Jack Mezirow

Transformational Learning

by Sunny Cooper, M.S., M.Ed.

Literature on transformational learning was reviewed in four areas: (1) theories of transformational learning, (2) roles of participants in transformative programs, including students and instructors, (3) course content, environments and instructional activities as they relate to transformational learning, and (4) challenges for instructors who teach transformational material.

Theories of Transformational Learning

The study of transformational learning emerged with the work of Jack Mezirow (1981, 1994, 1997). Transformational learning is defined as learning that induces more far-reaching change in the learner than other kinds of learning, especially learning experiences which shape the learner and produce a significant impact, or paradigm shift, which affects the learner's subsequent experiences (Clark, 1993).

Numerous authors have published papers on various aspects of transformational learning, and they have collectively identified factors which produce transformational learning in adult students. Characteristics of the instructor, student, course content, learning environment, and instructional activities as they influence transformational learning have been discussed and examined. To date, there has not been a comprehensive compilation of these factors in one publication, and there are additional factors which appear to be overlooked or ignored by writers on transformational learning.

Two fundamental questions arise from these observations.
First, what factors contribute to transformational learning?
Second, what challenges arise for the instructor who teaches in transformational learning environments?

Baumgartner (2001) and Taylor (1998) give an overview of the theories, contributions of significant authors, and unresolved issues in transformational learning. The earliest writer on transformational learning (Mezirow, 1981) developed the concepts of “meaning perspectives”, one's overall world-view, and “meaning schemes”, smaller components which contain specific knowledge, values, and beliefs about one's experiences. A number of meaning schemes work together to generate one's meaning perspective. Meaning perspectives are acquired passively during childhood and youth, and are the target of the transformation that occurs through experience during adulthood. They operate as perceptual filters that determine how an individual will organize and interpret the meaning of his/her life's experiences.

Meaning perspectives naturally change and evolve in response to life experiences, especially those which induce powerful emotional responses in the individual. Often these life-changing events are personal crises such as divorce, death of a loved one, natural or man-made disasters and accidents, health crisis, financial upheaval, or unexpected job changes. It is these meaning perspectives which Mezirow saw as the raw material of the changes that occur in transformational learning.

Mezirow (1997) further states that we do not make transformative changes in the way we learn as long as the new material fits comfortably in our existing frames of reference.

Three common themes characterized Mezirow's theory of the mechanism of transformational learning in the classroom. These were experience, critical reflection, and rational discourse. The students' life experiences provided a starting point for transformational learning (Mezirow, 1991). Mezirow considered critical reflection to be the distinguishing characteristic of adult learning, and saw it as the vehicle by which one questions the validity of his world-view. He identified rational discourse as a catalyst for transformation, as it induced the various participants to explore the depth and meaning of their various world-views, and articulate those ideas to their instructor and class mates.

Mezirow (1997) emphasizes that transformative learning is rooted in the way human beings communicate, and does not link it exclusively with significant life events of the learner. Through this combination of reflection and discourse, the student was able to make shifts in his/her world view which produced a more inclusive world-view. For Mezirow, one of the benefits of transformational learning was the development of greater autonomy as a person, a defining condition of adulthood (Mezirow, 1997).

Boyd (as cited in Imel, 1998) differed from Mezirow's views in two major ways. First, he believed the emotional/kinesthetic component, rather than the rational component of the transformational experience was the major catalyst for change. Second, he believed the desired outcome of transformation was not autonomy, but a greater interdependent and compassionate relationship with other people.
Research has also extended transformational learning into the realm of spiritual questions such as exploration of self (Dirkx, 1997) and of one's life purpose, core questions in human seeking (Kroth & Boverie, 2000).

Roles of the Instructor and Student in Transformational Learning

Not all teachers nor all learners are predisposed to engage in transformative learning and many adult learning situations do not lend themselves to these kinds of experiences. When transformational learning is part of a course of study, one role of the teacher is to establish an environment characterized by trust and care, and to facilitate sensitive relationships among the participants (Taylor, 1998).
Boyd and Myers (as cited in Imel, 1998) encouraged adult educators to develop and practice two characteristics. First was seasoned guidance, the ability to serve as an experienced mentor reflecting on his/her own journey, with the intent to assist others with their transformational process. Second, they valued compassionate criticism, assisting students to question their own reality in ways that would promote transformation of their world view. Cranton (1994) emphasized the importance of the teacher as a role model who is willing to demonstrate his own willingness to learn and change. Taylor (1998) saw the role of the teacher to help students connect the rational and affective aspects of their experience in the process of critical reflection.

Taylor (1998) believed that too much emphasis was placed on the teacher at the expense of the student. He emphasized that learners share the responsibility for constructing and creating both the environment and the process of transformational learning. Daloz (1986) recognized that growth can be a risky and frightening journey into the unknown, as students are challenged to let go of old conceptualizations of self and the world. He challenged teachers to structure their teaching for fostering personal development of the students rather than developing specific competencies. He frequently used the metaphor of transformation as a journey in which the mentor or instructor served as a gatekeeper as well as a guide for students on the journey (Daloz, 1999).

Appendix A summarizes instructor roles in transformational learning, and Appendix B summarizes student characteristics and roles.

Environments and Activities which Promote Transformational Learning

One of the most provocative discussions of environment, subject matter, and learning activities relating to transformational learning was proposed by Youngstown State University professor Bache (n.d.). He described a “subtle energetic resonance” that spontaneously rises in learning circles. He identified this psychic field that surrounds and saturates the learning environment as inclusive of the teacher's personal energy field and the energy field created by all the participants. He stated that the stronger and more focused this mental field, the more likely that change would be induced among participants. Bache also believed that certain types of subject matter were particularly conducive to transformational learning, for example, inquiries into the origins and destinies of individual existence, mind exploration, the mysteries of human suffering and purpose, and other universal questions.

Mezirow (1997) describes a transformative learning environment as one in which those participating have full information, are free from coercion, have equal opportunity to assume various roles, can become critically reflective of assumptions, are empathetic and good listeners, and are willing to search for common ground or a synthesis of different points of view.

Mezirow (1997) identified several ways to stimulate transformational learning, including journal writing, metaphors, life history exploration, learning contracts, group projects, role play, case studies, and using literature to stimulate critical consciousness. He believed that these could stimulate critical reflection and rational discourse, integral parts of the transformative process in his model. Mezirow strongly emphasized that transformational learning came about through discussion and exploration of concepts relating to these kinds of experiences, and was not an advocate of creating intense emotional experiences in transformational learning.
Roberts (1989) offered visionary thoughts for the future of education, focusing on multistate learning consistent with transformational learning. He recognizes that topics which used to be on the fringes of orthodox research in psychology and education are starting to appear regularly in the mainstream literature. He boldly states that the major intellectual error of our times is the failure to recognize the fundamental primacy of mind-body states, and that any cognitive science which omits them is incomplete.

Roberts cites examples such as 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. All these types of learning experiences could be activities in a transformational learning experience. He suggests that medicine and psychotherapy are fields which have applied mind-body approaches first, and predicts that they will become important in education as well. He also suggests there are implications for future research about cognitive processes, memory, learning, behavior, perception, and related educational phenomena as they relate to these types of non-ordinary classroom experiences.

Appendix C provides a summary of course content, environmental factors and classroom activities which may promote transformational learning.

Challenges for Instructors in Transformational Learning

Though transformational learning has powerful potential for enhancing and accelerating students' self-actualization process, there are important considerations for instructors in such programs. According to Baumgartner (2001), instructors are advised to consider ethical questions which may arise in the planning and delivery of transformational learning. Most basic is “What right do instructors have to encourage transformational learning?” (p.21). Baumgartner also discusses dynamics and the balance of power in the classroom, emphasizing the necessity of a trusting and caring relationship between students and teacher. Students who see the instructor as an authority figure may have difficulty or reluctance to challenge conventional values, beliefs, and interpretations of facts. Baumgartner recommends a formal code of ethics be designed and implemented, and encourages adult educators to establish a learning forum in which they can create mutual support and exploration of the dynamics of transformational learning. She reminds instructors that transformational learning frequently elicits emotional responses from both student and instructor.

Boyd and Myers (as cited in Imel, 1998) considered grieving to be a critical phase in transformational learning, as the student realizes that old patterns of thinking, perceiving, beliefs and values are giving way to new patterns. Boyd wrote
Transformative education draws on the realm of interior experience, one constituent being the rational expressed through insights, judgements, and decision; the other being the extra-rational expressed through symbols, images, and feelings (p. 4).

Learning Theory Bibliography

Bache, C. M. (n.d.).
Baumgartner, L. M. (2001).
Clark, M. C. (1993).
Cranton, P. (1994).
Daloz, L. (1986).
Daloz, L.A. (1999).
Dirkx, J. M. (1997).
Imel, S. (1998).
Kroth, M., & Boverie, P. (2000).
Mezirow, J. D. (1981).
Mezirow, J. (1991).
Mezirow, J (1997).
Roberts, T. B (1989).
Taylor, E. W. (1998).


Appendix A. Instructor Characteristics and Roles Which Facilitate Transformational Learning

  • Encourage students to reflect on and share their feelings and thoughts in class.
  • Be holistically oriented, aware of body, mind, and spirit in the learning process.
  • Become transcendent of his own beliefs and accepting of others' beliefs.
  • Cultivate awareness of alternate ways of learning.
  • Establish an environment characterized by trust and care.
  • Facilitate sensitive relationships among the participants.
  • Demonstrate ability to serve as an experienced mentor reflecting on his own journey.
  • Help students question reality in ways that promote shifts in their worldview.

Appendix B. Student Characteristics and Roles which Facilitate Transformational Learning

  • Students must be free to determine their own reality, as opposed to social realities defined by others or by cultural institutions.
  • Students must be ready for and open to change.
  • Those with a wider variety of life experiences, including prior stressful life events, are likely to experience more transformation.
  • Cultivate the ability to transcend past contexts of learning and experience.
  • Students must be willing and able to integrate critical reflection into their school work and personal life.
  • Students must be able to access both rational and affective mental functioning.
  • Have sufficient maturity to deal with paradigm shifts and material which differs from their current beliefs.

Appendix C. Course Content and Instructional Activities and Environmentsto Facilitate Transformational Learning

  • Critical reflection,
  • Rational discourse,
  • Constructivist approach to course design and instructional objectives,
  • Inquiries into the origins and destinies of individual existence,
  • Mind exploration (dreams, out-of-body, near death experience, meditation, altered states of consciousness, hypnosis),
  • The mysteries of human suffering and purpose,
  • Paradigms of consciousness and healing from other cultures (Chinese medicine, shamanism, Yoga, etc.),
  • Guided imagery,
  • Sensory awareness development (Feldenkrais, hypnosis, etc.),
  • Dance and movement,
  • Breath work,
  • Touch (giving and receiving),
  • Atmosphere of openness, safety, and emotional support,
  • Instructors and students have full information and are free from coercion,
  • All students have equal opportunity to assume various roles,
  • Students can become critically reflective of assumptions,
  • Instructors and students are empathetic and good listeners, and are willing to search for common ground or a synthesis of different points of view.

Appendix D. Professional Challenges and Ethical Considerations
for Instructors Facilitating Transformational Learning

  • Transference and counter-transference among students and instructor,
  • Confidentiality,
  • Sexual attraction,
  • Cognitive dissonance,
  • Repressed memories emerging into consciousness creating stress,
  • Burnout and intensity beyond the student's ability to cope,
  • Appropriate supervision with minimal interference in the process,
  • Conflict between students,
  • Code of ethics for the classroom environment,
  • Inappropriate touch,
  • Precipitating transformational learning in a learner who is not prepared or does not fully understand its possible consequences,
  • Providing adequate transformational learning to students who are eager and receptive to personal change and evolution,
  • Is an instructor qualified to decide which, among a learner's beliefs, should be exposed to transformation,
  • There can be a fine line between education and therapeutic intervention; should a teacher function as therapist to his students?