June 2008 // Volume 46 // Number 3 // Commentary // 3COM1

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Defining a Transformational Education Model for the Engaged University

Land-grant universities and Extension programs have recently been challenged to be more effective in engaging people and communities in participatory processes that benefit the interests of those being served. The University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension has refined and adopted a definition of Transformational Education that is now being integrated into its approaches to community-based educational program development. Significant linkages are seen between the definition and practice of Transformational Education and the Kellogg Commission's (1999) recommendations for engaged universities.

Thomas J. Blewett
Professor and Associate State Program Director
Community, Natural Resource and Economic Development

Ann Keim
Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor and Provost
Professor Family Development
University of Wisconsin - Cooperative Extension
Madison, Wisconsin

James Leser
Senior Broadcast Specialist
University of Wisconsin - Cooperative Extension
Madison, Wisconsin

Larry Jones
Director, Program Development and Evaluation
University of Wisconsin - Cooperative Extension
Madison, Wisconsin

University of Wisonsin - Cooperative Extension
Madison, Wisconsin

A Wisconsin Perspective on Transformational Education

Transformational Education is the conceptual model that Wisconsin's Cooperative Extension Service (CES) uses to work with communities tackling complex issues in ways that transform these same communities in powerful and long-lasting ways. Transformational education recognizes the importance of building trusting relationships with partners (Ayers, 2006; Covey, 1989), bringing scholarship that draws upon both university and local knowledge and expertise to public issues (Peters, Jordan, Adamek, & Alter, 2005), and building the capacity of individuals to engage in problem solving or taking actions with the "creative implementation of a purpose" (Mezirow, 1991).

Transformational education exemplifies the Kellogg Commission's (1999) notion of the engaged university--publicly supported universities partnering with individuals and communities in a participatory process. This process of engagement is mutually beneficial, serving to advance the interests of both the community and the university (Holland, 2001; Peters, Jordan, Adamek, & Alter, 2005).

From Service to Transformational Education

Transformational education builds upon Extension's rich history. Its traditional focus on teaching from specific disciplines and transferring research-based information or content has been and remains a hallmark dimension of Extension programs since its beginning. Apps (2002) notes that Wisconsin CES, like other university Extension services historically, emphasized a variety of approaches to traditional information or content transmission. By the 1970's, Extension educators moved increasingly into roles related to public policy education (Barrows, 1993). Finally, in the 1980's, Extension programs were no longer focused just on discipline- or information-oriented needs, but became increasingly focused on issue-based needs that required more extensive use of process tools in public arenas (Apps, 2002).

Current efforts to involve citizens in both learning and decision making processes through a variety of educational methods and tools (Grabow, Hilliker, & Moskal, 2006) confront the challenge of providing a deliberative democratic process that includes and respects diverse points of view and allows people to learn and act together for more creative solutions to local needs and issues (Postema, 1995; Forester, 1995). As Extension educators began to work increasingly in public policy and public issue environments, competencies in the use of process skills such as facilitation (Anderson, Anderson, Laeger-Hagemeister, Scheffert, & Steinberg, 1999), strategic planning (Bryson, 1995), and other tools for group settings (Tague, 1995) became a necessary complement, or second dimension in the educational program.

Transformational education captures both dimensions of content and process. Merrill Ewert, President of Fresno Pacific University, formerly Dean of Cornell University Cooperative Extension, is credited with first depicting both dimensions (Figure 1) in the form of a matrix (McDowell, 2001; Bethel, 2004). Maggie Bethel, building on Ewert's work, argues that educational programs that exhibit both high content transmission and a high level of process are the most effective in helping people and communities to solve problems or address issues. McDowell (2001) contends that Ewert's transformational education model, which builds on Mezirow's (1991) theory of transformative learning, is what the Kellogg Commission had in mind for more effective approaches to university engagement in its 1999 report

Figure 1.
Educational Process Model for Transformational Education

Redefining the Model

In 2005, Wisconsin's Cooperative Extension Service (CES) conducted a statewide conference for faculty and staff promoting the linkage between transformational education and growth of individual leadership capacities in addressing community needs as a framework for a more engaged university. The reasons for making this linkage were twofold.

First, CES believes that transformational education is the real niche where Extension can be "the best there is," which Collins (2001) would call our "hedgehog." Because there are many more options for people to access information from such diverse sources as competing educational enterprises, supplier information for farmers, or the Internet, Extension faces a very competitive environment. As Extension is uniquely positioned with community-based education systems, it is better suited to carry out the mission of engaging people in community-based responses to local needs. If transformational education is an approach that can deliver the most value to communities, then it is important that educational programs should be more consistently designed to lay the foundation for transformational learning and action in communities.

Second, it was not clear that Wisconsin CES educators recognized transformational education as being different from what they normally do. High-quality Extension educational programs may exhibit significant levels of content transmission and process, but not necessarily be transformational for the community being served. Without clearer definition and the presentation of case examples, Wisconsin CES colleagues would not be motivated to adjust their work to be "transformational" or to use this language in describing the impacts of their programs in communities.

In response to these two considerations, the authors identified a few key attributes that were distinctly important and that would offer a relatively quick reference check for transformational education. Initially, this meant adopting the Ewert model of transformational education to describe the most effective way to implement outreach education programs. Bethel's (2004) criteria for transformational education included a number of elements that are typical of most CES educational programs. But there were a limited number of criteria that addressed a higher order of work that helps communities tackle complex issues in ways that result in system changes, measurable outcomes, stronger organizations, and innovative policies that transform communities in powerful and long-lasting ways. This later point set the stage for Wisconsin CES adapting and refining those elements in a definition of transformational education (Blewett, Keim, & Leser, 2006) that would focus on transformative learning advocated by Mezirow (1991). Six attributes were chosen and refined for definition.

  1. Complex Concerns/Issues. Transformational education is needed for large-scale, complex issues or concerns of an inter-disciplinary nature requiring a connected set of efforts and experiences all focusing on producing community change.

  2. Communities of Interest/Location/ Issue/Diversity. Transformational education involves engaging a broad-based "community of interest" working on the issue through trust-based relationships, with the goal of developing a group vision and plan for addressing the issue.

  3. Capacity Building of Members of Community of Interest. Members of the community of interest build skills necessary to affect the problem by mastering content knowledge and building group leadership capacity. Through their scholarship, Extension educators serve either as facilitators, content resources, or both.

  4. Experimentation/Examination. Research, data collection, trial and error of program initiatives, examining results and developing new questions to be answered are an integral part of the program.

  5. Evaluation. Transformational education involves on-going review of efforts by deeply involved stakeholders who use evaluation results to change and improve programs or responses to issues.

  6. Success. The larger goals are making change for the communities or stimulating community actions to produce long-term, large-scale impacts in communities.

The next step was to modify the Ewert and Bethel approaches to the model to allow for the understanding that high-quality educational programs may exhibit high content transfer and high process elements without necessarily having a transformational impact on a community. Figure 2 shows high-impact programs in the fourth quadrant rather than transformational education. In this revised model, transformational education exists at a higher level on the diagonal axis for content and process combined. This change in the model allowed for a distinction, a higher measure of expectation consistent with the six-point list of attributes to be associated with the CES definition for transformational education.

Figure 2.
Modified Transformational Education Model

Indeed, the transformational education model shown in Figure 2 set the stage for Leholm and Bethel (2005) to lead Extension educators through a live video-conference exchange of ideas and case studies that exhibited some or all of the six-point definition. In the case studies that met all six attributes, a significant change had taken place in the community of interest with respect to the issue or need. Most important, the members of the communities of interest became the most significant players in the final resolution of the issue. In each case, the essential role of Extension outreach education was clearly articulated, documented, and valued by the communities being served.


The authors in partnership with Leholm and Bethel (2005) modified the Ewert model to purposely emphasize that transformational education requires our highest performance in both content transmission and process dimensions of community-based programs. Using the six-point definition with case study examples <http://www.uwex.edu/ces/admin/transform/resources.cfm>, Wisconsin CES needed to challenge its faculty on being a university engaged with communities in seeking transformative learning and community ownership of solutions to complex issues or concerns.

Rockwell, Jha, and Krumbach (2003) have suggested that behavior change in clientele is a central concept to evaluation of a model of transformational education. We see the Wisconsin six-point definition as a way to assess whether Extension faculty outreach programs can more consistently be designed and implemented to meet a standard of transformational education. CES continues to document case studies and is now forming a team of faculty and educators to identify impact indicators that reflect the definition as part of an ongoing evaluation of transformational educational impacts.


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