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Transformative learning theory

Transformative Learning theory (also sometimes called Transformational Learning theory) has its roots in the 1970s. Yet in a way, if we consider Transformative Learning Theory's roots in Humanism, then in a way it has had a part to play in the development of a component of Western educational thought.

At its root, Transformation Learning theory seeks to understand and promote human development through learning. Transformation is more than "knowing more" through time; when a learner is transformed by education they undergo a shift in perspective, and after that shift, they cannot go back to see the world the way they once did, at least in some small way.

Consider the ancient allegory of the cave as we know it from Plato. If you are not quite sure what Plato's Cave allegory is, please take a moment to watch this video. To the Transformative Learning practitioner or theorist, an educator's ultimate purpose to to help learners recognize and grow from moments of perspective transformation. From this point of view, an educator isn't even a guide, as they might be thought of from a Constructivist perspective. Instead, an educator can be understood as being more of a "host" who welcomes learners into increasingly sophisticated and developed ways of understanding the world around them.

Like many other learning theories, Transformative Learning theory is tied to the research and writing of a particular person. Jack Mezirow, who is often called the "father of Adult Learning" developed Transformative Learning theory as a consequence of his work with adult women students who returned to formal education by attending community college in the 1970s. Mezirow's research with these women led to his delineating 10 phases of Transformative Learning. These phases have been modified a bit over the years, but the original 10 phases are:

  • A disorienting dilemma: A learner undergoes an experience that has the potential to shake up their understanding of how the world works.
  • A self examination with feelings of guilt or shame: The learner reacts to the dilemma emotionally, often in a negative way.
  • A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions: The learner stops to think through what they believed before the dilemma and how that belief has been challenged by that dilemma.
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change: The learner realizes they are not alone in these negative feelings. Others have experienced simliar events and feelings.
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions: The learner begins the process of "learning the new rules" that have come about because of the initial dilemma and their reaction to it.
  • Planning a course of action: The learner takes control of their own experience and begins imagining a different future, one where they can benefit from the change in viewpoint.
  • Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan: The learner seeks what they need to be successful in on their new path.
  • Provision trying of new roles: The learner begins to see themselves in a different light and tries on new identies in that new world.
  • Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships: The learner masters the new skills.
  • A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s perspective: The process completes with the learner fully incorporating the full journey into their life story.

If you look at the steps closely, you can see how the stories of the women Mezirow studied directly influenced Transformative Learning theory. While "transformation" itself does not "require" the disoritnting dilemma to be a negative experience, it is frequently experienced as one, especially during the time of tranformation. After all, transformations are hard, and we rarely undertake them unless they are unavoidable. Most unavoidable experiences feel negative at the time.

Transformative Learning theory can be most easily understood when we consider the experience to be tied to a life-changing event such as divorce or death of a spouse, the birth of a first child, or becoming an "empty nester." From this perspective, an educator does not help to facilitate the transformation because the disorienting dilemma has already occurred. Instead, and educator's job is to help the learner feel welcome in their new life as the learner struggles to acquire new skills and knowledge and create a new sense of self. In this way, we can see the place that a Humanist perspective can work together with Transformative Learning. While it does not "require" the educators to have a Humanist perspective, it can be helpful.

But while major, obviously life-changing events help to illustrate Transformative Learning theory very well, that is not the only way to understand the concept. In fact, many people who have been formally trained as adult educators have the perspective that all education (all new knowledge, skills, and perspectives) have the potential to transform learners. From this perspective, education is "dangerous" because it provides a constant source of opportunities for personal disruption, although it is ultimately the learner's responsibility to be open to the idea of personal transformation.

This argument is not as fringe or far-fetched as it might first seem. In fact, throughout history some groups of people have argued against the education of other groups. Anti-literacy laws were a powerful tool that was used to control enslaved people, especially in the nineteenth century, and they continue to have profound repercussions on the modern classroom. Even today, educating female students is at best frowned upon and in some places outright illegal in some parts of the world.

Transformative Learning theory is, it seems, more than one thing, but each of these different manifestations of the idea lead to the same outcome: a learner's fundamental change and, ideally, their movement toward their own self-actualization.

To summarize, here are three ways to understand Transformative Learning:

  • An ancient concept that has helped to provide a foundation for a Western perspective of education.
  • A research-based description of the process of personal development that many adults go through in response to a disorienting (and often traumatic) event.
  • A philosophy of "transformation through education" that influences how some educators approach their role in the classroom.