Transformational Learning

Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory

In a general sense Transformational Learning refers to changing what we know and making meaning of it through the use of experience and reflection. Jack Mezirow posits that experience, or as he calls it “frame of reference”, shapes the way an adult views the world. A frame of reference encompasses one’s habits, beliefs, values, assumptions, attitudes, feelings in which are set by experiences and become both a conscious and subconscious code by which humans understand and move about life. Transformational learning is the altering of this frame of reference usually stimulated by a life event that forces one to question their assumptions, beliefs, values, etc.

Overall, Transformational learning is about change and reflecting critically on how that change manifests in actions. Transformational Learning is a powerful form of learning that results in a fundamental change in one’s cognitive, spiritual, and relational behaviors, ultimately resulting in a shift in consciousness. As powerful as this type of learning is, it is outlined by a process that one must undergo to recognize transformation. The following 10 phases from Cranton (2002) is adapted from Mezirow’s foundational work. The 10 phases of Transformational Learning include:

  1. Experiencing an event in society that disorients one’s sense of self within a familiar role
  2. Engaging in reflection and self-direction
  3. Critically assessing the personal assumptions and feelings that have alienated self from traditional role expectations
  4. Relating discontent to similar experiences of others; recognizing the shared problems
  5. Identifying new ways of acting within the role
  6. Building personal confidence and competence
  7. Planning a new course of action
  8. Acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to implement this new course of action
  9. Trying out the planned action and assessing the results
  10. Reintegrating into society with the new role behaviors and with new assumptions and perspectives Cranton, P. (2002). Teaching for Transformation (pp.63-71). New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education.

Transformational Learning Theory in Practice

The use of transformational learning has become very popular in many educational settings. The following are intervention strategies a leader/educator can do to foster transformational learning.

  • Development of self-reflection, emotional capability to openness, and critical disjunctures (reflective logs, critical discussions, blogs, reflective essays, role-playing, cultural immersion, etc)
  • Strategies for critical reflection (narratives, private reflections and journaling, challenging learner to step beyond comfort zone, research projects, critique of one’s own metacognitive processes)
  • Supportive social environment (listening, openness to consideration of varying perspectives, modeling behaviors, creating a climate of respectful discourse)
  • Purposeful use of cultural media (examination of media, improvisation, creative writing)
  • Utilize holistic, affective, and spiritual processes (emotional connections, imagery, contemplative practices Kasworm, C.E & Bowles, T.A (2012). Fostering Transformative Learning in Higher Education Settings (pp.388-407). The Handbook of Transformative Learning

I feel that principles of Choice Theory are integrated with the steps of Transformational Learning. Transformational learning may or may not be the result of a series of choices one has made. As one moves through the transformational learning process they must also make choices that result from the critical self-reflection that is a critical component of transformational learning. If they understand the axioms of Choice Theory they will likely make the “good” choice thus allowing the transformation to happen.

Strategic Human Resource Management departments are beginning to utilize transformational learning within the training and development curriculum. A major reason behind this are the inevitable changes organizations are facing. Personnel who go through activities that promote transformational learning make them more receptive to the major and continuous changes that organizations must make to stay competitive. This is particularly important for leadership development within organizations.

Brooks (2004),
“Many of us recognize our old ways of thinking and habits of practice have lost their effectiveness. The mental, emotional, physical, and interpersonal stress of answering to new demands causes us to look for new ways to approach our worlds. In this context, we look ar transformative learning as more than just an interesting theory, and instead increasingly see it as a possible educational means of securing the health and well-being of the world’s people” (pp.221-222)

Brooks, A. (2004). Transformational learning theory and implications for human resource development. Advances in Developing Human Resources. 6(2), p. 211-222.


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