Transformative Learning: Positive Identity Through Prison-Based Higher Education in England and Wales

Transformative Learning: Positive Identity Through Prison-Based Higher Education in England and Wales

Anne Pike, Susan Hopkins
DOI: 10.4018/IJBIDE.2019010104
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On entering prison, prisoners lose their home, their possessions and their very identity as a person, becoming just a number. Transformative learning through Prison-based Higher-level Distance Learning (PHDL) can be the vehicle by which prisoners begin to find a new positive identity as a student. This article argues that PHDL, post-secondary self-study using distance-learning materials, is potentially transformative, leading to positive changes in personal and social identity and making a positive difference to learners' lives during and after incarceration. The study on which this article is based, investigates perceptions of transformative learning for ex-prisoners and prisoners (men and women) who were due for release from 10 prisons in England and Wales. Using the ‘voices' of the participants, this article describes their learning journeys, the motivation to study and the network of support required to overcome the extreme difficulties of study in prison. Although results varied from prison to prison, participation in PHDL produced psychological outcomes including, increased self-awareness, positive identity and resilience. The article concludes that PHDL encourages positive personal change in incarcerated students through transformative learning, with raised hope and realistic aspirations for continuation of learning, employment and a brighter future upon release.
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Education is transformational because it gives you hope, which is all that I ask for. - Jed, male incarcerated student, 40-49


Theoretical Framework: The Theory Of Transformative Learning

This article adopts the theory of transformative learning, as a potential conceptual framework for understanding how adults learn. It then explores the potential of adult higher learning in prisons in the UK through a transformative learning lens. Transformative learning can be defined as ‘a process by which previously uncritically assimilated assumptions, beliefs, values, and perspectives are questioned and thereby become more open, permeable, and better justified (Cranton, 2006, p. vi).’

The theory of transformative learning was first developed in the United States in 1978 by Jack Mezirow after he investigated the factors which impeded and facilitated women’s progress into higher education through re-entry programmes (Mezirow, 2000b). The findings suggested that the women who participated in the programmes had undergone a perspective transformation in their personal development by becoming more critically aware of their beliefs and feelings about themselves and their role in society. Influenced by Habermas (1984), Mezirow (1991) differentiated between instrumental learning and dialogic (or communicative) learning. He considered instrumental learning to be task-oriented problem-solving for improved performance while dialogic learning involved critically assessing what was being communicated, enabling the learner to recognise unquestioned assumptions and beliefs which they have held since childhood. In turn, this could lead to self-reflective learning, if the learner is able to internalise the reasons for the new perspective.

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