Illuminating academic aspirations for, and student experiences of, transformative learning in tertiary Indigenous Studies

Year: 2019

Author: Page, Susan

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Transformative learning has become something of a catch phrase in higher education, although now often divorced from its theoretical or evidential roots. The threshold concepts framework, a transformative learning model, has gained considerable momentum as a mode of inquiry in Higher Education Learning and Teaching. Threshold concepts are called the ‘jewels in the crown’ of a curriculum; the critical ideas students must fully grasp to develop disciplinary mastery. There are two key features of the threshold concepts framework. The first feature is the idea of liminality or the notion that students often spend time in a state of learning flux, oscillating between understanding and misunderstanding, as they grapple with new learning. For example a learner might feel confident about concepts such as gravity, precedence or race, in the classroom but later find the meaning is only partially understood. The second aspect is the notion of transformation. Transformative learning occurs when these concepts are confidently understood by learners. Early threshold concepts research focused on identifying concepts, but more recently that focus has shifted to the transformation process. The research presented here draws on a qualitative research project using the threshold concepts framework as a theoretical guide to explore students’ experiences of learning in Indigenous Studies. Data includes interviews with students from three university sites, Indigenous Studies academics from a range of universities, and a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders. The presentation focuses on transformation learning examined from the perspective of the student and academic participants. The student accounts of their transformative learning experiences are compelling, addressing explicitly critical academic concerns about resistance and racism amongst students. As teachers we tend to ‘know’ our students through their assessment tasks and if we teach face-to-face we might hear their semi-formal responses to discussion topics in lectures or tutorial classrooms. In those formal situations students are responding to the taught curriculum where even reflective task responses are constrained by elements such as the student/teacher dynamic, grade expectations, peers and the level of preparation. We are less likely to hear the many and varied ways in which students are developing in their learning. For all of the academics interviewed for this research there was overtly a greater good buttressing their curriculum and practice. While the students’ journeys stand-alone powerfully, this juxtaposition of teacher desire and student outcomes sharpens the latter beyond feel-good stories, with positive implications for both teaching and learning.