Learning, development, and transformation

A student in one of my classes asked a question about how are learning and change, transformative learning, and development are connected and yet different and that’s one that I’ve pondered while teaching the learning and development class.

Piaget talks about developmental learning where one must be at a proper developmental stage to learn certain things. Vygotsky talks about learning leading development. Some of Baxter-Magolda’s writing suggest that learning and development are basically the same thing with development subsumed into learning. I tend to fall into the camp that sees learning and development separately -mainly due to the directional nature of development.

At the basic level development can be described as directional growth and adaptation to be more effective in the world. Learning can be described as change in knowledge, skills, attitudes, behavior, or beliefs. The difference being that learning can be maladaptive as well as adaptive. As the example later on in Julie Dirksen’s book (which we’re using in the course) shows, someone texting and driving repeatedly with no incident is learning that despite all the evidence to the contrary they can text and drive safely even when no one else can. That is something they learn from experience and maintain as a behavior and belief until they have a wreck. It would be learning but not development.

On the topic of transformational learning, Mezirow and others describe it as something substantially different from “normal” learning but in my opinion, it’s more a matter of degree. If you look at schema theory and accommodation it looks a lot like transformative learning on a less extreme scale. I don’t think that transformative learning is so different as to be a whole new type of learning when you look at it in the context of what has been discussed in educational psychology for decades. So, I suppose I’m assimilating tranformative learning theory instead of accommodating it because I don’t see it as being substantively different enough to warrant accommodation.

As an example, when the texting driver does have a wreck they could assimilate it by blaming the other driver (an external, uncontrollable attribution for those who remember attribution theory from Bandura).  Alternatively, they could consider it a “disorienting dilemma” or cognitive dissonance and begin to accommodate the experience by first recognizing that there is a problem with the way they are conceptualizing the issue – ie. “Maybe I’m not an exception to the rule after all. – and considering alternative explanations. The resolution of the accommodation could be as simple as not texting and driving or it could be the beginning of a larger life-review. If the person is someone who believes they are *always* that exception and rules don’t apply to them, choosing to accommodate instead of blaming someone else might trigger an experience that alters their self- and world-view. The question is, would that be an extension of accommodation (extreme accommodation?) or something completely different called transformative learning?

Thoughts? Examples?

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