Core Concepts of Transformation Theory Notes

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. In J. Mezirow (Ed.) & Associates, Learning as Transformation (pp. 3- 34). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

·      "A defining condition of being human is our urgent need to understand and order the meaning of our experience, to integrate it with what we know to avoid the threat of chaos. If we are unable to understand, we often turn to tradition, thoughtlessly seize explanations by authority figures, or resort to various psychological mechanisms, such as projection and rationalization, to create imaginary meanings (p. 3)."

·      Making Meaning as a Learning Process

o   Since no absolute truth exists, meaning is contested. Learning is our constant struggle with negotiating that contested meaning.

o   In transformation theory, learning involves an awareness of tacit knowledge, both self and others', and making an interpretation based on that knowledge.

o   "Learning is understood as the process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one's experience as a guide to future action (p. 5)."

o   "Learning may be intentional, the result of deliberate inquiry; incidental, a by-product of another activity involving intentional learning; or mindlessly assimilative (p. 5)."

o   "Intuition, imagination, and dreams are other ways of making meaning. Inspiration, empathy, and transcendence are central to self-knowledge and to drawing attention to the affective quality and poetry of human experience (p. 6)."

o   "Transformative learning, especially when it involves subjective reframing, is often an intensely threatening emotional experience in which we have to become aware of both the assumptions undergirding our ideas and those supporting our emotional responses to the need to change (pp. 7-8)." Therefore... we have to encounter cognitive dissonance in order to experience transformation.

o   Context matters.

o   "Cultures enable or inhibit the realization of common human interests, ways of communicating and realizing learning capabilities (p. 7)."

o   "Transformative learning refers to the process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mind-sets) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action (p. 8)."

o   "Transformative learning involves participation in constructive discourse to use the experience of others to assess reasons justifying these assumptions, and making an action decision based on the resulting insight (p. 8)."

o   "Cultural canon, socioeconomic structures, ideologies and beliefs about ourselves, and the practices they support often conspire to foster conformity and impede development of a sense of responsible agency (p. 8)."

o   Domains of Learning

§  There are two domains of learning: instrumental and communicative. Communicative learning entails understanding the meaning behind another's communication. Instrumental learning is improving one's performance through control or manipulation of the environment and/or people.

§  Transformative learning also requires one to critically reflective of another person's assumptions as well as one's own assumptions.

o   Reflective Discourse

§  "Discourse, in the context of Transformation Theory, is that specialized use of dialogue devoted to searching for a common understanding and assessment of the justification of an interpretation or belief (pp. 10-11)."

§  "Reflective discourse involves a critical assessment of assumptions. It leads toward a clearer understanding by tapping collective experience to arrive at a tentative best judgment (p. 11)."

§  Full participation requires a space for discourse.

§  "Effective participation in discourse and in transformative learning requires emotional maturity - awareness, empathy, and control - what Goleman (1998) calls 'emotional intelligence' - knowing and managing one's emotions, motivating oneself, recognizing emotions in others and handling relationships - as well as clear thinking (p. 11)."

§  "Major social compentencies include empathy (understanding others and cultivating opportunity through diverse people and political awareness) and social skills (adeptness in getting desired responses from others) (p. 11)."

§  Emotional intelligence is the critical skill for success in the workplace according to Goleman, 1998.

§  Our "argument culture" - "We set out to win an argument rather than to understand different ways of thinking and different frames of reference, and to search for common ground, to resolve differences, and to get things done (p. 12)."

§  "Feelings of trust, solidarity, security, and empathy are essential preconditions for free full participation in discourse. Discourse is not based on winning arguments; it centrally involves finding agreement, welcoming difference, 'trying on' other points of view, identifying the common in the contradictory, tolerating the anxiety implicit in paradox, searching for synthesis, and reframing (p. 13)."

§  Transformative learning includes a shift "from self-serving debate to empathetic listening and informed constructive discourse (p. 12)."

§  Requirements for full participation in discourse include :

·      "More accurate and complete information

·      Freedom from coercion and distorting self-deception

·      Openness to alternative points of view: empathy and concern about how others think and feel

·      The ability to weigh evidence and assess arguments objectively

·      Greater awareness of the context of ideas and, more critically, reflectiveness of assumptions, including their own

·      An equal opportunity to participate in the various roles of discourse

·      Willingness to seek understanding and agreement and to accept a resulting best judgment as a test of validity until new perspectives, evidence, or arguments are encountered and validated through discourse as yielding a better judgment (pp. 13-14)."

§  "Discourse is the process in which we have an active dialogue with others to better understand the meaning of an experience (p. 14)."

§  "To assess and fully understand the way others interpret experience requires discourse, and to understand and assess the reasons for their beliefs and understandings requires the ability to become critically reflective of their assumptions and our own (p. 15)."

§  A successful educator is also a collaborative learner.

·      Meaning Structures

o   "A frame of reference is a 'meaning perspective,' the structure of assumptions and expectations through which we filter sense impressions (p. 16)."

o   Frames of reference are shaped by the person's life experiences. That which we learn from such experiences is often unknown or subconscious learning. Frames of reference are the lens through which we view current experiences and discourse. Transformative theory involves being critically reflective of one's frame of reference.

o   "A habit of mind is a set of assumptions - broad, generalized, orienting predispositions that act as a filter for interpreting the meaning of experience (p. 17)."

o   "They (frames of reference) provide us with a sense of stability, coherence, community and identity. Consequently they are often emotionally charged and strongly defended (p. 18)." Meizirow considers frames of reference to include our point of view.

o   "Who we are and what we value are closely associated. So questions raised regarding one's values are apt to be viewed as a personal attack (p. 18)."

o   Habits of mind are the way we think. They become points of view, but they are not synonymous with points of view. Points of view are composed of groups of meaning schemes. Meaning schemes remain in the subconscious unless they are critically reflected upon.

·      Transformations

o   "Learning occurs in one of four ways: by elaborating existing frames of reference, by learning new frames of reference, by transforming points of view, or by transforming habits of mind (p. 19)."

o   "...we transform frames of reference - our own and those of others - by becoming critically reflective of their assumptions and aware of their context - the source, nature, and consequences of taken-for-granted beliefs (p. 19)."

o   "The more reflective and open we are to the perspectives of others, the richer our imagination of alternative contexts for understanding will be (p. 20)."

o   "Reflectivity involves reasoning and/or intuiting (p. 21)."

o   "Transformations may be focused and mindful, involving critical reflection, the result of repetitive affective interaction or of mindless assimilation - as in moving to a different culture and uncritically assimilating its canon, norms, and ways of thinking (p. 21)."

o   "Transformations in habit of mind may be epochal, a sudden, dramatic, reorienting insight, or incremental, involving a progressive series of transformations in related points of view that culminate in a transformation in habit of mind (p. 21)."

o   "We change our point of view by trying on another's point of view (p. 21)."

o   "Transformations often follow some variation of the following phases of meaning becoming clarified (see Chapter Eleven):

§  A disorienting dilemma

§  Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame

§  A critical assessment of assumptions

§  Recognition that one's discontent and the process of transformation are shared

§  Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions

§  Planning a course of action

§  Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one's plans

§  Provisional trying of new roles

§  Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships

§  A reintegration into one's life on the basis of conditions dictated by one's new perspective (p. 22)."

o   "Transformative learning may occur through objective or subjective reframing. Objective reframing involves critical reflection on the assumptions of others encountered in a narrative or in task-oriented problem solving, as in 'action learning (Revans, 1982). Subjective reframing involves critical self-reflection of one's own assumptions about the following:

§  A narrative - applying a reflective insight from someone else's narrative to one's own experience

§  A system - economic, culture, political, educational, communal or other - as in Freire's (1970) conscientization, consciousness raising in the womens' (sic) movement and the civil rights movement

§  An organization or workplace - as in Argyris's (1982) 'double loop learning'

§  Feelings and interpersonal relations - as in psychological counseling or psychotherapy

§  The ways one learns, including one's own frames of reference, per se, in some adult education programs - as in Isaacs' (1993) 'triple loop learning' (p. 23)."

o   "Subjective reframing commonly involves an intensive and difficult emotional struggle as old perspectives become challenged and transformed (p. 23)."

o   When a person is aware of a personal transformation and then acts upon it, s/he will encounter barriers. Such barriers can be situational, emotional, or informational.

o   "Critical reflection, discourse, and reflective action always exist in the real world in complex institutional, interpersonal, and historical settings, and these inevitably significantly influence the possibilities for transformative learning and shape its nature (p. 24)."

·      Adulthood

o   "An adult is commonly defined as a person old enough to be held responsible for his or her acts (p. 24)."

o   "A sense of agency implies that one can understand perceptively. Such understanding requires the ability and disposition to become critically reflective of one's own assumptions as well as those of others, engage fully and freely in discourse to validate one's beliefs, and effectively take reflective action to implement them (p. 25)."

o   "Although it is clear that our interests and priorities change in the different seasons of our lives, development in adulthood may be understood as a learning process - a phased and often transformative process of meaning becoming clarified through expanded awareness, critical reflection, validating discourse, and reflective action as one moves toward a fuller realization of agency (p. 25)."

o   "Although adolescents may learn to become critically reflective of the assumptions of others, becoming critically reflective of one's own assumptions appears to be much more likely to occur in adults (see Chapter Two) (p. 26)."

·      Toward a Philosophy of Adult Education

o   "Our human need to understand our experience, the necessity that we do so through critical discourse, and the optimal conditions enabling us to do so freely and fully provide a foundation for a philosophy of adult education (p. 26)."

o   "Fostering these liberating conditions for making more autonomous and informed choices and developing a sense of self-empowerment is the cardinal goal of adult education (p. 26)."

o   "Transformative learning involves liberating ourselves from reified forms of thought that are no longer dependable (p. 27)."

o   "Transformation Theory suggests that transformative learning inherently creates understandings for participatory democracy by developing capacities of critical reflection on taken-for-granted assumptions that support contested points of view and participation in discourse that reduces fractional threats to rights and pluralism, conflict, and the use of power, and foster autonomy, self-development, and self-governance - the values that rights and freedoms presumably are designed to protect p. 28)."

o   "Autonomous thinking may be understood as a competence acquired through transformative learning (p. 28)."

o   "Autonomy here does not represent a fixed goal to be achieved or an arbitrary norm, but movement in the process of transformative learning toward greater understanding of the assumptions supporting one's concepts, beliefs, and feelings and those of others (p. 29)."

o   Frames of reference organize our feelings and events. Learners should explore them. The costs and benefits of a particular frame can be analyzed.

o   "The broader purpose, the goal, of adult education is to help adults realize their potential for becoming more liberated, socially responsible, and autonomous learners - that is, to make more informed choices by becoming more critically reflective as 'dialogic thinkers' (Basseches, 1984) (p. 30)."

o   "Adult educators are never neutral. They are cultural activists committed to support and extend those canon, social practices, institutions, and systems that foster fuller freer participation in reflective discourse, transformative learning, reflective action, and a greater realization of agency for all learners (p. 30)."

o   "They (adult educators) make every effort to transfer their authority over the learning group to the group itself as soon as this is feasible, and they become collaborative learners. They model and share their commitment and act on their convictions by encouraging and assisting learners to critically assess the validity of norms from alternative perspectives, arrive at best tentative judgments through discourse, and effectively act on them (p. 31)."



  • Basseches, M. (1984). Dialectical thinking and adult development. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
  • Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Revans, R. (1982). The origin and growth of action learning. Bickly, Kent, U.K.: Cartwell-Gratt.