The Power of Disorientation

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As ESL teachers, we all know that the techniques we need to employ while teaching adult learners differ from those techniques used with children.  Jack Mezirow, a well -respected theorist in the field of adult learning, suggests that adults need to experience a disruption as a catalyst for the learning process.  In his theory of transformative learning, he lays out the steps in the process which result in learning.  The first step toward adult learning comes in the form of a disorienting dilemma.  This dilemma provokes a period of critical reflection to help us make sense of the disturbance.  As a result of our examination of what is happening, we grow.

In my experience as an ESL teacher, most of the participants attending the classes I teach have experienced a lot of disorientation through the process of immigration to Canada.  Often the disorienting dilemma manifests itself in the form of culture shock.  However, not only do newcomers have the issue of learning about unwritten cultural rules, they also often experience a decline in professional status which causes additional emotional turmoil.

Frequently, the turbulence that newcomers experience is intensified by fear and anxiety about what will happen next or where the future will take them.  Leadership expert Robin Sharma believes that running away from fear is equivalent to running away from growth.  If you are able to embrace your fear, you might find that the struggle to do so will bring you fulfillment.

Sharma also proposes that human beings have a responsibility to make a difference in the world.  We ESL teachers are in a privileged position because we have a considerable opportunity to make that difference.  We have the potential to guide our students through this period of critical reflection.  Planning activities and using resources which encourage embracing the fear, anxiety, and disruption of immigration will help learners to manage the process to achieve their own individual outcomes.  Critical reflection with positive results will go a long way in helping newcomers to succeed on their own terms.  We as ESL teachers are poised to contribute enormously to the future of our country and humanity by directing our learners to analyse and reflect on their situations in ways that make them feel empowered.

Do you have any classroom activities that help students feel positive about their disorienting immigration experience?


Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Sharma, R. (2012, March 22). Allan Greg in conversation. Robin Sharma on achieving our creative potential.  Podcast retrieved from

Hi, I’m Gwen Zeldenrust. After a brief absence from the profession, I realized that teaching is my passion and the path that my career should follow. Most of my practice has been focused on teaching ESL to adults in Ontario. In addition to that, I’ve been a trainer for an insurance company, a teaching assistant for several professors at university, taught English in Japan and Core-French at the local school board. While I’ve been teaching ESL I’ve also been working on a project which has developed organically among a group of teachers. Under the name of Language Foundations, we’ve produced a video that teaches strategies for interacting successfully in Canada. The video project has inspired in me a true passion for writing. I love being able to reach out with my thoughts, share ideas and discuss different perspectives. I think writing and teaching are very complementary!


4 thoughts on “The Power of Disorientation”

  1. Hmmm. That’s a tough one. I hope that everything we do helps the students to feel more empowered. I strive to give my students, both my morning seniors and afternoon literacy learners, information about the community, services, etc., and the language they will need to navigate their new lives. I certainly hope that all the lessons empower, from the one about attending parent-teacher night and talking to their children’s teachers to the one on how to become a volunteer. Everything we do is geared toward helping ease their transition, helping them discover new roles in which their strengths can come to the forefront.
    The lesson that immediately springs to mind when you ask me this question is one during which we used CLEO materials to learn about our rights in the workplace. After the unit, we went on a field trip to the Windsor Workers Education Centre ( where we heard about real cases in which workers, mainly newcomers, had been exploited in factory and greenhouse jobs. We learned about free legal aid and how the workers at one plant had banded together to sue for their unpaid back-wages.
    In short, I feel that I can’t compartmentalize and say that this activity empowered and that one didn’t. Whether I’m inviting a mental health professional to talk about culture shock or teaching students to use the WEVOLUNTEER.CA website, on some semi-conscious level, I am always striving to design lessons and activities that empower my students to turn this uncomfortable transition into something manageable and positive.

  2. Good point Kelly! Everything we do in our programs from language learning to cultural awareness helps to empower newcomers. The activities that you described are excellent. I think the lesson using the CLEO materials would be particularly helpful to encourage students to critically reflect on their own personal situations within their new country by seeing how new immigrants before them have made an impact in their own lives and the lives of others. I find guiding students to critically reflect on their new situation and deal with the changes that have occurred in their lives following immigration with a positive outlook can be quite challenging.

  3. Fighting fire with fire, and contrary to what one might expect, two activities that have kicked up my student’s confidence exponentially, have been to throw students into uber chaos, extreme disorientation! One activity was the’ speed interview’ where students were interviewed by 10 professional volunteers for 5-10 minutes each like a ‘speed date’. Even I’m sweating!

    Second activity is from step 1. Filling out Volunteer Application Form, to taking the bus to sketchy back door, to introducing yourself to the strange Volunteer Coordinator, to Volunteering, to sending a thank you note, and finally mentoring your shy classmates to join you on your next volunteer experience.

    The secret to survival is the students are in the game together. It builds community outside of the classroom.

    1. Hi Karen,

      Thanks for sharing your excellent activity ideas. Intense disorientation such as you describe, really can create an environment where students are pushed to reach beyond their perceived limits and allows them to realize they can achieve more than they imagined. What I really like about your strategies, is that, they allow students to explore their own power within the safe environment of your course, giving them great practice for the real world where the stakes are higher.

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