A Little walk to A Quiet Junction: Transformative Learning, Critical Pedagogy and Social Movement

A busy early summer 2007 in the institute, backpacked ISS students going to Germany, celebrated Anti G8 protest. These are not isolated phenomena. They can be connected in a simple logic: instead of hiding in the library nervously stabilo-ing printed readings, like myself, some ISS students left the busy academic schedule to participate in the protest. Now, suppose one asks a simple question, did they go out of a pure learning process to a pure social movement activism? Any educated person in the Institute, almost intuitively, would reply in rather astonished tone, “Of course, No”.

Ironically though, academic studies still tend to treat these phenomena, namely the learning process and social movement, as separated entity, at least not deliberately put them into an explicit collaborative studies. In several important literature of social movement I was able to consult with, it was not even touched at all (Slater 1985; Tarrow 1994, 1998; Snow et. al. 2005)[1], although the potential junctions are waiting for visitors. On the other side, except for several studies that I will highlight below, the transformative learning compilations show similar trends (e.g., Cranton 1997; Mezirow 2000; and articles in the Journal of Transformative Education—published since 2003). It is only in the critical pedagogy literature where these two camps discussed in considerable detail and connectedness (e.g., Freire ; O’Cadiz and Torres 1994; Gibson 1994). It is my intention here to give another attempt to put these pieces together.

I will start by presenting the concept of transformative learning and critical pedagogy, and show their difference and similarities to clarify different elements within these concepts that will be discussed further in relation to social movement. It followed by a brief review on social movement debates. The next parts will look at three possibilities of research that would link transformative learning, critical pedagogy and social movement.  First, I will show how social movement can be seen as a learning processes, therefore, can be analyzed from transformative learning and critical pedagogy frameworks. Second, I will look at possibilities through which deliberate learning process can be created to support social movements. Third, I will present a hypothesis, by reviewing Paulo Freire’s projects in Sao Paolo and Grenada, that ‘learning’ and ‘social movement’ can be a reciprocal process, a chain that forms unending spiral. I will refer to empirical studies in different places, without concerning their time and space differences—and not without risk of generalization, as the ‘learning’ elements show relatively universal existence within these cases. Various ways and results of learning expected from them, however, stretch beyond this paper’s scope.

Mixing Transformative Learning and Critical Pedagogy

The transformative learning and critical pedagogy has been around since 1970s. The former was developed as analytical tools, and only recently been put into practice, while the later born through constant dialogue between practice and theorization. While the transformative learning has Jack Mezirow, whose works mainly aimed at building a critical self-reflection, the critical pedagogy has Paulo Freire that aims more toward a critical look on the social contradiction especially in class axis. However, both seek to deconstruct unchallenged assumptions, belief, value and perspective, move beyond instrumental learning of memorizing, acquiring physical skills, or simple literacy skills of reading and writing. Both suggest that the transformation is changing the way human perceive reality, hence to be more reflective, inclusive, tolerant, and critical. They cultivate and disseminate critical consciousness, liberation, and autonomous thinker. They take place in social arena and talk about adult education (Mezirow 1997, 2000; Christopher et. al. 2001; Cranton and Roy 2003; Freire 1996[1970]).

Specifically, transformative learning is a process through which an individual change his/her frame of reference, acquire capability to reflect critically on self and others’ assumptions, belief, values, and perspectives. This process, though, does not only engage in cognitive or rational operation but also involve emotional movement. It suggests that the process cannot be taught but experienced. Hence, the educators only facilitate and stimulate the process. Finally, it aimed at transformation of individuals into a self-directed learner or critical and autonomous thinker (Mezirow 1997, 2003; Scott 1997; Grabove 1997; Cranton and Roy 2003).

Meanwhile, Gibson (1994) summarise Freire’s aim on his works, in theory and practice, as:

“To simultaneously strike four keys in the struggle for social justice: literacy, or as Freire says, the way we “read the word and the world”, critical consciousness, the creation of liberation, and escalating economic production as people come to understand their surroundings. He links literacy, education, production, and social change; a harmony rising from the interrelationships of the four.”

The transformation, a shift of many facets of human life, thus, becomes a common idiom where both theories meet. The transformative learning, though, has developed in a more classless discussion of pedagogical process, it tends to explore the impact of the transformation towards the individuals, regardless the class. The construction of the knowledge might happen socially but its effect to the individuals’ critical assessment of self and others assumptions is always highlighted (see e.g. Mezirow 2000, 2003; Cranton 1997; Cranton and Roy 2003; Scott 2003). Meanwhile, critical pedagogy oriented toward a collective (mostly in class) consciousness, deconstructing the oppressive nature of pedagogy in literacy practice, through dialogical construction of new terrain of knowledge, (Freire 1996[1970]), and emphasizes “the interconnectedness of reason, emotion, and politics.” (Roberts 2005).

Having these two theories at hand, I argue that the elements of both meet in the nature of learning, where the participants undergo a reflective and critical process of learning. Therefore, I call this hybrid as ‘critical-reflective learning’

On Social Movement Debates

Debate of social movement theories in the last three decade has been revolved around ‘old’ and ‘new’ social movement. From its rise as academic subject in 1950s (Snow et. al. 2005: 5), notably under the banner of sociology (Wilson 1973: 7), another big wave of social movement that started a decade later, accumulating and stimulate the emergence of a ‘new social movement’ theory in 1970s (see Slater 1985). However, a substantial number of studies also directed to merge or even avoid this distinction. Tarrow (1999), for example, shows different ways in which movements erupted, mobilized and maintained; she focused on the nature of contention between society and the nation state as mutual-symbiosis concepts, tracing the importance of printed media and stresses the significant role of political opportunities, which shows her strong structural approach on social movement.

Meanwhile Mayo (2005), write more recently, take distance to synthesize the two “broad school of thought that particularly influential.” First, ’rational actor’ theories which emphasize the pursuit of self-interest of social movement participants. They explain the ‘how’ of social movement. Second, types of theories that considers social movement as “precursor of social transformation”, focus more on ‘thematic’ issues like identity, ideology, and culture, rather than material issues concerned by their ‘old’ companion. It shows the “why” of the social movement. (ibid: 53; Kaldor 2003: 80). Mayo, however, argued that the dichotomy is irrelevant in terms of its characters, in viewing recent organizational change, especially in order to understand “interactive process, involving cultural transformation as well as structural re-organization, or leadership shift.” (Mayo op. cit.: 91) Thus, why and how sturcture and actors undergo fundamental changes are more important than stuck indifferences between the ‘old’ and ‘new’.

In their recent study on various theories on the social movements, Leach and Scoones (2007), summarize that there four different set of theories, 1) resource mobilization and political process, 2) theories of framing, 3) theories of movement identities, and 4) theories of space, place and network. These theories of mobilization, however, imply a fragmented way of seeing the actors of the movements. “People have … multiple memberships of different groupings, both in institutional and cultural terms.” (p.15). Facing the blurred boundaries of the actors’ engagement, they propose a more integrative perspective. To understand the mobilization process, they emphasize the critical implication of three different elements of movement. First, knowledge and power, that looking at the role of knowledge in framing the movement expressions vis a vis their opponent. Second, culture, style and practice of mobilization, that highlight the importance of specific, traditional or inventive, ‘expression repertoire’ the movements have to mobilize and maintain their struggle; third, legal and media process, which plays significant roles in facing corporate and state.

The latter analysis of social movement that considers actors—or set of actors—in multiple identities, is particularly relevant in discussing the relationship between social movement and learning process. The fluidity of the actors’ position on their arguments during the course of the movements itself is a subject of learning process. And by seeing through Leach and Scoones lenses, we can imagine how process of learning intensified when actors are looking for the most accurate knowledge to frame their movement expressions, to seek for traditional or inventive ‘expression repertoir’, analyzing media and legal process in facing corporate and the state.

Therefore, the three elements we are talking about here—transformative learning, critical pedagogy, and social movement—are not only creating space for the encounter of the contesting actors, but also provide a learning process of the people involved in the movements. Through different channels of expression and involvement, the social movements inform different actors the way their social construction works and methods to deal with it (Brookfield 2000; Kumashiro 2000). Now, let us turn to the quiet intersection of these three political processes, even though I will go through it in a simplified way.

Social Movement as Learning Process

This idea of knowledge sharing among the actors of movements reflects the process of both transformative learning and critical pedagogy. The NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan, Narmada Movement) creating awareness raising among the adivasi–‘original dweller’ according to Dip Kapoor’s translation—on the developmentalist perspective of the state, unprecedented impact of big dams, and legal complexity of the struggle against their formal opponents. On the other hand, the activist learn more about the life of the adivasi, whose ‘repertoire of expression’ culturally acceptable to mobilize and maintain the movements (Dwivedi 2000). This knowledge exchange between the adivasis and activists, to some extent, can create a hybrid of adivasi-cum-activist or the other way around. Thus, we encounter with citizens that “learn new forms of scientific expertise—what Epstein termed as the ’expertification of lay activists’. At the same time, accredited experts confront their institutionalized and professional knowledge, reclaiming their role as citizens.” (Leach and Scoones ibid.: 18-19).

One important element in these movement-as-learning processes is the media in broad sense: from simple gatherings to virtual information technology. These media or technologies have been used to support social movement as well as formal schooling—specifically designed space for learning processes. From the dawn of printed media developed by Guttenberg (Tarrow 1998; Anderson 1991; Burke 2000), until the latest revolutionary virtual technology (Kellner 2000), these media support movements in many ways and used in different levels of movements, from a radical religious and nationalist movement down to identity-oriented ones.

Chiapas EZLN Movement is an excellent example of how information technology serves a radical military movement. With tactical usage of national and international media, the movement succeeded to portray themselves as bigger than they actually were, and at the same time present the Mexican army as brutal and oppressive (de Leon 2005). The case shows how the usage of media, and the framing of the movement, can actually show how the world works. The hardship of the rural Chiapas indigenous life has never been watched by the world (ibid.: 516) if the movement never been covered in this way. It opens a Pandora Box and makes wider public watching the injustice of global social life, therefore mobilize wider supporters that were effectual to force the government to go for truce and attended negotiations. Here the movement educates the public.

McAdam (1986) study on participants of Freedom Summer project of 1964 explains that there are two important factors attract activists in this high risk movement. First, prior ideological identification of the value and role of activist can be acquired through different media—among the most important is prior contact with other activist. Secondly, prior history of activism and integration into a supportive network of social movement. Here the participants of movement either has already involved or intensely informed about the movement. Another study (Giugni 2004) concludes that this movement has important effect to later life of the participants. For example, they embrace a more ideologically-driven lifestyle in family life and type of jobs (ibid.: 494). It shows that they constantly critically reflect on their personal and social life, they persist in evaluating common value, belief and opinion (Mezirow 1997).

Moreover, by doing so, they develop shared identity and ideas, and discuss common grievance and agendas; they practice “reading the world” as Paulo Freire calls it. They produce transformation in individual and social levels. Leach and Scoones (2007) consider this process as resulting in “mobilizing citizens as knowledgeable actors engaged in a dynamic, networked politics, which involves shifting and temporary forms of social solidarity and identification through processes that are sometimes local or national but sometimes involve networks that span local sites across the world”(p. 8).

By looking at social movement as a learning process we can start to think about how transformative learning can be used to analyze the learning aspects developed within the movement groups as well as the public as beneficiaries of the movement: to what extent the movement created critical-reflective society with transformative responses towards policies.

Learning Process for Social Movement

Here I will present two different approach of learning process in formal and informal education system that has potentials to be deliberate efforts to create social movement. They are ‘pedagogy of the privileged’ and ‘anti-oppressive pedagogy’.

There have been attempts to show overlaps between the two, mostly appear in the Journal of Transformative Education published regularly since 2003 (see e.g. Scott 2003; Roberts 2005; Bowers 2005; Curry-Stevens 2007). Current study by Curry-Stevens (2007) is especially relevant to mention here. Her study on ‘the pedagogy for the privileged’ has departed from both transformative learning and critical pedagogy; but it grows out into a new space of theory. She suggests a reframing of the unchallenged frame of references: only the target is not the oppressed, but those who are privileged. Hence, it tries to include the privileged into the struggle against social contradictions. Therefore, it should be “not neutral…counter hegemonic and works within a framework of praxis, whereby assisting in transformation is linked with becoming an ally in struggles for justice.”(ibid.: 34).

Pedagogy of the privileged is an attempt to develop critical thinking within the privileged. Since there are implications of multiple identities within which an individual can be the oppressed and the privileged. Here, to start with, everybody has to be considered as having privilege in different aspects—gender, ethnic, or class, in order to undo it by first realize its existence within oneself before thinking about ways to work against it, “without which we remain locked in a dangerous dance of competing for attention, resources and theoretical supremacy.” (Collins 2003 in ibid. 37-38) The privileged would normally experience a disorienting dillema that force them to evaluate their privileged assumptions, beliefs, and experiences—to deconstruct their own social and political positions in society. It is usually a time consuming and delicate process, but it is improtant not to neglect the privileged in this pedagogy of contesting their position—indeed many would pay dearly by doing so.

Now we turn to Gruenewald (2003) works that combine the critical pedagogy and place-based education. He argues that, “if place-based education emphasizes ecological and rural context, critical pedagogy…emphasize social urban contexts and often neglects the ecological rural scene entirely.” (ibid.: 3) On the other hand, “place-based approaches are sometimes hesitant to link ecological themes with critical themes such as urbanization and the homogenization of culture under global capitalism.” (ibid.: 4). Gruenewald take the best out of the two in order to tap their leaks, he blend the ‘critical’ part of the Freire’s pedagogy with the rural or environmental context from the place-based education.  It is, therefore, a hybrid of Freireian ‘critical pedagogy’ on one hand, and on the other, the ‘place-based education’ that derived from many different theoretical traditions such as contextual learning, experiential learning, indigenous education, ecological education, and others. This type of pedagogy takes into consideration the local content in order to reveal hidden contradiction between the marginalized and the privileged places (ibid.: 4). It visually reveals the actual life of geographically different places and its political and economic reason behind their differences.

Another trajectory where learning process can be deliberately directed to create social movement is the ‘Anti-oppressive pedagogy’ (Kumashiro 2000). It has two main projects, 1) understanding the dynamics of oppression and 2) mobilizing methods to work against it (ibid.:… ). I will highlight here, though, only one approach within this theory, namely ‘The Education About the Other’. This approach attempt to “bring visibility” of certain phenomena for the learners in order to be aware of different way of being (Ibid. 33). Here the Other is resulted from exclusion and division of practice, before the excluded put into a hierarchy. The rural, for example, has undergone the process of spacious discrimination, attributed ideal-type characteristics, which usually undermined as inferior to urban, thus creating a ‘radical Other’ (Hanson 2006). This practice of exclusion, and even elimination, leaves its trace in textbooks and the formal educational process (McLaren and Giroux 1996; Ball and Lai 2006; Macedo 2006). The Anti-oppressive pedagogy is trying to make explicit this unjust practice of schooling system; or to question the taken-for-granted assumption, belief and opinion, as the ‘transformative learning’ theories would put it. This attempt, then, can also be interpreted, in social movement frame, as an endeavor to create massive open-minded cadre ready to support movements in different level of involvement. Of course, there will be attribution problem in this speculation—who would get the credit from this opening-the-mind processes. However, if a social movement can actually educate activists that could hold their contentious-political view for the rest of their life, as the study on the Freedom Summer shows, why can’t a school do so?

Learning and Movement

We have seen two different trajectories of intersections between learning process and social movement. Now it is tempting to question whether these processes—learning process and social movement—potentially can or already be a blend of the two, a body with two heads. Another possibility is to see them as a reciprocal process between the two: critical-reflective learning process and social movement is feeding each other. Of course, one would then ask, if they stick to a single body, does empirical studies are robust enough to support this daring hypothesis? Out of limited studies in question, here I can only describe very briefly two cases derived from one man, Paulo Freire.

Paulo Freire made a radical reformation during his tenure as Secretary of Education of Sao Paulo in 1989-1992. He brought the social movement groups into the ministry and make drastic change in curriculum, new model school management, and the establishment of Movement of Literacy Training for Youths and Adults, or Movimento de Alfabetizacao de Jovens e Adultos (MOVA) (O’ Cadiz and Torres 1994: 208-9). In this unique case, the education is deliberately design to support social movements. Through MOVA, the state “lent financial resources and technical expertise to social movements already active in the area of literacy training and political conscientization of the popular sector.”(Ibid.: 116).

I am not yet able to spot a study that shows the impact of Freire’s tenure as secretary of education on later social Movement in Brazil, to complete the picture of this learning-movement cycle. While there will be attribution problem with such studies, research examples by Giugni (2005), McAdam (1986), and Curry-Stephens (2007) that examine personal and biographical impacts of education and social movement to activists will certainly need more attention. However, we should be aware that less successful story could take place as well. For example, when the New Jewel Movement (NJM) took over Grenadian government (1979-1983), they established a Committee for Popular Education and invited Paulo Freire for advice and leadership position. However, turbulent politics of the time and cooptation by US force afterwards, push the program run prematurely and retarded the efforts built during the golden time of NJM (Gibson 1994).

Challenge from the multicultural camp

To end this little journey, I have to present another possible warning from a different camp of scholars: the multiculturals. Their implication to this intersection is unavoidable since it includes a considerable number of populations, mostly but not exclusively in the populous South, namely the Indigenous.

Bower (2005) launch a provoking debate by accusing both Freire’s critical pedagogy and Mezirow’s transformative learning as ‘Trojan horse of Western globalization’. They are doing so by, according to Bower, promoting emancipation for the students, to get them away from the oppressive nature of knowledge, by cutting the inheritance of intergenerational knowledge (ibid.: 118). This logic potentially undermines the indigenous people’s traditional knowledge and way of knowing, metis in James Scott’s term (1998), endangering their life and their surrounding environment. Referring to the tendency to promote the individualized and rationalized way of knowing by both theories, Bower argued strongly that, “these learning theorists do not recognize the importance of culturally diverse approaches to sustaining the commons—which are conserving the terms of natural systems and cultural traditions of mutual aid and community self-sufficiency.” (ibid. 119).

Interestingly, similar critique appears in the field of the social movement studies and practice. Dip Kapoor (2003) argue that the representation of adivasi in the social movement tends to neglect the long history of their struggle against repression. “Their history of resistance long precedes the advent of developmentalism, environmentalism or socialism.” Similar contest also appear intensely in the academic research methodology (see Smith 1999) and in the field of development (see for example Tucker 1999; Rist 1999; Latouche 1996). However, these warnings should not discourage the movement traditions spread around the globe. They are traffic lights significant to minimize jam or to ensure that people can meet in the junction unharmed.




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Burke, Peter (2000) Social History of Knowledge: From Guttenberg to Diderot, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.

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Cranton, Patricia and Merv Roy (2003) When the Bottom Falls Out of the Bucket: Toward A Holistic Perspective on Transformative Learning, Journal of Transformative Education, 4; vol. 1: pp. 86 – 98.

Cranton, Patricia (ed.) (1997) Transformative Learning in Action: Insight from Practice, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Fransisco.

Curry-Stevens, Ann (2007) New Forms of Transformative Education: Pedagogy for the Privileged, Journal of Transformative Education, 1; vol. 5: pp. 33 – 58

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[1] My assumption on the importance of these works comes from discussion with teaching staff and the fact that they are quoted in many places.

*Tulisan ini dibuat awal 2007 sebagai tugas akhir untuk mata kuliah Civil Society, Citizenship and Social Capital. 


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