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Negotiating disorienting dilemmas and the transformative learning process in a complex society

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2009
Dissertation
Author: Constance Tarver Dodson
Abstract:
Devastations, transitions, crises, and challenges can trigger what are sometimes referred to, particularly in the field of adult education, as disorienting dilemmas . Jack Mezirow, an adult educator and social activist, maintained that a disorienting dilemma occurs when an individual encounters a life challenge that cannot be resolved by his or her previous frame of reference. Today, people are facing increasing numbers of personal, societal, and global challenges. Therefore, it is extremely important that resolutions to countless life challenges are researched and viable resolutions are found. This basic interpretive and descriptive qualitative study examined participants' approaches to resolving crucial life events which are considered disorienting dilemmas. Additionally, this study determined if the 10 phases of Mezirow's transformative learning theory were utilized in negotiating the dilemmas. Data were collected through face-to-face interviews with 14 participants. Purposeful sampling was employed in order to obtain cases that could give most insight into the approaches that were utilized in the resolution of the disorienting dilemmas Semi-structured questions were employed. Findings from the study revealed that factors such as (a) the acceptance of the dilemma, (b) the nature of the dilemma, and (c) an array of emotions, played important roles in changing or not changing perspectives and negotiating disorienting dilemmas. Findings also revealed that no transformations were sudden or immediate. Participants took from a month to six years to begin the process of resolving their dilemmas. Of importance is that most transformations were "modified" transformation and not total transformation as the participants continued to maintain many of their preconceived notions. It was also found that all participants utilized some of the 10 phases of Mezirow's transformative learning theory in negotiating the dilemmas, but all did not transform.

TABLE OF CONTENTS ABSTRACT ii ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS iv CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION 1 Life Challenges as Disorienting Dilemmas Transformative Learning The Call for Change Purpose of the Study Research Questions Significance of the Study Definitions' &i Terms Delimitations Limitations Justification II. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE 21 Introduction Background Mezirow's Influences Mezirow's Transformative Learning Theory Other Transformative Learning Perspectives Fostering Transformation Supports and Barriers to Transformation Summary III. METHODOLOGY 56 Introduction Significance of the Problem Design of the Study Sample Selection Data Collection Data Analysis TV. FINDINGS .' 64 Introduction Study Participants v

Results V. CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS 100 Conclusion Recommendations for Farther Study APPENDIXES 107 REFERENCES 114 vi

1 CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION Life in today's society is so increasingly complicated, ever changing, and full of transitions and life events that experiencing challenges seems inevitable. Sometimes life events and transitions such as retirements, failures, deployments, mortgage foreclosures, job losses, deaths, aging, life threatening disease, natural catastrophes, and financial distresses can be devastating. In organizations where employees experience job-related issues, in today's society where one must deal with others' differences, or in the school systems where teachers are unable to meet mandates, challenges can occur. In personal lives, where adults have roles as parents, spouses, caregivers, homemakers, financial planners, and bread-winners, challenges occur. Ten years ago, Marsick (1998) maintained that Adults are facing unprecedented challenges in almost every sphere of life, and the consequences for learning are real and dramatic. They are stretched to learn continuously and transformativeiy in a world that demands higher order thinking. In an earlier more predictable era, people could more easily build on existing frames of reference supported by their education to understand and respond to changes. Today, adults need to transform deeply held frames of reference to make sense of their experience in ways better suited to increasingly complex demands, (p. 1) Approximately 10 years later, these demands have significantly increased. In addition to the challenges of life events and transitions, mis society and its people are simultaneously faced with environmental issues such as global warming, natural disasters

2 such as tornadoes and hurricanes, a slump in the economy and possible recession, systemic problems in government oversight agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, bank closures and massive lay-offs which have negatively impacted the economy and citizens' livelihoods and well-being, astronomical numbers of foreclosures on homes, increasing numbers of wars that directly and indirectly impact society, health concerns such as cancer, losses of retirement and investment funds due to the actions of unscrupulous financial advisers and an unstable economy, significant increases in crime, and numerous other social and political issues that are adversely impacting this society. The current problems experienced by a large number of American citizens have had ripple effects and are now being experienced globally. Kerka (2001) emphasized, "Life in the 21st century seems more complex than ever, as adults cope with the demands of multiple roles, the stresses of a fluid workplace, and the stresses of child and elder care" (p. 1). The majority of the first decade of the 21st century also brought about an onslaught of other major challenges. The terrorist attacks of September 11,2001, on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D. €., sent the United States into a iailspin. In 2005, much of the world watched in disbelief as Hurricane Katrina ravaged much of the southeastern United States. This natural disaster impacted lives and property. In March 2009, according to the United States' Department of Labor, (Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLSj 2009), the total number of job losses since December 2007 was 3.6 million, with 50% occurring in the last quarter of 2008.

3 Life Challenges as Disorienting Dilemmas Devastations, transitions, crises, and challenges can trigger what are sometimes referred to, particularly in the field of adult education, as disorienting dilemmas. Mezirow (1991) defined disorienting dilemmas as "experiences, often emotionally charged situations, that fail to fit our expectations and consequently lack meaning for us, or we encounter an anomaly that cannot be given coherence either by learning within existing schemes or by learning new schemes" (p. 94), Mezirow (1991) maintained that disorienting dilemmas could result from "a death, illness, separation or divorce, children leaving home, being passed over for promotion or gaining a promotion, failing an important examination or retirement" (p. 168). He further stated that "a disorienting dilemma that begins the process of transformation also can result from an eye-opening discussion, book, poem, or painting, or from efforts to understand a different culture with customs that contradict our previously accepted presuppositions" (p. 168). While individuals may experience dilemmas or situations that are difficult and/or embarrassing, all dilemmas are not disorienting. Life challenges are usually not perceived to be crises, and individuals are usually able to resolve the challenges and move ahead with their lives. They can resort to their previous problem-solving strategies and experiences to resolve the situations. An example of a dilemma that may not be disorienting is making a decision to either pay for a much needed vacation or use the funds to replace extremely worn furniture. Once an individual experiences a crisis or life challenge that his previous frame of reference cannot resolve, a disorienting dilemma occurs. The person has the option to

4 ignore or rebut the problem and delay resolution, or address the problem and seek resolution or change (Meniam & Caffarella, 1999). Often the resolutions result in positive change; however, sometimes individuals choose negative resolutions. The latter can result in adverse or criminal behaviors or better choices can be made in the future as individuals learn from poor choices. Individuals faced with disorienting dilemmas or challenges of life often resorted to various measures for resolutions. Those who chose to find positive resolutions found comfort or solace in confiding in and getting information from friends and family. Otters chose to seek counseling from attorneys, pastors, therapists, employee assistance programs, life coaches, human resource practitioners, self-help books, and countless other measures. According to Kerka (2001), various policies and programs were implemented in the 1990s to assist in gaining knowledge to cope with issues that affected work and family life. Kegan (1994) suggested that informational learning as well as transformational learning were needed to deal with the various challenges of life. The goal of informational learning, according to Kegan (2000), was "aimed at increasing our fond of knowledge, at increasing our repertoire of skills, .at extending already established cognitive capacities into new terrain" (p. 48). Transformative learning dealt with changes in perspectives or frames of references. People who chose to ignore or rebut the challenges of life, or who were unwilling and unable to deal with the challenges, sometimes resorted to use of legal or illegal drugs or alcohol abuse, or they became depressed and possibly encountered other emotional problems or even committed suicide. Currently, the increased numbers of suicides .among America's soldiers, for example, are being investigated. Statistics of reported military

5 suicides that occurred in the month of January 2009 were 24, compared to 4 in the month of January 2008. While the data on the causal factors are currently inconclusive, stress from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan has been cited as a possible cause. To counter the increasing numbers of suicides, in addition to increased mental health services, the Army plans to implement two training programs. In one of the programs, soldiers will be trained to recognize suicidal behaviors, and in the other, there will be a suicide intervention and prevention training in order for soldiers to help their buddies if suicidal behaviors are recognized in them (Starr & Mount, 2009). Mezirow (1991) acknowledged that adult educators should be taught that some learners may have psychological problems which would impede transformative learning. Additionally, adult educators should be taught to recognize learners' needs for psychotherapy. While numerous individuals experience disorienting dilemmas that result from life challenges, given the same crisis, some may not find the challenges to be disorienting dilemmas. Clevinger (1993) indicated that people respond to the same crisis event in various ways and that various variables influence their reactions to the experience. These variables could include culture, age, education, gender, and coping skills. He further acknowledged that there are people who experience crises, yet continue to function and do not experience transformation. According to Erikson's (1982) theory on the stages of human development, in order for individuals to be able to resolve crises experienced as adults, they must have no unresolved issues from earlier stages of their lives. Hence, an adult who has unresolved issues might find a life challenge as a disorienting dilemma as opposed to an adult who has no unresolved life challenges.

6 Transition theory may also contribute to why some individuals experience disorienting dilemmas while others do not According to Schlossberg (1984), a transition is "any event or nonevent that results in change in relationships, routines, assumptions, and or roles within the settings of self, work, family, health, and or economics" (p. 43). Transition theory holds that individuals operate in balance with their surroundings or environment When a life challenge or crisis occurs, this balance is disturbed and change must occur in order to achieve this balance again. The key to this theory is that change is warranted if the individual perceives the tansition as disruptive (Schlossberg). Rarely discussed is the issue of vulnerability. According to Mechanic and Tanner (2007), ''vulnerability* &e susceptibility to harm, results from an interaction between the individuals and communities and the life challenges they face" (p. 1220). They further maintained that vulnerability results from "developmental problems, personal incapacities, disadvantaged social statuses, inadequacy of interpersonal networks and supports, degraded neighborhoods and environments, and die complex interaction of these factors over the life course" (p. 1220). When defining vulnerability, special populations such as the elderly, special needs populations, persons with language barriers, children, and the illiterate come to mind. Therefore, it might be suggested that these populations, once confronted with crises, would experience disorienting dilemmas. In the same vein, educated individuals with resources, status, and assets have also had periods of vulnerability and have also experienced disorienting dilemmas. One recent example involves those who had been defrauded by a previously trusted investor. Trust, greed, or lack of knowledge could have contributed to mis which resulted in numerous disorienting dilemmas. Many had to sell assets, or risk losing their homes. Some were

7 faced with not being able to retire, as all of their retirement funds were gone. Many lost educational funds which resulted in disorienting dilemmas concerning their children's futures. Some individuals were taught problem solving skills as children and sometimes in formal educational settings, which can assist in resolution of various challenges. Thus, many of these individuals are able to seek resolutions internally, such as with perseverance or externally through various resources. Some people rely on spirituality, religion, and the Highest Power, as the ultimate resolutions to life events or challenges. Transformative Learning Realizing that people can be taught to transform or change in order to deal with difficult life challenges or disorienting dilemmas, Jack Mezirow, a social activist and adult educator, with influences from Paulo Freire and Jilrgen Habermas in the 1970s, was primarily credited with the development of transformative learning theory. Mezirow (1978) maintained that during periods of growth and reassessments in individuals' lives, often old frames of references are challenged. As an example of reassessment and growth, Mezirow (1978) cited the women's movement in which society's expectations of women were reassessed, in this movement, women acquired new perspectives which resulted in new roles and priorities. Mezirow further elaborated that in the early 1970s, over 300 American colleges and universities implemented re-entry programs for women interested in self-development. The programs were conducive for women in that they provided child care, offered courses in skill building such as assertiveness, assisted in job placement, and offered remedial and

8 regular academic courses. The admissions procedures were not challenging, instructors acted as role models, and personal experiences were shared in these re-en&y programs. According to Mezirow and Associates (2000), Mezirow defined transformative learning as follows: the process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mind-sets) to make them more elusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and ©pinions that will prove more true or justified to guide actions, (pp. 7-8) Just as all challenges are not experienced as disorienting dilemmas by all adults, Mezirow (1978) similarly maintained that all adults do not transform. In other words, some do not perceive a new view as being as valuable as their currently held perspective. Mezirow also acknowledged an individual's right to self-determination. To this, Mezirow suggested that "there are wide variations in individual personalities that influence one's ability to experience such growth, When serious internal inhibitions impair normal development, an adult may require therapy rather than education" (p. 105). The Call for Change Mezirow (1978) posited that Evidence of the pervasiveness of the process of perspective transformation for social action is apparent, to cite a few instances, in our recent experiences in the United States with the civil rights movement, the Black awareness movement, the student movement, and the anti-war movement (p. 102)

9 As state governments currently experience various social crises in areas such as housing, education, finances, and health, some state governors are calling for changes. Ohio governor Ted Strickland proposed changes in the state's education system. According to Connecticut's governor M. Jodi Rell, It is time to get back to basics, It is time to return to our core mission—to educate our children, protect our people [and] help those truly in need. The economic challenges we are facing give us a rare opportunity to realign state government, (as cited in Vock, 2009, p. 1) Currently, the loss of jobs by some individuals may result in individuals reassessing their frames of references as well as their futures. Some may decide to use this opportunity to change their perspectives and seek other professions. Some may be forced to change perspectives and seek lower paying jobs or positions in order to survive. Others may rely on unemployment compensation which is a temporary solution. Community colleges and technical schools are currently realizing increases in enrollment as some of those who are laid off are seeking training for new careers or upgrading their skills (Clark, 2009). Persons who lost monies due to the actions of unscrupulous investors or problems in the financial system may avail themselves of information and classes that can better prepare them for investing and making wiser and more informed choices, likewise, heads of households may be faced with whether to abandon their previously held notions of self sufficiency, or change their perspectives, and seek public assistance in the form of food stamps, subsidized housing, and other government financial assistance.

10 individuals who have lost medical coverage may need to avail themselves of informational learning as well as transformative learning in order to access appropriate health coverage. This would include finding available and affordable health care resources such as medical insurances and health care facilities. It may be necessary for any preconceived notions about public or charity health care to be relinquished in order to receive health care services. Heads of households who have experienced and are experiencing home foreclosures may be forced to seek programs that can educate them on the intricacies of home financing, home buying, as well as home maintenance. Past experiences of many of these homeowners may have included not participating in home-buying seminars and/or putting total trust in real estate salespersons. In many cases, these inactions have contributed to losses of homes and have adversely affected the economy. During 2008, in the wake of ever increasing problems in society, and in an election year, the candidate who was elected president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, in his campaign rhetoric called for change. While people traditionally fear and often resist change, the majority of Americans embraced the call for change or transformation of major aspects of this society, Was America as a whole experiencing a disorienting dilemma? Perhaps. The American society's way of doing things was apparently not working which resulted in massive layoffs, enormous housing foreclosures, bank crises, and loss of retirement, in vestment, and educational funds, as well as other challenges that adversely affected its citizens, How citizens would negotiate the disorienting dilemmas in which so many had found themselves was becoming more and more complex.

11 In the 2008 election, Barack Obama, an African American, was elected President of fee United States of America Perhaps perspective transformation, or changes in previously held assumptions occurred as Obama was elected with 43% of the White votes, 65% of the Hispanic votes, and 95% of the African American votes. While the election of Obama had different meanings for different people, the relevancy of this election to adult education, in addition to disorienting dilemmas and perspective transformations, signifies the fruits of the labor of various pioneers in this field who believed in and developed their philosophies and work around change. In. addition to Mezirow, other pioneers of note were Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. Freire, a Brazilian social activist, educator, and philosopher, emphasized an emancipatory philosophy, that adults should be educated to free themselves from that which oppresses them. Once Freire understood the frames of reference of fee poor, he could adequately communicate with them. Once he was able to appropriately communicate with them, he provided adult education to fee poor by teaching them to read and write in short periods of time. He believed in an interactive method of education whereby teacher and student communicated and students were able to look at their circumstances critically and thus make decisions on transforming their situations (Freire, 1970). In keeping wife Freire's philosophy of social and political action, Obama called for sweeping changes in various areas that included health care, education, and politics. In line wife Mezirow's (1991) philosophy, Obama called for individual changes feat included volunteering and helping those who are less fortunate. Mezirow posited that changing or transforming "is a social process often involving points- of view expressed by

12 others that we initially find discordant, distasteful, and threatening, but later come to recognize as indispensable to dealing with our experience" (1991, p. 185). Rachal (2000) noted a parallel of Freire's works to Freedom Summer, an adult education and social action project in Mississippi in 1964 which involved many disorienting dilemmas and transformative experiences. One of the goals of this project was teaching illiterate Blacks to read and write in order to be able to vote, in adverse conditions, various civil rights organizations^ along with White volunteers from outside the South joined with Blacks from Mississippi to implement this adult education project This project "was conducted against the ever-present backdrop of intimidation, economic reprisal, and violence, including several drive-fey shootings and arson" (p. 170). During Freedom Summer, Rachal noted not only the accomplishments of this project, but also numerous transformative experiences which involved the learners and the teachers. Without a doubt, volunteers and participants, Black and White, young and old experienced numerous disorienting dilemmas, yet persevered for a cause in which they believed. Rachal (2(M)0) maintained that The full extent of Freedom Summer's successes and failures has yet to be played out Each generation benefits from struggles endured by its predecessors, even if it is ignorant of them or fails to acknowledge them. If a piece of the legacy of Freedom Summer is the present simplicity and uncontested freedom of registering and voting, that achievement must be weighed against the fact that too many have not availed themselves of the very opportunity their parents and grandparents exhibited such courage to secure, (p. 191)

13 Rachal further posited that "students Black and White risk repeating and updating what might be called the 'peanut fallacy,' the view of a few decades ago that the only contribution of African Americans to American history was George Washington Carver and his peanuts" (p. 192). The election of Baraek Obarna, as the 44th president of the United States, 44 years after Freedom Summer, is not only a testament of one of the successes of Freedom Summer, but also a testament that, not only Black and White students, but young adults of various ethnicities, in this instance, did not allow the work and sacrifices of their forefathers to be in vain, According to the Pew Research Center (2008), "Without a doubt, the overwhelming backing of younger voters was a critical factor in Obama's victory. Obama drew two-thirds (66%) of the votes among those younger than age 30" (p. 1). Additionally, this election further documents, that in spite of the horrendous challenges before and during Freedom Summer, adult education was and can be one of the viable mechanisms for resolutions of challenges for millions of Americans who face the current multitude of disorienting dilemmas. Also relating to adult education and today's challenges was Myles Morton, an activist and founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Horton trained various groups to stand up for their rights and bring about change. According to Horton, Kohl, and Kohl (1997), Horton's parents' actions instilled in him the importance of education which was primarily to help those who were less fortunate. Horton also credits his adversaries, the owners of the factory where he worked, in shaping his future of service to his fellow man. The owners had little regard for the workers and often treated them in ways that were often less than humane.

14 The Highlander Folk School, originally founded in 1932 as the Southern Mountains School, was opened primarily to assist those who were oppressed. Labor unions, antipoverty workers, and other social organizations engaged in workshops with the goals of finding solutions to their problems. Operating also under extremely adverse conditions, participants in some of Horton's workshops were civil rights activists seeking the right to vote for African Americans (Morten et al, 1997). Racfaal (2000) noted that some of the key figures in Freedom Summer had ties to Horton's Highlander Folk School. Similar to Freire, Horton's experience of poverty possibly contributed to his life's aim to assist the less fortunate to learn methods of fighting for their rights and to bring about transformations. Merriam and Brockett (1997) gave a reminder that "the development of adult education as a field of practice has historically been linked to two very different movements-one focusing on social change or social action, and the other emphasizing personal and economic development" (p. 248). Purpose of the Study The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine participants' approaches to resolving those life events or transitions which are considered disorienting dilemmas. In a complex society when many individuals need resolutions in a hurry, and during critical times, this study determined if the 10 phases of Mezirow's transformative learning process were utilized in negotiating their dilemmas. The results of this study could assist individuals and practitioners in realizing that, when confronted with life challenges, transformative learning may be an option in the resolution of disorienting dilemmas.

15 Research Questions In this complex society where individuals are continuously dealing with life challenges, this qualitative study examined how the challenges are or are not resolved. Since Mezirow offered transformative learning as a viable means to assist individuals to negotiate some of life's challenges, this study also determined if the 10 phases of Mezirow's transformative learning process were utilized. Through interviews, the following research questions were answered: 1. What life events caused the disorienting dilemma? 2. What are the current statuses of the disorienting dilemmas? 3. What were the factors in beginning or not beginning the negotiation of the disorienting dilemmas? 4. What resources could have been beneficial in the implementation of this process? 5. What were the sequences of the participants' learning experiences in the negotiation of their dilemmas? 6. What was the time frame from the onset of the disorienting dilemma to the point of beginning the negotiation process? 7. Did the urgency of the dilemma contribute to the beginning of negotiating the dilemmas? 8. Would teaching transformation assist in the resolution of dilemmas? 9. Are the processes employed by participants to negotiate disorienting dilemmas similar to or different from the 10 phases of Mezirow's transformative learning theory?

16 Significance of the Study The significance of this study is that it adds to the current knowledge in adult education and other disciplines. Additionally, it should assist those practitioners who work to bring about transformation and resolution to life's continuously increasing challenges. Baumgaitaer, Lee, Birden, .and Flowers (2003) indicated that there are numerous perspectives regarding transformative learning theory. They encouraged iurther consideration of the criticisms, "especially its lack of attention to the cultural context, the accuracy of Mezirow's 10-phase process, and its application to various situations. Only through continued analysis can this theory expand" (p. 22), Definitions of Terms The terms specific to this study are defined as follows; Adult Education - The "process whereby persons whose major social roles are characteristic of adult status undertake systematic and sustained learning activities for the purpose of bringing about changes in knowledge, attitudes, values, or skills" (Darkenwald & Merriam, 1982, p, 9), Communicative Learning - "Learning to understand what others mean and to make ourselves understood as we attempt to share ideas" (Mezirow, 1991, p. 75). Critical Reflection - "Means by which we work through our beliefs and assumptions, assessing their validity in the light of new experiences or knowledge, considering their sources and examining underlying premises" (Cranton, 2002, p. 65). Dialogue - "Communication between two or more people with the goal of understanding meaning and reaching understanding" (Mezirow & Associates, 2000, p. 14).

Full document contains 130 pages
Abstract: Devastations, transitions, crises, and challenges can trigger what are sometimes referred to, particularly in the field of adult education, as disorienting dilemmas . Jack Mezirow, an adult educator and social activist, maintained that a disorienting dilemma occurs when an individual encounters a life challenge that cannot be resolved by his or her previous frame of reference. Today, people are facing increasing numbers of personal, societal, and global challenges. Therefore, it is extremely important that resolutions to countless life challenges are researched and viable resolutions are found. This basic interpretive and descriptive qualitative study examined participants' approaches to resolving crucial life events which are considered disorienting dilemmas. Additionally, this study determined if the 10 phases of Mezirow's transformative learning theory were utilized in negotiating the dilemmas. Data were collected through face-to-face interviews with 14 participants. Purposeful sampling was employed in order to obtain cases that could give most insight into the approaches that were utilized in the resolution of the disorienting dilemmas Semi-structured questions were employed. Findings from the study revealed that factors such as (a) the acceptance of the dilemma, (b) the nature of the dilemma, and (c) an array of emotions, played important roles in changing or not changing perspectives and negotiating disorienting dilemmas. Findings also revealed that no transformations were sudden or immediate. Participants took from a month to six years to begin the process of resolving their dilemmas. Of importance is that most transformations were "modified" transformation and not total transformation as the participants continued to maintain many of their preconceived notions. It was also found that all participants utilized some of the 10 phases of Mezirow's transformative learning theory in negotiating the dilemmas, but all did not transform.