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Transformative Learning Theory

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Wouldn't it make sense to imagine that at some point, in some faculty members' careers, they will seek deeper understanding and affective as well as cognitive transformation? Are we considering how, and are we willing to offer a palette of opportunities that include a broader array of learning and development?


The posting below gives a brief summary of transformative learning theory, an important educational development of the last decade. It is from CHAPTER 4: Evidence of the Transformational Dimensions of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Faculty Development Through the Eyes of SoTL Scholars, by Connie M. Schroeder, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in To Improve the Academy, Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, Sandra Chadwick-Blossey, editor, Rollins College and Douglas Reimondo Robertson, associate editor, Eastern Kentucky University.

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Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Service-Learning for Depth in a Fluid World

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Transformative learning was introduced by Mezirow (1997) as a change process that transforms frames of reference (Imel, 1998). His theory defines frames of reference as "the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences. They selectively shape and delimit expectations, perceptions, cognition, and feelings" (Mezirow, 1997, p. 5). According to this view, "actions and behaviors will be changed based on the changed perspective (Cranton, 1994, p. 730).

Several key elements of the transformational learning process are cited frequently in the literature. Initially, a disorienting dilemma, or "an activating even that typically exposes a discrepancy between what a person has always assumed to be true and what has just been experienced, heard or read" (Cranton, 2002, p. 66) and may contribute to a readiness for change (Taylor, 2000). Cranton (2002) describes this as a "catalyst for transformation" (p. 66). It could be a single event or a series of events that occur over a much longer period as in "an accretion of transformation in points of view" (Mezirow, 1997, p. 7). For example, engaging in problem solving may challenge and expose discrepancies (Mezirow, 1997; Taylor, 2000).

The literature highlights the central importance of cultivating a process of critical reflection with certain key elements (Mezirow, 1991; Sokol & Cranton, 1998). "Critical reflection is the means by which we work through beliefs and assumptions, assessing their validity in the light of new experiences or knowledge, considering their sources, and examining underlying premises" (Cranton, 2002, p. 65). Cranton (1994) explains, "Transformative learning theory leads us to view learning as a process of becoming aware of one's assumptions and revising these assumptions" (p. 730). Cranton (1994) simply states, "If basic assumptions are not challenged, change will not take place" (p. 739), and elaborates that we are more likely to have sets of assumptions that guide teaching practices. Sokol and Cranton (1998) further explain, "As transformative learners, they question their perspectives, open up new ways of looking at their practice, revise their views, and act based on new per!

spectives" (p. 14). Mezirow (1997) cautions, "learners need practice in recognizing frames of reference and using their imaginations to redefine problems from a different perspective" (p. 10). Several authors point out the necessity of making the time necessary for critical reflection (Pohland & Bova, 2000).

In addition to critical reflection that challenges assumptions, transformative learning calls for a trusting, social context for the dialogue referred to as reflective discourse (Mezirow, 2000) or critical discourse (Grabove, 1997). Cranton (1994) argues that the most promising transformative learning potential in faculty development work is long-term work with others, including "a group of faculty genuinely interested in teaching" (p. 735). Taylor (2000) found that the key ingredient most common in the process of transformational learning was the context of relationships. Imel (1998) concurs with the importance to establishing a community among learners.

Several sources emphasize individual agency; learners having their own design (Taylor, 2000); autonomous thinking; and control and choice (Grabove, 1997; Mezirow, 1997). Mezirow (1997) suggests that the educator serve as a facilitator or provocateur, in order to foster the self-direction and control needed for transformative learning. The role of the educator or faculty developer in transformative learning processes changes from that of a directive expert by shifting power, responsibility, and decision-making to the faculty (Cranton, 1994). Robertson (1997) writes extensively on the importance of creating a helper relationship. According to Baumgartner (2001), action on the new perspective, as in "living the new perspective" (p. 17), is critical for transformative learning to occur.

As opposed to the elements critical for the process of transformative learning, the outcomes indicative of transformation may include Cranton's (1992) framework of three types of change: change in assumptions, change in perspective, and change in behavior. Boyd (1989) claims an outcome of transformative learning includes a change in self.

Mezirow's theory and ideas have been expanded upon by several theorists in order to address his emphasis on the rational and linear aspects of transformation (Boyd, 1991; Grabove, 1997; Robertson, 1997). Baumgartner (2001) argues that "transformational learning is a complex process involving thoughts and feelings (p. 18), and compares Dirkx's (1998) extra-rational emphasis in which transformation involves soul-based learning that is not constrained by rational and cognitive learning. Grabove (1997) further emphasizes the potential for integration of self and other, renewal and rebirth as themes indicative of the nonrational dimensions of transformative learning. She suggests the transformative learner "moves in and out of the cognitive and the intuitive, of the rational and the imaginative, of the subjective and the objective, of the personal and the social" (Gabrove, 1997, p. 95).

We might ask ourselves as faculty development professionals, do we offer programs that incorporate the processes that enable deeper understanding, discovery, or transformative change? Are we aiming for increasing knowledge and skills as primary program outcomes, but falling short of creating opportunities in which faculty can critically reflect, reconceptualize, and engage in soul learning? Wouldn't it make sense to imagine that at some point, in some faculty members' careers, they will seek deeper understanding and affective as well as cognitive transformation? Are we considering how, and are we willing to offer a palette of opportunities that include a broader array of learning and development? Though time and budgetary resources are stretched, must we provide only the most popular programs, and not venture into opportunities that may promise a different kind of development? Certainly not all faculty at all points in their careers would have the interest or time to in!

vest in transformative change programs and, given time constraints, may prefer brief exposure to new techniques in order to improve their teaching. But the question facing faculty developers is not necessarily how to appeal to the masses, but rather, how to offer a diverse array of opportunities for improving teaching and learning that meet the needs of faculty at a variety of levels of involvement and development. What type of programs produce this type of transformation, and how would we determine evidence of transformation?

This empirical analysis of a SoTL, program examines the experience of SoTL from the scholars' perspectives, in light of the theoretical literature on the process and outcomes of transformation. Looking at evidence of transformative learning through SoTL may help us to consider investing in programs soundly linked to individual change and which may better prepare faculty to advance sustained departmental and structural changes in teaching and learning that have not been able to occur in higher education (Lazerson, Wagener, & Shumanis, 2000). Perhaps we have been selling learning and change short by investing in quick fixes in our faculty development efforts. In order to transform not only teaching and learning, but institutions and their structures, have we considered the value of transforming individuals, or individuals transforming themselves?


Baumgartner, L.M. (2001). An update on transformational learning. In S.B. Merriam (Ed.), New directions for adult and continuing education: No. 89. The new update on adult learning theory (pp. 15-24). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Boyd, R.D. (1989). Facilitating personal transformation in small groups, Part I. Small Group Behavior, 20(4), 459-474.

Boyd, R.D. (1991). Personal transformation in small groups: A Jungian perspective. London, England: Routledge.

Cranton, P. (1992). Working with adult learners. Toronto, Ontario: Wall & Emerson.

Cranton, P. (1994, November/December). Self-directed and transformative instructional development. Journal of Higher Education, 65(6), 726-744.

Cranton, P. (2002, Spring). Teaching for transformation. In J.M. Ross-Gordon (Ed.), New directions for adult and continuing education: No. 93. Contemporary viewpoints on teaching adults effectively (pp. 63-71). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dirkx, J.M. (1998). Tranformative learning theory in the practice of adult education: An overview. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 7, 1-14.

Grabove, V. (1997, Summer). The many facets of transformative learning theory and practice. In P. Cranton (Ed.), New directions for adult and continuing education: No. 74. Transformative learning in action: Insights from practice (pp. 89-95). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Imel, S. (1998). Transformative learning in adulthood. Washington, D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED42326). Retrieved April 29, 2004, from asp?tbl=digest&ID=53

Lazerson, M., Wagener, U., & Shumanic, N. (2000, May/June). Teaching and learning in higher education, 1980-2000. Change, 56(3), 300-319.

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Mezirow, J. (1997, Summer). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. In P. Cranton (Ed.), New directions for adult and continuing education: No. 74. Transformative learning in action: Insights from practice (pp. 5-12). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 3-34). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pohland, P., & Bova, B. (2000). Professional development as transformational learning. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 3(2), 137-150.

Robertson, D.L. (1997). Transformative learning and transition theory: Toward developing the ability to facilitate insight. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 8(1), 105-125.

Sokol, A., & Cranton, P. (1998, Spring). Transforming, not training. Adult Learning, 9(3), 14-17.

Taylor, E.W. (2000). Analyzing research on transformative learning theory. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 29-310). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.