What is the Transformative Learning Process?



Transformative learning is rarely “formulaic.” It is not a method. It is more often part of the creativity and spontaneity of teaching adults. If we can recognize and, when appropriate, if we can discuss learners’ disorienting dilemmas (or our own); if we can sometimes initiate such discussions with case studies, field trips, guest speakers or by reading selected novels or biographies…then we can help learners rethink their “received knowledge.” Meaning, re-examining the prejudices and biases we all have been exposed to.

As with my reading Night and discussing the holocaust, reading and, possibly, follow-up writing about a fictional or third-person’s experiences can initiate a new discussion and new meanings for learners. And, as Mezirow explains, once transformed, we never return to earlier attitudes.

Here are the stages of the process, according to Mezirow:

The Transformative Learning Process

Ways to Use Transformative Learning

  • The teachable moment for transformative learning often just presents itself in literacy classes and tutoring sessions. As in the examples shown, our adult learners often want to share their views and experiences. These often appear once the learner becomes comfortable with us and the program.
  • We can encourage the teachable moment with case study discussions, by assigning selected readings for learners to read, by having learners share their own lived-experiences or that of others in their family or friends. Followed by in-class or one-to-one discussion and, most likely, further reading and writing, transformative learning can be a highly effective approach to deep learning that changes us.
  • Yet another approach: We can stimulate discussion with selected guest speakers. For instance, former literacy learners who have graduated and successfully met their goals can be highly informative. What is their story and how did literacy change their lives and self-image? You might consider following up a speaker’s session with an opportunity for learners to talk one-on-one with your guest.

Did the learners change their world views? How and why? What happened? Using journals in your classroom, which are passed in, can be a way to get answers to these questions.

Transformative Learning is Not Without Potential Problems

This approach is not for everyone—teacher and learner alike. As noted in Section Three, we are only teachers. There are circumstances where we need to refer learners to the appropriate professionals. We are not psychiatrists, we are not counselors, we are not lawyers—we are teachers. For years, educators from public school through to higher education have avoided political, religious or personal levels of involvement with learners. “Stay professionally neutral” has been the classic stance in public education. This is something that could, even should, be discussed within your organization. Why does this matter? The very nature of education—including transformative learning—should build curiosity, criticality, new insights, questioning. What might be called “continued maturation.” Further, it is a fallacy that we as educators have no biases or personal opinions. And, not-so-incidentally, adult learners are often very good at picking these up and discussing them in the tutor or teacher’s absence.

The transformative learning approach is not for every teacher or learner. However, if I have learned anything in this area, it is to first “know your learner.” A level of trust, a level of safety and comfort is typically needed for transformative learning to really develop and make a difference. Again, “know thy learner” and be cognizant of what your program expects of you.

Read More

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. In P. Cranton (Ed.), Transformative learning in action: Insights from practice (pp. 5-12). New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, No. 74. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. https://doi.org/10.1002/ace.7401

Mezirow, J., & Associates. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pratt, D. (1998). Five perspectives on teaching in adult and higher education. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.