Engaging, Disorienting, Transforming: Critical Reflection and Global Citizen Identity Development

April 10, 2015

Sarah Stanlick, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA

As educators and researchers, there are many hopes that we hold for our learners.   For post-secondary learners, we find ourselves responsible not only for content delivery but their individual identity development as scholars and citizens.  Curriculum is planned for explicit and implicit learning, using the best theories and pedagogy we understand to facilitate such individual growth.

In the field of global citizenship, the focus is on encouraging students to open up to the larger world, become more ethnoculturally empathetic, tolerant of ambiguity, and engaged in active civic endeavors.  As Noddings (2005) affirms, a global citizen should be “one who can live and work effectively anywhere in the world, and a global way of life would both describe and support the functioning of global citizens”.  This is not enforcing a political ideology, but rather an openness to new ideas, receptiveness to change, and engagement with the world in an active, rather than passive, way.  We are developing capable navigators of a global world.

But how do we know that we are bringing about that identity shift in our learners?  And, furthermore, how can we capture that process by which they engage with these new and disorienting experiences to grow?  At IARSLCE this year, I presented my dissertation research thus far on global citizenship identity development as it is revealed through reflective writing.  The following blog post will explore the theoretical framework, research design, and observations thus far from qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Theoretical Framework: Transformative Learning and Global Citizenship

Transformative learning can be characterized as a learning process that, through critical self-reflection and discourse, results in learners shifting their identity, beliefs, and/or actions (Dirkx, Mezirow, & Cranton, 2006; Mezirow, 1991, 1978).  Transformative learning is rooted in adult education, with an emphasis on individual learners’ meaning making and perspective shifts.   Transformative curricula are often implemented in post-secondary and adult settings due to the unique cognitive and emotional development that learners experience in that time period (Cranton, 2006; Kose, 2009).  The cognitive rational approach, a subset of transformative learning proposed by Mezirow (1991), outlines a process by which students are faced with disorienting dilemmas, process those experiences through reflection and discourse, and ultimately exhibit a change through behavior or actions.  The critical reflection that is necessary for such transformation can take place in a variety of ways.  Current research is scarce on the role of different formats for reflection in aiding the transformative experience as described in the cognitive rational approach.

My dissertation draws upon the fields of adult learning, transformative learning theory, constructivism, reflection, and global citizenship education.  Relevant theorists in adult education and transformative learning include Mezirow, Cranton, Merriam, Kegan, and Chickering; the primary learning model is Mezirow’s Cognitive Rational Approach (CRA; Mezirow, 1991).  Global citizenship scholars such as Merryfield, Deardoff, and Peters provide the frame for the desired learning outcomes: the knowledge, skills, and attitudes targeted in global citizenship education.  For example, global citizenship education instills knowledge about social justice and civic engagement processes, and also seeks to improve students’ ambiguity tolerance and ethnocultural empathy (Gaudelli & Fernekes, 2004; Merryfield, 2008; Oxfam, 1997, 2006).

Research Design

The purpose of this study is to assess the role of differing forms of written reflection—formal, private writing (offline) versus public, informal writing (online)—in processing and assessing the transformative experience of a global citizenship (GC) course.  The first cohort experienced a traditional form of reflection for global citizenship education: a series of assigned reflection papers.  The second cohort of GC students expanded their reflective activities to include an informal, class-wide online discussion forum.  The differing reflection experiences of the two cohorts provides a natural experiment  through which one can examine the efficacy of the structure and medium of the reflection as it relates to the development of GC self-concept in undergraduate learners through transformative learning and the cognitive rational approach.

Transformative learning studies have been largely qualitative.  Through this mixed-methods design, the goal was to create a more rounded, complete view of individual learner change through their qualitative reflection data and the established quantitative change from their psychometric survey scores.  Reflection data was analyzed using rubrics to assess the quality, interdisciplinarity, and directionality (place on the global citizenship continuum) that the individual student displays in their writing.  Reflective writing was analyzed by applying the externally validated rubrics of Mansilla et al. (2009) for interdisciplinarity, Oxfam (1997, 2006) for global citizenship directionality, and King and Kitchener (1994) for quality and depth of reflective thinking.  Survey data was analyzed from pre- and post-test surveys that included demographics, attitudes toward service and social justice, the Scale of Ethnocultural Empathy (Wang et al., 2003), and the AT-20 ambiguity tolerance measure (MacDonald, 1973).

Takeaways Thus Far

My dissertation is in its final stages, but the observations I have made thus far are telling and leave room for interesting future research.  The main takeaways thus far are:

  • Different types of reflection can elicit varying degrees of reflective thought – offline, formal reflection and online, informal reflection.
  • Students reveal different levels of sensitive information in the informal, public format versus the formal, private format.
  • Depth of reflection in informal settings is not indicative of the “disorientation” moments they shared within those posts.
  • Learners who scored high in their initial ethnocultural empathy pre-survey (Wang et al., 2003) did not significantly gain and sometimes back-slid in their scores in the post-test, despite insightful, quality reflections.  This could be explained by learners developing on continuum (e.g. identity development as a non-linear process) and grappling with issues that could test and reorient their meaning perspective (e.g. disorientation based on new information or experiences).
  • Raised other questions about predisposal to high ethnocultural empathy, ambiguity tolerance character profiles and the development of global citizenship identity.
  • A global citizen can be highly critical of their own identity and that can manifest in their reflections and their survey scores.  This could be a sign of grappling with the definition of global citizenship and adopting a critical view of engagement.


Sarah Stanlick is a PhD candidate in Learning Sciences and Technology at Lehigh University in the College of Education.


Cranton, P. (2006). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: a guide for educators of adults.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dirkx, J. M., Mezirow, J., & Cranton, P. (2006). Musings and reflections on the meaning, context, and process of transformative learning A dialogue between John M. Dirkx and Jack Mezirow. Journal of transformative education, 4(2), 123-139.

Gaudelli, W., & Fernekes, W. R. (2004). Teaching about global human rights for global citizenship. The Social Studies, 95(1), 16-26.

Kose, B. W. (2009). The principal’s role in professional development for social justice An empirically-based transformative framework. Urban Education, 44(6), 628-663.

MacDonald, A. P. (1970). Revised scale for ambiguity tolerance: Reliability and validity. Psychological Reports, 26(3), 791-798.

Mansilla, V. B., Duraisingh, E. D., Wolfe, C. R., & Haynes, C. (2009). Targeted assessment rubric: An empirically grounded rubric for interdisciplinary writing. The Journal of Higher Education, 80(3), 334-353.

Merryfield, M. M. (2008). Scaffolding social studies for global awareness. Social Education, 72(7), 363-366.

Mezirow, J. (1978). Perspective transformation. Adult Education Quarterly, 28(2), 100-110.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Oxfam, A. (1997). A curriculum for global citizenship. London: Oxfam GB.

Oxfam. (2006). Education for global citizenship: A guide for schools. Available: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/education/gc/files/education_for_global_citizenship_a_guide_for_schools.pdf

Noddings, N. (Ed.). (2005). Educating citizens for global awareness. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wang, Y.W., Davidson, M. M., Yakushko, O. F., Savoy, H. B., Tan, J. A., & Bleier, J. K. (2003).  The scale of ethnocultural empathy: Development, validation, and reliability. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 50(2), 221-234.

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