Digest No. 06 - June 2019

Motivating Faculty Participation in Transformational Communities

Kezar, A., S. Gehrke, and S. Bernstein-Sierra. 2018. “Communities of Transformation: Creating Changes to Deeply Entrenched Issues.” Journal of Higher Education 89 (6): 832–864.




Higher education scholars and administrators have found moving communities from transaction to transformation a perennial challenge. Extrapolating findings from STEM faculty members to consider transformative change in higher education more broadly, this article provides welcome information on the ways higher education stakeholders can motivate faculty to participate in “communities that create and foster innovative spaces that envision and embody a new paradigm of practice” (p. 833). The authors used a multi-phase mixed-method design including observations, interviews, document analyses, and survey techniques to examine practice communities comprised of thousands of faculty members. The article articulates five criteria for inclusion, shared by each community: “(a) STEM education and reform as focus, (b) large in scale and leading to dissemination of best practices, (c) focused STEM reform within the context of postsecondary education, (d) long enough history so we could study not just formation but also outcomes and sustainability; and (e) the ability to survey community members” (p. 839). Examining these communities enabled the authors to identify ways administrators could motivate faculty members to participate in transformation efforts, many of which were initiated by college presidents.


The authors used Mezirow’s (1991) transformational-learning theory to ground their understanding of practice communities and as a framework for interpreting findings. As such, the study was guided by theoretical assumptions regarding the nature of transformational learning and the processes needed to achieve such learning. To start, learning “is considered transformational if it involves a fundamental questioning or reordering of how one thinks or acts—a challenge to hegemonic or normative practices (Brookfield, 2012).” According to Mezirow, this process of disruption occurs in three phases, beginning with a disorienting dilemma, followed by a critical assessment of the reasons communities ascribed disorientation to the presented dilemma, and ending with an action plan intended to implement new strategies for moving through the presented dilemma.

These three processes helped the authors make meaning of the four communities of practice and their movement toward transformational change. The authors provided examples of how Mezirow’s structural approach to transformation led to change within each community’s respective context.



What makes a community of practice transformational? The authors found three distinctive characteristics that comprise a transformational community of practice: “(a) They focus on creating and fostering transformative learning; (b) they rely on philosophy to define the domain more than existing practice; and (c) philosophy is central to their community adhesion, engagement, action, and learning (p. 853).” In essence, communities of transformation center philosophy over existing practice: When faced with disorienting dilemmas, transformational faculty members engage in processes that prioritize values over efficiencies when creating action plans to produce change.



Although the focus is on STEM, this study is important in other areas as well. First, the study is reminiscent of Howard Gardner’s address at CIC’s 2019 Presidents Institute, as he spoke of transformative frames as opposed to transactional ones: To paraphrase, yes, learning is change, but not all change is necessarily transformative.
Second, the ways the authors used Mezirow’s three steps to motivate faculty members to become actors in the process of transformational change were worth noting. Across communities, a similar sequential three-part structure was ascribed to the process of making meaning of existing problems and moving toward collective transformative action—identifying a dilemma and why it’s disorienting; treating the disorientation as a platform for reflection; and using reflection to find innovative solutions. Administrators who want to engage faculty members in transformative change may wish to adopt this theoretically based strategy.
Beyond process, the authors emphasize the use of philosophy and its careful articulation for engaging faculty members in making transformative change. Although perhaps trite, involving professors in values-based discussions appears to be critical in influencing transformative change. What do faculty leaders value? Across communities, faculty members who engaged in transformational change discussed their collective values as a starting point for making meaning of the disorienting dilemma, for critically reflecting on it, and for developing a plan of action for moving forward. Using teaching as an example of a disorienting dilemma, transformative faculty members problematized traditional ideas of teaching by moving beyond discussions of what works and what does not, to what held and should continue to hold pedagogical value within the particular learning community. By articulating these values, transformative professors were able to codify a philosophy of learning to help guide decision making and move toward new, more useful practices.

About the Authors

Adrianna Kezar is a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education.

Sean Gehrke is the director of the Office of Educational Assessment at the University of Washington.

Samantha Bernstein-Sierra is assistant director of research and academic affairs, Joint Educational Project, University of Southern California.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Brookfield, S. D. 2012. “Critical Theory and Transformative Learning.” In The Handbook of Transformative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice, edited by E. W. Taylor and P. Cranton, 131–146. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. 1991. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.