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Published: 8-12-2011, 11:10

Adult Learning and Instruction: Transformative Learning Perspectives

Although adult education practice has a long history, the area only became recognized as a field of study and theoretical development in the 1930s. Lindemann’s (1926) book was the first to have adult education in the title; he described adult education as cooperative, nonauthoritarian, and informal. Around the same time, the first adult education professional association was established, and we saw the beginning of the quest to understand adult learning as a distinctive process and efforts to develop teaching methods unique to working with adults. Transformative learning theory (first labeled in the mid-1970s and more fully developed by the 1990s) is described as the first comprehensive theory of adult learning.

Characteristics of Adult Learning

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, considerable effort was put into describing adult learning as a distinctive process – different from children’s learning in important ways. Tough (1979) conducted his classic survey in which he discovered that over 90% of adults engage in sustained independent learning projects. Cross (1981) and others worked to determine why adults participated (or not) in educational programs. Brundage and MacKeracher (1980) outlined the characteristics of adult learning and what those characteristics meant for program planning. Knowles (1975) presented his foundational work on adults as selfdirected learners – a point of view which continues to influence our understanding of how adults learn.

At least seven broad themes can be drawn from the research and theory from those two decades – themes which are still relied upon today by adult educators in many and diverse settings: (1) Adult learning is often described as voluntary. Individuals choose to become involved in informal and formal activities in order to develop personally or respond to a professional or practical need. (2) Based on Knowles’ influential work, adult learning is usually described as self-directed. Knowles (1975, 1980) saw self-directed learning as a process by which people identify their learning needs, set goals, choose how to learn, gather materials, and evaluate their progress; however, many other definitions and conceptualizations developed over time (e.g., see Candy, 1991). (3) Adult learning is seen as practical or experiential in nature. This notion can be traced back to Dewey (1938) who, though not an adult educator himself, had a lasting and profound impact on the way we think about adult learning. (4) Adults are portrayed as preferring collaborative and participatory learning, largely due to the early influence of humanism on adult education practice (via the client-centered approach of Rogers (1961) and then Knowles who was a student of Rogers). (5) Adults bring rich experiences and resources to their learning – one of Knowles’ (1980) defining characteristics of adult learning. (6) Since adults have often been away from formal schooling for some years (though this is less true today) and may have had negative early experiences with school, they are seen as reentering learning with anxiety and low selfesteem. (7) Adults have a variety of learning styles and preferences. One of the most influential theorists in this area has been Kolb (1984) who delineated the converger, diverger, assimilator, and accommodator learning styles.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the trend in adult education toward critical theory, postmodernism, and poststructuralism has led researchers and theorists away from what is now seen to be overly simplistic and even stereotypical understandings of adult learning. Nevertheless, this foundational work permeates adult-education practice and continues to influence our theory development and research. Transformative learning is voluntary and under the direction of the learner, based on making meaning out of experience, collaborative (especially through dialog or discourse), and empowering.

Instruction for Adult Learning

Early adult education had social change as its goal (Lindemann, 1926). The Higherlander Folk School in the United States and the Antigonish Movement in Canada are examples of approaches to working with adult learners to promote social action. Freire (1970), following in the radical tradition of adult education, proposed that dialogic and problem-posing strategies replace the banking model of education in which information was transmitted to the learner. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, humanistic approaches to teaching adults dominated the field and still maintain a strong influence on how we think about instruction for adult learning today.

Just as adult learning is seen to be distinct from children’s learning, teaching adults is seen to be different from teaching children. Knowles (1980) distinguished between pedagogy and andragogy, first describing them as being diametrically opposed and later modifying his view to place them on a continuum. Essentially, pedagogy was seen to be more teacher-centered and andragogy more learner-centered. How-to books on teaching adults abound. Following Knowles’ lead, most of these books take a humanist approach to teaching adults. Elias and Merriam (2005) outline six basic assumptions underlying humanism:

  1.    human nature is naturally good; 
  2.    human beings strive for freedom and autonomy;
  3.    the individuality and uniqueness of each person is valued;
  4.    working toward self-actualization is an innate human goal;
  5.    each person perceives the world in his or her own way; and
  6.    people are responsible for developing their potential to the fullest.

Teaching from a humanist perspective puts the educator in the role of a facilitator rather than a provider of information. She creates the conditions in which learning can occur and trusts the learner to take responsibility for learning. This sets up a student-centered environment in which the growth of the whole person (the development of self-actualizing persons) is a goal. Learning is a personal process; motivation is intrinsic. Yet, self-development and learning do not occur in isolation. Humanist educators value collaboration and group work over competitive endeavors, or put another way, connected knowing over separate knowing (Belenky and Stanton, 2000).

Moving into the 1990s and 2000s, humanist approaches to teaching adults remain strong, especially in practice, but are being challenged primarily as a result of the increasing popularity of critical theory as a foundation of adult education. Brookfield (2005) calls on us to unmask power, challenge ideologies, and radicalize criticality. Although ideology critique originated in the 1970s in the Frankfurt School of Critical Social Theory, it is more recently that it has been brought to bear on teaching adults. Ideologies are values, beliefs, and assumptions that have been uncritically assimilated and believed to be true without question. They appear in our social norms and expectations and in the way we use language.

Teaching for transformation stands in both perspectives. It is humanist in its goals of self-development and freedom from constraints and oppression, and it is critical in its goal of ideology critique. Brookfield (2000) writes that an ‘‘act of learning can be called transformative only if it involves a fundamental questioning and reordering of how one things or acts. If something is transformed, it is different from what it was before at a very basic level’’ (p. 139). Newman (2006) writes about teaching rebelliousness, defiance, and action. He describes critical learning (transformative learning) as both a personal endeavor and a political act. It helps us see ‘‘through ourselves’’ and ‘‘through others,’’ as we become ‘‘less susceptible to hegemonic control’’ (p. 239). Newman rejects the teaching of what he calls domesticated critical thinking and proposes that we teach people how to resist (pp. 9–10).

Transformative Learning: Overview of the Theory

Transformative learning theory had its beginning in 1975 when Mezirow conducted a study of 83 women returning to college in 12 reentry programs. He described a process of personal-perspective transformation that included ten phases:

  1.    experiencing a disorienting dilemma,
  2.    undergoing self-examination,
  3.    conducting a critical assessment of internalized assumptions and feeling a sense of alienation from traditional social expectations,
  4.    relating discontent to the similar experiences of others,
  5.    exploring options for new ways of acting, 
  6.    building competence and confidence in new roles,
  7.    planning a course of action, 
  8.    acquiring the knowledge and skills for implementing a new course of action,
  9.    trying out new roles and assessing them, and
  10.    reintegrating into society with the new perspective.

It was Mezirow’s 1991 book, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, that brought the theory to the forefront of the adult-education literature. Since then, Mezirowand others in the field have continued to elaborate on and provide alternative explanations of transformative learning. Here, an overview of the basic theory from Mezirow’s (1991, 2000, 2003) perspective is provided, and then in the following section, other theorists’ points of view are presented. The author’s own writing is drawn upon (Cranton, 2006) in this discussion.

Transformative learning is a process by which previously uncritically assimilated frames of reference (assumptions, expectations, and habits of mind) are questioned and revised to make them more open, permeable, and better justified. Experiences are seen through the lens of our frames of reference, which include distortions, prejudices, stereotypes, and unexamined beliefs.When we encounter a perspective that is different from the one we hold, we may be provoked into critically questioning our current thinking. This can happen as a product of a single event or as a gradual cumulative process. The learning only becomes transformative when we make a deep shift in how we see ourselves and/or the world around us and act on the revised perspective.

Several types of meaning structures come into play in this process. A frame of reference is a meaning perspective, the structure of assumptions and beliefs that provide a lens through which we make meaning of our experiences. A frame of references has two dimensions: a habit of mind, which is composed of broad, generalized, predispositions for interpreting experience; and a point of view, which is comprised of sets of immediate, specific expectations and beliefs that shape a specific interpretation (Mezirow, 2000).

Mezirow (2003) sees discourse as central to transformative learning. Discourse is defined as a form of dialog that involves the assessment of beliefs, feelings, and values. The ideal conditions of discourse are that participants have accurate and complete information, are free from coercion, are able to weigh evidence, are open to alternative perspectives, are able to engage in critical reflection, have an equal opportunity to participate, and are able to accept informed consensus as valid.

Habits of minds can be of different types. Originally, Mezirow (1991) wrote about epistemic perspectives, those that have to do with knowledge and the way we acquire knowledge; sociolinguistic perspectives, related to social norms, cultural expectations, and the way we use language; and psychological perspectives, which have to do with how we see ourselves – self-concept, needs, inhibitions, anxieties, and fears. Later, he added three more types of habits of mind: philosophical, which can be based on a worldview, philosophy or religious doctrine; esthetic, including values, attitudes, tastes, and standards about beauty; and moral–ethical, which incorporates conscience and morality (Mezirow, 2000).

Beliefs, assumptions, values, and habits of mind can be undeveloped or unquestioned. We absorb the way we think about ourselves and the world around us from our family, community, peers, and from the social world we live in. In each of the types of habits of mind, unexamined perspectives are insidious and often do not even appear as questionable. We may become aware of unexamined perspectives through a disorienting dilemma – an experience which contradicts our assumptions. As discussed in the last section of this article, educators may consciously create learning experiences that are potentially transformative.

Critical reflection and critical self-reflection are central to transformative learning. Critical reflection involves objective reframing of the assumptions of others, and critical self-reflection involves the subjective reframing of our own assumptions. Reflection alone is not enough to label learning as transformative. It must lead to revised frames of reference upon which individuals act.

Perspectives on Transformative Learning

Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning was criticized on several grounds: for its failure to address social change (Collard and Law, 1989), the neglect of power issues (Hart, 1990), the disregard for the cultural context of learning (Clark and Wilson, 1991), the overemphasis on rational thought (Dirkx, 1997), and the prominence of separate or autonomous learning (Belenky and Stanton, 2000). These critiques and others that followed, along with

Mezirow’s call for people to contribute to and elaborate on the theory, led to the development of a variety of perspectives on transformative learning.

Connected Knowing and Transformative Learning

Relational or connected learning and knowing are often associated with women’s ways of learning (e.g., see Hayes and Flannery, 2000). Belenky and Stanton (2000) use connected knowing as a basis for adding to transformative learning theory. They describe six developmental stages of knowing for women: silenced, received knowers, subjective knowers, separate knowers, connected knowers, and constructivist knowers. They suggest that Mezirow’s approach to transformative learning places separate knowing (following lines of reasoning and looking for flaws in logic) in a central role and argue that connected knowing also serves well to describe transformation. Connected knowers suspend judgment and struggle to understand others’ points of view from their perspective. They look for strengths, not weaknesses in another person’s point of view. The goal is to see holistically rather than analytically.

Social Change as Transformative Learning

Social reform has long been a goal of adult education, and those critics who see Mezirow as neglecting the social change aspect of transformation suggest that social reform needs to precede individual transformation. Mezirow (2000) distinguishes between educational tasks (helping people become aware of oppressive structures and learn how to change them) and political tasks (forcing economic change). It is his goal to help individuals learn how to create social change rather than to create social change himself. Others see this differently.

Brookfield (2003) proposes that the purpose of transformative learning is ideology critique, a process that helps ‘‘people uncover and challenge dominant ideology and then learn how to organize social relations according to noncapitalist logic’’ (p. 224). He holds that transformation includes not only the individual’s structural change, but also structural change in the social world. Similarly Newman (1994) emphasizes that we should study not the oppressed, but oppression itself.Writers and theorists who advocate social change as a goal of transformative learning (and adult education as a whole) do not dismiss individual learning and transformation, but see it as the educator’s goal to address the social context within which individuals live and learn.

Group and Organizational Transformation

The idea that groups and organizations could transform in a collective way began with the notion of a learning organization in which organizations are perceived as living entities that can learn.Watkins and Marsick (1993), in their now-classic work on learning organizations, made the link to transformative learning. Yorks and Marsick (2000) have continued with this line of thinking, basing their work on action learning and collaborative inquiry. Action learning involves teams working on real problems within the organization, and collaborative inquiry consists of repeated episodes of reflection and action in a group context. In this way, organizations transform in relation to the nature of the environment, the vision or mission of the organization, products and services of the organization, management styles and procedures, organizational structure, and individual organization members’ perception of their roles.

Groups other than organizations are also seen to have the capability to transform. Kasl and Elias (2000) suggest that individuals, groups, and organizations all share common characteristics and that there can be a group mind. In this approach to transformation, frames of reference are transcended rather than analyzed through critical reflection, and transformative learning becomes an expansion of consciousness that is collective as well as individual. The notion of group transformation does not supplant individual transformation, but simply adds another possible dimension to it.

Intuition, Imagination, and Soul in Transformative Learning

One of the most popular elaborations on Mezirow’s cognitive and rational approach to transformative learning is the addition of intuition, imagination, and nurturing soul. Many of the new writers in the field are drawn to this way of understanding transformation as can be seen in the large proportion of paper presentations and experiential sessions, at the International Transformative Learning Conference (Wiessner et al., 2003), that are based on artistic, creative, and imaginative points of view.

This perspective began with the work of Boyd (Boyd, 1991; Boyd and Myers, 1988) who used Jungian psychology to explain transformative learning. Rather than reflection, they described discernment as the central process in transformation. In this view, transformation is a personal inner journey of individuation – learning through the psychic structures that make up the self.

It is Dirkx’s (1997, 2001) writing that has carried this approach forward into the current literature on transformative learning, providing a theoretical foundation for the many people who use drama, art, music, images, poetry, and symbols to promote transformation in their practice. In Dirkx’s view, transformative learning involves personal, spiritual, emotional, and imaginative ways of knowing – the way of mythos rather than logos. Mythos is a facet of knowing that we see in symbols, images, stories, and myths. We experience soul through art, music, and film; it is that magic moment that transcends rationality and gives depth, power, mystery, and deep meaning to learning. In nurturing soul, we pay attention to the small, everyday occurrences in life, understand and appreciate images, and honor the complex, multifaceted nature of learning.

The extrarational perspective on transformative learning can exist side by side with the rational perspective. When Dirkx and Mezirow discussed their approaches at the 2005 International Transformative Learning Conference, they agreed that their perspectives are ‘‘similar with respect to [their] mutual concern for transforming frames of reference that have either lost their meaning or usefulness or have in someway become dysfunctional. [They] are both interested in fostering enhanced awareness and consciousness of one’s being in the world’’ (Dirkx et al., 2006: 137).

Ecological View

Some theorists broaden the scope of transformative learning to span individual, relational, group, institutional, societal, and global perspectives (O’sullivan, 2003). The Transformative Learning Centre at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education promotes this point of view as does the Holma College of Integral Studies in Sweden (Gunnlaugson, 2003). Transformative learning is a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thoughts, feelings, and actions. It dramatically and permanently alters our way of being in the world and involves not only our understanding of ourselves but also our relationship with all of humanity and the natural world. Through transformative learning, we strive for a planetary community, learn to love life in all forms, and move out to universal horizons. Gunnlaugson proposes that we need to consider ‘‘our collective evolutionary destiny from the vantage point of the history of planet Earth’’ (p. 324).


Teaching for Transformation

Less has been written about how to teach in such a way as to promote transformative learning than has been written about the learning process. It is proposed that there are three fundamental aspects to teaching for transformation:empowering learners, fostering critical reflection and selfknowledge, and supporting learners (Cranton, 2006).

Empowering Learners

Empowerment is both a product of and a precondition of transformative learning. As Mezirow (2000) says, ‘‘Hungry, homeless, desperate, threatened, sick, or frightened adults are less likely be able to participate in discourse to help us better understand the meaning of our own experience’’ (pp. 16–17). Those educators hoping to promote transformative learning need to be conscious of helping learners feel empowered. There are at least three aspects to consider: (1) exercising power responsibly, (2) encouraging discourse, and (3) involving learners in decision making.

As Brookfield (2006) reminds us, teachers have power, and we cannot deny its existence or think we can give it away. Exercising power responsibly and consciously serves to create learner empowerment – power is to be shared and acknowledged among those present in the teaching environment. A variety of practical strategies can be used, for example, avoiding being in the position of providing right answers, making sure that there is equal access to all resources, including self-evaluation in graded courses, involving students in managing the learning environment, and being open and explicit about what is happening and why.

If discourse or dialog is central to transformative learning, helping learners be empowered needs to include this element of the process, especially as equal participation in discourse may not occur naturally. Educators need to find provocative ways to stimulate dialog from different perspectives, encourage learners to take on different roles in the dialog, be careful not to regulate the discussion or dismiss learners’ contributions, and provide time for reflection.

Involving learners in decision making, a strategy which harks back to Knowles’ and others’ advocating selfdirected learning, enhances feelings of empowerment. Educators can use participatory planning in which learners decide on some or all of the topics, provide choices of methods to be used in the learning, encourage selfevaluation, ask learners for their perceptions of the experience, and keep the decision-making process open and explicit.

Fostering Critical Self-Reflection and Self-Knowledge

The most an educator can do is to set up an environment and conditions in which learners are able to engage in critical reflection and critical self-reflection. Entering into this process is voluntary; to approach it otherwise is ethically questionable. A variety of ways are suggested to create such an environment, all of which are based on the goal of opening up new perspectives, challenging existing assumptions, or presenting information from a different point of view (Cranton, 2006).

Asking questions is the most basic strategy for fostering reflection. Educators can ask learners to help them see what assumptions they are making and to challenge the premises underlying their assumptions. Questions can center on the content of individuals’ beliefs, how they came to hold those beliefs, and why they value what they value (content, process, and premise-reflection questions, as suggested by Mezirow (1991)).

Journals are often suggested as a means of promoting critical reflection, but guidelines need to be given to learners to prevent the journal from being a simple log of what happened. Progoff ’s (1992) extensive work on journal writing is helpful. He suggests a variety of formats including writing a life history; engaging in a dialog with a person in the writer’s life or a historical figure; incorporating metaphors, dreams, and images; and writing from the perspective of another person.

Experiential learning through practicums, field trips, service learning, job shadowing, and any other real-life experience that can be incorporated into a course can stimulate critical reflection if the learner encounters perspectives that are different from those he or she holds. To further the possibility of critical reflection, the educator can hold discussions before and after the experience, suggest students write about the experience, encourage critical questioning among students, and emphasize any discrepancies between learners’ prior experience and the new experience.

Art-based activities promote imaginative and intuitive transformative experiences. Learners can either engage in the creation of art or they can view art. Some strategies the educator can consider are: creating collages as a group; encouraging students to make art as a project in a course; using film, fiction, and photography to present alternative points of view on an issue; or going to an art gallery or concert as a group.

Supporting Transformative Learning

In transformative learning, people are letting go of assumptions, beliefs, and perspectives that they may have held for a lifetime. Scott (1997) writes about the grieving involved in letting go of our way of seeing the world. The educator who fosters transformative learning has a moral responsibility to provide and arrange for support. He or she needs to establish relationships with learners and be conscious of what is happening in their liveswhen they engage in transformative learning.

This is not to say that the educator is solely responsible. Encouraging learners to support each other by helping to establish a cohesive group and setting up learner networks (formal or informal, with or without technology) are helpful strategies. However, it is also important to be there when an individual learner comes to the educator for advice and support. Even after a course is over, there are occasions when someone needs assistance in deciding how to act based on a transformative learning experience or simply needs to talk about his or her experience.


Since Mezirow (1975) first proposed his notion of perspective transformation more than three decades ago, transformative learning theory has developed into a comprehensive theory of adult learning. In recent years, with the addition of several alternative perspectives, it has become a holistic and integrated way of understanding how adults experience deep shifts in perspective. In this article, transformative learning theory has been set in the larger context of adult education. The original theory as presented by Mezirow (1991, 2000) is described and the major ways in which other theorists have elaborated on his work are presented. It concludes with a discussion of how educators can facilitate and promote transformative learning.

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