Program Practices, Principles and Methods

Transformative, or transformational, learning has become perhaps the predominant theory of adult education in the 40 years since Jack Mezirow observed the impact on his wife of her return to formal education and wrote his seminal Perspective Transformation in 1978, and there is now a plethora of books, articles, research, and conferences on the theory of transformative learning (Bierema & Merriam, 2014; Groen & Kawalilak, 2014). In addition to its prominence in adult education, the case has even been argued for the vital importance of transformative learning in increasing sustainability and ensuring no less than the ongoing survival of the human species (as cited in Cranton, 2013, pp. 101-102). 

Primarily for these reasons, it is important for adult educators interested in both individual growth and societal change – as we are in Coady youth leadership programs – to have a solid grasp of transformative learning theory.

One critique of this theory has been the intimation that it can be presumptuous to assume that a particular method or process of education will change others’ perspectives. There is none of this presumption within a Coady youth leadership program; however our observations and experience have shown that through employing certain practices, principles and methods, we are able to establish the conditions for many participants in these programs to experience some form of personal transformation. 

We therefore feel it may be useful to elaborate upon some of these practices, in the hope that other educators might benefit from them and that additional ideas may be shared with us to further enhance our work.

Developing and maintaining cohort culture

The central importance of the cohort (the other participants in the learning community) in the learning experience continues to be reaffirmed. It is often reflecting upon difficult personal circumstances, failure, inadequacy, and perceived weakness that becomes the catalyst for change, growth, and progress; and if participants do not feel sufficiently safe to expose their vulnerabilities with their peers or with the facilitator, significant opportunities for learning are missed, for the individual and the cohort. So the creation of a culture of safety, vulnerability, and courage is vital to optimizing learning opportunities in the program.

Significant work has been done over the past several years to develop systems and structures that are conducive to the creation of a healthy cultural norm within a learning cohort. In recent times, this investment seems to have led to healthier cohort dynamics, with more open and trusting relationships that have led to participants exposing vulnerabilities and receiving the cohort’s support in response. This creates somewhat of a virtuous spiral, as participants observe each other’s courage in vulnerability, see that this vulnerability is honoured, experience the learning and growth that result, and therefore feel sufficiently safe to expose their own vulnerabilities to the group.

These systems and structures have taken time to produce, and could not have happened without the experiences that have gone before. It has been (and continues to be) an iterative process, with a gradual maturation of methods to enhance cohort bonding and culture, underlain by some of the core values and principles of the program and of Coady youth leadership programs more generally.

Interestingly, it seems that the best way towards developing and maintaining healthy cohort culture is also a remarkably simple one: to enhance the structure of the “community time” at the beginning and end of each day of the on-campus components. While I have always incorporated dedicated daily community time into the on-campus learning schedule since the beginning of my time at Coady, this time had previously been rather unstructured. Over the past couple of years, in response to some unfortunate incidents in which cohorts did not seem to bond well, and my reflections on these incidents, I have developed a structured and detailed “Coady youth leadership programs daily routine”. This new routine, incorporating elements of The Circle Way guidelines and The Circle of Trust approach, creates daily space for cohort members to come together in a structured way both to be in community together and to analyze that community together. It involves a mix of serious and fun elements that are designed to build a sense of community within the cohort through increasing trust and vulnerability whilst also enhancing mutual accountability and regular reminders of the aspirational commitments developed by the cohort’s members.

This new routine was trialed in a short course that I facilitated in early 2019, and having experienced its success I then introduced it (with some minor modifications) to the 2019-20 OceanPath (Pathy) cohort in FCC. I have more recently implemented a modified version of this routine in recurring bi-weekly online workshops with the 2020-21 Pathy Fellowship cohort. It can safely be asserted that this routine—if introduced properly and combined of course with other elements of skillful, responsive, and thoughtful facilitation—provides the potential to drastically change how participants perceive and interact with their cohort community, and has a significant positive impact on the group’s culture.

Supported autonomy

The Pathy Foundation Fellowship ( includes a variety of structures and supports designed to optimize the learning and impact for fellows during their fellowship. One key feature of the fellowship is the idea of “supported autonomy”. This is defined on the website as follows:

Fellows are afforded significant flexibility to optimize their opportunity for learning and growth, whilst being offered sufficient guiding support to create a safe and supportive environment to progress efficiently and effectively through the Fellowship.

Arising repeatedly in fellows’ reflections and in group and individual conversations with alumnx[1] from all cohorts have been expressions of appreciation for both the support provided to fellows and for the autonomy they are offered in the implementation of their initiatives. There is a fine balance in effectively turning this concept of supported autonomy into reality. The program and Coady have a responsibility to ensure fellows’ welfare and provide sufficient program and logistical support to create a safe and supportive environment for fellows to progress efficiently and effectively through the fellowship. At the same time, fellows must be afforded sufficient liberty and autonomy to optimize the opportunity for learning and growth through the fellowship experience.

In order to enable fellows to develop their sense of self-efficacy during the fellowship, they have a great deal of independence and are given total decision-making control over all aspects of their initiative and fellowship journey. However, they are not simply left to flounder or to attempt to determine everything for themselves. There is a significant scaffolding of support that is built up around them to help them navigate through the challenges they inevitably experience. This ‘supported autonomy’ is a key feature of the fellowship’s leadership development, and is often appreciated by fellows. One fellowship alum subsequently reported:

The support of the Coady, fellows, personal learning coach allowed me to feel like I could make mistakes and productively learn from them. There was a sense of freedom in potential failure and undenying support. …it created the context for learning and an environment of acceptance, non-judgement and thus genuine learning.

In a recent series of interviews with several alumnx, they spoke of the “very supportive environment” created for fellows, with one saying, “there was lots and lots of support, both from other fellows and Coady staff and various other supports that were put in place as the fellowship”, whilst appreciating the opportunity she had to exercise her own judgment and initiative. The support that fellows have within the fellowship gives a real sense of safety and comfort, and helps them to have the courage to extend themselves perhaps more than they might otherwise have done.

One alum stated:

…how the fellowship was set up in terms of support, support people… Like freedom in how I budgeted things, and support when I needed support with that, or freedom in how I set up the initiative, or patience in the time that it would take to get things done. And then also, I think it was me feeling like I could trust that support. So knowing that even if I made a huge mistake, that there still would be the support that I needed if that happened. Trusting the support and then also trusting myself, that I was accountable enough to myself to work as hard as I could work or do the best that I could do.

The “fine balance” mentioned above in operationalizing the concept of supported autonomy has been, and continues to be, a work in progress in the fellowship. While it would not be wise to make drastic or overly reactive changes from one cohort to the next, feedback from past fellows is helpful and has informed my attempts to strike this balance with each cohort. It has also informed further thinking and development of the structure of elements of the “deliverables” during the fellowship.

[1] The term “alumnx” has recently begun to be used as a gender-neutral alternative reference to graduates, in place of the terms “alumnus” (single male graduate), “alumna” (single female graduate) and “alumni” (both multiple male graduates and multiple male and female graduates). This term is starting to be used by scholars, activists and an increasing number of journalists, and is beginning to make inroads among the general public. It is used in a similar way to the term “Latinx” (which replaces “Latino” and “Latina”), with the intention of moving beyond gender binary and expressing inclusivity and appreciation for the intersecting identities of people, enabling inclusivity for people who are Two-Spirit, trans, queer, agender, non-binary, gender non-conforming or gender-fluid. As a program committed to the values of social justice, inclusion, and anti-oppressive practices, the Pathy Foundation Fellowship has adopted this term to reflect these values and an attitude of acceptance of and welcome to all people.