Adult Learning Essay

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Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice
Volume 7, Issue 1 2010 Article 4

Addressing student cynicism through transformative learning
Fernanda Duarte∗

University of Western Sydney,

Copyright c 2010 by the authors. The Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice is published by the University of Wollongong. URL -

Addressing student cynicism through transformative learning∗ Fernanda Duarte

This paper reflects on insights that emerged from the findings of a qualitative study conducted by the author in 2007 with third year management students from an Australian university on their perceptions in relation to business ethics. The findings revealed an attitude of cynicism with regard to the application of ethical principles beyond university years – in “the real world of business’. This led the author to engage in more systematic efforts to address this problem, and to this end, she found Mezirow’s notion of transformative learning inspiring and valuable. It is contended that reflection and critical thinking are crucially important skills to enable consciousness shifts that will lead to a deeper understanding and greater appreciation of the importance of ethical conduct in management. They can act as antidotes to attitudes of cynicism which make students feel powerless and dejected, disinclined to apply the knowledge gained during their training beyond university years. A selection of examples of class activities and assessments to foster transformative learning is provided. KEYWORDS: cynicism; transformative learning; critical thinking; reflection; business ethics

I would like to than the reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions which significantly enriched my manuscript.

Addressing student cynicism through transformative learning Fernanda Duarte

The last three decades have witnessed something akin to a shift of consciousness in the business sphere, reflected in an increased preoccupation in management education with business ethics. This topic is now an integral feature of business schools curricula (see Block & Cwik, 2007; Crane, 2004; Harris & Guffey, 1991; Milton-Smith, 1995; Pamental, 1989; Sims & Felton Jr, 2006) and has been the focus of extensive pedagogical research (Block & Cwik, 2007). However, as a teacher of business ethics, the author often wonders whether management students feel sufficiently confident to apply the theoretical knowledge gained in their training, beyond university years. A qualitative study carried out in an Australian university in 2007 to investigate the perceptions of undergraduate management students in relation to business ethics, suggests that this confidence is lacking (Duarte 2008). While the students’ responses generally indicated approval of the study of ethical principles, a significant number revealed an attitude of cynicism in relation to the possibility of applying ethics in the “real world of business”. For the purpose of this paper, cynicism is defined as a deeply entrenched pessimism about the world, involving an “attitude of scornful or jaded negativity” (Johnson, 2005, p. 45). A cynical person has a general distrust about the integrity of others, in particular people in positions of power and influence. Cynicism goes hand in hand with apathy, a lack of concern for the well being of society and a lack of interest in taking action to address social and moral issues. Cynicism and apathy have been identified as causing factors of civic disengagement (Jones, Henfler, & Johnson, 2001; Loeb, 1999) which is a rather negative outcome for future business managers, given the centrality of business in contemporary society. Civically engaged, ethical managers are strongly needed to ensure a sustainable future. From a pedagogical perspective, the findings of the above study point to a need for more systematic efforts to encourage higher degrees of reflection...
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