What is Transformative Learning?

Transformative learning occurs when an individual experiences a significant structural shift in the way they perceive and understand the world around them. It is a process that is conducive to a change in the individual’s perspective and a re-evaluation of their beliefs, values, and assumptions.

Read on to learn why transformative learning is increasingly recognized as an essential component of adult learning, professional development, and transformative education.

Transformative Learning: The Key to Personal Growth and Professional Development

A women’s head overlaid with technology-related imagery.

Transformative learning helps people become more open to new perspectives that can change their entire view of the world itself.

Jack Mezirow developed the concept of transformative learning, defining it as “The process by which we transform problematic frames of reference (mindsets, habits of mind, meaning perspectives) – sets of assumption and expectation – to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective and emotionally able to change. Such frames are better because they are more likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action”.

Our cultural and linguistic frameworks, known as frames of reference, influence the meaning we attribute to our experiences. These frameworks predetermine our thoughts, perceptions, and emotions by influencing our beliefs and intentions. This set of preconceived notions determines the course of action we might take and what set of ideas we might vehemently resist.

A frame of reference is a mental structure that shapes how individuals interpret and understand their experiences and the world around them. It might not be conscious and is made up of two parts: a habit of mind and a resulting point of view. Habits of mind are abstract ways of thinking, feeling, and acting and are shaped by cultural and social norms. For instance, believing in Buddhism and adhering to Buddhist principles could be considered a habit of mind.

A point of view is more noticeable and can change through the feedback of others. For example, ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s group is superior, can be altered through positive experiences with other groups.

Transformative Learning transforms how the learner perceives the world, how the learner inhabits and functions in the world, and how the learner engages the world, to transform it.

Aftab Omer, President of Meridian University

Transformative learning is made possible through the presence of several components of the transformative learning theory. Two major components are critical reflection and full and free participation in dialectical discourse to determine the best reflective judgment.

Transformative learning is important because it allows individuals to undergo a profound change in their lives, perspectives, and values.

What are the 10 steps of transformative learning?

There are ten stages involved in transformative learning that make it possible. They were developed by the researcher Jack Mezirow when he examined adult learning related to people who choose to pursue college only after several gap years.

He observed that their college experience forced them to critically re-evaluate their assumptions and the underlying principles that had previously defined their worldviews, having been presented with a new piece of the puzzle of reality. They developed a new perspective to reframe the new existential territory that was standing before them.

This fresh perspective of reality was born through transformative learning and can be understood through the following ten steps:

  • A disorienting dilemma. This is a situation or experience that makes an individual question their beliefs, values, and assumptions. It might trigger feelings of confusion and discomfort, and it is generally caused by major life events such as a crisis. A hypothetical person named Jack, who believes that everyone is fundamentally selfish, could one day, while feeling ill on his way home, be driven to the hospital by a random stranger. This spontaneous and sincere act of kindness leads to a perspective transformation and a general shift of perspective toward the world.
  • Conducting self-examination. This step involves reflecting on one’s emotions and feelings in response to the disorienting dilemma. In the case of Jack, who believes that everyone is egotistical, this might give rise to feelings of anger as it challenges one of his core beliefs. Jack might also feel guilty because of the actions he undertook under the premise that if everyone is an egoist, he can also act as one.
  • A critical assessment of present assumptions. In this step, individuals assess their beliefs, values, and assumptions that contributed to the dilemma. For Jack, this could mean looking back at his life experiences and how they led to him believing everyone is egotistical. This might have been the highly competitive school environment of his childhood, where everyone prioritized their own interests. Because he formed the opinion that everyone is an egoist, he might also have misinterpreted many of the actions of people around him.
  • Recognized shared experiences. This step involves realizing that others might be facing similar challenges and that the transformative learning process is not unique to a single individual. Jack might now realize that his situation is not unique and that others with the same background as him may also be faced with these life-altering realizations.
  • Exploration of options for new roles and actions. This step involves considering different ways of approaching the disorienting dilemma, testing new ideas, and trying out new attitudes and behaviors to help address the dilemma. Jack could start to believe that people are not necessarily egotistical but simply look out for their own well-being. People could, in fact, also be compassionate and help other people for no other reason than to do something good.
  • Planning a course of action. This involves creating a specific plan of action for addressing the disorienting dilemma. Jack might set a specific goal, such as reading about acts of kindness done by others to learn more about the part of humanity he dismissed. He could also practice altruism himself and choose to see the previously ignored acts of kindness around him.
  • Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan. In Jack’s case, this step could entail learning about how compassion and kindness are developed and nurtured according to a spiritual tradition such as Buddhism. He could also talk with a mental health specialist who could help him understand why he had such a strong conviction about all the people around him being egoists.
  • Provisionally trying new roles or behaviors. Individuals at this stage will experiment with new behaviors and attitudes in a provisional manner, allowing them to test their approach before fully commenting on it. Jack might try to be more compassionate with his family, helping them and learning how he can best support other people. After that, based on how the experiment went, he could adapt his approach or use the same one and extend his help to his friends and other people.
  • Building competence and self-confidence. Then, individuals develop self-confidence in their attitudes and their newly implemented habits by consistently practicing the new behaviors established in the previous step and receiving feedback from others. Jack might consistently choose to support other people and be compassionate. He might also ask his friends and other people close to him to clarify their intentions when it might seem that they are behaving egotistically.
  • Reintegration into one’s life. This final step entails the integration of newly found perspectives and behaviors into daily life. Jack could make compassion a normal part of his life and could regularly choose to see the good in others.

These steps highlight the essential components of the transformative learning theory and make it possible for this type of learning to occur. Transformative learning is one of many similar learning theories that have developed over the years.

Frameworks such as constructivism are similar to transformative learning theory in that they acknowledge that learners construct their understanding and meaning through their experiences and self-reflection. Each theory has its strengths and weaknesses, and they all offer different perspectives on how learning occurs. However, transformative learning theory stands as one of the most comprehensive and holistic theories regarding adult education and learning.

What are the four processes of transformative learning?

According to the Nestrom Transformative Learning Model, which seeks to provide a simplified approach to comprehend and explain transformative learning, the four phases are:

Having experiences. An experience is considered anything that might have happened during our lifetime. This is the result of the interaction between ourselves and the environment, an interaction from which knowledge, skills, and insights emerge.

Making assumptions. Based on our experiences, we construct assumptions that become our beliefs and values. They are part of the filter through which we see reality, shaping our worldview.

Challenging perspectives: New experiences and challenges, combined with critical reflection, can lead to questioning our fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world and considering a new perspective.

Experiencing transformative learning. Implementing or acting upon a new perspective not only changes our previous perspectives but also changes the fundamental beliefs and assumptions related to them. For example, a person could be fearful of all cats because once they were seriously injured by one. Nevertheless, if the same person has a radically positive experience with a cat and critically evaluates their previous assumptions, they might change their opinion on all cats.

An approach to learning that leads to professional and personal development

A group of three people, two men, and a woman analyze a graph on a computer.

Creating a business environment that encourages transformative learning helps workers become more flexible, better decision-makers, and more adept problem-solvers.

One’s learning environment plays a crucial role in the emergence of transformative learning. A supportive and inclusive environment can facilitate the exploration of new perspectives, leading to the introduction of disorienting dilemmas that can be overcome through critical self-assessment and personal transformation. On the other hand, a hostile or inhibiting environment can prevent the possibility of the emergence of transformative learning.

Having an environment that promotes transformative learning can be important for people's professional development. As sociologist Jack Mirow discovered, when people are exposed to a new set of rules and expectations, they need to create perspectives and frames of reference to accommodate the new reality around them.

Many young graduates do not have any work experience and have to adapt quickly to a new set of rules and expectations as well as new roles and relationships upon entering the workforce. A supportive environment will encourage transformative learning by promoting curiosity, critical thinking, and openness, helping these budding employees accommodate the new reality around their jobs.

Having a work environment that facilitates the spontaneous emergence of transformative learning can be beneficial for a company, as it helps workers to be more flexible, better decision-makers, and effective problem-solvers.

Discover how transformative learning can be used for self-transformation and within work environments by checking out our transformative learning course. You can also email an advisor to learn more about our programs.


  1. Mezirow, J. (2008). An overview on transformative learning. Lifelong learning, 40-54.
  2. King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series and Jossey-Bass Social and Behavioral Science Series. Jossey-Bass, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, CA 94104-1310.
  3. Kitchenham, A. (2008). The evolution of John Mezirow's transformative learning theory. Journal of transformative education, 6(2), 104-123.
  4. Sherman, G. L. (2021). Transformative learning and well-being for emerging adults in higher education. Journal of Transformative Education, 19(1), 29-49.
  5. Meerts-Brandsma, L., & Sibthorp, J. (2021). Considering transformative learning for adolescents enrolled at semester schools. Journal of Transformative Education, 19(1), 7-28.
  6. Stone, B. (2013). The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Little, Brown and Company

People Also Ask

What is an example of transformative learning?

A compelling example of transformative learning in the realm of online retail and technology is Jeff Bezos's decision to delve into the e-commerce industry. Bezos founded Amazon with the vision of creating an "everything store" that would leverage the power of the Internet to serve customers globally.

However, he was met with a formidable and nearly insurmountable problem. The competition in the retail industry was fierce, and given that Amazon was a new player, the company did not have the financial means to establish a wide physical presence, nor was it an easy task to source and sell a diverse range of products without a network of physical stores. Bezos stepped back, critically assessed the situation, and realized that leveraging the power of the internet could be the solution.

Bezos and his team built an online platform, and after facing numerous hurdles, which helped them build their competence and self-confidence, they succeeded. Amazon managed not only to offer a wide range of products but also later expanded into areas such as cloud computing with Amazon Web Services. A significant part of their success was due to Bezos's transformative learning and how he managed to challenge the fundamental belief that retail companies had to have a network of physical stores.

What is transformational teaching?

Transformational teaching refers to an approach to teaching that empowers students to realize their full potential and become lifelong learners. This way of teaching opposes the traditional mechanical mode, wherein the teacher preaches what is right and wrong, and the students passively nod and write down the information.

The transformative model of education is an organic way of allowing students to become part of the process of discovering and learning new information. Instead of asking students to memorize a particular lesson, a teacher using a transformative approach will challenge the students to question what they have just been told and to find out the truth together.

This approach allows students to become active actors in the process of learning, which in turn develops their critical thinking and makes them more engaged with the lesson’s materials.

Transformational learning emphasizes the crucial role of struggle and the need to embrace it as part of the learning process. Many students fear asking questions or giving the wrong answers, which impedes their ability to test and improve their current knowledge. Nevertheless, a transformational approach could help students open up and realize that failure, struggle, and making mistakes are all part of the journey toward mastery and finding the truth about the world. According to a study published in the Journal of Transformative Education, transformative learning helps students understand themselves better and gain more initiative and autonomy in their studies.

Implementing transformational teaching requires a lot of dedication and commitment from teachers. However, it is a worthwhile pursuit, backed by scientific research, that facilitates an experience that transforms the way students view studying. Once students start to enjoy learning, their performance and engagement increase.

What is the goal of transformative learning?

The fundamental goal of transformative learning is to empower individuals to change their beliefs and assumptions of the world.

This capacity to change is essential because it allows one to remain flexible in the face of the world's uncertainty. This is highly relevant in today’s society, where the speed at which technology changes our reality is astonishing.

We are continually faced with new technological innovations that change entire fields and eliminate various domains of the workforce.  For example, it was barely imaginable a few decades ago that you could replace a cashier with an automated machine, but now it’s a reality that many supermarkets have embraced.

Adapting to the latest developments within the technological revolution that is our current reality can lead to personal development and professional development.

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