The pedagogy of discomfort

Transformational Experiential Learning


  • Lisa Elzey Mercer University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Deana McDonagh, Ph.D. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


Empathy, Design pedagogy, Experience design, Social practice, Transformational practice, Transformational pedagogy


Education is meant to be a transformative experience. In the practice of transformative pedagogy, instructors provide students with the time and space to explore their own set of beliefs, values, and standards and how they incorporate those beliefs into their work, subconsciously and consciously. At times transformative pedagogy can be uncomfortable, however, the value of discomfort in the pedagogical process of a design course is the ability to acknowledge a gap of knowledge in our social experiences and then learn from that gap of knowledge. This paper will focus on the value of transformative pedagogy in working through discomfort when learning about limit-situations, developing a foundation for transformative pedagogy in a course setting, the importance of critical thinking in transformative pedagogy, and how transformative pedagogy is presented when the focus is on ethics, disability, and responsible design. By embedding ethics, critical consciousness, and strategic thinking, the process translates into a transformative practice of design and innovation. Students learn new ways of affecting change with a multiplicity of ideas when educators engage in transformative pedagogy. It is also to ascertain what kind of learning enables people to create solutions for communities involved in a continuously ongoing process of defining sustainable development.

Author Biography

Deana McDonagh, Ph.D., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Deana McDonagh is a Professor of Graphic Design in the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and faculty at the Beckman Institute of Advanced Science and Technology. She is an Empathic Design Research Strategist who focuses on enhancing the quality of life for all through more intuitive and meaningful products, leading to emotional sustainability. Her research concentrates on emotional user-product relationships and how empathy can bring the designer closer to users’ authentic needs, ensuring both functional and emotional needs are met in the material landscape. She is a Research Fellow at Coventry University (UK), Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University (USA), visiting Professor at Arizona State University (USA), and Director of Research and Insight for Herbst Produkt design consultancy (USA). She is the Designer Entrepreneur-in-Residence (start-up incubator) at the Research Park and Designer in Residence at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) where she provides design guidance.




How to Cite

Elzey Mercer, L., & McDonagh, Ph.D., D. (2021). The pedagogy of discomfort: Transformational Experiential Learning. DISCERN: International Journal of Design for Social Change, Sustainable Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 2(2), 22–35. Retrieved from