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American sociologist Jack Mezirow first developed transformative learning theory (sometimes called transformational learning theory) in the late 1970s. Since its founding, this learning theory has changed how the world understands and approaches adult education. 

In this blog post, we’ll dive into the deepest trenches of Mezirow’s learning theory and resurface with an understanding of what the theory is, its 10 phases, how it impacts educators of all kinds, and how you can take transformative learning from theory to practice. Let’s get started!

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What is Mezirow’s transformative learning theory?

Officially, transformative learning theory is defined as “the process of effecting change in a frame of reference.” In simpler terms, it’s a theory that explains how adults receive, process, and use new information to view the world around them. 

The start of Mezirow’s transformative learning theory dates back to 1978, to be exact, when he published a white paper and an article detailing the beginnings of this learning theory. So where did these ideas come from? His research on adult women who returned to education. 

In his research, he theorized that adults don’t apply old knowledge to brand-new experiences. Instead, after some serious critical evaluation and self-assessment, they reframe their beliefs and values to fit the “new” world around them. 

Mezirow was a true scholar, and much of the content published on the learning theory comes from other scholars and formal institutions, like colleges and universities. So before diving any deeper, let’s cover some terms you need to know. 

Transformative Learning Theory terms to know

    • Frame of reference –  This is the mental filter through which we experience the world. It affects our thoughts, beliefs, values, and actions. According to Mezirow, our frame of reference mostly comes from culture and the people who raise us.

      Our frame of reference consists of two parts: habits of mind and points of view.

      • Habits of mind – These are the set of deeply ingrained patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. Habits of mind influence our points of view and aren’t easily changed.

        Mezirow cites ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s ethnicity is superior to others, as an example of a habit of mind. Similarly, nationalism is another strong example.
      • Point of view – This is a feeling, belief, judgment, or attitude we have that’s derived from a broader habit of mind. Points of view are more easily changed than habits of mind.

        To continue with the previous example, If nationalism is the habit of mind, then the Western belief that serving beverages with ice is better than serving drinks without ice is a point of view derived from the broader habit of mind (nationalism). 
  • Communicative learning – This is when two or more people try to understand an interpretation or justification for a belief. This kind of learning requires that participants deeply reflect on their ingrained values and beliefs.

    Ideally, the people involved will agree on the conversation’s outcome (rather than agreeing to disagree).
  • Discourse – This simply means conversation or dialogue. In reference to transformational learning, discourse is the conversation that happens in communicative learning where the participants share evidence, argument, and points of view. 

4 processes and 10 phases

Within transformative learning theory, there are four processes of learning and 10 phases of transformational learning. To understand them all, we have to begin with the four processes. 

The four processes of learning

The four processes of learning explain four ways in which adults can process new experiences. 

  1. Elaboration on an existing point of view – In this scenario, adults have a new experience or seek out evidence that expands or intensifies their point of few. 

For example, if a U.S. citizen were to travel to a European country and receive a beverage without ice, they would then use that new experience to solidify their belief that other nations are inferior. 

  1. Establishing new points of view – This is when adults take new situations and use them to create new beliefs that are aligned with their existing biases. 

For example, the same U.S. traveler now experiences even more foreign customs. They then use this new knowledge to add more points of view about the inferiority of other nations.

While processes one and two seem similar, they are slightly different in that process two requires new experiences and results in entirely new points of view, even thought they’re aligned with the existing habit of mind or frame of reference.

  1. Transformation of existing points of view – The third process is where transformation becomes possible. In this process, adults have a new experience that leads them to reevaluate their beliefs about their existing point of view.

For example, say a new U.S.-based traveler experiences dining in a European country. Rather than using this new experience to expand, intensify, or add to their existing bias (given to them by their culture and communities), they reevaluate their mistaken beliefs and change their point of view. 

Over time, if an adult experiences this enough times, their habit of mind may change.  

  1. Transformation of our habit of mind – The fourth and final learning phase is the least likely and most difficult. In this process, adults become deeply aware of their biased habit of mind, and through self-assessment and critical evaluation, they transform their habit of mind. 

For adults to reach this learning process, they must have experiences that don’t comfortably fit their current frame of reference. For example, U.S. citizens who never travel to a foreign nation will be less likely to transform their biased habit of mind toward other countries. 

The 10 phases of Mezirow transformative learning

The fourth phase of learning (transformation of a habit of mind) is where Mezirow’s transformative learning theory is rooted. And it’s where the 10 phases of transformative learning take place as well. 

These stages describe the process of personal growth adults take on as they learn starting with a disorienting dilemma.

  1. Disorienting dilemma

This is when an individual has an experience that doesn’t align with their existing beliefs, values, or expectations.

Example: an employee who always thought remote work was for the lazy is unexpectedly required to work from home. 

  1. Self-examination

    Following a disorienting experience, individuals evaluate their beliefs and values, realizing that their points of view are not the only points of view. Learners may experience discomfort or internal conflict, and those willing to learn may also recognize that their points of view or habits of mind need transformation.

Example: The employee may be anxious or resistant to working remotely. They might also begin to realize that the location where their work takes place doesn’t fundamentally impact their work ethic.

  1. Assessment of assumptions

In this phase, the individual will critically evaluate their former assumptions, recognizing that they may have been wrong.

Example: Now working from home, the employee may question why they had negative beliefs about people working remotely and where those beliefs came from. 

  1. Recognitions of shared transformation

Realizing that our existing worldview may be distorted or incorrect can be a real exercise on the brain. Still experiencing some discomfort, learners in this phase will begin to realize they aren’t the only individual experiencing this transformation and find comfort in the shared transformational experience they now have with others. 

Example: The employee may voice their concerns with others on their team, only to realize others share the same hesitations. Now, they feel a sense of community and belonging as they share this learning experience with others. 

  1. Explorations of new roles or actions

Still unsure of how to proceed, adult learners will begin to try on new roles or actions that account for their new beliefs. 

Example: The remote employee may begin to research ways to work from home effectively. They might also discuss working-from-home strategies with other employees on their team or online. 

  1. Creating a plan of action

    In this phase, the learner may recognize they have more to learn and set a specific plan in action to accomplish their new goals.

Example: The employee may set a schedule for their remote workday and schedule regular check-ins with their team.

  1. Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing the plan

After realizing there is more to learn, learners take action and acquire the knowledge and resources they need to move forward in their learning or lives.

Example: The employee signs up for a webinar on working remotely and learns how to use their company’s project management software.

  1. Trying out the plan

    Now that the learner has acquired new knowledge and resources, they’ll experiment with new points of view or habits of mind, testing for effectiveness.

Example: The employee is less anxious and hesitant about working from home. They begin to follow their daily routine, check in with their team regularly, and implement their new knowledge from the remote working webinar. 

  1. Building increased competence and self-confidence

    Beyond initial experimentation, learners become more confident in their new beliefs and values as they use them in new situations.

Example: As the employee continues to work from home, they tweak and adjust their routine while also adjusting their preexisting beliefs about the laziness of remote workers. They now consider it an enjoyable and effective way to work. 

  1. Reintegration on the basis of new perspective

    The final stage of transformative learning theory is when the individual fully incorporates their new and developed frame of reference into their lives and relationships. 

Example: The remote worker now unashamedly identifies as a remote worker and encourages others to consider the benefits of the lifestyle while actively dispelling myths about work ethic and laziness. 

Transformative learning: from theory to practice

So far, we’ve covered key terms, the four processes of learning, and the 10 phases of transformative learning theory. That’s a lot of learning about learning. So let’s turn to how this theory impacts educators (like you) and how you can use it in your instruction. 

First, understanding how adults learn is critical if you’re hoping to teach them anything. And Mezirow’s learning theory influences how adults are taught in endless capacities, including workplace education and training, college classrooms, self-improvement and mental health services, and so much more. 

The type of educator you are will directly impact what transformative learning will look like for you. So to help you understand how this learning theory can affect your content and students, we’ve gathered some examples. 

  1. Online course creators

Online course creators are already an incredibly broad group of educators. You can find them teaching courses on yoga, entrepreneurship, roller skating, photography, marketing, and more. The possibilities are truly endless. But almost all of them have one thing in common: they’re educating adults. 

Here are some of the ways online course creatives are impacted by and can use transformative learning theory in their online course business. 

Community-led growthCommunity-led growth is excellent for driving sales, year-round engagement, and value for your students. But it’s also an excellent way to integrate communicative learning and discourse into your learning environment. Doing that will help drive transformational learning and more meaningful results for your students.  

Experiential learning This is when students learn through experience or doing. If your course is asynchronous, try using simulated scenarios where students have to react in real time to life-like events. If your course is synchronous or cohort-based, try pairing people up or putting them into groups for group discussion or role-play. As a bonus, social learning theory will also be at play any time students can observe others demonstrating new behaviors.  

Encourage critical reflection – Self-assessment and meaningful reflection are essential in transformational learning, and they’re easy to build into online courses. Have your students answer questions that force them to analyze their own beliefs, assumptions, and values. This can take place through journaling, group discussions, forums, and peer feedback. 

  1. The workplace

For those of you in charge of other employees, teams, or educating employees, transformative learning theory can also help you in your day-to-day tasks. Here are some examples of how you can use it if you aren’t already doing so.

Onboarding – Every employee, regardless of their level, undergoes some form of onboarding. At its core, the goal of onboarding is to bring a new employee up to speed with the company’s operations, and it relies on adult learning. Transformative learning can take education one step further and help employees adapt more effectively and develop the skills needed for long-term success.

While some fields will encourage transformative learning more naturally than others, most employees can benefit from reflection exercises, interactive workshops, group discussions, and mentorship initiatives. These will expose students to new scenarios and encourage them to reflect on their learning, assess their existing assumptions and beliefs, and adapt.  

DEI training – Diversity, equity, and inclusion training is commonplace nowadays. This training aims to teach people about unconscious bias, inequity, and prejudice. DEI training pairs well with transformational learning because, at their roots, they both encourage learners to reevaluate how they view themselves, others, and the world around them.

Cross-departmental relations – Employees of all kinds are required to collaborate with employees from other departments. Encouraging employees from different backgrounds with different roles to work toward a common goal can encourage them to share their unique perspectives, question each other’s assumptions, and reach innovative solutions.    

Transformative Learning Theory recap

Let’s recap. 

  • Transformative learning theory is the process of bringing about change in someone’s frame of reference, which includes their habits of mind and points of view.
  • Adult learners undergo four main processes of learning: they expand on an existing point of view, add new points of view to existing habits of mind, transform existing points of view, or transform their habit of mind.
  • The 10 phases of transformational learning are unlikely to occur and difficult for learners to experience. This kind of learning is most likely to happen when adults experience events that don’t align with their existing assumptions of the world. 
  • Transformative learning can be used by educators regardless of topic, field, or instruction method. You can implement this learning theory in many ways to encourage critical reflection, thought, and self-awareness. 

Adult learning is so much more than attending a training or sitting through another informational work meeting. Applying this learning theory to your online course or other instructional content can transform what and how your students and employees learn. Have something you want to share with the world? Start your online course for free today at