What is transformative learning?

After our mini-series on Behaviourism, Cognitivism and Constructivism, we wanted to have a closer look at the constructivist theory of Transformative Learning. 

What is transformative learning?

Transformative learning is a theory based around the idea that learners can change their views and perspectives on the world as they process new information. It was developed by American sociologist Jack Mezirow and focuses primarily on adult learning. 

Transformative learning theory assumes that everyone comes to new experiences through their own ‘meaning perspectives’. These are our current assumptions and form a frame of reference for how we see the world. When we’re given new information, we usually understand it through our existing meaning perspectives. With transformative learning we use the new information to change these perspectives and see the world in a new way. 

The 10 phases:

Mezirow set out a 10-stage process for transformative learning:

  1. Disorienting dilemma: we are given new information that doesn’t fit with our understanding of the world. This is known as a ‘disorienting dilemma’ because it challenges our world view.
  2. Self-examination: we examine and question our beliefs after learning that they don’t fit with the information we’ve just been given.
  3. Critical assessment: we reassess our fundamental beliefs and assumptions in the light of the new information.
  4. Recognition: we realise that others have gone through similar experiences.
  5. Exploration: we consider how changing our beliefs will impact our lives.
  6. Action planning: we look at what changes we will make to reflect our new beliefs.
  7. Knowledge acquisition: we explore any knowledge and understanding we’ll need to reflect and expand our new outlook.
  8. Trying new roles: we explore seeing things from a new perspective.
  9. Building confidence: we become more confident with our new identity.
  10. Reintegration: we understand the changes we’ve gone through and can apply our new knowledge and understanding to future challenges.

For transformative learning to be take place, learners need to be willing and able to reflect on and challenge their current beliefs.

Types of learning

Jack Mezirow also identified two types of learning that students experience, instrumental and communicative. Communicative learning is about recognising emotions and improving communication skills, while instrumental learning is more about problem solving.

In practice

Transformative learning is active – it’s about challenging and evaluating new information, rather than just receiving it.

We can include elements of transformative theory in learning design, by giving learners the opportunity to see events or actions from different perspectives. We can use this to help learners understand and question their own beliefs and assumptions. In classroom settings, group discussions are an effective way to do this.