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Core Principles of Transformative Learning Theory -   Mezirow & Others.


Introduction to Transformative Learning -

Transformative Learning is a theory of deep learning that goes beyond just content knowledge acquisition, or learning equations, memorizing tax codes or learning historical facts and data.   It is a desirable process for adults to learn to think for themselves, through true emancipation from sometimes mindless or unquestioning acceptance of what we have to come to know through our life experience, especially those things that our culture, religions, and personalities may predispose us towards, without our active engagement and questioning of how we know what we know.  

For us as adults to truly take ownership of our social roles, and our personal roles, being able to develop this self-authorship goes a long way towards helping our society and world to become a better place through our greater understanding and awareness of the world and issues beyond us, and can help us to improve our role in our lives and those of others.

Making Meaning as a Learning Process

           Adult Learning needs to emphasize contextual understanding, critical reflection on assumptions, and validated meaning by assessing reasons.  Recent approaches to transformative learning also include transformation through our intuitive, unconscious processes.  John Dirkx and Patricia Cranton have researched "soulfulness" and the process of intuition and the unconscious on our meaning-making.  While transformative learning theory originally consisted of critical self-reflection and disorienting dilemmas to make cognitive adjustments to reframing one's world, transformative learning theory has expanded to include what Jung considers the "unconscious functions."  Dirkx and Cranton expand on this in their work.


Context – justification of much for much of what we know and believe, our values and our feelings, depends on the context – biographical, historical and cultural – in which they are embedded.   We make meaning with different dimensions of awareness and understanding; in adulthood we may more clearly understand our experience when we know under what conditions an expressed idea is true or justified.   In the absence of fixed truths and confronted with often rapid change in circumstances, we cannot fully trust what we know or believe (Mezirow, 2000, p. 3-4).

Our understandings and beliefs are more dependable when they produce interpretations and opinions that are more justifiable or true than would be those predicated upon other understandings or beliefs (Mezirow, 2000, p. 4).   Developing more dependable beliefs of our experience, considering them in the context of our lives and being able to improve our decision-making based on our insights, these are all critical to adult learning.

Bruner identified four means of meaning making:

•  Establishing, shaping and maintaining intersubjectivity

•  Relating events, utterances, and behavior to the action taken

•  Construing of particulars in a normative context – deals with meaning relative to obligations, standards,

   conformities and deviations

•  Making propositions – application of rules of the symbolic syntactic, and conceptual systems used to

   achieve decontextualized meanings, including rules of inference and logic and such distinctions as whole-

   part, object-attribute, and identity-otherness

•  Transformative Learning – (Mezirow addition) Becoming aware of one's own tacit assumptions and

   expectations and those of others and assessing their relevance for making an interpretation (Mezirow,

   2000, p.4).

Kitchener – Three levels of cognitive processing:

•  compute, memorize, read and comprehend

•  (Metacognition) monitor own progress and products as they are engaged in first order cognitive tasks

•  Epistemic cognition – explain how humans monitor their problem solving when engaged in ill structured

   problems – limits of knowledge, emerges in late adolescence, form may change during adult years

   (Mezirow, 2000 p 4-5).

In this formulation, transformative learning pertains to epistemic cognition (Mezirow, 2000 p.5).  Heron discusses a type of learning, called Presentational – where we do not require words to make meaning (ex. Art, music, empathy, feeling, transcendence, inspiration, kinesthetic, aesthetic).

Weis brings up the intuitive process, or the unconscious acquisition of knowledge; much more sophisticated and rapid than conscious capacity (Mezirow, 2000, p. 6)

Art, music and dance are alternative languages.   Intuition, imagination, and dreams are other ways of making meaning.   Inspiration, empathy, and transcendence are central to self-knowledge and to drawing attention to the affective quality and poetry of human experience.  Dirkx writes of learning through soul involving a focus on the interface where the socioemotional and the intellectual world meet, where inner and outer converge (Mezirow, 2000, p.6). These processes are another approach from the purely rational and cognitive lens.

Domains of Learning

           Habermass identified two major domains of learning with different purposes, logics of inquiry, criteria of rationality, and modes of validating beliefs.

•  Instrumental learning – learning to control and manipulate the environment or other people (task

   oriented problem solving to improve performance)

•  Communicative learning – learning what others mean when they communicate with you.   This often

   involves feelings, intentions, values and moral issues.   In Communicative learning we need to be mindful

   of assessing meaning behind the words, truthfulness and qualifications of the speaker and authenticity of

   expressions of feeling.   We must become critically reflective of the assumptions of the person

   communicating.   Assumptions include intent, implied as subtext, conventional wisdom, a particular

   religious world view –this often requires a critical assessment of assumptions supporting the justification

   of norms (Mezirow, 2000, p. 9).

Reflective Discourse  

In the context of Transformative Learning Theory, is that specialized use of dialogue devoted to searching for a common understanding and assessment of the justification of an interpretation or belief (Mezirow, 2000, p. 10).   This is about making personal understanding of issues or beliefs, through assessing the evidence and arguments of a point of view or issue, and being open to looking at alternative points of view, or alternative beliefs, then reflecting critically on the new information, and making a personal judgment based on a new assessment of the information.  

An example might be having a conviction that a tax levy in your community might be superfluous; politicians may tell the electorate that any new taxes are unnecessary, and that the current leaders have failed to responsibly managed budgets.   If we actually seek data, we might find out that inflation and other economic factors (including loss of tax paying companies to our area) may have undermined our community's effort to continue to provide essential services, or those we consider essential, and perhaps these organizations are actually being fairly well managed.   At this point, we need to consider alternatives – what are we willing to give up, or what are we willing to reduce in scope, to maintain a balanced budget, or how high are we willing to go with new taxes to continue our services?

Mezirow reminds us of our need to find collective experience and arrive at a best decision.   This flies in the face of what Deborah Tannen (1998) calls our argument culture and we find evidence of this daily, in our political realities in our country.   It is all about win or loose and unfortunately for most of us, not about seeking common ground.   To develop common ground we need to help others and ourselves move from self serving debate and move towards empathetic listening and informed constructive discourse.   Recent studies reveal that for effective discourse in transformative learning we need emotional maturity, or what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence, knowing and managing our own emotions and motivating ourselves as well as recognizing emotions in others and handling relationships.   Goleman's research shows that emotional intelligence accounts for about 87% of success at work! (Mezirow, 2000, p. 11).

Meaning Structures – Or a Frame of Reference

This is our structure of assumptions and expectations (including our cultural assumptions often received as repetitive affective experiences outside of our conscious awareness) through which we filter sense impressions.  

A Frame of Reference has two dimensions:

•  A Habit of Mind – Broad based assumptions that act as a filter for our experiences; these include: moral consciousness, social norms, learning styles, philosophies including religion, world view, etc., our artistic tastes and personality type and preferences.   Sometimes this may be expressed as our point of view (Mezirow, 2000, p 17 & 18).

•  Resulting Point of View – These include our points of view, attitudes, beliefs and judgments. Since it is here where our sense of self and our values are interwoven, we must be mindful of viewpoints that challenge our beliefs, or realize that if someone expresses a contrary or different point of view, we are not under personal attack especially, as are our beliefs and views may be.

Transformations – A process whereby we move over time to reformulate our structures for making meaning, usually through reconstructing dominant narratives or stories.   This provides us with a more dependable way to make meaning within our lives, since we are questioning our own points of view, looking and reflecting on alternate points of view and often creating a new, more reliable and meaningful way of knowing that may be different from our old habits of the mind.   This requires us to become open to others points of view, and to be able to reflect on new points of view and information and often go back and reconstruct what we know and how we know it.   Often, we make judgments about others, and think we know why they do or do not do what we expect.   If we are truly open to understanding we might engage them in dialogue and through discussion find out that our sense of them and their issues may be totally erroneous, thus leading us to make a new frame for how we see and experience them.

Mezirow suggests transformations come about due to one of four ways:

•  Elaborating Existing Frames of Reference

•  Learning New Frames of Reference

•  Transforming Points of View

•  Transforming Habits of the Mind

Transformations often follow some variation of the following phases of meaning becoming clarified:

•  A Disorienting Dilemma – loss of job, divorce, marriage, back to school, or moving to a new culture

•  Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame

•  A critical assessment of assumptions

•  Recognition that one's discontent and the process of transformation are shared

•  Exploration of options for new roles, relationships and actions

•  Planning a course of action

•  Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one's plans

•  Provisional trying of new roles

•  Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships

•  A reintegration into one's life on the basis of conditions dictated by one's new perspective

(Mezirow, 2000, p. 22).

When we speak of reframing we are speaking of two different means of reframing.   They are:

Objective Reframing – involving critical reflection on assumptions of others encountered in a narrative or task oriented problem solving

Subjective Reframing – involving critical self-reflection of one's own assumptions about narrative (applying reflective insight from someone else's narrative to one's own experience, a system (economic, social or educational), an organization or workplace, feelings and interpersonal relations (counseling or psychotherapy) and the way we learn (Mezirow, 2000, p. 23).

Critical to teachers helping effect transformative learning in adults, is the understanding of the importance of supportive relationships in the adult students lives, who may be experiencing transformative learning.   Having a safe and supportive system of teachers and other significant people may greatly facilitate the student's willingness to move forward with transformative learning.

In summary, Transformative Learning Theory provides a structure and process through which to better understand adult growth and development. Early theorists including Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori, developed very thorough theories about childhood development and for years few scholars probed how adults learn and make meaning of their lives until Jack Mezirow, in doing a study on women returning to school as adults, discovered much of what we now know as Transformative Learning Theory, a theory that started with Mezirow and has been greatly enriched by many others.


Learning as Transformation, by Jack Mezirow & Associates, 2000, published by Jossey Bass, San Francisco

The Argument Culture, by Deborah Tannen, 1998, Random House, New York