4. The Transformative Learning Approach: "Making Meaning"

Sometimes called “deep learning,” Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory sees “disorienting dilemmas” as the critical incidents in our lives that can lead to us to re-think and re-interpret the beliefs and assumptions we carry.

While transformative learning is a phenomenon that occurs in all kinds of settings and circumstances, it is now an area of study and practice in the field of adult education. Unfortunately, there is remarkably little published follow-up research on the learners in this field. If there were, we would see how countless literacy learners’ lives have been changed—transformed—due to our programs. Likewise, if there were more follow-up on literacy tutors and teachers themselves, there would be a wealth of transformative knowledge we could learn from and build on for research and practice in our field (Quigley, 2006).

Jack Mezirow Discovers Transformative Learning

How Jack Mezirow began to think about transformative learning.... Or "When Edie went to grad school...."

Jack Mezirow and wife Edie

Mezirow was the first in the field of adult education to study and systematize this life-changing phenomenon of learning. The transformative approach goes right to the heart of internal motivation. It is highly unlikely Skinner would have ever considered advocating transformative learning as an approach to teaching; nevertheless, the recent addition of Mezirow’s transformative learning theory to adult education is easily the most researched, most discussed and most published area in adult teaching today.

Mezirow was a Professor of Adult Education at Columbia Teachers College in New York. When his wife, Edie, decided to go back to Graduate School, Jack could see how Edie was changing. Graduate School was making her a more confident, more assertive, far more curious person. By the time she graduated, her attitudes and perspectives on so many things had changed. She was a “different Edie.”

What had happened?

Mezirow began researching what he called “transformative learning” with other women who had graduated from Columbia Teachers College. He then researched male graduates from the college and beyond. Did male graduates change too? How? When? Why?

In his books and articles that followed, Mezirow discussed how adults in mainstream higher education and college adult education have very often realized their world views—their “meaning schemes” as he called them—were transformed by a “disorienting dilemma.” He concluded these radical changes come in our lives as a result of rethinking and examining certain events or experiences. It is all highly internal—the consequence of an external disorienting dilemma making us consider if our beliefs, assumptions and biases were right.

I have personally seen transformative learning happen with hundreds of graduate students as well as literacy learners throughout my career, but I had never thought about it in this systematic way until Mezirow’s research explained deep learning.

With transformative learning, we are asking: “Are these assumptions and beliefs what we really believe… about ourself, about others and the world?” (Pratt, 1998)

All adults have had disorienting dilemmas in their lives. Some such dilemmas might be highly positive, such as graduating from university or an adult literacy program, both of which can change our self-image. The birth of a child or a major career change can change our sense of self-responsibility. Other disorienting dilemmas can be more negative: a divorce, a job loss, a death or suicide in the family. Any number of situations could be listed, both positive and negative. And when they do occur, we typically ask questions like: “What happened?” “Why did it happen?” “Why me?” “Should I have acted differently?” Sometimes with extreme dilemmas, the question becomes “How can I live with this?”

Like Jack’s wife Edie, adult learners often find that their “received knowledge,” meaning the knowledge received from others—be it assumptions, biases, prejudices or beliefs—can be challenged or shaken by a disorienting dilemma. What we always imagined to be true gets shattered, seriously challenged, entirely re-thought—all creating a new way of seeing ourselves and our lives.

We have lots of society-wide examples. Consider the #MeToo Movement, the LGBTQ pride parades, the voice of Indigenous peoples and Canada’s residential school revelations, the growing recognition of the needs of adults with disabilities, the changing societal attitudes toward the elderly…all of these phenomena and so many more have radically changed individual and societal viewpoints. Society itself has changed in just the past few decades. It is no longer socially acceptable to denigrate or joke about such groups. The hegemony has been challenged and changed.

Turning to individuals, including our learners, sometimes this type of disorientating dilemma has happened quickly. A sudden “trigger moment.” Or it can be a matter of weeks or months before we can sort out disorienting dilemmas. And, as Mezirow says, once we have experienced a transformative learning experience, we never go back to our former way of thinking.

Examples of Transformative Learning

When I taught my first literacy/Adult Basic Education class in Northern Saskatchewan, I had 15 adult learners from different ethnic groups: Métis, First Nations and White. After lunch I would read a novel or story to them…they absolutely loved it. As time went on, I decided to try something a bit more challenging. I chose to read the novel Night by Elie Wiesel. It is a grim story of how Jews in Europe were taken to concentration camps and were exterminated in many cases during World War II. The horror of this story was palpable in the classroom.

At first this seemed like a terrible choice. “Why am I upsetting my learners?” But my class was transfixed. Not one learner had any idea of the Jewish holocaust in World War II. There were hardly any questions along the way. Silence. But when the book was finished, one learner, Bill, wondered aloud about who this group was, who were these people? He asked, “Is that what we mean when we say, ‘We Jew someone down’?” Every student related to the question and was truly interested in the answer. That question led to a week-long discussion of antisemitism, the Jewish religion, Judaism and the oppression Jews have faced for centuries.

A second example. In that same class, another learner, George, volunteered to arrange a field trip visit to his First Nations reserve that was not far from our town. Some of the White adults in the class were rather afraid of taking this trip. One asked me, “Will we be safe?” Since few of the learners had ever been on a reserve, the disorienting dilemma of that field trip changed many attitudes. We were served lunch, including bannock that we saw being made. We met the Council members and were toured throughout the community. Our First Nations hosts could not have been more gracious.

After that trip, the class then saw reserves, First Nations and George in a whole new light. This single trip led to several discussions in and out of class. Reading about First Nations followed. First Nations’ rights and colonial Canadian history became a disorienting set of discussions. It is fair to say attitudes towards First Nations transformed with that “disorienting” tour to George’s reserve.

Like Edie who went back to Graduate School, there are thousands of untold stories of adult literacy learners who have changed their entire self-concept and become far more confident, more self-assured and more engaged in society through our programs. We may not think about it or discuss it in these terms, but we are often in the business of transformative learning. But how can this approach help us make our programs more successful, more meaningful, and more enjoyable?



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