As we move from ideas to action, a critical issue that arises is the gap between the world’s complexity and our abilities to manage such complexity (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Managing complexity demands more than technical knowledge; it requires the ability to make adaptive changes in our thinking, beliefs, and behavior (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002a). Recent developments in learning theories and teaching practice are often responses to some form of this critical question: How can we help our students prepare for the future in a complex, rapidly changing environment?
Behind that question is a belief that new forms will emerge that are unimaginable now, and that increasing our knowledge and skills within existing frameworks will not suffice in dealing with novel situations. What we come to know through informational learning will still be fundamental, but changes in how we know through transformational learning will also be critical (Kegan, 2000). That is the premise for this examination of three transformational learning approaches that have the potential to help students move toward higher levels of mental complexity: (1) overcoming immunity to change, (2) threshold concepts and variation theories, and (3) transformative learning theory.
To deal with the complex “wicked problems” that are emerging today, we need people with higher levels of mental complexity who can thus comprehend and tackle the breadth and scope of these problems, often from multiple perspectives.
Why is this critical? Because using outdated thinking, beliefs, and behaviours, which may have worked in the past for simple or complicated problems, will no longer work for these complex problems today. In fact, using outdated thinking, beliefs, and behaviours actually exacerbates these wicked problems, making them all the more severe.