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Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education

reviewed by Edward J. Brantmeier & Emily L. Kohl - August 21, 2014

coverTitle: Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education
Author(s): Charity Johansson
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421414376, Pages: 128, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Transforming Students unpacks the process of engaging undergraduates in transformative learning, that is, learning which fundamentally changes the way individuals think, perceive their role in the world, and dedicate themselves to a lifetime of purposeful action (p. 79). This kind of deep learning aligns with visionary university mission statements. So what is the measure of a successful college career? How does an institution of higher learning ensure its students are emerging as dynamic thinkers and agents of transformative change? These are the sorts of questions Johansson and Felten explore in this engaging little text. Drawing from student interviews and the success of various educational programs around the country, they present six essential elements that must be present for transformative learning to take place. Overall, these experts make an impressive evidence-based argument for more intentional engagement at an institutional level. The reader, whether a university faculty member, administrator, staff, or even student, is challenged to become cognizant of his or her own role in fostering a campus-wide environment conducive to transformative learning.

The book provides a solid introduction to transformative learning without overwhelming those unfamiliar with the literature on engagement theory and high impact educational practices.  Essentially, each chapter explores a key component to promoting transformative learning across campus beginning with disruption, reflection, action, and integration. In this accessible read that moves with great speed, each chapter builds upon the next in a logical and narrative wayquite engaging and effortless to read.  

In the first chapter, Johansson & Felten emphasize the importance of creating a welcoming, safe environment for new students that still manages to promote change and growth. While seemingly paradoxical, they find successful campuses are those that balance a sense of home with a healthy dose of inviting challengea blend of the familiar and foreign. Students engage with varied opportunities for self-exploration while ensuring they know they can retreat to more familiar territory if need bethis is the groundwork for breakthrough, transformative learning. Moving between ones comfort zone and zone of disruption is an integral part of the journey of transformation.

The second chapter focuses specifically on challenging students thought processes in the classroom. In order to encourage learners to reconsider their perspective, they must first encounter a disruption to their current way of thinking (p. 20). As the interviews in this text reveal, an introductory-level course in college is likely the first time ones personally held beliefs are called into question. But just as campus spaces must feel both exploratory and safe, so too must the classroom provoke thought without overwhelming new learners. Self-awareness is critical in this disruption phase.  

In Chapter Three, the reader encounters reflection. After students have had their views challenged, they must be given the tools to respond in meaningful ways. In a constructive learning environment, professors help their students develop the skills to actively engage in both internal and external dialogues [&] to effectively analyze their assumptions (p. 4). Most powerfully, Johansson and Felten cite examples of effective ways in which many schools are doing transformative learning. Throughout the book, these theory-into-practice examples help the text to feel substantially grounded in evidenced-based practice and helpful as opposed to theoretical, abstract, or ethereal musings.

The fourth key component of a transformational learning experience is action. Its not enough to simply challenge students perspectives and ask them to reflect upon a response. True conviction leads to action and changeboth personal and societal. Action measures the extent to which learning is translated into inspired, intentional personal and social growth. A lifetime of purposeful action is the cornerstone of this phase in an iterative transformational learning process; deeper questions of identity, meaning, and societal responsibility are brought to light. Transforming students requires guiding them through the murky waters of aligning current potential with future possibility; metacognitive awareness and personalized meaning-making need accompany enlightened action for change.

This journey takes place in community, both within and beyond the classroomthe focus of Chapter Five. Whether it is a living-learning community, the Greek System, or the campuss physical buildings and green space, intentional institutional decisions must guide the design that fosters transformative learning, relationships, and community. These intentionally designed spaces shape the way we interact, create, and re-create our world. In discussing home, the authors write, home is an internalized ability to face the vicissitudes of life with thoughtfulness, insight, and compassion (p. 95). The Dalai Llama would agree that thoughtfulness, insight, and compassion should comprise a higher education. Educating the head, hand, and heart is transformativelets not forget about the heart.  

In the final chapter, Johansson & Felten emphasize that the most progressive colleges engage in transformational learning at an institutional level; all are expected to participate across campus. Within the administration of various academic departments and centers, there must be a pervading sense of transparency about progress, a willingness to assess, accept, and adapt where necessary. The authors write, institutional leaders must walk a fine line between promoting a public image and questioning that image, between being an advocate for something and being critical of it (101). In short, a university aims to create transformational learning experiences to teach students how to learn, to give them the tools they need to keep evolving. To do this successfully, the very institution must model the cycle of growth they hope to inspire their students to embrace. Transformation on the individual, institutional, and societal level must be mutually reinforcing for authentic change to take place. Modeling honest, critical, self and community dialogue and change are the first steps on this continuous journey.

We highly recommend Transforming Students. The importance of creating transformational learning experiences in todays university setting that connect with messy real world problems and hopeful opportunities is paramount to achieve the promises of a higher education. The emphasis on firsthand accounts from students and educators lends readability, applicability, and fluidity to the text. By providing examples of how colleges are actively working to create transformational learning opportunities, Johannson & Felton connect to a wider audience beyond their small town in North Carolina. Faculty members, administrators, staff, and even students will find value in understanding transformational learning practices. Grab a coffee, find a comfortable spot, and enjoy this stimulating read.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 21, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17656, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:36:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Edward Brantmeier
    James Madison University
    E-mail Author
    EDWARD J. BRANTMEIER, Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, India 2009 , earned a BA in English with grades 5-12 teaching certification from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. For three years he taught language arts and adult ESL courses. Ed then earned an MS in comparative and international education and a Ph. D. in history, philosophy, and education policy studies from Indiana University-Bloomington. With ten years of past experience in teacher education and educational leadership preparation, Ed currently enjoys working with university faculty as assistant director of James Madison University’s Center for Faculty Innovation. In addition to teaching multicultural education courses to future educators, and he works with university faculty on innovative approaches to teaching, scholarship, and community engagement. Ed is passionate about researching transformative education in K-20 schooling environments that involves cultural competence, diversity, critical approaches, technology, sustainability, and contemplative practice. Formerly, Ed was faculty at Saint Louis University and at Colorado State University.
  • Emily Kohl
    James Madison University
    E-mail Author
    EMILY L. KOHL earned a BA in History and English from James Madison University in 2012. She currently works at James Madison University’s Center for Faculty Innovation and values the many opportunities she has on campus to cultivate meaningful connections with educators and students alike. As she hopes to become a book editor, she intends to attend graduate school to earn a degree in Publishing in 2015.
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