How can we teach students to challenge and change the status quo?

An interview with Dr. Ana Vasques on transformative education
Group of five women sitting around a table with a white paper, discussing with each other
Headshot of Dr Ana Vasques, smiling into the camera, standing in front of trees

Our world is facing unprecedented challenges – the climate crisis, mass loss of biodiversity, violent and hateful ideologies, mounting humanitarian crises and the risks of global pandemics to name only a few. Students are, and will be, required to live with these realities and contribute to solutions. Yet do universities equip them with the knowledge and mindset they need to do so? “Not if education remains focused on transferring the content of textbooks”, argues Dr. Ana Vasques, Lead of Transformative Education at the Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform. “We need to rethink the way we teach and learn.”

Ana advocates for a transformative approach to education, one that prepares students to tackle society’s complex challenges. In this interview, she speaks with DIT about the definition of transformative education, how she applies it in practice, and how the roles of teachers and students change as education becomes more transformative. 

DIT: Ana, you are the lead for transformative education at DIT. What does ‘transformative education’ mean?

Ana: The meaning of transformative education is debated in academia. Some argue that education is transformative in any case, but I think that it often does not live up to this expectation. Education remains largely content-driven and transactional, with students often being perceived as receivers of knowledge. With transformative education, we aim to go beyond cognitive processes and teach competencies and skills for tackling sustainability challenges. It is about transforming mindsets, making sense of complexity, relating to oneself, to each other and to the world in a meaningful way. It is about empowering students to see the world differently, to collaborate with each other and with the outside world, so that they will challenge and change the status quo.  

DIT: Practically speaking, what are the differences between a transformative and a more conventional classroom? 

Ana: Conventional education immediately starts with transferring knowledge. Content is key. Students learn from textbooks to prepare for the final exam. Yet no one asks: What are students going to do with this content after the exam? How much of it is forgotten when they move on to another course? Transformative education is centered around a deeper process of learning. Instead of jumping right into content, we take time to create a safe atmosphere in the classroom, to connect with students and get to know them. Knowing that we learn best from experiences, we engage students with real life challenges and ask them to collaborate to find solutions. We want to ensure that what they learn stays with them, that they become empowered to engage with the world in a different way. In some instances, they depart from a somewhat dualistic (and sometimes polarized perspective) into a more empathetic and richer worldview. 

DIT: Do you have an example of transformative learning in practice? 

Ana: In our Minor ‘Transformative Change for a Sustainable World’ at Erasmus University College (EUC), we once went to the community garden on EUR campus, walked around observing other organisms of the garden and had an open conversation about individual vs systemic responsibilities in sustainability. Students talked about their hopes and fears; many shared that they feel overwhelmed with today’s challenges. Leaving the classroom and engaging with the plants and animals was key to experience connection and get a sense of empowerment. But this is just one example of many. Transformative education is process-based, its execution depends on and is tailored to the expectations of students. What is striking and common to all our programming is that we bring experiences to students that might be transformative, but we cannot ensure that those experiences become transformative. Students’ engagement and a safe, supportive and caring atmosphere are key to ensuring that education is truly transformative. 

DIT: This is really not an  average study experience. How do students react? 

Ana: That depends on the student’s personality and previous experience, among other aspects. For some, it can be really confronting. Students are challenged to deal with the unknown as a core sustainability competency, yet they need structure, which can only be provided with care and a safe net. We clearly explain the learning journey, however, as the topics students work on during the course cannot be planned, their experience will depend on what is happening in the real world. Most students are very curious, however. After completing the Minor, one of my students once said: “Now I must go back to my studies. How am I going to do that? To learn theories that are outdated and do not connect to today’s challenges?” They had become a new student, empowered to interact with the world differently.  

DIT: So, some students are really transformed through this way of learning. 

Ana: They even plan to switch careers. They cannot imagine continuing with the same because they see the urgency of doing things differently.  

DIT: I imagine that can be empowering and unsettling at once. How do you help students deal with this new awareness? 

Ana: Transformative education helps students develop new roles. Through group projects, they step into the roles of mediators, connectors, activists, communicators, researchers... At the end of the course, we engage in a reflection to think about how they can reintegrate this new role in their lives, so it doesn’t become too much of a conflict. 

DIT: And what is the role of the teacher? 

Ana: Teachers find themselves in a new role: instead of content experts, they become coaches. Their most important skill is to be present and to truly listen to what is happening, which can be difficult. They often need to adjust processes based on what they hear. Of course, there will always be a power imbalance: Teachers bring more experience to the table and grade students at the end. But we wish to (re) create meaningful interactions. 

DIT: How can teachers prepare for this new role? 

Ana: Currently, we’re working on a pilot for teachers at EUR. We want to teach educators the skills they need, ranging from connecting to students to listening and helping students build their projects. 

DIT: Why is it important that we offer more transformative education at this moment in time? 

Ana: Everyone knows Einstein’s famous quote: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” That really sums it up. Plus, at universities there’s a lot of talk about ‘creating impact’. But what kind of impact are we making? I think our focus should be on creating impact within planetary boundaries. That means we – students, teachers and researchers - need to learn to change the way we interact with nature and with the people around us. Eventually, we need to become even more connected, empathetic, humble and brave to face today’s sustainability challenges. 

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Dr. Ana Vasques

Lead of Transformative Education

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Stay tuned: DIT is currently working on a paper on transformative education. Follow us on LinkedIn and subscribe to our newsletter to be informed about its launch. 

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