Psychology•January 27, 2023
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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 does not only change 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.
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 the professional development of people. 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.
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 managed to expand 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.
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.
Transformative 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.
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.