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5 Minute Snapshots:
Dr Judi Apte talks about her interest in the field of Transformative Learning

What first interested you in transformative learning?

I started my working life as a social worker in NSW Health, working with families when a child had been born with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. They had so much to learn. And most spent 4 or 5 years grappling with the knowledge and skills that they needed to develop. My attention was drawn to the identity aspects of their learning also; what this challenge meant for their identity as a mother, father, family, brother or sister, grandparent etc. This was the hardest challenge. 

So, from this experience I came to see learning as information + breadth of knowledge + depth of knowledge with understanding + skills + identity. 


How did you begin to develop your capabilities to facilitate transformative learning?

I then specialized in parenting education as a part of a family counselling team and I had the privilege of access to a key Australian leader in family therapy, who had also established a college that offered post-graduate courses in counselling. He conducted regular reflective practice sessions for me and my team to focus on micro skills development. I was interested in the number of participants who were managers, academics etc… leaders in their field… who wished that their management development programs included the communication strategies that were in the course. 

So I kept exploring the links between the leadership capabilities that we can develop in families and in organisations.


I gather that you then moved into workplace development work in health and community services. How did that shift occur?

I enrolled in a Master of Education and did a range of subjects and then work opportunities came up to do projects and research into competency standards in health and community services. It was great to be a part of this emerging field and we developed some innovative research methods. 

Some of my earlier history came through in a couple of areas: 

  • establishing a culture for dialogue and facilitating dialogue when stakeholders had competing or conflicting perspectives

  • gathering data from front line staff as well as national leaders

  • considering the range of contexts (government/ private/ NGO, inner city/rural/ remote, large/ medium/ small organisations etc).

I found that my key capability was an integrative one, based on skills to form a clear capability framework that reflected up to date knowledge in the field and testing across the diverse contexts.


Why did you do a Doctor of Education degree?

I did a number of independent study projects in the Master’s degree looking at theories of change in organizations and theories of adult learning, and I thought that the implicit knowledge that I was actually using was ahead of the literature. 

So, I wanted to keep exploring this overlap of interest areas and engage in some research where I could contribute something to the field of transformative learning.


How did your focus on expertise in facilitation of transformative learning come about?

Jack Mezirow’s work has been so important internationally but the gap I came across at that time was in focusing on the actual practice of facilitation of transformative learning. This was also noted afterwards by Taylor, and he recommended further research be done. Cranton also looked at this, emphasizing a process of critical reflection. 

So I decided to interview experienced facilitators about times when they thought they had facilitated transformative learning.


What did your research find?

The facilitators emphasised the learner’s experience of new possibilities more than critical reflection, and they placed a particular emphasis the potential of a learning environment to introduce contrasting experiences, people, and ideas. They described transformative learning as a process of emotionality, more than rationality. 

So critical reflection is not always a part of the transformative learning process and other forms of knowing may be predominant.


I gather that you were interested in the metaphors that the facilitators used when talking about transformative learning. 

Yes, I used a narrative research methodology, and the first analysis was a metaphor analysis; the metaphors highlighted that practice was very dynamic and creative; the interviewees conveyed quite a different style to what Mezirow and Cranton proposed. The metaphors were grouped into the following themes: seeing things differently, shift, journey, a new environment, emergence, becoming in touch, energy, and handling stories. 

The metaphors highlight contrasting ways of understanding transformative learning. The metaphor of seeing things differently explores changes in the person’s perceptions. The metaphors of journey and shift focus on the points of change over time. The metaphor of emergence focuses on what becomes known, expressed, and made public. The metaphor of becoming in touch focuses on the role of experiences of connection. The metaphors of energy focus on the mood/ tone of the group and the creative processes of learning. The metaphors of handling stories focus on the facilitator's involvement in the creation of narratives. 


How have you applied your research?

In terms of my ongoing work, it is a framework that I developed from the research that has been used and tested the most often. I have used the framework in advanced professional development programs and to guide me in various projects. For example, I was engaged by the NSW Cabinet Office to facilitate information sessions, consultation forums and planning sessions to support a major shift in policy across government and non -government services. The aim was to shift the service systems in health and human services to focus more on early intervention. It was called Families First. The framework assisted me to respond to the interprofessional communication challenges that arose.


Please tell me a bit more about that framework.

I found that the examples the interviewees reviewed in the study showed transformative learning arose from very strategic listening and very strategic communication responses by the facilitator. I mapped the sequence of these significant communications and noted how the sequence they used interrupted a pattern that was habitual, stuck and unhelpful. From this I developed a framework of reading strategies that can be used to plan the way that we intervene to facilitate transformative learning.


Why did you develop an interest in the style of authority used by facilitators who facilitate transformative learning?

I found that the metaphors the facilitators used could be seen as constructing a certain professional identity. Brought together, the metaphors depicted the facilitator as working in a fluid way, moving among the various views and experiences of the learners. They acted at times as provocateurs AND evocateurs. 

I used the picture of them being navigators within competing discourses, navigating through various views within a group and in that organisational context. The facilitators talked about the potential of working across discourses, and for example they noted the importance of interrupting the dominance of the national or the dominance of the local. Local, national and international discourses were considered in the path to co-create new narratives. 

I suggest that this draws attention to a particular aspect of the facilitator’s authority. It is an authority that is derived from their ability to mobilise multiple discourses creatively and strategically. And here I quote from Davies:

Not authority in the sense of one who claims and enforces knowledges, dictating to others what is 'really' the case, but as a speaker who mobilises existing discourses in new ways, inverting, inventing, and breaking old patterns. 

Davies B (1991) 'The concept of agency: a feminist poststructuralist analysis' in Social Analysis. vol. 30, pp 42-53

So, authority flows from expertise and knowledge, and also from the way that the facilitator works strategically with discourses, practices and relations. 

I have found that this perspective has been useful in many settings.

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