The Transformative Learning Theory is a theory of adult education that uses disorienting dilemmas to challenge learners’ perspectives. Jack Mezirow originally presented the theory in 1970s and it has been revised since then.
Transformative learning explains how expectations, framed within cultural assumptions and predisposition, directly influence the meaning we derive from our experiences. Transformation of perspectives, therefore, requires revisiting our frame of reference or “meaning structures”. These structures constitute values, beliefs, ideals, educations, experience, cultural and societal norms. Collectively, these form our point of view of seeing the world. These frames, formed since our childhood, are solidified by our experiences with the world around us. Watching other people go through experiences and seeing what meaning they derive from it also adds to our meaning structure providing context to understand and interpret our own situations. The structure helps explain the happenings around us and our understanding of them reflects our personal social and cultural predisposition.
Mezirow concluded that changing perspectives and broadening these meaning structures required a “disorienting dilemma’. These dilemmas occur when the participants have experiences that do not make sense to them or fit in with their beliefs and ideals. This forces them to revisit and question their deeply held beliefs. They are forced to think critically about the underlying assumptions of their beliefs and unlearn some past knowledge to allow for a change in their frame of reference.
From theory to application
- A disorientating dilemma - this creates a dissonance by introducing a problem that does not fit in with the existing mental structure.
- Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt or shame - awareness of the dissonance that makes them question their beliefs.
- A critical assessment of assumptions – the student may need help trying to understand assumptions and think about them critically.
- Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation is shared – peer support makes the process easier as discomfort of beliefs being questioned is shared.
- Exploration of options for new roles, relationships and actions – having contemplated over existing beliefs, the students will now have to form new ones while recognising the implications they may have.
- Planning a course of action – learners must put their new formed beliefs into action by practising it in social groups.
- Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans – by considering and being well-versed with the implications of the transformation will make the learners confident in their beliefs.
- Provisional trying of new roles
- Building competence and self confidence in new roles and relationships – by putting the new perspective into practice, students can become more fluent and confident in their transformation
- A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective – the final stage occurs when the students start to apply the new perspectives unconsciously.
Putting transformative theory into practice usually involves 10 stages.
Transformative learning theory encourages students to think for themselves and not depend only on narratives or discourse that have been put forward by instructors. Implementing the theory encourages greater learning as various perspectives broaden the frames of reference. It also posits several points of views for students to think on and reflect.
The theory recognises the benefits diversity and differentiation offer in the classrooms. The multiplicity of ideas encourage students’ awareness of the subject and inculcate tolerance and acceptance of other points of view. The skills to critically think, when developed, help the students not only in terms of content taught but also makes them open to be more receptive to new ideas and theories.
Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice - Jack Mezirow