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  • Writer's pictureAngela Slate

Distinguishing Transformative Learning vs. Indoctrination

Updated: Dec 10, 2023


A male professor standing in front of a group of college students in his classroom

In 2019, a group of students at Sarah Lawrence College (SLC) calling themselves the Diaspora Coalition took over the campus administration building with a long list of demands including that a professor have his tenure revoked due to an op-ed piece he wrote in the New York Times which they found offensive. In his 2020 article “Maturity, Immaturity, and Indoctrination at Sarah Lawrence College,” Mitchell Lambert argues that this protest is the result of “fashionable left-wing progressivism, which is authoritarian and requires rote recitation.” As part of his 2020 July 4th speech from Mount Rushmore, Trump furthers this claim by saying “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our value and indoctrinate our children… there is a far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance” (Trump, 2020).


Accusations of indoctrination seem to be common in today’s rhetoric from both sides of the aisle. As a result, educators may be hesitant to address these contentious issues in their classrooms. However, one could argue that it is even more important that we address these issues since students need the skills to understand, analyze, and process what is happening in their world. It is an essential aspect of living in a democratic society. And isn’t it the job of an educator to prepare students to be effective members of our society? But how does an individual teacher approach these controversial topics without being accused of indoctrinating their students?


It is safe to reason that before teachers can incorporate political discussions in their classrooms, they must be trained to recognize the difference between education and indoctrination. Therefore, this becomes an issue of both pedagogy and andragogy, the method and practice of teaching adults. In this paper, I will address both by comparing and contrasting the andragogical theory of Transformational Learning vs the definition of indoctrination. Thereby answering the question “How do we as educators ensure we are encouraging transformational learning without indoctrinating them with our own beliefs?”


Literature Review

In this Literature Review, I will provide an overview of Mezirow’s Theory of Transformational Learning. Then compare it to historically accepted definitions of indoctrination. I will explain how a teacher’s approach to transformational learning can determine if indoctrination is occurring or not. I will present examples of both transformative learning and indoctrination along with instances in which indoctrination may be necessary. Finally, I will discuss how indoctrination in classrooms can be avoided by implementing transformational learning in teacher training.


Overview of Transformational Learning

As educators, we’d all like to think that our lessons are so impactful they have a transformative effect on our students. Unfortunately, this has led to Transformational Learning being used to describe almost any learning outcome that makes students think (Hoggan, 2016). As such, it is important to refer back to Mezirow’s original definition of Transformational Learning. According to Mezirow’s theory, an individual must first experience a “disorienting dilemma” that challenges their core belief system (Schroeder et al, 2020), also known as their “worldview” (Ariso, 2018; Hoggan; Schroeder et al). As a result, the individual seeks out information in order to resolve this dilemma, often by seeking others who have experienced the same or similar dilemma. The individual then uses the new information to transform their worldview and ideally becomes “more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective” (Mezirow 2000, pp. 7-8).

When discussing politics in education, Transformational Learning is the most appropriate model as it was originally developed by Mezirow to “address the learning involved in broad social change” (Hoggan, 2016). We can actually see Transformational Learning in action when examining the effects of online political groups. In the 2020 article “‘Like, Share, Comment’ and Learn: Transformative Learning in Anti-Trump Resistance Communities,” Schroeder et. al. looked at two of the most notable online resistance communities that emerged after Trump’s election–Women’s March and Indivisible–to determine how individuals’ worldviews were transformed as a result of participation (2020). They refer to the “horizontal transfer of knowledge” in these groups (Schroeder et al.), where adults learn from their peers as opposed to an established leader/teacher. This aligns with Mezirow’s theory that adults will seek out other adults who have experienced or are experiencing the same “disorienting dilemma” in order to seek answers. Amongst the transformations reported by study participants, the most common was the idea that a democratic government is shaped by the actions of its citizens and it is each person’s duty/obligation to actively participate in rallies, demonstrations, educating others, or even running for office (Schroeder et al.).


Defining Indoctrination

Determining the difference between education and indoctrination has long been debated in educational theory and philosophy (Zembylas, 2022). And like Transformational Learning, the term “indoctrination” has been broadly applied to numerous situations, and as a result, has become difficult to distinguish as well. A review of the literature resulted in a variety of definitions, but the generally accepted definition of indoctrination is manipulating people to accept a specific idea, attitude, or behavior regardless of, or in the absence of, evidence to the contrary, thereby removing the individual’s autonomy to determine their own opinions (Ariso, 2018; Weber et al., 2022; Zembylas). When this is done through the channel of public education, it is also used to serve the purpose of the current political group in power (Diwan and Vartanova, 2020).

In 2021, Weber et al. interviewed German biology teachers to assess their perceived risk of indoctrination when teaching students about sustainable nutrition and what measure, if any, they took to prevent indoctrination. Although sustainable nutrition is part of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, it is not required teaching in Germany (Weber et al., 2022). Only 4 of the 7 teachers interviewed stated that they incorporated sustainable nutrition into their curriculum, with 2 of those teachers indicating that they have a personal interest in the subject. 3 of the teachers indicated feeling insecure about how to address this topic in the classroom, which has led to avoiding it completely. 6 of the 7 teachers perceived a risk of indoctrinating students with their own opinions on sustainable eating and “maintained that teachers are responsible for avoiding indoctrination” (Weber et al., p. 7). 1 of the 7 teachers, who is a vegan with strong beliefs toward the subject, admitted that it is difficult to hide her opinions from her students while teaching. However, Weber et al. note that teachers are often viewed as role models, and previous studies have shown students to prefer teachers who share their own opinions, as they are seen as more authentic and can share real-life experiences (Weber et al.). So, the question becomes “How do teachers share their opinions and experiences without risking the accidental indoctrination of students?”


Three Common Approaches to Transformational Learning by Educators

In “Transformative Learning in Theory and Practice,” Hoggan and Kloubert describe three ways teachers traditionally approach TL: process-oriented, adaptive, and prescriptive. In the Process-Oriented Approach, the teacher acts as a facilitator fostering the skills needed for students to analyze arguments and reflect on their own assumptions. Although the teacher’s intention may be to transform the student, transformation may or may not happen. It cannot be forced. However, empowering students with these critical thinking tools may help students experience transformation in the future (2020). In the Adaptive Approach, the teacher is not necessarily trying to foster transformation but simply recognizes that under current circumstances, a transformational change may happen. In this approach, the teacher’s role is to support the student in their journey (Hoggan and Klubert). It is important to note that in both of these approaches, transformation is a long-term process and not immediate (Hoggan and Klubert), as many teachers hoping to implement TL may hope.


However, it is the remaining approach that is most relative to this paper. In the Prescriptive Approach, the teacher believes they know “the correct worldview and constraints from which the learner must be liberated” (Hoggan and Klubert, 2020, p. 300). Based on our earlier definition of indoctrination, this approach comes dangerously close. In fact, Mezirow himself warned against using his theory as a tool of indoctrination (Hoggan and Klubert). Hoggan and Klubert explain that “there is a clear difference between (a) educators trying to ‘transform’ students into holding predetermined worldviews… and (b) educators engaging with students to mutually examine their own worldviews” (p. 300). “A” refers to the Prescriptive Approach while “B” refers to the much-preferred Process-Oriented Approach.


The Paradox of Indoctrinating to Prevent Indoctrination

If the definition of indoctrination is to persuade others to agree with your opinion by removing their autonomy to think for themselves, then the antithesis of that would be to preemptively educate students in critical thinking skills to be able to recognize persuasive methods, seek out other viewpoints, and create their own opinions. According to Ariso, “a modern democratic society must ensure that a belief is called into doubt when it is imparted to a learner, so that she can decide whether she accepts it on the basis of some ground: in this way, the learner will avoid the possibility of dogmatically and baselessly giving her agreement to irrational beliefs" (2018). In addition, Zembylas states that it is difficult to break an attachment to an idea that is formed at an early stage in one’s life (2022). Based on these two ideas, it would seem logical for teachers to incorporate critical thinking skills in children’s education as early as possible.

However, Ariso also makes the point that young children are not initially prepared to think critically (2018). As previously stated, in order to avoid indoctrination, we must allow students to consider all viewpoints and alternatives. However, those alternatives must exist in a realistic “band of possibilities” of mutually accepted certainties (Ariso, p. 403). All of our agreed-upon certainties together create our shared World Picture. "Sharing a world picture entrails ruling out all those alternatives that are not consistent with each one of its certainties" (Ariso, p. 399). These certainties need to be taught to children without question. Zembylas presents the argument that “children need to learn the political values of living in a democracy (e.g. to be comfortable with differences in gender, race, religion and the like) and this does not violate their autonomy because autonomy is not yet something developed in young children” (2022, p. 2487). Students would not be able to rationalize in the future without first obtaining a background of certainties with which to compare. For example, one cannot participate in a discussion of slavery if one has not already accepted the certainty of an individual’s right to be free. Both Ariso and Zembylas categorize this type of teaching as necessary, despite appearing indoctrinatory. “[A]s they grow older the children will be able to critically evaluate and modify these habits if evidence shows them to be detrimental: thus, indoctrination would be justified here because ultimately it fosters rationality” (Ariso, p. 404).

How can educators distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable “indoctrination”? Lauren Bialystok addresses this in her 2014 article “Politics Without ‘Brainwashing’: A Philosophical Defense of Social Justice Education.” She states “if something taught in public schools is perceived as a form of ‘brainwashing,’ it is a challenge not only to the individual teachers or administrators involved, but also to the integrity of the system that claims to deliver an essential public good" (p. 415). She offers five distinguishing criteria for justifiable political views in education:

  1. Must have some type of legislative backing

  2. Be compatible with the ideals of a pluralistic society

  3. Not engage in partisan politics or activism without student choice

  4. Connect with skills needed for democratic engagement

  5. Respect students’ freedom to abstain from activities that contradict their beliefs


Transformational Learning in Teacher Training

Since teachers are primarily responsible for what happens in their classrooms, proper teacher training becomes crucial if teachers are going to incorporate controversial topics into their classrooms without being guilty of indoctrination. However, as we saw in the previously discussed sustainable nutrition study, teachers with strong opinions sometimes have difficulty hiding them from students (Weber et al., 2022). This becomes even more difficult when the teacher isn’t even aware of their own biases.


Therefore, the first step would be encouraging teachers to examine their own potential biases so they become more aware of them. In her experience as a teacher educator (TE), Anna Colgan found that many teachers had negative views of diverse children and their families. Her research also found that these teachers are mostly unaware of their own biases and “[f]earful of causing offense, teachers resolve that the best way to deal with diversity is not to say anything at all” (2022, p. 6). To address this, Colgan began incorporating a “transformative pedagogy for social justice” into her classes (2022, p. 2). She fostered transformation by encouraging self-reflection, but this was not without discomfort. She found other approaches to preparing teachers for diversity to be superficial and reflective of “white sensibilities,” and therefore ineffective. Colgan instead used a strategy of “experiencing discomfort as a medium for learning,” challenging and stimulating their critical thinking (p.11). In other words, she was facilitating students to experience a “disorienting dilemma,” the first step in Mezirow’s theory.

Although students reported their experience as “overwhelming,” “uncomfortable,” “frightening,” and even “hurtful,” they also reported positive transformations. One student stated that she is no longer afraid to address diversity as she does not want her own students to grow up not knowing how to respond to acts of racism. Another student recognized a previous act of hers as her own implicit bias toward a Black family, assuming that they were poor based on their race. And yet another student expressed a new desire to “be more aware of their language, actions, and attitudes” (Colgan, 2022, p. 12).


Conclusion

In today’s highly charged political climate, it is more important than ever for teachers to instill the critical thinking skills needed for students to navigate through the rhetoric and make their own informed opinions. Unfortunately, not all teachers are adept at doing this without incorporating their own viewpoints and therefore potentially indoctrinating their students. It is therefore important that potential biases are addressed in teacher training programs. Mezirow’s Theory of Transformational Learning is best suited for this because it “results in influencing individuals’ beliefs, values, attitudes, and frames of reference” (Ukpokudo, 2016, p.116). This is distinguishable from indoctrination because the transformation is coming from within the individual and is not being forced upon them by outside sources. The teacher-educator merely facilitates the process by exposing students to various viewpoints and encouraging discussion and self-reflection.

As a result of this training. Educators would be more equipped to address political issues in their own classrooms without fear of indoctrinating their students because 1) they are more aware of both their explicit and implicit biases and are therefore more able to control them and 2) they have gone through the process themselves and will be better able to facilitate it with their students.


Since transformational learning addresses a change in worldview, it does not apply to young children since they have yet to develop a worldview. However, by educating teachers of young children, we are able to ensure that 1) teachers are not biased in helping their students form their worldviews and 2) teachers are aware of the critical thinking skills necessary for students to be able to reflect upon their own worldview in the future when/if confronted with a “disorienting dilemma.”


References

Ariso, J. M. (2018). Teaching children to ignore alternatives is—sometimes—necessary: Indoctrination as a dispensable term. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 38(4), 397–410. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-018-9642-3


Bialystok, L. (2014). Politics without “brainwashing”: A philosophical defence of social justice education. Curriculum Inquiry, 44(3), 413–440. https://doi.org/10.1111/curi.12047


Colgan, A. L. (2022). “it felt like waking up from Zombie Nation”: Introducing early-years practitioners in higher education to issues of social justice for transformative learning. Journal of Transformative Education, 154134462211492. https://doi.org/10.1177/15413446221149206


Diwan, I., & Vartanova, I. (2020). Does education indoctrinate? International Journal of Educational Development, 78, 102249. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2020.102249


Hoggan, C. D. (2015). Transformative learning as a metatheory. Adult Education Quarterly, 66(1), 57–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713615611216


Hoggan, C., & Kloubert, T. (2020). Transformative learning in theory and practice. Adult Education Quarterly, 70(3), 295–307. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713620918510


Langbert, M. (2020). Maturity, immaturity, and indoctrination at Sarah Lawrence College. Academic Questions, 33(1), 23–33. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12129-019-09852-y

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory in progress (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.


Schroeder, S., Currin, E., Washington, E., Curcio, R., & Lundgren, L. (2019). “like, share, comment,” and learn: Transformative learning in online Anti-Trump resistance communities. Adult Education Quarterly, 70(2), 119–139. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713619884270


Trump, D.J. (2020, July 3) Donald Trump Mount Rushmore Speech at 4th of July Event [speech transcript]. Rev. https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/donald-trump-speech-transcript-at-mount-rushmore-4th-of-july-event


Ukpokodu, O. N. (2016). Realising transformative learning and social justice education: Unpacking teacher education practice. In S. M. Tomlinson-Clarke (Ed.), Social justice and transformative learning (pp. 113–142). Routledge.


Weber, A., Linkemeyer, L., Szczepanski, L., & Fiebelkorn, F. (2022). “vegan teachers make students feel really bad”: Is teaching sustainable nutrition indoctrinating? Foods, 11(6), 887. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods11060887


Zembylas, M. (2021). Rethinking political socialization in schools: The role of ‘affective indoctrination.’ Educational Philosophy and Theory, 54(14), 2480–2491. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2021.2006634


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