Transformative Learning in Practice
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Transformative Learning in Practice

Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education

Jack Mezirow, Edward W. Taylor, Jack Mezirow, Edward W. Taylor

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eBook - ePub

Transformative Learning in Practice

Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education

Jack Mezirow, Edward W. Taylor, Jack Mezirow, Edward W. Taylor

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Über dieses Buch

The leading authorities in the field produced this comprehensive resource, which provides strategies and methods for fostering Transformative Learning (TL) practice in a wide variety of higher and adult education settings. The book answers relevant questions such as: What are effective practices for promoting TL in the classroom? What is it about TL that is most helpful in informing practice? How does the teaching setting shape the practice of TL? What are the successes, strengths, and outcomes of fostering TL? What are the risks and challenges when practicing TL in the classroom?

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The two chapters in Part One set the context for this book by providing an overview of transformative learning theory and a discussion of current research on the practice of fostering transformative learning. In Chapter One, Edward Taylor presents an overview of what is known about fostering transformative learning and identifies its core elements: experience, critical reflection, dialogue, holistic orientation, appreciation for context, and authentic relationships. In Chapter Two, Jack Mezirow offers a general introduction to transformative learning theory with a discussion of key concepts, historical influences, varying theoretical perspectives, and current issues. Readers will find a good deal of consistency of what is being reported in the literature and what is discussed in practice in the chapters that follow.
Fostering Transformative Learning
Edward W. Taylor

Fostering transformative learning is seen as teaching for change—a practice of education that is “predicated on the idea that students are seriously challenged to assess their value system and worldview and are subsequently changed by the experience” (Quinnan, 1997, p. 42). It involves the most significant learning in adulthood, that of communicative learning, which entails the identification of problematic ideas, beliefs, values, and feelings; critically assessing their underlying assumptions; testing their justification through rational discourse; and striving for decisions through consensus building (Mezirow, 1995; Mezirow & Associates, 2000).
Despite this understanding, the practice of fostering transformative learning is illusive and an ever-shifting approach to teaching, and much about it remains unknown or poorly understood. Like any other educational approach, it is rooted in ideals, and when the realities of practice are explored, it becomes difficult to get a handle on how it plays out in the classroom. It is also laced with contradictions and oversights. For example, how does an educator foster a change in perspective among learners within a theoretical orientation that advocates a learner-centered approach to teaching, free of coercion, and assumes “the educational experience is never value neutral” (Ettling, 2006, p. 60)? This question is further complicated when layered with the lens of positionality, a concept overlooked in Mezirow’s conception of transformative learning.
Another factor often not discussed or given much consideration is the varied contexts in which educators engage transformative learning and how these contexts shape practice. Although most of the research on incorporating transformative learning practices has taken place in higher education settings, recent research has demonstrated transformative learning in human resources and training, cooperative extension, faculty development programs, and distance education, to mention just a few. Little is known about the unique challenges that emerge in these contexts and how transformative learning is conceptualized in both purpose and practice (Taylor, 2007).
In response to these challenges and unanswered questions, my goal in this chapter is to identify what I see as the core elements of fostering transformative learning that have emerged from the empirical literature. This discussion helps set the stage for the rest of the book, providing a backdrop to what is known about fostering transformative learning as readers reflect on the various settings and practices illustrated in each chapter.


Core elements are the essential components that frame a transformative approach to teaching. These elements, based on the literature, seem to be part of most transformative educational experiences. Originally three such elements were identified: individual experience, critical reflection, and dialogue (Taylor, 1998). However, as the study of transformative learning has evolved, other elements have emerged as equally significant: a holistic orientation, awareness of context, and an authentic practice. Moreover, the conceptualizations of some of the original elements have evolved as well. For example, while critical reflection was at one time predominantly seen as a rational approach to learning, research has revealed that it is the affective ways of knowing that prioritize experience and identify for the learner what is personally most significant in the process of reflection.
It is important to note that these elements have an interdependent relationship ; they do not stand alone. For example, without individual experience, there is little or nothing to engage in critical reflection. Similarly, developing an authentic practice is significant for fostering trusting relationships between learners and teacher, which often provides the safe environment for learners to engage in critical reflection, ultimately allowing transformative learning to take place.
In addition, it is important to recognize that these elements are not a series of decontextualized teaching techniques or strategies that can be applied arbitrarily without an appreciation for their connection to a larger theoretical framework of transformative learning theory. These elements are rooted in deeply held assumptions about the nature of adult learning and purposes of teaching for change. Those assumptions and the nature of that change are part and parcel of an educator’s transformative theoretical orientation. It is the reciprocal relationship between the core elements and the theoretical orientation of transformative learning that provides a lens for making meaning and guiding a transformative practice. To engage in the application of these core elements without some awareness of a larger theoretical orientation and its underlying purpose is not transformative learning. It is rudderless teaching, with no clear goal or purpose.
Developing an awareness of a theoretical orientation to transformative learning is therefore important. Further challenging the educator is the existence of multiple theoretical orientations to transformative learning beyond Mezirow’s original conception. These orientations tend to fall loosely into two theoretical frameworks (Taylor, 2008). One framework, espoused by Jack Mezirow, Laurent Daloz, John Dirkx, Robert Kegan, and Patricia Cranton, among others, involves a collection of theoretical orientations that emphasize personal transformation and growth, where the unit of analysis is primarily the individual, with little attention given to the role of context and social change in the transformative experience. Core elements in this orientation, such as critical reflection, emphasize self-critique of deeply held assumptions, which leads to greater personal awareness in relationship to others. The second framework of theoretical orientations, espoused, for example, by Paulo Freire, Elizabeth Tisdell, Juanita Johnson-Bailey, and Mary Alfred, sees fostering transformative learning as being as much about social change as personal transformation, where individual and social transformation are inherently linked. Critical reflection in this orientation is more about ideological critique, where learners develop an awareness of power and greater agency (political consciousness) to transform society and their own reality. All that being said, how these elements are interpreted and engaged in the classroom is therefore significantly shaped by the theoretical orientation of the educator (Taylor, 2008).
Finally, it is important to note that this discussion of core elements is an evolving process, and the elements identified are a continual work of progress, particularly as more research comes forth. The identification of these elements emerges from a series of literature reviews of empirical studies on transformative learning completed over the past decade. Each of the elements is discussed in relationship to empirical literature about fostering transformative learning.

Individual Experience

Individual experience, the primary medium of transformative learning, consists of what each learner brings (prior experiences) and also what he or she experiences within the “classroom” itself. It “constitutes a starting point for discourse leading to critical examination of normative assumptions underpinning the learner’s . . .value judgments or normative expectations” (Mezirow & Associates, 2000, p. 31). Experience is also what educators stimulate and create through classroom activities and learners and teachers reflect on as they learn new ideas about themselves and their world. It is seen as socially constructed, so that it can be deconstructed and acted on through a process of dialogue and self-reflection. Although an understanding of the nature of experience in relationship to transformative learning is limited, research offers some insight into both prior experience and classroom-created experience.
Of significance seems to be the degree of life experience when fostering transformative learning. A greater life experience provides a deeper well from which to draw on and react to as individuals engage in dialogue and reflection. For example, Cragg, Plotnikoff, Hugo, and Casey (2001), in a study exploring transformation of professional values among graduate students enrolled in R.N. and B.S.N. nursing programs in a variety of settings (distance, hybrid, generic), found that “nurses with more experience are more likely to internalize the new points of view to which their education exposes them” (p. 6). Furthermore, it is also important to recognize what learners are experiencing in their life as they enter the classroom. It is the nature of the experiences that offer the means for fostering transformative learning. For example, Lange (2004), in a study on revitalizing citizen action, found that students who were participating in a continuing education certificate program were experiencing disillusionment and fragmentation in their lives. Educators saw these experiences as “pedagogical entry points” (p. 129) that offered opportunities for engaging a learner’s personal dilemma as a potentially transformative experience.
In addition to prior experience, it is also important to consider what kind of individual and group experiences educators attempt to create in the classroom in order to foster transformative learning. Research has revealed that value-laden course content and intense experiential activities offer experiences that can be a catalyst for critical reflection and can provide an opportunity to promote transformative learning. Value-laden course content can both provoke and provide a process for facilitating change. For example, content about AIDS, abortion, wellness, spirituality, death, and dying have been found to encourage learners to reflect on both their personal and professional values, which at times can be in conflict with each other (Taylor, 2000). Also, content found in the medium of text can provide a catalyst for reflection, resulting in not only a greater understanding of the text but also greater personal insight (Kritskaya & Dirkx, 1999). For example, romantic fiction has been used as a means to help women question traditional conceptions of romantic relationships and redefine power located in relationships. Jarvis (2003) found that “narrative organization and point of view may lead readers to identify with characteristics, whose values and actions are in opposition to their own. Reflection on this identification may challenge existing meaning perspectives at the personal or sociocultural level” (p. 265).
Along with value-laden course content is the application of intense experiential activities within the classroom. These activities help provoke meaning making among the participants by acting as triggers or disorienting dilemmas, provoking critical reflection, and facilitating transformative learning, allowing learners to experience learning more directly and holistically. For example, in order to develop an awareness of the African American struggles for civil rights among preservice teachers, Herber (1998) developed a series of experiential activities designed to initiate and facilitate the transformative process. One activity included a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, with the objective of documenting the ongoing struggle for equality in a diverse society. She found that the museum tour served as a catalyst for the transformative process for several of the learners. More important, she learned “that adult learners can confront a difficult and painful social issue, they can become aware of perceptual distortions about race, they can move to a more inclusive permeable perspective through experiential learning, reflection, and discussion in a context that supports the questioning of assumptions” (p. 158). Similarly, an educational program for medical students on palliative care requires students to spend time with a dying patient and family members “hearing their stories and exploring issues of importance to them” (MacLeod, Parkin, Pullon, & Robertson, 2003, p. 58). A consequence of this direct and intense experience is often an emotional one, prompting critical reflection and in this case leading to empathy—both knowing what the patient and family have experienced and a recognition of the emotions generated by that experience.
As these findings suggest, both prior experiences and those created in the classroom through activities, readings, and relationships with other learners provide the gist for critical reflection and classroom dialogue. It is this interdependent relationship between experience and critical reflection that potentially leads to a new perspective.

Promoting Critical Reflection

The second core element of fostering transformative learning is the promotion of critical reflection among learners. Critical reflection, a distinguishing characteristic of adult learning, refers to questioning the integrity of deeply held assumptions and beliefs based on prior experience. It is often prompted in response to an awareness of conflicting thoughts, feelings, and actions and at times can lead to a perspective transformation (Mezirow, 2000). There are three forms of reflection in the transformation of meaning perspectives: content (reflecting on what we perceive, think, feel, and act), process (reflecting on how we perform the functions of perceiving), and premise (an awareness of why we perceive). Premise reflection, the least common of the three and the basis for critical reflection, refers to examining the presuppositions underlying our knowledge of the world. Recently premise reflection has been purported as a form of reflection that needs to be engaged sooner and more often, particularly among those who have greater experience (Kreber, 2004).
Learning to be critically reflective is seen by some to rest on “mature cognitive development” (Merriam, 2004, p. 65). For example, in a longitudinal study, Liimatainen, Poskiparta, Karhila, and Sjögren (2001) explored the development of reflective learning and found differences among nursing students in reaching critical consciousness during their education program. Some students evolved to become “critical reflectors,” where their “schemas indicated communicative and transformative learning and features of an empowerment approach to health promotion” (p. 656). Other students, both nonreflectors and reflectors, demonstrated less development during their time in the program and stayed at a level of reflection indicative of schemata that emphasized technical rationality.
In another example, Kreber (2004) looked at the levels of reflection using categories developed by Mezirow, such as content, process...


  1. Title Page
  2. Copyright Page
  3. Dedication
  5. Acknowledgments
  13. INDEX