Transformative learning is the learning that takes place as a person forms and reforms meaning. This article provides an overview of the transformative learning theory developed by Jack Mezirow. The article provides an overview of Mezirow's theory and why it is appropriate for adult education. The article describes transformative learning theory in detail and discusses best practices for educators. Also covered are critical views of transformative learning theory.
Keywords Adult Education; Autonomous Thinking; Constructivism; Experiential Learning; Frames of Reference; Habits of Mind; Point of View; Transformative Learning
What is Transformative Learning?
According to Jack Mezirow, the founder of transformative learning theory, a defining condition of the human experience is that we have to make meaning of our lives (Mezirow, 1997). Transformative learning is the learning that takes place as a person forms and reforms this meaning. It has become a hot topic in adult education due to its involvement more than classroom learning and connects learning to the learner's own life (Florida State University, 2002). Mezirow believes that in today's world people must learn to make their own interpretations as opposed to listening to and acting on the beliefs and explanations of others. The goal of adult education is to facilitate this understanding rather than to provide it. The goal of transformative learning is to develop "autonomous thinking" (Mezirow, 1997).
Mezirow developed the theory of transformative learning in the 1970s (Florida State University, 2002). Mezirow's theory focuses on the individual as a reflective learner. Transformative learning requires the acquisition of information that upsets prior knowledge and triggers a changing of ideas and perceptions (Davis, 2006). The principles of constructivist learning are important to transformative learning because knowledge and meaning are a direct result of experience (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007). Constructivism states that meaning is constructed from a person's existing knowledge base and perception of the world.
Transformative learning occurs when a person encounters an event or situation that is inconsistent with his or her existing perspective (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007). Transformational learning experiences cause the learner to become critical of his or her beliefs and how they affect the way the learner makes sense of the world (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007).
Children commonly acquire the knowledge structures necessary to think autonomously. This includes the ability to recognize cause-effect relationships, make analogies and generalizations, recognize and control emotions, develop empathy, and think abstractly (Mezirow, 1997). In addition, adolescents learn to hypothesize and reflect on what they read, see, and hear. The primary goal for adult education is to strengthen and build on this foundation in order to assist the learner to become more critical in assessing one's own beliefs, values, and judgments of others (Mezirow, 1997). This awareness will allow adult learners to become more responsible and better equipped to work with others to solve problems and modify previously held beliefs (Mezirow, 1997).
Mezirow maintains that transformative education is extremely different than the types of education appropriate for children (Davis, 2006). Acquiring new information is just one aspect of the adult education process (Davis, 2006). Adults, throughout their lives, develop a body of associations, concepts, values, and feelings based on their experiences. These are frames of reference, the mental collection of assumptions that are responsible for how people comprehend their experiences and define their worlds (Mezirow, 1997). Once a person's frames of reference are set, it is extremely difficult to accept those that do not fit our preconceptions (Mezirow, 1997). Learning can only be meaningful when new information is integrated with existing frames of reference (Davis, 2006).
Older adults, in particular, write Lawton and La Porte (2013) of transformative learning in community art classes for seniors, have “a wealth of knowledge and experience, a broad range of interests and cognitive abilities, and a unique vantage point: the wisdom acquired with age. The reinterpreting of past experiences and understanding them in a new way may provide meaningful creative inspiration. Transformative experiences can occur for adults across cultures and generations through activities such as storytelling, social interaction, and collaborative artmaking.”
Habits of Mind, Point of View
A frame of reference includes cognitive and emotional components and consists of two divisions: habits of mind and a point of view (Mezirow, 1997). Habits of mind are abstract but habitual ways of thinking. This may be based on culture, education, socio-economics, or psychological factors (Mezirow, 1997). An example of a habit of mind is ethnocentrism, the tendency to view others outside one's own group as inferior. As a result of this habit of mind, people have mixed feelings, attitudes and may pass judgments on specific individuals or groups such as homosexuals, minorities, or the poor (Mezirow, 1997). Point of view is the perspective from which something is viewed and considered. “Habits of mind are more durable than points of view as points of view are continually changing” (Mezirow, 1997, p. 6).
“Transformative learning involves critical self-reflection of deeply held assumptions” (Davis, 2006, ¶ 16). The theory of transformative learning applies to adults engaged in a variety of learning environments. Mezirow explains that it requires the learner to "interpret past experiences from a new set of expectations about the future, thus giving new meaning perspectives to those experiences" (cited in Davis, 2006, "Promoting Transformation"). Transformation occurs upon the completion of a series of 10 stages the individual must go through (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007). This shift in perspective can be gradual or sudden, as the individual moves through the stages and experiences a cognitive restructuring of experience and action (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007). The learner then begins the process of changing expectations to a more comprehensive perspective.
Mezirow believed that transformative learning takes place through experience, reflection, and discourse (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007). The process can be disruptive and uncomfortable as the learner is forced into seeing the world differently than previously accepted (Davis, 2006). Transformative learning is considered to have taken place once learners make choices or takes action based on the new understandings (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007).
The 10 Stages of Transformative Learning
Mezirow developed several stages that people experience on the way to transformation. According to Mezirow, these phases are required in order for a true transformation to take place (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999):
• Experiencing a disconcerting dilemma
• Performing an examination of self
• Critically assessing assumptions
• Recognizing that others share similar experiences
• Exploring options for action
• Building self-confidence
• Forming a plan of action
• Acquiring skills and information for implementation
• Practicing a new plan and roles
• Reintegrating into society with new perspective
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