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T=me2: The Speed of Transformative Learning

Today’s classrooms are full of students affected by the stimulus immediacy and engagement of hi-tech gadgets. Teachers in every classroom compete with those gadgets to engage, motivate, and inspire learning on a daily basis as they navigate the scope, sequence, and pace of teaching standards. Often, there are teachers who are able to reach those students and invoke higher level learning in spite of the competition. The key component that seems to be accessed for the performance accomplished classrooms is incorporation of transformational emotional intelligence as socio-emotional learning (SEL) into their pedagogical practices. This article offers a framework to use as a blueprint when designing high learning lessons.

How I Got Here

I recently completed my doctoral work by exploring Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as a strengths-based change model and how practitioners determine impact, or transformative change. Transformative change is a direct result of learning, or the construction of new knowledge. For this discussion, I will use the term learning to mean change or transformational change. What I discovered was the notion that how impact was determined was not as significant as to why it worked. Applied to an educational setting, impact may be determined by a student’s grades (how), yet understanding why they were able earn those grades would be most important to teaching practices. Based on my dissertation research results, three key determinants of learning culminated into a pivotal point for transformational learning. The three key determinants that emerged from this study were: cognitive change, paradigm change, and behavioral change. Within the data convergence was the concept of a possible identifiable, pivotal point where thoughts become actions. The pivotal point concept may not only help identify how to bring about learning, but also lend to the discussion of why certain pedagogical practices work. This article focuses on the cognitive change aspect of my research as a means of understanding the precursor to new knowledge acquisition and subsequent actions based on that learning.

The Logic of it All

Cognitive changes, or learning, come in two forms of logic. The first, doxastic logic, relates to how people feel about things and can best be described as a person’s perception as their reality; doxastic logic is about what people believe. The second, epistemic logic, describes how people think about things and is exemplified through the way data is interpreted. In other words, epistemic logic is about what people know and how they think about what they know. Before a person can begin to acquire new learning, they must first feel an inspiration to learn something; they must be motivated. That inspiration causes them to view their sensory input data differently so they can begin the process of reframing their paradigm (mindset) to help them construct their understanding of new knowledge, which will set behavior changes in motion as knowledge-based actions. It should be noted that this learning process is a continuous cycle, not a linear process with an end point. Inspiration, or motivation, is the onset of emotion, which is a type of energy experienced in the brain.

Energy in Emotion

A repeated comment from my study used to describe noted change was consistently referred to as a palpable change in people’s energy. Energy, then, became a reflection as a valued resource that Hobfall (1989) claimed people strive to retain, protect, and/or gain. Maslach et al. (2001) further described three kinds of energy as physical, mental, and emotional. A connection was, then, made to emotional energy described as being in touch with one’s own feelings and core values. Energy could also be defined as ‘‘a type of positive affective arousal, which people can experience as emotion—short responses to specific events—or mood—longer-lasting affective states that need not be a response to a specific event’’ (Quinn and Dutton 2005, p. 36). Additionally, Schippers & Hogenes (2011, p. 194) discussed three forms of theories that describe energy gains that include:

  • Engagement: a positive work-related state, characterized by vigor dedication and absorption (Goznalez-Roma et al., 2006, Schaufeli et al 2002)

  • Thriving: ‘‘the psychological state in which individuals experience both a sense of vitality and a sense of learning at work’’ (Spreitzer et al. 2005, p. 538)

  • Flourishing: to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).

These energy gain theories are integral factors for the doxastic logic changes a person will experience as the principal needed to undergo transformation learning.

Transformative Learning

In true Piagetian learning, students construct their own learning by making meaning of their experiences. Extending the constructivist perspective, Vygotsky introduced the concept that social and cognitive learning are intertwined and cannot happen in isolation. In fact, the application of the three Vygotskian themes regarding social interaction, the more knowledgeable other, and the zone of proximal development and scaffolding support incorporating TEI into pedagogy for higher student learning and achievement. According to Vygotsky, humans use culturally developed tools, such as speech and writing, to interact with and understand their social environments. Though initially developed to serve solely as social functions and ways to communicate needs, Vygotsky believed that the internalization of these tools led to higher thinking skills (David, 2014). Making human connections within the learning environment stimulates the social-emotional learning and transformative emotional intelligence aspect. An essential component of good curriculum planning and making accurate assessments of a student’s development is through careful classroom observations. Watch their interactions, hear their conversations, monitor their progress as you formatively assess their learning.

Next, is the planning of challenging curriculum that will stretch the student’s competence. The shared social experience of learning is largely dependent on language development. Building academic vocabulary by talking through concepts, allows students to scaffold learning for each other through the more knowledgeable other Vygotskian concept; what I playfully term in my classroom as phone a friend. The role of language in forms like questioning, talking, joking, interrupting is a part of social learning and should not be seen as a disruption of the lesson over a learning opportunity. It is important to teach some boundaries with these attempts to develop language, but encourage conversation, none the less. Let the students express opinions and share experiences. Let them shape and reshape their ideas by talking them out. Develop the “skills of observing, questioning, and encouraging peer interactions that will best support children’s growth and development” (Mooney, 2013, p. 108).

Energy in Transformative Emotional Intelligence

When people become energized, as described in the study as the palpable energy shift, they are actually having energy gains that can help motivate them. Being energized is felt in the body as excitement. Much like the feeling one might experience after hearing a motivational speaker, or having a great, new idea that needs sharing with others. More evidence of social learning could be the overwhelming need to share exciting that exciting (energized) news; after all, emotion is contagious. Another example for stimulating this feeling is turning on your favorite music to work out or get a task done; people use music to get pumped up or feel motivated. In a personal communication, Low and Hammett (February 11, 2019) shared a cyclical process model from the Emotional Intelligence Learning System which includes the components explore, identify, understand, learn, and apply. In this personal communication it was related that most people begin with the understand stage of Transformative Emotional Intelligence (TEI) and there is little attention paid to the explore and identify stages causing a disconnect in the process and stifling a transformational change, or new learning. The ability to make a connection between the energy and emotional dimensions, or the doxastic logic perspective, and being able to make space to explore the words and feeling being observed to accurately identify their meanings and truly understand the thoughts and feelings of individuals is critical.

(Emotional Learning System Source: Nelson, Low, Nelson, & Hammett, 2015) Used with permission.

Integration of Thoughts and Feelings

The integration of how we feel about our experiences (doxastic logic) and how we think about them (epistemic logic) are the first step in transformational learning. The congruency of these two logics can be represented by Figure 2.

Fonagay and Allison (2014) described the capacity to understand other’s and one’s own behavior in terms of mental states as the means for defining human social and psychological achievement. They coined the term mentalizating as a way of establishing epistemic trust, or trust in the authenticity and personal relevance of interpersonally transmitted information.

The very experience of having our subjectivity understood— of being mentalized—is a necessary trigger for us to be able to receive and learn from the social knowledge that has the potential to change our perception of ourselves and our social world (Fonagy & Allison, 2014, p. 372).

Experience is the Best Teacher

As mentioned earlier, transformational change, or learning, is the construction of new knowledge based on our social experiences. Experiential learning is not just doing a hands-on activity, rather immersing in the learning, socially and academically, and then reflecting on what it was that was done. “Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking” (Lewis & Williams, 1994, p. 5). The evidence for transformational learning is tied directly to the new learning people get from what they believe (Doxastic), how they think (Epistemic), and the mindset (Paradigm) they hold and each of these factors are intrinsically linked to our social experiences. Understanding how the link between the doxastic logic, epistemic logic, emotional intelligence, and mentalizating is the precursor to the purposeful design of learning. Merging these concepts creates a foundational structure to lesson planning that when purposefully designed can achieve transformational learning and higher student achievement.

The Speed of Learning

The focus of this article has been on the pivotal integration of how we feel and what we think; our cognitive, or learning, logics. These learning logics are, then, shaped by our social interactions and emotional intelligence. Incorporating these concepts into teaching practice is the foundation of transformational learning and fosters emotional intelligence and social-emotional learning in the classroom. Understanding the affects of doxastic and epistemic logic on the emotional intelligence model system and social-emotional learning is the underpinning of student achievement. The emotional aspect is most important, yet, what is missing from, or neglected by, most lesson planning strategies.

What is suggested here as a framework to lesson design is planned integration of transformative emotional intelligence skills. These skills should be embedded with the practice of classroom procedures to lay the foundation for social-emotional learning. This is especially true for the younger ages, but very applicable to all ages. Integrating these structures in the earliest years has the potential to circumvent learning gaps and promoting non-academic behaviors. To simplify the framework for purposeful lesson design it may be easier to remember this play on Einstein’s theory of relativity when making lesson planning relative to learning: Transformative Learning (T) is equal to mentalizing (m) times experience and emotional energy (e2) or T=me2. If you really want to stretch the play on words, just remember that transformation includes me, too!


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