Transformational learning is a philosophy of change. It identifies people why change is necessary, what benefits will be accrued by changing, how to change, and most importantly, how to incorporate and embrace change in education. The study of transformational learning emerged with the work of Jack Mezirow (1981, 1994, 1997).
Transformational learning is defined as learning that induces more far-reaching change in the learner than other kinds of learning, especially learning experiences which shape the learner and produce a significant impact, or paradigm shift, which affects the learner’s subsequent experiences (Clark, 1993).Numerous authors have published papers on various aspects of transformational learning, and they have collectively identified factors which produce transformational learning in adult students. Characteristics of the instructor, student, course content, learning environment, and instructional activities as they influence transformational learning have been discussed and examined. Two fundamental questions arise from these observations. First, what factors contribute to transformational learning?Second, what challenges arise for the instructor who teaches in transformational learning environments? Baumgartner (2001) and Taylor (as cited in Imel, 1998) give an overview of the theories, contributions of significant authors, and unresolved issues in transformational learning. The earliest writer on transformational learning (Mezirow, 1981) developed the concepts of “meaning perspectives”, one’s overall world-view, and “meaning schemes”, smaller components which contain specific knowledge, values, and beliefs about one’s experiences.A number of meaning schemes work together to generate one’s meaning perspective.
Meaning perspectives are acquired passively during childhood and youth, and are the target of the transformation that occurs through experience during adulthood. They operate as perceptual filters that determine how an individual will organize and interpret the meaning of his/her life’s experiences. Meaning perspectives naturally change and evolve in response to life experiences, especially those which induce powerful emotional responses in the individual.Often these life-changing events are personal crises such as divorce, death of a loved one, natural or man-made disasters and accidents, health crisis, financial upheaval, or unexpected job changes. It is these meaning perspectives which Mezirow saw as the raw material of the changes that occur in transformational learning. Mezirow (1997) further states that we do not make transformative changes in the way we learn as long as the new material fits comfortably in our existing frames of reference.Three common themes characterized Mezirow’s theory of the mechanism of transformational learning in the classroom. These were experience, critical reflection, and rational discourse.
The students’ life experiences provided a starting point for transformational learning (Mezirow, 1991). Mezirow considered critical reflection to be the distinguishing characteristic of adult learning, and saw it as the vehicle by which one questions the validity of his world-view.He identified rational discourse as a catalyst for transformation, as it induced the various participants to explore the depth and meaning of their various world-views, and articulate those ideas to their instructor and class mates. Mezirow (1997) emphasizes that transformative learning is rooted in the way human beings communicate, and does not link it exclusively with significant life events of the learner.
Through this combination of reflection and discourse, the student was able to make shifts in his/her world view which produced a more inclusive world-view.For Mezirow, one of the benefits of transformational learning was the development of greater autonomy as a person, a defining condition of adulthood (Mezirow, 1997). Boyd (as cited in Imel, 1998) differed from Mezirow’s views in two major ways. First, he believed the emotional/kinesthetic component, rather than the rational component of the transformational experience was the major catalyst for change. Second, he believed the desired outcome of transformation was not autonomy, but a greater interdependent and compassionate relationship with other people.Not all teachers or all learners are predisposed to engage in transformative learning and many adult learning situations do not lend themselves to these kinds of experiences.
When transformational learning is part of a course of study, Taylor (as cited in Imel, 1998) suggests that one role of the teacher is to establish an environment characterized by trust and care, and to facilitate sensitive relationships among the participants. Boyd and Myers (as cited in Imel, 1998) encouraged adult educators to develop and practice two characteristics.First was “seasoned guidance”, the ability to serve as an experienced mentor reflecting on his/her own journey, with the intent to assist others with their transformational process. Second, they valued “compassionate criticism,” assisting students to question their own reality in ways that would promote transformation of their world view.
Cranton (1994) emphasized the importance of the teacher as a role model who is willing to demonstrate his own willingness to learn and change.Taylor (as cited in Imel, 1998) saw the role of the teacher to help students connect the rational and affective aspects of their experience in the process of critical reflection. All in all, transformational learning is a way to look at how adult education has evolved. It emphasizes the importance of experience, critical reflection and development in adult learning. In my opinion, educators need to be familiar with this philosophy in order to fully understand adult learning and to be effective as adult educators.
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