Transformational learning

What does transformation mean to you? Think of a word, an image or perhaps even perform some movement that embodies your idea of transformation.
Jack Mezirow (1997), the founder of transformative learning explains this kind of learning as “the process of effecting change in a frame of reference,” (p. 5). Any learning that occurs within a persons frame of reference is not considered transformative. Ones’ frame of reference includes habits of mind and point of view. Habits of mind are sustainable, long lasting, “broad, abstract, orienting, habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting influenced by assumptions that constitute a set of codes,” (p. 6). In contrast points of view are fluid and can change as “we reflect on either the content or process by which we solve problems and identify the need to modify assumptions,” (pg. 6).

This process is learner-centered and requires the learner to be independent and autonomous, and engage in critical and reflective thought, and discourse with others. It is the process where learners become more aware of their positionally; how they see themselves in relation to others and their world as they engage in the social process of learning.

Transformation, according to Mezirow’s original theory can be achieved in four ways, as individuals reinterpret their meaning of the world, and help interpret their future “thinking, beliefs, and actions,” (Taylor, 2008, p. 5):

  • Establish a new point of view
  • Expand an already existing point of view
  • Transform an existing point of view
  • Transform a habit of mind – This is rare and unlikely considering habits of mind are relatively unchangeable because they are deep rooted like beliefs.

There has been much controversy and discussion over this theory as many theorist believe it is singular, only focusing on the individual and neglecting to include other important elements such as a focus on spirituality, socio-cultural components, and a focus on society and how it impacts learning experiences. Also, it has been contested whether transformation needs to be drastic or radical, or whether subtle transformations are still valid. Still theorists such as Newman, discount transformative learning all together and wonder if it should simply be considered “good learning,” (Newman, 2011, p. 36). He asserts that in self reported accounts of transformative learning, the only common denominator in learning is change.

What do you think about transformative learning?

Personally, when I think about transformative learning, I think about a huge change, something profound, that has an impact on my entire life. When I think back and reflect, I have definitely had events that have created transformation learning, such as learning that resulted from immigration which created a profound shift in my point of view.

However, I don’t think we should discount transformational learning, I think it has its merits. Adults flourish in learning environments that account for their previous knowledge where they are free to explore new ideas and learn through discussion and reflection. Where the facilitator is a guide and a fellow learner and not an all knowing oracle. For me, these are the merits of transformative learning as a theory, and when implementing these conditions in a classroom they are beneficial for the learners regardless of whether transformation occurs or not. It is incredible difficult to assess whether transformation occurs, and potentially if transformation did occur it may not be evident at the commencement of a course, but rather later as the learner becomes aware of how they changes their point of view.

As an educator, I don’t think transformation can be expected or assumed, but rather that good learning practices can be taught to encourage learners to gain the most out of every situation. Encouraging autonomous thinking and critical reflection are key to this success.

To check out a wiki on transformative learning in online environments (click here).


Mezirow, Jack (1997) Transformative learning: Theory to practice, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74, 5-12..

Newman, Michael (2011) Calling transformative learning into question: Some mutinous thoughts. Adult Education Quarterly, 62(1), 36-55)

Taylor, Edward (2008) Transformative learning theory, New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education, 119, 5-16.

Transformative learning in Distance Education. (2013) retrieved from


One thought on “Transformational learning

  1. I believe that all leaning should have the goal of being transformative, but that in fact only a small amount of it will be. I define transformative learning as learning that has a larger impact then its surface goal, when we go through a training program at work and we connect with the material on so many levels that we apply to to our lives outside of work as well. The learning transformed how we saw something about the world.

    As a student studying workplace learning I spend a lot of time thinking about theory and trying to figure out how to apply it in reality, I’ve concluded that transformative learning is something to strive for but not something that we can guaranty, all we can do is create the best possible circumstances for it to occur.

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