Transformative Learning

Merriam & Bierema (2015) define transformative learning as “essentially a learning process of making meaning from one’s own experience.” One of the foremost thinkers about transformative learning is Jack Mezirow. Mezirow (1991) defines the process as “an enhanced level of awareness of one’s beliefs and feelings, a critique of their assumptions and particularly premises, an assessment of alternative perspectives, a decision to negate an old perspective in favour of a new one or make a synthesis of old and new, an ability to take action based upon the new perspective and a desire to fit the new perspective into the broader context of one’s life” (p. 161).

Often the life-changing events that trigger transformative learning are personal crises such as divorce, death of a loved one, natural or man-made disasters and accidents, a health crisis, financial upheaval, or unexpected job changes. It is these changing perspectives which Mezirow saw as the raw material of the changes that occur in transformative learning. Cooper (n.d.) states that three common themes characterize Mezirow’s mechanism of transformational learning: experience, critical reflection and rational discourse.

What is interesting to me in this theory is the rational process of reflection. Mezirow (1991) lists three types: content reflection – on what we perceive, think, feel or act upon; process reflection, an examination of how we perform these functions of perceiving, thinking or acting; and, finally, premise reflection in which we ask why we perceive, think, feel or act as we do. It is in this third type of reflection, premise reflection, that perspective transformation takes place.

There are several potential sites for transformative learning – it evidently takes place at the individual level – it is the person who changes, after all. However, transformative learning has also taken place inside of classrooms, online, at work and in the community. Dirkx and Smith (2009) list techniques that foster transformative learning in the classroom, including the use of messy and badly-defined problems as the central focus, collaborative learning, the use of consensus group writing teams, individual and team debriefs , reflective activities and journal writing. Mezirow (1997), meanwhile, suggests “journal writing, metaphors, life history exploration, learning contracts, group projects, role play, case studies, and using literature to stimulate critical consciousness.” For instructors in such programs, great care must be taken with the ethics of what is being planned and delivered in the classroom. Care also must be taken to prepare and attend to the emotional responses from the student, as well as from the instructor, when transformative learning is achieved.

Mezirow’s view of transformative learning is considered to be a critical, cognitive and rational process. Other thinkers see transformational learning as emotional soul work, or even cultural-spiritual. These approaches fall in the realm of “beyond rational” and draw from Jungian psychology and spiritual sources. In the beyond-rational approaches, Cooper (n.d.) lists the following activities to engender transformative learning: imagery, relaxation, meditation, prayer and spiritual disciplines, martial arts, psychoactive drugs, yoga and body disciplines, breathing techniques, acupuncture, out-of-body experiences, biofeedback, dreams, suggestion and hypnosis, near-death experiences, psychoneuroimmunology and others. Transformative learning has also been studied as a trigger for social change – the writings of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (2000) look at transformative learning as a propellant for large scale changes to create a different and more just reality.

Transformative learning is not without its critics. Some critics have suggested that the label of transformative learning has been applied to too-great of a range of learning. Questions are asked about what exactly is being transformed – identity? Consciousness? Actions in the world? Our broader social context? The boundaries of transformation also are unclear. Is the individual only changing, or are groups changing as well? Can an organization be transformed? And how do we assess this change? Can learning objectives be written and completed to effect transformational change? Wherever the location and however broad the context, Mezirow (2000) suggests that this type of learning leads the individual to a perspective that is “more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change and reflective”.

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Cooper, S (n.d.). “Jack Mezirow: Transformational Learning” in Theories of Learning in Educational Psychology. Retrieved from

Dirkx, J. M. & Smith, R. O. (2009). Facilitating Transformative Learning: A Response to Michael Newman’s “Calling Transformative Learning Into Question: Some Mutinous Thoughts,” Adult Education Quarterly, 62(4), 399-405

Freire, P. (1970/2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Merriam, S., & Bierema, L. (2014). Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74, 5-12.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to Think Like An Adult: Core Concepts of Transformation Theory. In J. Mezirow & Associates, Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress (pp. 3-33), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Transformative Learning

2 thoughts on “Transformative Learning

  1. Heh, it turns out we both ended up using the same link for our posts (Cooper). I liked her outline, but got thrown a bit by the appendices — I kept trying to imagine using ‘Shamanism’ to help my students analyse electrical circuits 🙂

    This was beautifully written and researched! Every time I finish one of my posts, I come over to your site and realize how much better a job I could have done. You should really consider maintaining this site after PIDP is over, you have a gift.


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