July 21st, 2010

Transformative Learning


I’m immersed in writing one of 34 chapters commissioned for a handbook on transformative learning. My chapter explores the relationship between learner-centered teaching and transformative learning. I am convinced the two are related, but I’ve never spent time trying to sort out the nature of that relationship. It’s a good project—I’m learning a lot, although I seem to be uncovering more questions than answers.

Adult educators (most notably Jack Mezirow) get credit for the idea of transformative learning. Like many other interesting educational theories, despite its larger relevance, most college faculty are not familiar with the idea of transformative learning or the theory that supports it. Mezirow (2000) defines it as a process by which we “transform … taken-for-granted frames of reference … to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they … generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action.” (pp. 7-8). Cranton describes it more succinctly. “Transformative learning is a process of examining, questioning, validating and revisiting our perspectives.” (p. 23)

The word “transformative” aptly captures the effects of this kind of learning. It is learning that changes how people think, which often produces changes in how they act. It can be a single dramatic event or the culmination of a more gradual process. It can involve a small insight or a collection of smaller insights that leads to a much larger change in thinking and behavior. When I was a child, my father always drove. Mother never drove if Dad was in the car. Even after having been in the hospital for several days, Dad drove himself and mother home. I never questioned why Dad and most other men I knew always drove. It was simply the way things were. As the result of several experiences in college, I started wondering why men always drove and of course it didn’t take long to realize that there was no logical reason why women couldn’t drive men.

Transformative learning ought to be the goal of education. Long-held beliefs don’t always have to be replaced, but every belief merits analysis—critical reflection, another idea the adult education literature explores richly. We should be teaching in ways that challenge students to think about what they believe, to question and seek answers wherever they may be found. Most students do experience some of this kind of bone-rattling learning, but often it happens by accident. Adult educators challenge teachers to make it an intentional aspect of instruction.

Mezirow, J. and Associates. Learning As Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Cranton, P. Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning. 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.