Transformative Inquiry is a dynamic process that helps educators negotiate the complex and vibrant terrain of learning~teaching
Michele Tanaka
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What is Transformative Inquiry?

Welcome to the process of Transformative Inquiry. The term Transformative Inquiry (TI) refers to a multi-faceted process that includes particular concepts, actions and philosophical approaches. This text is written primarily for the mentors (instructors) and inquirers (pre-service teachers) who participate in the TI course hosted at the University of Victoria. It is a guide for us as we engage in TI together as learner~teacher~researchers. As you grow within the teacher education program, we hope you will join us on this adventure of unearthing ideas, practices, and emotions that relate to your teaching practice.

TI is a practice, where we engage in new activities and routines as educators. We employ different modalities, sometimes repetitively, in order to expand our ways of being in educational contexts. You are not alone in this expansion, the instructors continue learning as well. TI is also a stance, in that it can become a way of being an educator; the lens through which we look that draws from our cultural paradigms and worldviews. Through developing the practice and stance of TI within the course, we hope to transform both practice and stance in order to benefit all future students with whom we interact.

The tone of our text is informal and “we” typically refers to the members of the TI team, while “you” refers to the reader. The limits of this language should be noted however as both you and we are be~coming educators, and the lines between you/we can grow blurry.

Within your process of be~coming a teacher, some of you are likely concerned about complicated and important questions. For example, you may wonder:

  • What do I really care about as an educator? 
  • How can I nourish and maintain my energy as I teach? 
  • How might my attitudes, beliefs and values affect my teaching? 
  • What do learners really care about? 
  • How do I~we build healthy learning community in schools? 
  • What really matters in our broader communities, both local and global? 
  • What is my responsibility in tending to the environmental crises we now face? 
  • What solutions do my students offer for addressing environmental dilemmas?
  • How do I help my students follow their own passions? 

As you entered the program you were likely focused on learners and your passion to be a positive force in your students’ lives. Later on, you may have found that as a be~coming teacher you were anxious about securing a position, intimidated by the demands of a twenty-first century classroom, fixated on curriculum, or wondering if teaching is even the right career choice! In the TI course, you are invited to address these and other educational concerns. The course offers time and space to explore your burning issues. By drawing on your own personal passions, you will learn to put that energy to use within a larger, more relational framework in order to improve your teaching practice. For example, past participants have looked at diverse issues such as peer pressure, at-risk youth, math engagement, indigenous ways of learning, feminism in education, the oppression perpetuated by curriculum, teacher identity, teacher burn-out, and much more.

Transformative Inquiry is a dynamic process that can help you as an educator negotiate the complex and vibrant terrain of learning~teaching. This includes supporting you in exploring a path of inquiry that has heart. TI is rooted in a worldview in which:

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Interactive 1.1 Four Spheres of influence

  • All learners (including teachers) have innate instincts towards learning that are personal in nature and that play out in myriad and individual ways. Marie Battiste (2009) refers to this as the learning spirit and advocates for educators to nourish the learning spirit in all learners.
  • At the same time, all learners (including teachers) hold what Shawn Wilson (2008) calls relational accountability, a reciprocal connection to all living things. This includes, but is not limited to family, friends, plants, animals, earth, learning communities, larger communities, and global communities. 
  • Knowledge is seen as a thing-which-is-becoming rather than static (Ross, 1996/2006). In this view, knowing focuses on relationships and is co-created by knowers.

The path with heart is good and the journey along it will be joyful. Like all paths, it leads nowhere, but it will make you strong. If you find yourself on a path, then you must stay on it only if it has heart, and it is only your heart that can tell if it so. How do you know if the path has heart, particularly, if you are choosing a topic for inquiry and means of pursuing it…?  (Chambers, 2004, pp. 5-6)

Transformative Inquiry (both the practice and the course) has been developed in a context where attention to theory intermingles with practice within the course ED-P 490 Professional Inquiry Project. The course is a program requirement for elementary and middle years Bachelor of Education and Post-Degree certification at the University of Victoria in the Faculty of Education.

As a student in the course, you will begin by unearthing significant issues that you care about, both personally and professionally. These will be topics relevant to your own journey as a learner~teacher~researcher and therefore, topics that also matter to your peers and other educators beyond the university setting. Your inquiry should show evidence of gathering from all four of the following areas (Interactive 1.1):

  • Inquiry Partners: What do colleagues, parents, students, community members believe? What is the relationship between what they tell you and your beliefs around the topic? How does what they say inform your question?
  • Classroom Observations: What stories from the field are related to your question? What is the history underlying these stories? What social context may hold influence?
  • Self Study: What can you learn from your personal experience? What is your intuitive knowing about the topic? Why are you passionate about this? How does this relate to and/or shape your question?
  • Academic Literature: What is the larger academic community thinking about your topic? How do your questions fit within this context? What will make your exploration empirically sound? (Are your sources trustworthy?)

The TI process is assisted by a series of mentoring sessions with the course instructor. These are similar to a graduate student advising sessions, in that they are designed to support you in your exploration, rather than tell you how to proceed. It is very much about supporting your learning process – we will walk our talk here, as best we can (Tanaka, Nicholson, & Farish, 2012). The mentor’s role is akin to facilitator, coach, or co-knower, rather than a sage on the stage that imparts fixed knowledge (although this can at times be appropriate).

I have never been challenged so much by self-directed learning and broadening my knowledge about a topic that I am actually interested in. ~Former student

As you continue to practice TI, you may find that it becomes a lifelong journey, full of useful ‘aha!’ moments, but also more continuous transformative learning.

[TI can be likened to] …an approach to engaging the world and other persons that is not just more of the same, but of a different kind and quality. I have come to see that the "Eureka"-type experience…is not a onetime change. Rather, it is the first transformative change in a series of changes that will occur if one continues to push up to and beyond the limits of one's understanding on an ongoing basis. (Anglin, 1996, p. 96)

Our Purpose

The overarching purpose of the TI project is to help you as a teacher become aware and sensitive to three questions indigenous science educator, Greg Cajete asks: How do we solve the pressing environmental issues on the planet? How do we learn to get along with each other? How do we care for our own souls? We believe that by focusing mindfully on the needs of individual learners (including yourself), your community, and Earth, we can make changes that bring out the best in who we are as learner~teacher~ researchers making the world a healthier, more enlivened place. The purpose of this book then, is to clarify and articulate the process of TI so that it becomes accessible to you as an educator. This is done with the intent to help you navigate the swampy terrain of learner~teacher~ researcher to the best of your ability.

We hope to create fertile ground for engaging in TI so that you can embed it in as many places and ways as is useful. We recognize this to be an organic, ongoing process that we fondly refer to as “scuttling towards the light.” In many ways we are creating understanding of the process as we go – it is an autopoetic or self-creating undertaking into the unknown. We encourage you to think together with us, outside the box of traditional schooling.

Our commitment to transformation runs deep in part due to our experience as mentors of TI (to date we have worked one-on-one with well over 900 students among us). We have seen be~coming teachers engage in powerful learning that breaks down binaries, deconstructs the archetype of the teacher as transmitter and addresses the role of privilege; for many the TI process has cracked open the tough exterior plaster that surrounds antiquated notions of teaching to reveal light, possibility and hope.

Through the TI process, you can become more engaged in your own learning as well as the lives of other inquirers. You might feel a stronger sense of care for each other, yourself, and the Earth as you explore implicit connected relationships in this course. We have been witness to the success of transformation in many teachers’ development in this course and we feel compelled and somewhat obligated to help ground student experiences through work by scholars and learner~teachers other than those in our immediate community.

On Transformation as it relates to this course

The mentors of TI do not expect that all of you will transform within the timeframe of this course, rather we hope that some of you will find for yourself a practice of mindfulness, a deeply attentive awareness, around ongoing changes you will experience as a learner~teacher~researcher. To help you tap into your passions, an ecological, highly inter-related view of transformative learning theory provides a valuable foundation (O’Sullivan, Morrell & O’Conner, 2002).

For some, the course involves transformation of deep, structural changes in basic premises of thought, feelings and actions (Dirx, Mezirow, & Cranton, 2006). The result is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and permanently alters ways of being in the world. This shift can include increased and more nuanced understanding of yourselves and your self-locations, as well as your relationships with other humans and with the natural world. It also involves developing awareness and understanding of the relations of power in the interlocking structures such as class, race, gender, and bodily awareness. This can extend to visions of alternative approaches to living, learning and teaching and our collective sense of possibilities for social justice, peace and joy.

As a teacher I value the idea that learning is dynamic and constantly transforming the individual. Being involved in Transformative Inquiry reminded me of the importance of keeping all doors open and never blocking off a path that may lead to another perspective. My inquiry has allowed me to follow a path with heart...My self-study collage reflects that I honour...each student [as] an individual [that] holds a unique gift... ~Former student

Our use of the term transformation may require explanation in relation to pre-service teacher education. Educational researchers suggest that learning is less about amassing facts and figures or even constructing knowledge and more about transformation of spirit and mind (Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, & Kleiner, 2000). We agree on the need for an expansion of the traditional notions of knowledge construction as predominantly cognitive in nature. This expansion of knowledge could include emotions, feelings, habits, and thoughts (Li, 2002). We also believe educators need to attend to how schools and schooling might transform in response to the needs of learner~teachers.

Learning then becomes synonymous with the capacity for change. “Deep learning takes place when new skills and capabilities, new awareness and sensibilities, and new attitudes and beliefs reinforce each other” (Li, 2002, p. 402). According to Clark (1993) a critical feature of transformational learning is the deep change in how individuals see themselves and their world. Further, Kegan (2000) suggests that through the process of engaging in transformative learning we don’t simply add to what we already know, but we profoundly alter how we come to know. This capacity for internal change is significant as you grapple with who you are be~coming as a teacher; we hope you will feel empowered with the capacity for and belief in change as fundamental to your practice as a teacher.