, who may not have been aware of their own issues or not ready to deal with them.   Students challenged the faculty in the area of white male privilege and this challenge brought about change in the curriculum as well as a change in awareness about privilege within the faculty members.

           In summary, Kasl notes the change in content of consciousness from the group's initial change in its frame of reference for faculty, then next added a new frame of learning community, and finally created a new identity as a praxis collective.   The group moved from a Order 4 consciousness to Order 5. Lessons learned included the discernment that many of theories of individual learning may also be extended to group learning, especially when special ?enabling mechanisms? or processes and conditions that can facilitate transformative learning.   Kasl also mentions the importance of archetype, symbol and the expressive arts in evoking the mythical and somatic, important in the group's growth and evolvement.

Dean Elias Website: http://www.stcloudstate.edu/coe/about/framwork.asp

Elizabeth Kasl's Website: http://wwwciis.edufaculty/Kasl.html