“Ankle-deep in aviation fuel”: do we really want to transform university teaching and teachers?

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Can you recall any times in your life when there was a fundamental shift in the way you made sense of the world and your place in it? Perhaps it was triggered by the birth of a child or the loss of a parent, a change of job, an illness or a return to education? On a less dramatic scale your usual ways of thinking and acting may have been disrupted by a piece of music, a chance encounter with a stranger or a surprising book. Perhaps the transformation was sudden and shocking; perhaps it took the form of a gradual realisation. One thing is clear: you will never be the same again.

This experience is at the heart of Transformative Learning: a concept introduced in the 1990s by Jack Mezirow (1995) that has been explored and debated ever since. It refers to the kind of learning that goes beyond the accumulation of knowledge or the acquisition of skills, and leads to “a broader awareness of humanity, often of spiritual and ecological dimensions, and one’s roles within one’s relationships, organizations, community, and world” (Markos, L. & McWhinney, W., 2003 p4).

It is a hopeful way of thinking about learning, based on the belief that human beings can examine old assumptions, dismantle prejudices, question dogma and take action. But it has its limitations. The concept of Transformative Learning has been criticised for its tendency to focus on individual change at the expense of political mobilisation and for privileging the cognitive over the affective. My favourite critique comes from Newman (2013), who laments what he sees as the overuse of the idea in contemporary thinking about adult education:

“Transformative learning still strikes me as inappropriate for the vast amount of learning we do in the practical world. What relevance would it have for a driver learning how to connect a hose from a tanker to a Boeing 787? …Transformative learning involves self-analysis, and in much instrumental learning there is neither the time nor the need for introspection. No one wants to be standing around on the tarmac, ankle deep in aviation fuel, talking about psycho-cultural assumptions.” (p.2)

So how does transformative learning strike you? Is it inappropriate for the learning we do in academia? What relevance does it have for an academic who is learning to teach?

Of course it would be absurdly out of place if our job were simply to connect a hose from a tanker of knowledge to a lecture theatre full of students. But I see it differently. University level teaching is a complex practice embracing knowledge, skills, self-awareness and wisdom. Becoming a good teacher requires a process of development and, sometimes, transformation. That’s why at the University of Edinburgh we provide opportunities for development through our CPD framework that includes events and workshops, online resources, reading, reflection, research, secondments, networks, consultations and mentoring.

Well that’s what I think. What about you? Do you think becoming a good teacher involves transformation? It would be good to hear other people’s thoughts.


Markos, L. & McWhinney, W. (2003). Auspice Journal of Transformative Education 1(1)

Mezirow, J. (1997) Transformation Learning: Theory to practice New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 74 pp 5-12

Newman, M. (2013) Transformative Learning: Mutinous thoughts revisited Adult Education Quarterly 1(11)

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Daphne Loads

Daphne Loads works in the Institute for Academic Development and is academic lead of the Edinburgh Teaching Award and convenes the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme.

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