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July 17, 2020

Teaching & Education

What is the transformative learning theory?

Older students and teacher

Transformative learning process definition, examples, and how it can be applied in the classroom.

Everyone learns differently, and understanding the different ways that humans learn is crucial to educational success. Teachers and students alike can greatly benefit from understanding how learning works for different students. By understanding how learning happens, educators can maximize their efforts and create classrooms where learners can thrive. 

Transformative learning is one theory of learning, and particularly focuses on adult education and young adult learning. Transformative learning is sometimes called transformation learning, and focuses on the idea that learners can adjust their thinking based on new information. Jack Mezirow is known as the founder of transformative learning. Jack Mezirow began this theory of transformational learning when he did studies on adult women who went back to school. Mezirow's initial research led him to theorize that adults don’t apply their old understanding to new situations, instead they find they need to look at new perspectives in order to get a new understanding of things as they change. Mezirow theorized that students had important teaching and learning opportunities connected to their past experiences. Mezirow found that critical reflection and critical review could lead to a transformation of their understanding. Adult education and adult learning is key in this theory, as children often don't have the same kind of transformation with their learning experiences. Mezirow found that adult learning involves taking the very things we believed and thought as a child, and letting critical reflection and teaching impact the transformation to what we should believe and understand now. Mezirow's theory has developed into a larger idea that our world view is changed the more we learn, and that helps us grasp new concepts and ideas. 

Current and aspiring educators can greatly benefit from understanding learning theories and learning models, and implementing strategies in their classrooms that help them appeal to more learners. Learn more about Mezirow's transformative learning theory and how you can apply it in your classroom, particularly for older students.

Understanding Mezirow's transformative learning theory.

Mezirow's transformative learning is defined as “an orientation which holds that the way learners interpret and reinterpret their sense experience is central to making meaning and hence learning.” Put in simple terms, transformative learning is the idea that learners who are getting new information are also evaluating their past ideas and understanding, and are shifting their very worldview as they obtain new information and through critical reflection. It goes beyond simply acquiring knowledge, and dives into the way that learners find meaning in their lives and understanding. This kind of learning experience involves a fundamental change in our perceptions—learners start to question all the things they knew or thought before and examine things from new perspectives in order to make room for new insights and information. Many learners and experts agree that this kind of learning leads to true freedom of thought and understanding.

Mezirow says that transformative learning has two basic focuses—instrumental learning and communicative learning. Instrumental learning focuses on task-oriented problem solving, and evaluation of cause and effect relationships. Communicative learning focuses on how people communicate their feelings, needs, and desires. Both of these elements are important in transformative learning—students need to be able to focus on different types of their understanding and view new perspectives that are both logical and emotional in order to challenge their previous understanding.

Meaning schemes or meaning structures are another important element of the transformative theory and transformational learning according to Mezirow. Perspectives and meaning schemes two major elements of meaning structures, and are our predispositions and assumptions, which set the state for our expectations. A meaning structure is basically the concepts, beliefs, judgments, and feelings that shape an interpretation of information. Students are able to understand their meaning structure through self-reflection, self-directed learning, and critical theory. They are able to critique their assumptions to understand if what they understood as a child still holds true now that they are an adult. We are thereby able to understand ourselves, and our learning better. The understanding of our past perspective and the ability to look at new structures and perspectives are key to the transformative learning theory. 

A high school teacher selects a student with their hands raised.

The phases of transformative learning.

In the transformative learning theory there are typical phases that adult education learners follow. These phases are key in helping adult education learners transform their prior notions as they get new information and insight.

  • A disorienting dilemma. A disorienting dilemma is a situation where a learner finds that what they thought or believed in the past may not be accurate. This is the first part of transformational learning. This can be an “a-ha” moment where a student hears or consider something they may not have understood before. This disorienting dilemma can be uncomfortable or challenging for students, but is the key spark in starting a fire of transformational learning.

  • Self-examination. After a disorienting dilemma, students will do a self-examination of their beliefs and understanding. They will think about their past experiences and how they connect to this disorienting dilemma. This can create a perspective transformation, where students understand that their perspective may not be the only perspective.

  • Critical assessment of assumptions. Students in this phase of transformational learning are able to take a more comprehensive look at their past assumptions and review them critically. They are able to accept that perhaps some of their past assumptions were wrong, and are thereby more open to new information and thoughts. This creates perspective transformation as they are able to look with more unbiased eyes at their own past.

  • Planning a course of action. After students understand how their past assumptions and beliefs may have been wrong and have a perspective transformation, they are able to plan a course of action. They are able to consider what kinds of learning they will now need to more fully understand a problem or situation. They will be able to have a strategy for learning new things, seeing new perspectives, talking to new people, and more. 

  • Acquisition of knowledge or skills to carry out new plan. Now is the time for students to carry out their plan and get further in their transformational learning. They may have to learn new things and consider different perspectives in order to fully enhance their learning. This may take extensive work and effort, but this is where the real learning is happening.

  • Exploring and trying new roles. As part of transformational learning, we need to act. In transformative learning, exploring and trying to understand changes is key to success. It goes beyond just learning about something, but actively working to understand and experience new things for yourself.

  • Building self-efficacy in new roles and relationships. Self-efficacy involves us being able to make our own decisions and have our own beliefs. As we follow transformative learning phases it’s extremely important to build confidence in our beliefs and understanding, and to continue to practice this transformative cycle as we move forward.

Putting transformative learning theory into practice.

As an educator it’s important to help students learn using different kinds of learning strategies. The transformative learning theory can be especially important for older students to be able to grasp new ideas and concepts. There are many ways that educators can introduce this kind of learning into their classroom, including:

Give students chances to learn about new perspectives. Teachers can provide an action even or disorienting dilemma inside their classroom. A picture, story, demonstration, or guest that doesn’t quite meet what they’ve understood can help do this. For example, students can learn about different political parties by actually meeting political candidates. They may have certain beliefs about government, but meeting a candidate who is kind and passionate about different viewpoints could be an action event for them. Similarly, teachers can introduce diverse authors and literature into the classroom, helping students see things from a perspective that isn’t like their own. 

Help students identify and question their assumptions. In the classroom it’s important for students to critically analyze their assumptions. Teachers can model this behavior by sharing stories of how their own understanding and perspectives have shifted, how they have been able to analyze their own beliefs, and more. Teachers can give journal questions that help students by giving questions that they can ask about their own assumptions, give opportunities for students to share, and provide writing and reflective time for students to analyze. 

Create opportunities for critical discourse. In a classroom that is focused on transformative learning, there must be opportunity for critical discussions. Teachers can help students have these critical discussions by providing space for conversation, helping students create pro and con lists of literature or articles, giving students opportunity for debate, or requiring students to prepare both sides of a debate to understand how there are multiple perspectives always at play. Additionally, small group discussions and activities can help students with this critical understanding. This kind of classroom work can help students really embrace other thoughts and experiences different from their own.

Transformative learning examples. There are many ways that educators can use transformative learning in their classroom. For example, when students are learning about world religions, teachers can introduce literature and articles that discuss different religions, helping them gain new perspectives and understanding. Additionally, teachers can give students an assignment to go and interview different people about their perspectives on a historical event. This helps students get many points of view and perspectives. Another way teachers can use transformative learning in the classroom is to give students contrasting articles on a topic, and ask them their thoughts and insights on the different elements of each article. This helps them to question their own understanding and move through the process of learning. 

Staying up-to-date on current best practices.

Educators can greatly benefit from continuing their education to learn more about learning theories and implementation practices. If you’re a current teacher, a master’s degree in education can help you learn more about pedagogical practices and continue your own learning. Staying up-to-date on best practices is vital for the continued success of your classroom, and a degree is an ideal way to enhance your learning. 

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