Transformative learning?

“Most thought-provoking in this most thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” These words were spoken by Martin Heidegger in 1951 in a lecture course titled What is Called Thinking. [1] Heidegger lived a controversial life. His philosophy, writings, and thinking continue to inspire reflection and the influence of his political and personal background remains an ongoing conversation with historians and academics. [2] What may be most controversial about Heidegger is his phrasing and presentation of ideas, sometimes framed as oddly worded questions or as a declaration like the quote above. Heidegger challenges those who read his works to think along with him, and to even think beyond his thinking. 

Heidegger helped his students and the public who participated in his lectures to ask questions, to challenge common-sense presuppositions, and to take apart unthought understandings.  [3] As an existential philosopher, he was wary of using distinctions – the mental tools that help us think – without thinking through the consequences, or at least acknowledging the assumptions that we are making. 

Are we really not thinking? Heidegger says this to make us ask the question and consider the implications for our day-to-day lives. What he is here drawing attention to is the dominance of one particular type of thinking, what he calls “calculative thinking.” Calculative thinking is in terms of what can be counted or represented by numbers. Thinking of this kind ignores context and background and assumes that meaning comes pre-determined and is easily accessible as long as it is not contaminated with human bias. The danger in this mode of thinking, he argues, is that it could become the only way we think. Let’s consider an example.

We talk, think, read and write about learning as if we are all in agreement about what it is we are taking, thinking, reading and writing about. “I’m learning a new language” or “I’ve enrolled in a class to learn more about educational technology” represent two common, everyday ways of how we toss around the word “learn”. In the first, we understand that the person is encountering and practicing a new way of communicating, with verb charts and flash cards aplenty. The second calls to mind a more traditional sense where learning happens within structured groups of individuals and there are skills and objectives that must the learning must be about. To complicate matters, learning gets mixed up with teaching, educating, instructing, and training until we are not quite sure what it is we are referencing.

Part of the work of philosophers is to introduce distinctions to help gain clarity where needed. Philosopher Jurgen Habermas introduced two distinctions particular to learning: instrumental and communicative learning. [4] Instrumental learning concerns facts and truth claims and aims to control the environment through observations and predictions. Communicative learning is focused on how meaning gets communicated and understood between people. Dividing ideas in two is a helpful strategy to think them through more effectively. The dichotomy created by Habermas, the difference between instrumental and communicative learning, is one such example of how to employ this strategy. Habermas provides a way for learning to be thought, talked about and theorized that is accessible and useful. [5]

Are these distinctions about learning worthwhile? In What is Called Thinking, Heidegger suggests that the job of the teacher is much more difficult than the learner. Why? “…because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn.” What might it mean to ‘let learn’?

Here Heidegger is provoking us into thinking, and thinking beyond distinctions and calculations. How does “letting learn” fit into instrumental or communicative learning? Instrumental and communicative learning are two types of learning that human beings have decided are meaningful. But these types are not learning. These types of learning, are not objects “out there” in the world like trees, cars, and buildings. They live in language. I hear in the ringing of ‘letting learn’ something that is not captured by the naming of instrumental or communicative learning.

My concern lies with the assumption that the two types of learning, instrumental and communicative, are taken to be the only appropriate understandings of learning. Teachers and learners in K-12 education, job and trades training, and professional development work day to day with lists of skills and objectives, clear indicators of instrumental learning. Communicative learning is usually only implemented as transformative learning and with adult learners. 

I think to learn is to challenge assumptions, to take new paths, to walk old paths anew, to open our eyes, to make us sensitive to how we touch the world and how it touches us in return. Learning shifts our perspectives, transforms our ways of being. Once I learn a new language, not only has my tongue found new and different ways to move but I have also taken on new ways of seeing based in the conceptual and metaphorical structures of the newly acquired language. Even as I learn instrumentally I absorb particular ways and methods of approaching the world, the environment. There is no one way, there are multiple ways. Learning is not only about controlling and communicating, it is transformative in its very nature. Learning is transforming, transforming is learning.

Learning cannot be reduced to lists of curriculum objectives and learning outcomes. That we could think of learning as objectives and outcomes names a larger concern. That learning can be reduced to a thing that is rational, linear, plannable and predictable is a sign of calculative thinking. We need more thinking, not less. We need a thinking that can move beyond  the limits of calculation as the only way to grasp learning and teaching. Learning could be, and I believe should be, about being than knowing, we would take up the questions that are worth asking, thinking that is worthy of the name.


[1]  Martin Heidegger (Fred D. Wieck & J. Glenn G. Gray, trans.) What is Called Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

 [2] Much continues to be written and analyzed about just what his role was as Rector of the University of Freiburg during the National Socialist Movement in 1933 as well as what the implications of his thought are for political, moral, and ethical philosophy. These thoughts are worthy of thinking, but they are not the focus of our thinking here.

[3] Martin Heidegger (Joan Stambaugh, trans.) Being and Time (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996).

[4]  Jurgen Habermas (T. McCarthy, Trans.). The theory of communicative action: Vol.1, Reason and rationalization in society. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).

 [5] This distinction also provides the way for transformative learning theory, grounds the theory in a philosophical perspective, approach, and history. Transformative learning is learning that helps identify the unthought and unspoken assumptions that frame our knowledge and understanding. Learning occurs as these frames or perspectives, in the process of being critically examined, are transformed. Learning as transformative learning is, then, the transformation of people’s perspectives. According to our Habermasian background, transformative learning is a branch off of the communicative learning, or learning that is focused on meaning-making and understanding.


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