Transformative learning theory is the idea that an experience—inside or outside of the classroom—can result in changes to a person’s belief systems, idea of self, or behavior.
Sounds radical, right? And yes, experiences that transform our worldview or opinions can take the form of big life events. But less radical transformative experiences can also be engineered by learning professionals who want to give learners the ability to self-critique, reflect, and change their behavior.
The transformative learning approach isn’t simple to apply, but it can generate real positive change in workplaces. An L&D strategy built partially or wholly around transformative learning principles can help workers see problems in a new light, and cause them to question limiting assumptions and beliefs.
In this blog post, we will discuss transformative learning theory in more detail and talk about how L&D teams can bring transformative learning into the workplace effectively.
Mezirow's Transformative Learning Theory Explained
Transformative learning theory was developed in the late 1970s by Jack Mezirow, an educator and researcher in the field of adult learning. Mezirow’s work focused on how adults construe meaning from experience; from there he considered how educators can help people reflect on experiences self-critically in order to construe meaning autonomously, rather than accepting others’ interpretations of situations and experiences. As Mezirow saw it:
“A defining condition of being human is that we have to understand the meaning of our experience. For some, any uncritically assimilated explanation by an authority figure will suffice. But in contemporary societies we must learn to make our own interpretations rather than act on the purposes, beliefs, judgments, and feelings of others. Facilitating such understandings is the cardinal goal of adult education. Transformative learning develops autonomous thinking.” Mezirow, 1997.
You’ll notice in the quote above that Mezirow specifically calls out adult education, not pedagogy. One reason for that is that children have fewer life experiences to reflect on, and less highly-developed critical faculties. In fact, Mezirow got the idea of transformative learning theory while studying adult women returning to college; those women demonstrated a tendency to develop new perspectives in order to assimilate new information.
Want to read more about adult learning theories? We got you covered
For Mezirow, transformative learning takes place along two axes:
- Instrumental learning: Task-oriented problem solving to assess cause and effect relationships.
- Communicative learning: Communication of feelings and needs.
For transformation through learning to actually happen, both of the above need to be activated. Learners need to evaluate the quantitative and the qualitative aspects of a situation to transform their assessment of it.
Since Mezirow coined the term in 1978, transformative learning has been applied in a wide variety of contexts, from sustainable development to sociopolitical activism in science education.
The 10 Phases of Transformative Learning
We can conceptualize the phases of transformative learning theory as a journey, with each phase building on the previous one. There are 10 phases in total, based on the phases that Mezirow saw in many of the women returning to college:
- A disorienting dilemma: This is when a learner finds that what they thought or believed in the past may not be accurate. If you think this sounds like it might be uncomfortable or confusing, you’d be right…
- A self examination (with feelings of guilt or shame): We said it was going to get uncomfortable!
- A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions: Learners accept that past assumptions were incorrect, and conduct a holistic review of beliefs.
- Recognition that the process of transformation is a shared experience
- Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
- Planning a course of action: Learners consider what they need to do to understand a situation better
- Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan: Process of acquiring and analyzing new information
- Trying out of new roles: Learners ‘try out’ their new perspectives, assessing how new opinions align with wider conceptual frameworks about the world
- Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships: Learners gain confidence in their new perspectives
- A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s perspective: Future behavior is contingent on the new perspectives.
Through these 10 phases, the learner moves from a confusing stage of disorientation, through a stage of self-examination, and ends at a stage of ‘reintegration’. In this last stage, the learner accepts and incorporates new knowledge by integrating it into our existing worldview. This can be a transformative experience in and of itself, as we become more open minded and better able to understand different perspectives than our own.
Transformative Learning Theory in the Workplace
There are several key elements of transformative learning theory that make it particularly useful for professionals. These include:
- Becoming more self-aware: Transformative learning theory helps learners reflect on their own experiences and biases, shedding light on assumptions and perceptions. This increased self-awareness allows learners to be more open to new ideas and perspectives.
- Challenging deeply held beliefs: This theory emphasizes that learning occurs through critical reflection and self-examination, and that it can help learners rethink assumptions about themselves and the world around them.
These outcomes can be deeply impactful in modern workplaces, where team members are continually asked to react to new situations, information, and technology.
However, we mentioned at the start of this blog post that the theory can present challenges for L&D professionals in corporate contexts. For one thing, transformative learning can be a challenging and uncomfortable process, as we are forced to confront our existing beliefs and assumptions. Additionally, transformative learning may not always yield the desired results, or it may take longer than we expect to see any changes in our thinking.
Despite these potential challenges, transformative learning is an effective tool for personal growth in the workplace.
Transformative learning examples in the workplace
Up until now, we’ve focused on the theory of transformative learning. So what does this theory actually look like when practically applied in the workplace? We’re suggesting a few ways that learning professionals can spur a fruitful ‘disorienting dilemma’, and guide learners through the following transformative phases:
In scenario-based learning, an employee can safely experience a new, challenging situation, and then be guided through self-reflection to new behaviors.
Interested in applying scenario-based learning? We have a cohort-based course with Heidi Kirby that will help you get started!
DEI training is all about changing the assumptions that underlie exclusionary behaviors. Transformative learning is perfect for that.
Perhaps it’s most instructive to take a look at this 11 minute video from The Guardian newspaper, in which a group of men attend a weekend camp about non-toxic masculinity:
In the video, you’ll see the group go through a series of challenging activities and experiences together, with the aim of revealing and (challenging) assumptions about what it means to be a man.
A modified version of this could be a powerful DEI learning experience in the workplace. Running a workshop that encourages participants to examine social constructs may help employees to change their entire perspective about the way they've perceived power structures in their everyday lives.
Stepping into a co-worker’s shoes for a week, a day, or even just an hour, can provide powerful disorienting dilemmas. Consider running an experimental program in which bosses go to the shopfloor, and vice versa.
For any of these approaches to work, you need to create a framework in which participants can reflect on the situation, and identify strategies they could implement in the future to avoid similar mistakes.
Transformative Learning Theory Transforms Attitudes
Workplace L&D is often strongly task- or performance-focused. And that’s great for expanding learners’ knowledge and skills. But what about the attitudes that underpin knowledge and skills?
Knowledge and skills gaps are fairly easy to identify and address, but those fuzzy affective emotional things are much harder to address. Except through transformative learning.
Try bringing in transformative activities and let us know on LinkedIn how it goes!