The Quest for Transformative Learning

Dr. Panos Vlachos, President of Anatolia College, discusses how Anatolia applies the transformative teaching method in the classroom to encourage critical thinking.

How would you define transformative learning?

Transformative learning aims to broaden students’ perspectives and prepare them for a global society by exposing them to different ideas, cultures, and experiences so that they can make informed, independent decisions, develop empathy towards others, and understand the importance of social responsibility. Transformative learning theory combines instrumental learning with communicative learning. That is, learning through doing and task-oriented problem solving and understanding the meaning behind what others communicate, through critical interpretation.

Predicated on the importance of self-reflection and critical thinking, transformative learning empowers students to become independent thinkers and problem solvers. When students begin to critically analyze information, interpret and reinterpret meaning, and engage in experiential learning, transformation occurs. This view of education is quite different from the traditional industrial model that characterized schools throughout much of the 20th century and has continued in many teachers’ approaches today despite the unique challenges and changes that the 21st century presents.

What can the school system do to facilitate such a change?

In order for the school system to facilitate transformative learning, schools must engage in their own self-reflection and improvement in order to create a more open environment. Modern learning paradigms argue that learning is more effective when it is creative and exploratory, tailored in pace and method for students’ individual needs. This requires that the school and teacher gradually encourage students to ask questions and seek answers through a problem-solving process. This results in the building of knowledge that is functional rather than passive and the development of problem-solving skills so that students are equipped with the necessary foundation to find solutions to unfamiliar or unexpected situations in the real world.

In order to facilitate this new teaching paradigm, schools must train teachers and equip them with the tools and expertise to create student-centered lesson plans that encourage critical thinking. Fostering a multicultural learning environment and appreciation for diversity is also important for developing empathy at the school and among its students. And of course, the classroom itself also plays an integral role in creating a student-centered learning process.

In what ways can the classroom environment influence learning?

The learning environment itself in which this transformation takes place is paramount to its success. Imagine a tree seed, for example, forced to grow in a flowerpot. It is certain that we will witness the first stages of growth; the roots will take up whatever space available, but still, confined, the tree won’t be able to grow a sturdy trunk, branch out and bear its fruit, as it would in a free, open environment. Learning is like so and there is no disagreeing that it is structured, to a certain extent. What if we changed that flowerpot, however? What if we could shape it and morph it and model it along with the growing tree roots? I strongly believe that we would witness the tree’s full potential.

The same modularity can be brought to the school environment, with classrooms designed around class and individual needs and learning abilities. As an American non-profit educational institution focused on innovation, Anatolia College aims to lead by example. For this reason, we have recently developed new learning spaces: They are stimulating, flexible, adaptable spaces that reconfigure the room so that it can serve various pedagogical approaches and activities from traditional instruction to group collaboration or independent work. The Center for Green Education and the Fab Lab, included in our latest Innovation Isle, also integrate technology in a way that can be cultivating and experience-enhancing. We see technology actually employed as a tool and not a driving force, allowing educators to have first say when harnessing it through their teaching styles.

How can we empower youth through education?

I think schools play a critical role in empowering youth in their communities. Anatolia is no different and is committed to serving not only the students who attend Anatolia, but also the wider community. That is why these learning spaces are accessible to other schools and available to the local community for activities, so that learners across all levels can experience this educational transformation first-hand.

Education is empowerment in itself, but it is not enough. We need to build on the concept of education, nurturing and cultivating talents and intriguing inquiring minds from an early age. Anatolia has developed inspiring initiatives like the Center for Talented Youth Greece and the Entrepreneurship Hub that actually strive to fill this gap. Remarkable members of academia and accomplished professionals steward these students and enrich their learning, becoming role models and mentors. To further promote student access and inclusion, we are steadfast on supporting them with a landmark scholarship program, but we also need to instill in our students the values and heightened sense of civic responsibility necessary for them to become contributing members of modern society.

Can you tell us about the role that education plays in developing a student’s moral and social character?

At Anatolia, we strongly believe that a student’s education includes so much more than just the content of a particular subject. Of course, the academic content of each class is important, but it is also through the study and transformative teaching methodology of Biology or History or English that students develop critical thinking, teamwork, and communication skills. We also try to develop students’ moral and social character by offering them opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities and volunteerism.

We devote time in the school schedule every day for our “Club Hour,” during which students can participate in both student- and faculty-led clubs and athletics. This complements the education students receive in the classroom, by offering them a chance to explore different interests, develop social skills, and build confidence through participation in clubs such as Model United Nations, theater, and Lego robotics.

We also try to instill a sense of social responsibility and civic activism in students. Our Service as Action program combines classroom curricula with real world application through partnerships with local non-profit organizations. Students are exposed to the different needs in their community and work together to address them through volunteering.

How can we cultivate empathy in the era of digital citizenship?

It is a fact that we are currently living “on the cloud,” and we of the older generations are not as proficient with the use of technology or new media as the younger generations, or digital natives, are. As technology rapidly changes the current landscape, and as the internet of things is keeping us all interconnected, we need to ensure that we do not lose our focus and our sense of personal identity. We need to take a breather, get our head “out of the cloud,” if you will, and build on our interpersonal skills, bridging the gap between generations. Through opportunities like service learning, we are able to comprehend the complexity of issues and lend our ears and extend our hands to real life problems and situations, changing the world for the better.

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