Transformative learning is a complex and nuanced process. Integral to its success is the consistent presence of a knowledgeable and trusted educational guide, or facilitator. While the content used to achieve learning objectives is critical, what is even more important is how facilitators engage with that content to elicit a process of critical thinking and self-awareness in their students.
Further Reading: 4 Outcomes of Transformative Learning and How to Achieve Them
The role of the instructor in service-learning is then an important point to consider. What does a successful facilitator do, and what challenges could he/she potentially face? Below are three key things to keep in mind when facilitating transformative learning, along with certain challenges that may arise during the process.
1. Create and maintain space for viable communication
As human beings, we have lots of baggage. We have previously held stereotypes and values that create a tension that has much potential for learning – if that tension is structured and facilitated in constructive ways, to enable student development. Enhancing the space for open communication on sometimes difficult topics will provide an outlet for that tension. This kind of controlled and nonjudgmental dialogue serves as a foundation for transformative learning.
Challenge: Whenever we discuss controversial topics such as politics, gender equality, racism, religion, and so on, our emotions become involved. Knowing how to help students process those emotions while properly managing classroom discussions can be tricky. As a facilitator you don’t want to take sides, but rather mediate the dialogue by ensuring all students are respectful of and really hear one another.
Further Reading: How to Promote Global Leadership in the Classroom
2. Collaborate with students and community partners
In the service-learning model, students, teachers, and community partners are conceptualized as co-learners, or partners, each partaking in a shared experience. This mutual approach to learning creates democratic dynamics of reciprocity that help distract from the inherent power dynamics tied to the more traditional hierarchies of higher education. Each part of the triangle (students, community partners, and instructors) should have a say in the structured student experiences to contribute to overarching academic and civic goals.
Challenge: Like with any truly democratic system, making decisions under such a model can take some time. Each perspective must be weighed and respected, which can feel at times like a tedious or complex task. To really tap into the strengths of community development and collaboration, it is helpful to practice this form of reciprocity in major areas associated with service-learning (such as course assignments, reflection activities, service options, etc).
Further Reading: Enhancing Democratic Engagement in Service Learning Courses
3. Incorporate reflection
This point can’t be stressed enough: reflection is everything for transformative learning. Structured group reflection can enhance classroom dynamics, help untangle complicated material, and bring to light individual perspectives to create a shared understanding. This can be done using a variety of different exercises/activities that encourage critical thought and collaboration.
Further Reading: The 5 Cs for Structuring Reflection Activities
Challenge – Facilitating reflection processes means understanding how to guide student thought, designing reflection courses, and mediating the entire process. Reflection is a highly personal endeavor, for students and instructors. It takes a flexible, yet sound instructional approach to design effective reflection sessions, and to enhance student opportunities for development.
Further Reading: The DEAL Model and Evaluation of Reflections
The question that remains is: how can we design a course that allows for student development of their own reflection processes, while also ensuring that learning objectives are meeting academic standards of higher education? Facilitators must guide students through the process of critical thinking while also allowing them to engage in self-directed learning through their own learning strategies, which can be difficult to balance.
This ever-shifting experiential ground provides both the opportunities and the challenges for enhancing transformational learning.
For even further reading, please see:
Endres, D., & Gould, M. (2009). ‘I am also in the position to use my whiteness to help them out’: The communication of whiteness in service learning. Western Journal of Communication, 73(4), 418-436.
Eyler, J., & Giles, D. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.
Pagano, M., & Roselle, L. (2009). Beyond reflection through an academic lens: Refraction and international experiential education. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 18, 217-229.
Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.