A key aspect of transformative learning is the development of autonomous thinking. It emphasizes a person’s ability to skeptically consider or discuss information in an effort to develop his or her own beliefs.
Transformative learning is another area within the humanistic model of learning that can help us to better understand the complexities of how we learn and why, at times, we do not experience successful learning. Transformative learning is based on the belief that learning should encourage individuals to adapt their perspectives and be critical of how they understand the world around them. It focuses on the idea that knowledge should improve us as human beings—that learning should transform us. One key element in transformative learning is the development of autonomous thinking. In other words, learning should encourage individuals to skeptically consider knowledge and not to simply accept what is taught to them (Bouchard, 2015; Mezirow, 1997). For example, throughout this text, you have been encouraged to develop your knowledge through skeptical inquiry. As a learner, you should thoughtfully evaluate the information presented, rather than simply accept that what a scholar, instructor, or friend says about the subject is true. The perspectives and models considered in this chapter are founded on a philosophy, unlike the frameworks considered in previous discussions. As a learner, you should think critically when you consider this knowledge and determine yourself what you think is valid and applicable.
Transformative learning also suggests that true learning should be uncomfortable because it can be difficult to transcend beyond something that one believes (Bouchard, 2015; Davis, 2006). Approach this section of the chapter with a renewed level of skeptical inquiry:
· Is it a requirement that learners change and rebuild their beliefs if they are to be transformed or holistically developed as human beings?
· Have we learned if we are not willing to mature our beliefs and think for ourselves, without bias to societal and culturally projected values?
How you answer these questions may surprise you. Keep these questions in mind as you read the excerpt from Bouchard (2015). This article introduces us to the founder of transformative learning, the importance of engaging in one’s experiences, the importance of self-reflection, the stages that we as persons go through when delving into transformative learning, and information about the criticisms of this learning model.
Excerpts from “Transformative Learning”
By J. Bouchard
[. . .] 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. [. . .] 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). [. . .]
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).
Significance of Life Experiences
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 from 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 one’s preconceptions (Mezirow, 1997). Learning can be meaningful only when new information is integrated with existing frames of reference (Davis, 2006).
Lawton and La Porte (2013) discuss transformative learning in community art classes for seniors:
[Older adults 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. (p. 310) [. . .]
“Transformative learning involves critical self-reflection of deeply held assumptions” (Davis, 2006, p. 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 take action based on the new understandings (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007).
Transformative Learning Process
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):
1. Experiencing a disconcerting dilemma
2. Performing an examination of self
3. Critically assessing assumptions
4. Recognizing that others share similar experiences
5. Exploring options for action
6. Building self-confidence
7. Forming a plan of action
8. Acquiring skills and information for implementation
9. Practicing a new plan and roles
10. Reintegrating into society with new perspective
“After identifying their problem or challenge, people often enter a phase where they reflect critically on this challenge. During this process, people often can no longer accept their old ways of thinking and thus they are compelled to change” (Lieb, 1991, p. 25). Finally, the learner must take action and do something in reaction to this change. This process could take a long time, and people sometimes reflect on beliefs and ideas for years before they are ready to accept new beliefs and enact change (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). [. . .]
There are four processes or approaches to transformative learning:
· Elaborate on an existing point of view—In this process, a learner seeks to support an initial bias and expand the range of that point of view (Mezirow, 1997, p. 7). This process does not constitute an actual transformation, as it does not require the learner to change point of view; it merely asks the learner to broaden his or her definition of something.
· Establish new points of view—The learner encounters a new situation and creates new meaning to accommodate the situation (Mezirow, 1997). Again, this process does not require the learner to alter an existing point of view. This process gives the opportunity to add a new point of view on something that was previously unfamiliar.
· Transform a point of view—Based on an experience that results in a critical reflection of the learner’s misconceptions, a learner may be forced to alter his or her existing point of view. If this experience or similar experiences occurs repeatedly, a transformation of the learner’s habits of mind may take place (Mezirow, 1997).
· Transform a habit of mind—These types of transformations are rare, as such dramatic changes in perception that shake existing frames of reference do not occur often, but when they do the learner becomes critically reflective of a generalized bias (Mezirow, 1997). [. . .]
A woman gazing out a window.