Transformative learning and visiting The Gambia: ongoing project

Introduction

This ongoing project involves collaboration between staff from Oxford Brookes University (OBU) and the University of Worcester; OBU students, and Gambia-Extra Ltd. (small travel company formed by two English academics in 2012.). The students who took part in the project under discussion were a group of 30 student primary school teachers and early years education students. Most were in their 2nd year of study. The students were self-funding.

Oxford Brookes School of Education has a long-standing practice, supported by the Westminster College trustees, of organising visits to the Gambia and working with schools in the Western Region and with the Faculty of Education at the University of The Gambia. Alan Hutchison and Tony Rea have been taking groups of student teachers, experienced teachers and head teachers to Gambia for the past eight years, latterly under the umbrella of Gambia-Extra.

The visit to The Gambia on which this paper reports took place in 2013 as an enrichment activity. The one week visit included two main components.

First component was a cultural experience in which students were taken to a Gambian village and spent most of a day as guests of one of three Mandinka families: talking with family members, sharing lunch with them, being taken around the village and having an opportunity to get to know something about the lives of ordinary people in a village setting.

The second component involved teaching at an Easter School at St. Theresa’s Primary School in Serrekunda, the largest city in The Gambia.

In the past, such visits had taken place in term time. However, in 2013, due to national census counting in The Gambia, all schools were to be closed at the time of the visit. Gambia-Extra arranged for St. Theresa’s Primary School to open for three days, Monday – Wednesday inclusive:-

On Monday teachers from the school worked alongside OBU students, helping them to prepare. Then on Tuesday and Wednesday two classes of pupils came to school to attend the Easter School. It was planned that the pupils would gain from extracurricular teaching from student teachers from OBU and would also be provided with refreshments and lunch for the two days that the Easter School would be running. The OBU students would benefit from collaboration with Gambian teachers at the school and teaching practice. The Gambian teachers would benefit from discourse with the OBU staff and students.

The Easter School proved to be popular with the parents of children at the school and two classes of pupils were quickly recruited by the Headteacher. On the third day, other children who had heard about the project appeared at the gates of the school in Serrekunda curious to observe what was taking place – and to join in if possible.

Feedback from the students was gathered by circulating an exercise book on the six hour flight back the UK. The students were asked to write about what they felt about the trip in general and what they enjoyed and what they thought we could improve. Fourteen of the students wrote comments in the book. Many of the comments made specific remarks about what was enjoyed and how the trip could be improved, with the overwhelming feedback indicating a very positive experience for all of those who took part with several saying they would like to return again.

The students were not asked directly about the impact of the trip on themselves, however, the feedback from four of the students specifically mentioned what two of the authors previously called a “transformative impact” (Hutchison & Rea, 2011). For example, Karen (all of the student names which follow are pseudonyms) said

‘this trip has taught me so much about myself, the way I want to teach and the world we live in…thank you so much for such a transformative experience’.

Henrietta commented

 ‘I cannot thank you enough for providing me with this incredible experience which has taught me so much…I never expected it to be so life-changing…’

A third example from Vivian was this

“I have had the most amazing, life-changing, eye-opening experience…amazing!’

We are aware of the limitations of these data. Less than half the students on the trip gave us feedback; of those who did, only 29% mentioned something which we have interpreted as indicating some kind of transformative learning. We weren’t able to interrogate the students about what they meant by their comments exactly and we have no way of knowing whether their feedback was in some way influenced by our presence on the trip. We also have no data on whether any ‘transformative’ impact was sustained for any period beyond the duration of the trip and some period thereafter.

We are nevertheless persuaded that this kind of experience has the potential for transformative learning – having a deeper impact than many other experiences. Reports of the earlier work at Oxford Brookes similarly indicate the transformative nature of such visits, although these evaluations cannot be directly transferred into this study since they were not collected by the present writers.

Prior to the 2013 OBU visit to The Gambia, Hutchison and Rea (2011) conducted a small scale qualitative research project discussing the impact on a group of student teachers from another UK university. This was done upon their return from a similar visit and used semi-structured interviews and personal documents (diaries/journals). On the basis of this research it was argued first that such visits create the opportunity for transformative learning (Clark, 1993; Cranton, 2006; Mezirow, 1997, 2000), and second that there is evidence to suggest transformations had occurred (Hutchison & Rea, 2011). Again, we are conscious of the limitations of this research.

We do not claim that all participants on a visit of this nature would be affected in a similar way and we do not argue that only this kind of experience can have a transformative effect. It is possible, perhaps probable that many other kinds of experiences could do so. However, the particular circumstances of this visit, where participants are taken out of their ‘comfort zone’ and exposed to a challenging, culturally and economically vastly different context, have the potential to promote a deeply reflective and personally developmental experience. For our future teachers, we feel this is probably a valuable thing to have undertaken. Additionally, because traditional curricula do not necessarily facilitate opportunities for transformative learning, visits such as this may therefore be important in enriching the student experience by opening a gateway to transformation.

OBU students returned to The Gambia in the summer of 2014, but valid concerns around the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have so far prevented OBU and Gambia-Extra collaborating regarding a 2015 study visit. We are now planning for a visit in summer 2016.

References

Clark, M. C. (1993). Transformational learning, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 57, pp.47-56.

Cranton, P. (2006). Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Hutchison, A. and Rea, T. (2011). Transformative learning and identity formation on the ‘Smiling Coast’ of west Africa, Teaching and Teacher Education 27 (3),

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. In Cranton, P. (Ed.) Transformative Learning in Action: Insights From Practice. San Francisco, Jossey Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress, San Francisco, Jossey Bass.

Alan Hutchison

Alan Hutchison is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Winchester where he works on the MA Education programme. He has a particular interest in happiness and education. When not working for Gambia-Extra he enjoys watching Somerset cricket in his home town of Taunton.

Jackie Musgrave

Jackie Musgrave is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Worcester and is Course Leader for the BA (Hons) in Early Childhood. Her main area of professional interest is children’s health. Jackie’s visits to The Gambia have been valuable experiences which have informed her understanding and knowledge of children’s health in a west African context.

Tony Rea

Tony Rea retired from academia in 2011 to concentrate on writing fiction. He is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a director of Gambia-Extra. Tony is also a Trustee of the Kambeng Trust which supports a village school and clinic in The Gambia. When he has time, Tony also enjoys sailing.

Nick Swarbrick

Nick Swarbrick is Programme Lead for the Undergraduate Degrees in the School of Education, Oxford Brookes. He teaches on the undergraduate degree in Early Childhood Studies. He also contributes to teaching on the Primary PGCE, principally around Early Years pedagogy, and his research interest centres on young children's literature and the outdoor environment.

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