Transformative Learning


Transformative learning is a term coined by Jack Mezirow in 1978 to describe learning that fundamentally ‘changes’ the learner. 

Jack Mezirow (1923 – 2014)

Mezirow (2009) describes transformative learning as an experience that allows us to

recognise, reassess and modify the structures of assumptions and expectations that frame our tacit points of view and influence our thinking, beliefs, attitudes and actions

A transformative experience causes us to question something about ourselves, challenges the way we think and act and pushes us towards a new way of being in the world. Transformative learning might represent a relatively minor recalibration in our conceptualisation of a particular idea or theory (such as happens when we tackle a familiar concept with a new level of complexity as our learning progresses), or it might be a radical re-imagining of our place in the world.

The transformative process

Whatever the motivation or stimulus for transformation and whatever the nature of the transformation that is to occur, Mezirow (2009) has identified a series of ten phases of learning that are common to all true transformations. These are:

  1. A disorienting dilemma
  2. Self examination
  3. A critical assessment of one’s assumptions
  4. Recognition of a connection between the current disorientation and therefore discontent and the potential of transformation to resolve this
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships and action that might resolve the discontent
  6. Planning a course of action
  7. Acquiring knowledge and skill’s to implement the plan
  8. Trying out of new roles, relationships and actions
  9. Building competence and self-confidence in the new roles, relationships and actions
  10. A re-integration into one’s life on the basis of the conditions dictated by one’s new perspective

Does every transformation go through all ten steps?

In practice, not all the steps are necessarily readily apparent, and may not occur strictly in this order. Using the Live, Love, Learn approach, we have seen students move up to, in and out of and through transformative experiences.

Some students recognise a disorienting dilemma – something about themselves or the world that doesn’t make sense within their current framework of thinking, knowing and being. They might or might not be ready to do something about this.

For many students, it is enough to recognise that this disorientation exists, and that there is a future possibility of reconciliation of this disorientation – the restoration of a complete sense of identity and thinking that ‘works’ in all anticipated situations. Recognition of this disorientation might be frightening or challenging and cause a student to retreat, or it might simply inform future decision making and provide a goal to move towards.

These students – whether challenged or inspired – have seen the potential for transformation, the possibility exists that they are not thinking and working in the single most effective way.

Some students might move further into the process, and start exploring ways to resolve the tension of the dilemma. They may see new ways of thinking and working that would facilitate a more effective approach to their work. They might go further, trying these out and even finding success within the current context. But perhaps they are not ready to take this new approach out of the relatively safe and boundaried space of the learning environment in which this dilemma has arisen. So the transformation doesn’t become integrated into their ongoing approach to their lives and work. The experience has not transformed them, but they have seen the effects of transformation in one context.

And of course, some students sail through all ten steps and really do transform their approach.

We should also mention the students who don’t notice or accept the disorienting dilemma in the first place – they’re not yet ready to accept an experience that would cause them to question themselves, or perhaps this particular dilemma is not the right dilemma to reach this particular student.

Does transformation always happen all in one go?

The timing of transformation is very varied.

Some students are immediately challenged to act. They might or might not struggle, but they complete whatever level of transformation has been inspired by the learning experience during that session (unlikely), course (more likely, but still not very likely), or following the end of that particular learning experience (most likely), but prompted and shaped by that particular learning experience.

Some students may begin transformation, cease transformation and then pick up the process again at a later date – so the transformation has been stimulated by the initial learning experience, but is completed in a different context.

And some students may not begin any type of transformation during the initial learning experience, but might do so at a later date and in another context. These students remember and link the transformation to the initial learning experience, even though it has occurred in a completely different context.

We get a lot of students in these last two categories who email us to tell us about what they have now ‘realised’ or ‘achieved’. The very fact that they are contacting us means that in some way they feel this transformation is related to something we have done together – whether or not the transformation proper was initiated by the first learning experience.

Finally, some students will recognise that they weren’t ready for transformation at that initial learning experience, and will purposely seek out another similar challenge in order to face the disorientation directly. We also get emails from students who attended a first year course, felt that they were unable to engage with the opportunities to try new ways of thinking or learning at that time, and seek out a third or fourth year course to challenge themselves. They are often explicit in stating that they weren’t ready to try something new during their initial course with us, but now they realise how important it is, and they feel that they have to attempt something new – even if it is very difficult or challenging for them.

Can you plan a transformative learning challenge?

You can certainly plan learning experiences that will cause students to face disorientation – and possibly require them to work through a process of resolving this disorientation in order to succeed. However, given the challenging nature of the transformation process, I think that it is worth considering that not all students will be ready or able to tackle this at the same time. It is therefore worth thinking about a number of different ways and opportunities to engage students with transformative learning. For example, in a spiral curriculum challenges may be revisited to offer additional opportunities to engage with transformation. Or a number of different learning activities might be designed that will help different students recognise and tackle the disorienting dilemma in different ways and at different times. It is also critical to remember that not every student needs to move through the whole process of transformation in front of your eyes for the learning experience to have been a success. You might initiate a process of transformation that is completed later, or you might sow the seed that later leads the students to engage in transformation in a different context.

Is transformative learning difficult for the learner?

Transformative learning is certainly challenging. Some students might be ready to move through the process, and might therefore find it easier, while others will not. The context of the transformative learning is also important – is it related to a ‘high value’ learning item in the eyes of the student? Is it critical that the student excels in this particular setting? If the student feels under pressure to achieve a certain outcome or grade, this might make the disorientation and self-reconceptualistion very difficult to undertake in this pressured setting. Is the transformative learning attached to a complex learning experience – does it relate to complex topics or ideas that in themselves create many challenges in the learning setting?

The impact of transformation on the learner should not be underestimated – there will potentially be anxiety, self-doubt, fear and other negative emotions that are raised by the process. These need to be supported and managed effectively to prevent the student becoming overwhelmed or overloaded. If we think about the concept of cognitive load, it becomes clear that the basic equation could help us to manage this for the students.

Using cognitive load theory to make ‘space’ for transformation

If we think about the cognitive load theory equation, we can see immediately that we are increasing the learning effort by prompting transformation:

intrinsic load + germane load + extrinsic load = total learning effort

If students have a limited capacity to learn, i.e. a static total learning effort available, we need to manage the competing demands of intrinsic, germane and extrinsic loads on their learning. Intrinsic load is related to the complexity or quantity of learning required. The germane load is related to the ‘processing’ and ‘storage’ of learning – the creation or amendment of mental schema. And extrinsic load reflects the way in which the learning is presented – how easy it is for the student to undertake the learning and know whether they are completing the learning successfully.

We can see that the germane load is going to sky rocket if transformation is achieved – transformation is all about critical self examination and reconceptualisation. The extrinsic load is also high, because the transformation will create uncertainty in the learner about the material to be learned, the method they are applying to achieve that learning and where the process is going to lead.

So, if we want to look after the students and help them to build resilience to challenge and confidence to be critical and create change where needed, we need to prevent them becoming overloaded. We therefore need to minimise the intrinsic learning load to create ‘space’ for the very necessary increases in germane and extrinsic loads that will occur.

References and further reading

Mezirow, J., Taylor, E. and Associates. (2009) Transformative Learning in Practice. Insights from Community, Workplace and Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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