Transformative Learning: Q&A with Patricia Cranton

Transformative learning—learning that changes what students know, how much they know, and what they are able to do with that knowledge—can occur inside and outside the classroom and need not be restricted to any particular discipline, says Patricia Cranton, a noted authority on transformative learning.

Professor Cranton offered a brief introduction to transformative learning in an email interview conducted in advance of an online seminar she presented titled Transformative Learning in the College Classroom.

What is involved in promoting transformative learning in a course?

Cranton: Transformative learning can occur when students encounter alternative points of view and perspectives. Exposure to alternatives encourages students to critically question their assumptions, beliefs, and values, and when this leads to a shift in the way they see themselves or things in the world, they have engaged in transformative learning.

Transformative learning can be promoted by using any strategy, activity, or resource that presents students with an alternative point of view. Readings from different perspectives, field experiences, videos, role plays, simulations, and asking challenging questions all have the potential to lead to transformative learning. The educator needs to create an environment in which critical reflection and questioning norms is supported and encouraged.

Can transformative learning occur in a single course, or does there need to be some transformative learning goals coordinated across the curriculum?

Cranton: Transformative learning can occur in a single course or even a single class. It can occur outside of a course or classroom. Coordinating transformative learning goals across the curriculum would help to create an environment in which critical reflection is the norm, and this would enhance the process.

However, transformative learning is more a way of thinking about teaching and learning than something we do. Jack Mezirow describes transformative learning as a primary goal of education. It is about helping learners to critically reflect on, validate, and effectively act on their interpretations and ways of thinking. It involves critical and autonomous thinking, something that all educators hope to inspire in their students.

How do you incorporate transformative learning into a course when there is so much discipline-specific content to cover?

Cranton: Transformative learning is not independent of content, context, or a discipline. It’s not an “add on” to a course. It is a way of making meaning of knowledge in a discipline in a way that students don’t passively accept and believe what they are told or what they read, but rather engage in debate, discussion, and critical questioning of the content. Promoting transformative learning is a part of “covering” content.