I was recently in Edinburgh to participate to a one-day conference on Transformative Learning theory (Transformative Learning Theory and Praxis: New and Old Perspectives) organized by the Institute for Academic Development of the University of Edinburgh. From a rhythmanalytical perspective, the papers presented and the discussions that followed triggered many interesting reflections. Retrospectively, it appears to me that there was an invisible thread between most of the communications presented: being committed to foster transformative learning may bring educators and learners to experience and question specific forms of rhythmic dilemmas.
Rhythmic dissonance between different organizational cultures
I started my own communication around "The Rhythms of Transformative Learning" by sharing with the audience the "rhythmic dissonance" I experienced when I taught in the United States for the first time. As I described it elsewhere (Alhadeff-Jones, 2017, p.1):
"In 2004, when I moved to New York City and designed my first life history seminar at Columbia University, I had to adjust a process that used to be facilitated over 30 sessions [in Switzerland] to fit within a five-week period. It required me to divide the number of class hours by two. The compression – some would call it an acceleration – was not only concerning the amount of time spent with students; it was also affecting the frequency of our encounters and the learning process that was occurring between each session."
I experienced this episode as a source of dissonance for two reasons. First, because it challenged the way I used to conceive the activity of teaching in higher education in Switzerland. Second, because it confronted me to the political, economical and psycho-sociological issues raised by the requirement to 'accelerate' the learning process involved in my course.
Temporal double binds within institutional expectations
In her presentation on "High Impact Learning in Higher Education", Kris Acheson-Clair (with J.D. Dirkx and C.N. Shealy) also expressed some of the dilemmas experienced in the field of academic development. Their presentation revealed what I have identified as a "temporal double bind" (Alhadeff-Jones, 2017, p.104), that is a temporal constraint shaped by tacit contradictions. In the case presented by Acheson-Clair, on the one hand, the institution (i.e., the university) requires that training programs implemented display 'high impact learning', that is a learning that participates to the learner's transformation, mainly understood as a process that should contribute to their employability and efficiency in the tasks they have to accomplish. On the other hand, the institution requires such high impact learning to be measurable in the short term (i.e., following the training implemented, or after learning opportunities provided, such as traveling abroad). The dissonance appears embedded between two requirements (transformation and evaluation/accountability) whose temporalities are in contradictions with each other: the first one may be difficult to anticipate, as it may require a long duration to be processed by the learner; the second one is inscribed in a fixed temporality, prescribed by the organization and oriented toward the short term.
Rhythmic mismatch between the nature of the task and participants' habits
Sarah Moore in her presentation on "technology-enhanced learning" and Daphne Loads in her communication around "collaborative close readings" (based on the use of poetry and other forms of texts) in professional development, both provided examples of learning activities potentially experienced as disorienting for the participants involved (e.g., university lecturers or professors). The first one illustrated how the use of new technology by professors in higher education may be lived as a destabilizing experience. The second one illustrated how reading policy documents or academic articles, as if one was reading poetry, also constitutes a practice that potentially challenges one's assumptions about the meaning of teaching or doing research in higher education. In both case, it appeared to me that part of the dissonance that may have been experienced by participants has to do with the fact that the activity promoted (e.g., using real-time technology or exercising slow reading) appears to disrupt the usual pace associated with the professional activity (i.e., teaching or doing research). Such disruption may thus provoke anxiety (how to cope with the requirement involved in the use of new technology?) or impatience (how reading poetry may contribute to my everyday practical needs?)
The experience of rhythmic dilemmas embedded in transformative learning
Rhythmic dissonance, temporal double bind and rhythmic mismatch, represent three forms (among others) or rhythmic dilemmas. They confront educators and learners to complementary, antagonistic and contradictory temporal requirements whose complexity may appear at first as destabilizing. On the one hand, in congruence with Mezirow's transformative learning theory, one may assume that the experience of such dilemmas may trigger transformative processes. On the other hand, one has to admit that whenever such rhythmic dilemmas remain tacit or unsolvable, the contradictions they reveal may become a source of dysfunctional behaviors or frustration.
How to make rhythmic dilemmas a source of meaningful learning?
Following my presentation, a participant asked me: "What did you learn from your experience of rhythmic dissonance in the United States and how did you accommodate to it?" Such a question is crucial. Retrospectively, it seems to me that there are at least three key aspects to consider:
- It may be obvious, but there is at first a need to identify what kind of learning can be reasonably expected considering the timeframe of the training, and what type of learning goes beyond. Some very meaningful learning may occur almost instantaneously, when others require a sustained effort (e.g., self-reflection, dialogue). It is not always easy to determine in advance and it may become by itself a matter of discussion between the learners and the educator.
- It seems crucial to acknowledge the temporal limitations that characterize the learning setting, to make sure that there is no misunderstanding with participants about what can really be accomplished through the limited timeframe of the training.
- It is critical that the educator raises awareness around the rhythmic dilemmas that determine the setting, to draw the learners' attention around that dimension of the training.
- Whenever needed, it may also be necessary to consider challenging the temporal framework of the educational setting, so that it can accommodate the learning objectives that were set by the institution. This point is probably the most sensitive one, as it suggests that trainers (and learners) are willing to challenge the temporal status quo to advocate for alternative educational rhythms.
In my own experience, I sometimes use the metaphor of the vaccine to describe the learning process. Whenever the time frame of the training remains limited, my goal becomes to inoculate some ideas, knowing that whenever the learners may be willing to use them, they may be able to do a 'booster shot' later. What becomes critical then, is to make sure that there is an opportunity to sustain the dialogue with learners afterwards. So, there is very early on in the process the assumption, that learning occurs through a form of repetition that happens on a long duration. What is at stake becomes then to provide the opportunity to sustain the reflection and the dialogue beyond the formal setting of a specific training.