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Transformative Inquiry


welcome the awkwardness


We acquire cultural ways without even knowing that we are doing so; they are like the air we breathe. Not knowing that our behavior is governed by these cultural ways, we often do not see the need for change - even when such ways become dysfunctional and threaten the survival of our organization.
Parish & Aquila, 1996, p. 299

Interactive 5.1 Orb of Complexity of Worldviews: People and the topics we care about are made of animate layers that move in complex ways. We see through different viewpoints into the centre of those complex interactions.

Inherited and Possible Beliefs

Schools are embedded with culture. Just like fish that might not realize they are swimming in water (see Interactive 7.1), we as teachers, often don’t pay attention to the culture that surrounds us, the culture we breathe in and that we hold in our very bones. In their book on teaching global perspectives, two secondary social studies teachers, Merryfield and Wilson (2005) discuss the importance of distinguishing between surface culture and internal culture. They use the image of an iceberg as a metaphor. The ice we see above the water represents surface culture, how people behave in public; the way we dress, the food we eat, the art and architecture we create, and so on. Under the iceberg we can explore internal culture, our ways of being; the beliefs, values, attitudes, interpretations, and assumptions we hold (Interactive 5.1). Our internal culture is often “hidden” in that we are unconsciously engaging in it as we move through our day. Like fish in water, our habits and patterns, our ways of being in the world are influenced by culture all the time.

Many of our patterns of beliefs are inherited; we come into possession of particular qualities or characteristics as they are passed down or inculcated from our parents, aunts, grandfathers and the like. For example, you might have a tendency towards reading because your parents read to you, or you might enjoy debate because your family gatherings always included discussions of current events and politics. You may want to be a teacher because of all the stories you heard about your great grandmother’s one room schoolhouse, or you could have a strong interest in environmental education from the many camping trips your grandfather took you on. While some inherited beliefs might be genetic, in TI we are more concerned with inherited beliefs that are of a sociological nature.
Historically, western education is rooted in the European philosophical enlightenment traditions, in which secular rather than religious beliefs were supported and spread. Scholars of that day, such as physicist Issac Newton or philosopher Voltaire, cultivated and privileged the use of reason, objectivity, and abstractions. They trusted in empirical methods as the best means for arriving at “knowledge,” believing that value-free discourse was not only possible, but was also most desirable. This train of thought continued into the so-called age of modernity, in which there was intensification of rational thought as the best way to find truth, and pursue the rise of capitalism. Copernicus re-centred the universe with the sun instead of earth, Darwin established the notion of natural selection, and Descartes described how scientific knowledge could be built up in small steps.

Over time, post-modernism began to develop as a response to modernist ways of being. This is a philosophical stance in which people began to reject the notion that there is one global cultural narrative or universal truth. Within post-modernism, artists and philosophers explore how history and culture shape individuals. With a heightened understanding that pure objectivity in impossible, the role of expert becomes problematic. Philosophers such as Heidegger embraced the paradox of subjectivity and objectivity in order to move towards “dasein” or openness to being-in-the-world. Foucalt explored the relationships among meaning, knowledge, power, and social behavior suggesting that social constructs foster cultural hegemony, violence and exclusion.

I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better. I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a color photograph of God Almighty—and sold it to Popular Mechanics magazine. Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable. What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima. —Kurt Vonnegut Bennington College address, 1970



Inherited beliefs continue to play out in various ways within educational institutions. We highlight four possible paradigms, or worldviews, that educators can choose to work from: Where might you see resonance with your own philosophical stance? Remember that you are not asked to choose one paradigm exclusively, and also that some people carry parts of many paradigms as their worldview. What is important is to locate where you are in relation to these or other paradigms. If we teach who we are (Palmer, 1998), we need to know on what ground we stand. What paradigm feeds your soul and translates into the work you do? What paradigm sets the tone of learning~teaching~researching in your classroom? What is the nature of the water you swim in?

Positivist Paradigm


Public education in Canada is founded on the “values and belief systems of the dominant cultural and linguistic class” (Goddard & Hart, 2007, p. 16), which draws heavily on an ideological foundation originating in the United States and United Kingdom. In this system teachers play the role of a cog in the machine that limits space for students to explore learning and ways of knowing that fit in an essentially Eurocentric model of education. Under positivism, schools often operate as a hegemonic force, to “promote a common homogeneous culture (i.e. the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, rural culture of the 1800s)” (Villa and Thousand, 1995 as cited in Walker & Quong, 1998, p.86), thus privileging certain students over others. Yet if you simply walk into a classroom, you can observe that schools are a dynamic, complex, and diverse space (Murakami-Ramalho, 2008). The literature confirms that Canadian society faces many pressures given the quickly changing terrain of demographics and schools are tasked with responding effectively (Anisef & Kilbride, 2004, p. 10).

  • Truth is objective, external (subjectivity is problematic, effort to predict and explain to improve control)
  • Knowledge can be separated into pieces (reductionist)
  • Learner is like an empty vessel to be filled
  • Teacher’s role is to transmit knowledge (upholds expert/novice hierarchy)
  • Learning is TRANSMISSIVE

Progressive Paradigm


The progressive tradition is embedded in the constructivist notion that knowledge and meaning are derived from individual experience (Piaget, 1969). Moving away from a view of the learner as a relatively inert vessel to be filled, individuals are seen instead as being able to engage personal prior knowledge and beliefs towards actively constructing meaning of their world. This constructivist view has significant implications for teaching students of diverse cultures in that it acknowledges each individual as bringing their own contextual understanding, experience, and positioning to the learning environment (Villegas, 2008). Here, the learner’s worldview stems from the learner’s experience. Educators in the progressive tradition place diversity in a positive light, seeing the gifts that each child brings to the classroom. There are continued efforts to reduce the contextual influences that inhibit the individual as well as to step away from a deficit view of culturally diverse learners.

  • Truth is subjective, internal
  • Knowledge is based in personal understanding
  • Learners are like flowers in a garden
  • Teacher’s role is to facilitate individual learning
  • Learning is INDIVIDUAL and CONSTRUCTIVIST

Social Justice Paradigm


The term “social justice” can be difficult to define (Grant & Agosta, 2008), as different people use it in a variety of ways (Goodlad, 2008). The social justice paradigm is one based on principals of solidarity and equity and can be defined as both a collaborative process and a goal that includes a vision of society where “members are physically and psychologically safe and secure” (Bell, 1997, p. 3). Multicultural education is one way that social justice is enacted in schools and has been described by Sleeter (cited in Chávez & O’Donnell, 1998) as “a process of constructing engagement across boundaries of difference and power, for the purpose of constructing a social world that supports and confirms all of us” (p. xii). Teachers who work from a social justice paradigm hope to include their K-12 students in actively making schools better places to be. Moodley (2001) states that multiculturalism in Canada “values the cultural mosaic” (p. 802) and that the two main approaches in this country are the “socio-pathological perspective” (the deficit view) and the “relativist model” that “stresses that all cultures warrant equal respect and values” (p. 807).

  • Truth is socially and culturally defined
  • Knowledge is co-created
  • Learners are unique flowers within a variety of gardens
  • Teacher’s role is to create a culture of equity within diversity
  • Learning is SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONIST

Interactive 5.2 Icebergs and Worldviews

Indigenous Paradigm

Indigenous ways of knowing are based in ancient wisdom and traditions that embrace a holistic eco/social/spiritual awareness and perspective (Battiste & Barman, 1995; Hampton, 1995; Schaefer, 2006; Weenie, 1998). While each indigenous group has its own unique ontology (experience) and epistemology (knowledge), there is general agreement among indigenous scholars that Indigenous ways of learning and teaching have basic commonalities (Cajete, 1994; Fixico, 2003). Some of the salient concepts of an indigenous worldview include: time as cyclical and rhythmic rather than as linear and ‘progress’-oriented; the interrelated sacredness of time and place; nature as a site of indwelling spirits; a richly defined and enacted sense of relationships; and the use of oral transmission of knowledge (Brown, 1976). Cajete’s questions echo a focus on sustainability that is at the root of an Indigenous worldview. Within the context of modern Eurocentric educational settings, Indigenous ways have long been marginalized or ignored. It is important to recognize indigenous knowledge “as a distinct knowledge system, with its own concepts of epistemology and scientific and logical validity, within contemporary education systems” (Battiste, 2008, p. 85). Non-Aboriginal teachers can take on an indigenist stance.
  • Knowledge (epistemology) is inseparable from experience (ontology) and is intimately connected to place and ecology
  • Learners are seen as holistic
  • Based in an interconnectedness of people and planet, the teacher's role is to foster connections with the ecological systems in which he/she lives
  • Learning is RELATIONAL IN COMPLEXITY

Inherited and possible beliefs


The process of TI asks us to reflexively identify the stuff of our iceberg that hangs out beneath the water. What are your inherited beliefs? On what philosophical ground do you stand as an educator? Do any of these paradigms ring true for your own viewpoint? If not, how would you describe your worldview? Do you feel that your views might be unsettled by some of these existing paradigms? As you develop self-awareness in this way, you can also ask, what might be true for others?

A relational (e)pistemology is a humble approach to knowing. We remind ourselves and our students that we need to first attempt to generously understand various perspectives before moving to critiquing them, but critique is important because some ideas are worth rejecting. …Our theories of knowledge are qualified by as much evidence as we can socially muster so that it is not the case that we must accept anything as good, and yet, at the same time, we cannot accept anything as certain, fixed, and final. (Thayer-Bacon, 2003, p. 255).



Important issues of pedagogy, equity, and truth, are messy and complex. Teachers dedicated to exploring Cajete’s questions through TI engage in a paradoxical process of knowing while not knowing (Kumashiro, 2008).

[Educators] need certain knowledge, but also need to know the limits of their knowledge. They need certain skills, but also need the skill of troubling whatever they do. They need certain dispositions, but also need to be disposed to uncomfortable changes in these very dispositions.” (p. 239)



Kumashiro goes on to say that within teacher education programs, time and space are rarely made available for this type of uncomfortable but essential process, and that “teachers need to come to view discomfort as a part of learning that is not only unavoidable, but also potentially productive” (p. 240). One response to seeing difference on an epistemological~ontological level can be to hunker down and avoid change. But this process can be very beneficial to teachers.

What do we—educators and students—stand to gain by engaging in the discomforting process of questioning cherished beliefs and assumptions? I begin by defining a pedagogy of discomfort as both an invitation to inquiry as well as a call to action. As inquiry, a pedagogy of discomfort emphasizes “collective witnessing” as opposed to individualized self-reflection. I distinguish witnessing from spectating as one entrée into a collectivized engagement in learning to see differently…. A pedagogy of discomfort begins by inviting educators and students to engage in critical inquiry regarding values and cherished beliefs and to examine constructed self-images in relation to how one has learned to perceive others. Within this culture of inquiry and flexibility, a central focus is to recognize how emotions define how and what one chooses to see, and conversely, not to see. This inquiry is a collective, not an individualized, process. (Boler p. 176-177)



Boler’s notion of witnessing is a key sensibility to TI pod work. How do we listen with attention and generosity to our colleagues, students, parents, and other community members? What might reside under their icebergs? What might we be choosing not to see? And through all this, what do we hold in common? Where do Cajete’s questions enter in?

Environmental educator David Orr discusses six inherited beliefs in his book, Earth in Mind (2004/1994 or see this link to them with more detail). He calls them myths, and we believe they lurk under our collective North American cultural iceberg. In brief they are:

  • Ignorance is a solvable problem
  • With enough knowledge and technology we can manage planet earth
  • Knowledge is increasing and by implication human goodness
  • We can adequately restore that which we have dismantledThe purpose of education is that of giving you the means for upward mobility and success
  • Our [Western] culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement

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Which of these beliefs might you have inherited? Do they ring true to your worldview? If not, what possible beliefs might you resonate with? Orr suggests:

  • All education is environmental education
  • The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one’s person
  • Knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world
  • We cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities
  • The importance of "minute particulars" and the power of examples over words
  • The way learning occurs is as important as the content of particular courses

How do these possible beliefs feel to you? Where do you find agreement or dispute? What possible beliefs would you like to hold? The process of TI includes locating yourself in your beliefs, listening carefully to the beliefs of others and also visioning what might be possible together.


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