January 25th, 2008

Transformational Learning


I’m preparing for a Magna online seminar interview that I’m doing in March with a very well respected adult educator who’s an expert on something called transformational learning. Actually, the label isn’t all that jargonesque—this is the kind of learning that transforms, changes who you are and how you live. It does that by encouraging learners to question what they have assumed and taken for granted. They might question beliefs, values, or perspectives. Through that critical questioning they may arrive at a different set of beliefs, but the process itself makes learners more open and permeable.

It has me thinking about all the ways that college changed me. I was raised in a very traditional home where roles were fixed. Men drove; women rode. Oh, women could drive—themselves, the kids, other women, just not men. In college I started asking why, about this and a host of other role expectations. My beliefs about what women could and couldn’t do changed dramatically.

What I can’t remember from my undergraduate experience is what courses, content, or teachers made me question—with the exception of my advisor (who was the best teacher I had in college). He challenged me to learn Greek so I could decide for myself what the New Testament said. I expect course content and teachers did influence this kind of transformative change. Maybe those teachers knew what they were doing, but I know that during my long teaching career I wasn’t very explicit in my efforts to get students asking these kinds of critical questions. I do think my course changed what some kids thought about themselves, but I think I could have done more, should have done more. Because if you ask me now about the most important things I learned in college, I wouldn’t name a course. It would be something more like, I learned to think, to question and to find those answers that work for me.

So what I’m hoping to learn from my exploration of transformative learning is how a teacher goes about systematically promoting it. Stay tuned … lessons to come, hopefully.

  • Interesting that you place transformational learning (also called transformative learning) in juxtaposition with your college experience. The "father" of transformational learning is Jack Mezirow and his initial work was done with women returning to college and their perspective transformations. The Journal of Transformative Education is a great source of academic articles. There is a rich body of literature on this type adult learning topic and one of my favorite writers on the subject is Sharon Merriam. One of the things upon which most authors agree is that transformational learning typically involves a "disorienting dilemma," critical reflection, and critical discourse. Good luck…

  • Janet Johnson

    Marilyn, In the year and a half since you posted this question, I hope you have uncovered a few answers to the question of the relationship between learner-centered teaching and transformative learning. Jack Mezirow was of the school that emphasized personal transformation, while others (Paolo Freire, Elizabeth Tisdell) expanded that view to societal transformation. I'd be very interested to learn what connections you found between transformative learning and learner-centered teaching: for instance, if the underlying theoretical orientations of TL are different, would that change how we conceptualize learner-centered teaching? Thanks!