The key to transformative online learning during adverse situations, such as Covid 19, may depend on the quality of the teacher student relationship

In March 2020, as a result of the Covid19 pandemic, teachers all over the world were forced to start teaching online. Coming from a background in holistic education, I was particularly interested in how teachers who were espousing a transpersonal approach to teaching could abruptly pivot online. 

By transpersonal I mean “experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos”.[1]    From a teaching perspective this would mean intuitive, embodied teachers who are able to go beyond their role, the syllabus or curriculum. I set about conducting a research study with some of these teachers to get an understanding of how they had worked before the pandemic, and how they were experiencing this transition to virtual learning platforms. I was anxious to interview teachers who had had no previous online experience. I wondered if these teachers, based on their recent and ongoing experience would see any potential for transformative online learning. From my own perspective, I felt quite pessimistic about the prospects of having to teach online indefinitely, and did not expect my research participants to feel any differently. 

 The Study

The title of my study was: Transpersonal teaching in the face of adversity.  How can a teacher’s inner process work/innate qualities support creativity for a transformative online learning experience during Covid 19?

I interviewed eight different teachers who, like me, had had to move quickly online because of government lockdowns. These teachers were based in Italy, Spain , UAE, Canada and the UK. Quite aptly, our interviews took place on Zoom, which meant that we were doubly immersed in our discussion about online learning. My research question focused on four key areas: the teacher’s innate qualities or inner processes; the creativity arising from a teacher’s presence and ability to be present; creativity leading to transformation ; the potential for transformative learning online. Because I was going through a similar experience to my participants, I chose heuristic inquiry as my research method, as it allowed me to include my own subjective experience as part of the study. 

Teacher self -awareness and connection with other

Palmer, in his book, The Courage to Teach, talks about the importance of  teacher self -knowledge. The teachers I interviewed were all highly self- aware and deeply connected to themselves. Their ability to be present with themselves seemed to have had a positive effect on their capacity to be present with their students, which in turn led to a higher quality of teacher-student relationship. However, by moving online, they now had to face a series of new challenges, such as technical difficulties, their own digital incompetence and their students’ reluctance to turn on their webcams because of body or social image issues. They also noticed that their students who were often quite adept at technology, were able to multi-task and therefore not be fully present in class. In a bid to maintain the same quality of relationship and connection that they had experienced in the face to face classroom, they began to go to great lengths to achieve that. Their efforts included introducing online meditation, yoga and breath work for relaxation and improved learning, to jumping around in front of the camera and telling jokes– anything that would break the ice and bring about the same kind of engagement that they had had in the face to face classroom. Slowly but surely they noticed students peeking their heads around the door of the virtual space.

Co-creativity and Transformative learning

The creativity displayed in the teachers’ attempts to make online learning work is similar to what they had done in the face-to-face classroom. Many people believe that creativity is only connected to the creative arts, but similar to the findings of other researchers, creativity often ranges from problem solving, to playfulness, to responding to the present moment without filters. The teachers in my study when asked about their understanding of creativity, reported a collaborative or co-creative approach which they then endeavoured to bring online.

Jack Mezirow (1991) says that transformative learning is all about making meaning that is relevant to one’s life and transcends the learning of mere concepts. These teachers had all had direct experience of transformative learning in their face to face classrooms, and their many examples of how their students’ lives had been affected positively, always seemed to stem from the fact that the teacher was authentic, genuine, empathetic, caring honest, non- hierarchical hierarchy in the relationship. And now, in a time of adversity, they were deeply committed to at least trying to carry over this aspect of teaching into the online space. One of the ways that they approached this was by being very intentional in their endeavours: they consciously sought out ways to deepen connection within the digital learning container, and even found ways of carrying rituals from the physical classroom into the virtual space. Transpersonal aspects such as acceptance of the necessity to teach online, letting go of resistance, being prepared to learn something new were all present in the teachers. One of the teachers said that acceptance had been the key to overcoming her initial fear of not being competent enough to teach online. 

One of the final stages of this research method was to engage in a creative synthesis that would weave together all the themes and qualities of my findings. 

Inspired by the teachers I had interviewed and a desire to integrate what I had learnt from my study into my life and work, I designed a creative online workshop for language students and then produced a toolkit for teachers based on my experience of that. The opportunity to design and deliver an experimental online workshop while still engaging fully with participants, has ignited me with hope for future transformative online learning. 

As Mark Zuckerberg launches his Metaverse, and AI and VR become more embedded in our lives,  perhaps future research could delve into the nature of virtual spaces , incorporating previous studies of transformational teaching in that area (Ayiter, 2012). It could also be interesting to investigate more into previous insights regarding a special type of closeness and non-hierarchical interactions that take place among participants  in an online space (Moore, 2015).  

References 

Ayiter, E. (2012). Ground< c>: a metaverse learning strategy for the creative fields. PhD thesis, Plymouth University.
Mezirow, Jack.(1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning.
Moore, L. (2015). Fields of networked mind: Ritual consciousness and the factor of communitas in networked rites of compassion. Technoetic Arts, 13(3), 331-339
Palmer, P. J. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life.
Transpersonal – Wikipedia. En.wikipedia.org. (2021). Retrieved 21 November 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transpersonal.
Identity (social science) – Wikipedia. En.wikipedia.org. (2021). Retrieved 21 November 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_(social_science).
Psychology of self – Wikipedia. En.wikipedia.org. (2021). Retrieved 21 November 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychology_of_self.
Psyche (psychology) – Wikipedia. En.wikipedia.org. (2021). Retrieved 21 November 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psyche_(psychology).

 

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