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The Origins of Transformative Learning Theory

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Transformative learning is a process of examining, questioning, validating, and revising our perspectives.



The posting below looks at the role that various “habits of mind” play in the development of transformative learning theory.  It is from Chapter 2 – The Origins of Transformative Learning Theory in the book, Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide to Theory and Practice (third edition), by Patricia Cranton. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102.

Copyright © 2016 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning


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The Origins of Transformative Learning Theory



Overview of Transformative Learning Theory 


Transformative learning theory is based on constructivist assumptions. In other words, meaning is seen to exist within ourselves, not in external forms. We develop or construct personal meaning from our experience and validate it through interaction and communication with others. What we make of the world is a result of our perceptions of our experiences. If we were to claim the existence of absolute truths or universal constructs that are independent of our knowledge of them, the goal of learning would be to discover the right answers rather than to contemplate our perspectives in the world. Transformative learning is a process of examining, questioning, validating, and revising our perspectives. In 2003, Mezirow wrote,


Transformative learning is learning that transforms problematic frames of reference – sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets) – to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change. Such frames of reference are better than others because they are more likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action. (Mezirow, 2003b, pp. 58-59) 


Our experiences are filtered through our meaning perspectives or habits of mind, which include uncritically assimilated ways of knowing, believing, and feeling. They include distortions, prejudices, stereotypes, and simply unquestioned or unexamined beliefs. Maintaining a meaning perspective is safe. 


Learning occurs when an individual encounters an alternative perspective that calls prior habits of mind into question. Mezirow originally saw this as a single, dramatic event – a disorienting dilemma – but he and others (Mezirow, 2000; E. W. Taylor, 2000) have since acknowledged that it could also be a gradual cumulative process. Mezirow (2000) described transformative learning that is stimulated by a dramatic event as epochal and that which is more gradual as incremental. Dirkx (2000) proposed that transformative learning is more often a process of everyday occurrences than it is a so-called burning bush phenomenon. 


If a person responds to an alternative habit of mind by reconsidering and revising prior belief systems, the learning becomes transformative. As Mezirow (1991) put it, “Reflective learning becomes transformative whenever assumptions or premises are found to be distorting, inauthentic, or otherwise invalid” (p. 6). 


In all of Mezirow’s writing, discourse is central to transformative learning. He defined discourse as dialogue involving the assessment of beliefs, feelings, and values (Mezirow, 2003b, p. 59). Under ideal conditions (which cannot be established completely), participants in discourse will: 


-       Have accurate and complete information 

-       Be free from coercion and distorting self-perception

-       Be able to weigh evidence and assess arguments objectively 

-       Be open to alternative perspectives

-       Be able to reflect critically on presuppositions and their consequences

-       Have equal opportunity to participate

-       Be able to accept an informed, objective consensus as valid (Mezirow, 1991, p. 78) 


Types of Habits of Mind 


Mezirow (1991) originally distinguished among three kinds of meaning perspectives – epistemic, sociolinguistic, and psychological – but he went on to expand this to include six habits of mind (Mezirow, 2000). To the original three kinds of meaning perspectives he added moral-ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic habits of mind. He did not see these categories as independent, but rather as overlapping and influencing each other. A habit of mind is a way of seeing the world based on our background, experience, culture, and personality.  Because all of our habits of mind are determined by our personal stories, it is reasonable to expect that they are interrelated. 


Epistemic habits of mind are those related to knowledge and the way we acquire and use knowledge. For example, Coke, Benson, and Hayes (2015) described the transition from graduate student to professor as a transformative experience based on revisions in knowledge about teaching and learning in the person’s role as English language arts instructor. For more than two decades, I had deeply held convictions about the nature of teaching as involving face-to-face communication. When Steve (in Chapter 1) learned how to use PowerPoint, it was not only a technical skill that he acquired, but also a revision in his epistemic assumptions about teaching – his knowledge about teaching. 


Epistemic habits of mind are also about the way we learn – learning styles and preferences. Whether a person thinks globally or in detail, concretely or abstractly, or in an organized or intuitive way will involve epistemic perspectives that are influenced by those preferences. We do not easily change the way we learn. These preferences are very much about who we are as human beings; they are long-held and deeply valued ways of seeing ourselves. For me to move away from my analytical approach to understanding theory, for example, seems almost impossible, and I only catch glimpses of how it might be to approach learning in different ways. 


Sociolinguistic habits of mind are based on social norms, cultural expectations, and the way we use language.  Media images of war and violence form our perceptions of violence. Growing up in a culture in which women’s roles are clearly defined as submissive shape our habits of mind about how women should behave.  For example, Mejiuni (2012) conducted a comprehensive study of the roles of women in Nigeria and the influence of power and violence on their lives; through sociolinguistic habits of mind, women are expected to be caring, nurturing, and to act as peacekeepers, a view reinforced by religious leaders. Mejiuni argued that violence against women is a consequence of the unequal power relations between women and men. 


In a panel presentation at the Adult Educational Research Conference, Brookfield, Sheared, Johnson-Bailey, and Colin (2005) probed the dominant, mainstream perspectives on race through a sharing of experiences and stories. The constructs are deep and unconsciously absorbed. White adult educators cannot enter the world of their colleagues of color and even attempting to do so can paradoxically emphasize their privilege. It is no simple matter to bring our sociolinguistic habits of mind to the forefront of consciousness and consider them in a way that has the potential to lead to transformation. 


Psychological habits of mind have to do with how people see themselves – their self-concept, needs, inhibitions, anxieties, and fears. Feeling unloved as a child could lead to feeling unworthy as an adult. Someone whose parents had very high expectations of achievement in school may develop a perspective that includes great motivation to achieve or possibly a sense of guilt about never being able to achieve enough. The sources of psychological habits of mind are often buried in childhood experiences, including trauma, and may not be easily accessible to the conscious self. 


Personality traits also comprise a facet of our psychological habits of mind (see Chapter 5). Whether we prefer to make judgments using thinking or feeling, whether we have an introverted or extraverted attitude toward our world, and whether we perceive the world through our sense or through our intuition act as filters in how we see the world. 


Moral-ethical habits of mind incorporate conscience and morality. How people determine good and evil, how they act on their views of goodness, and the extent to which they see themselves as responsible for advocating for justice in the world create a perspective for making meaning out of the world. People donate time and money to charitable organizations, protest against war, boycott products and services, and stop to help a neighbor based on moral-ethical habits of mind. 


Brookfield (2005), in his discussion of Habermas’s view of social evolution, explained that “the development of morality is indicated by people’s ability to detach themselves from everyday thinking and decide (after participating in discussions with others about the ethical justifications of various approaches to situations) how to act in ways that are not ideologically predetermined” (p. 257). Individuals can develop a moral consciousness that is of a higher stage than that which is embodied in the institutions of society. 


Philosophical habits of mind can be based on a transcendental worldview, philosophy, or religious doctrine. Most religious systems contain a complex web of values, beliefs, guides to behavior, and rules for living. The acceptance of a particular religious system, whether it is consciously chosen or assimilated from family, creates a powerful meaning perspective. Everything from style of dress to political views may be dictated. Philosophical habits of mind based on a worldview are similarly complex. A neighbor of mine, for example, subscribes to a “social credit” worldview that is described as a “whole orientation to civilization,” including the social, political, and economic aspects of living – it calls for a redistribution of wealth, radically different views of employment, the end of capitalism, and so forth. 


Aesthetic habits of mind include our values, attitudes, tastes, judgments, and standards about beauty. Aesthetic habits of mind are, in large part, sociolinguistic habits of mind; that is, they are determined by the social norms of the community and culture. Of course, it is possible to be a part of a culture and not hold the same standards about beauty, just as it is possible to reject other subsets of cultural expectations and remain within that culture. 


Aesthetic habits of mind may have an even broader meaning. Marcuse (1978), who believed we cannot rely only on our reason, proposed that powerful aesthetic experiences through art, music, and fiction had the potential to help people detach themselves from their everyday world and see a fundamentally different point of view. Lawrence (2012) described how art breaks us out of the boundaries that constrain us. Both for individuals and communities, she suggested that creating and viewing art allows us to “surface knowledge that was always present but outside of our conscious awareness” (p. 473). 


Each of these six kinds of habits of mind is interdependent and interrelated. As helpful as it is to think about different kinds of perspectives, it is just as important to see the interconnections. My way of seeing myself (psychological habit of mind) is influenced by my cultural background (sociolinguistic habit of mind). By growing up in an isolated and poor community that did not value education (sociolinguistic habit of mind), I ended up with great gaps in my knowledge (epistemic habit of mind). Moral-ethical and aesthetic habits of mind are obviously deeply influenced by sociolinguistic, psychological, and epistemic factors. If, for example, I know little about classical music or art (epistemic perspective), my tastes and standards about beauty (aesthetic perspective) will be very different from those of a person well informed in the arts. Philosophical habits of mind may provide an umbrella for many other of our perspectives. 


Unquestioned Habits of Mind 

The way we see the world is a product of our knowledge about the world, our cultural background and language, our psychological nature, our moral and ethical views, the religious doctrine or worldview to which we subscribe, and the way we see beauty. Each perspective is made up on interwoven beliefs, values, feelings, and assumptions that together create the lens through which we see the world and form the basis for our actions in the world. That I choose to rescue animals whereas someone else chooses to kill them reflects our different points of view. That someone protests against American-led war on Iraq whereas someone else acts as a suicide bomber illustrates opposing worldviews. 


Habits of mind are unexamined. They create limitations and form boxes of which we are unconscious and cannot, therefore, get beyond. In his 1991 book, Mezirow referred to these as distorted meaning perspectives, but the term distorted raises questions. If we adhere to a realistic view of the world, then distorted assumptions might be helpful in understanding our stance in relation to that world. However, if we hold a constructivist worldview, we are left with several questions. Who, for example, has the privilege of deciding which perspectives are distorted? If a student finds her perspective to be just fine, can a teacher imply that it is distorted? If a whole community or culture accepts a certain point of view (e.g., polygamy is evil, war is necessary), does that mean the view is not distorted? Yet we also do not want to fall into the trap of saying that all opinions and beliefs are equally good and acceptable. It seems that one way through this dilemma is to refer to the unquestioned or unexamined rather than distorted habits of mind. This also allows the possibility that habits of mind do not necessarily need to be abandoned once examined. 

Adult developmental theorists give us some help in understanding the characteristics of unquestioned habits of mind. The stage theories of development tend to show a progression of development from simplistic black-and-white perceptions of the world through to complex relativistic perceptions. The classic theories of adult development all reflect this progression: Perry’s (1970) well-known approach to cognitive development; King and Kitchener’s (1994) work on reflective judgment; and Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule’s (1986) work on women’s ways of knowing. For example, King and Kitchener’s (1994) model of reflective judgment contained the following seven stages: 


1.    Beliefs need no justification; what is believed is true. 

2.    Knowledge is absolutely certain but may not be immediately available. 

3.    Knowledge is absolutely certain or temporarily uncertain. 

4.    Knowledge is idiosyncratic, and some information may be in error or lost; therefore, one cannot know with certainty. 

5.    Knowledge is contextual and subjective; it is available through interpretation. 

6.    Knowledge is constructed by each person and is based on the evaluation of evidence and argument. 

7.    Knowledge is the product of rational inquiry, which is fallible. 


More recently, K. Taylor and Elias (2012) based their discussion of developmental perspective on Kegan’s (2000) model of transformation of consciousness. Kegan was interested in not so much what we know but how we know, the “form” of the learning rather than the content. His model moved from the socialized self to beyond socialization (the self-authorizing self) and finally to self-transforming (a stage that few individuals reach). 


Mark Tennant has a long history of writing about adult development in relation to transformative learning. His most recent book (Tennant, 2012) took an interesting perspective that is somewhat related to Kegan’s work. He analyzed the different concepts of self and related each to the transformative learning process. The authentic self implies that there “is an essence that is you … the essential self” (p. 17), which may be biologically determined or learned but is resistant to change. The autonomous self is “characterized by agency, choice, reflection, and rationality” (p. 35). The repressed self takes into account the unconscious dimension. Tennant relied on Freud (1963) for this discussion, but Jung (1971) may be more relevant as his conceptualization included individuation, which is akin to transformative learning. The socially constructed self is developed through interactions with others. Finally the storied self explains how individuals use storytelling and narrative to come to an understanding of the self. 


Mezirow (1991) described sociolinguist habits of mind as being very difficult to articulate and question. As can be seen in the developmental approaches of K. Taylor and Elias, Kegan, and Tennant, we are deeply embedded in our social world and cannot easily stand outside of it to look at its norms and expectations. Habermas (1984) wrote of a system world. Systems, such as a monetary system that has evolved from ownership and the exchange of possessions, have been removed from the realm of individual control. They are no longer questioned or seen as questionable. Rarely do people debate the value of having a legal system, or the necessity of using money as a means of exchange of property, or whether educational institutions should exist. We tend to be unaware of the social codes in which power and privilege are distributed. 


When critical theorists encourage us to deconstruct commonly held points of view and when postmodernists “trouble” or “complicate” beliefs, they are trying to prod these deeply embedded habits of mind. 


In his early, comprehensive presentation of his theory, Mezirow (1991) discussed several ways in which habits of mind become seemingly unquestionable: 


-       Language-based assumptions are especially insidious, as we need to use language itself to question. Through labeling, we attach the characteristics of the label to the person or thing we have labeled; when that label is uncritically assimilated, it is hard to call it into question. 

-       We operate with selective perception. We cannot see and hear everything, so we choose to pay attention to some things and ignore others. It is easier to pay attention to that with which we already agree. 

-       Freire’s (1970) levels of consciousness remind us that different thoughts are easier at different times. For example, there are times when people are preoccupied with survival needs, internalize the values of their oppressors, or are impressed with populist leaders. Critical examination of habits of mind is unlikely to occur under these conditions. 

-       People may have constrained visions of humanity. They see humanity as flawed; no amount of reason, effort, or action will make a difference (students are lazy and not motivated, workers do not care about their jobs, the public is stupid and naïve). 


Our unquestioned psychological beliefs and assumptions may cause us pain because they are inconsistent with how we prefer to see ourselves as adults. They can be defense mechanisms originating in childhood trauma, mechanisms that are dysfunctional in adulthood. Those theorists who have taken a depth psychology approach to transformative learning (e.g., Dirkx, 2012) have emphasized the power of the unconscious in shaping how we see ourselves. M. Watkins (2000) described the unconscious as being made up of clusters of psychic energy or different selves that inform the conscious self. By definition, the unconscious is unexamined and unquestioned. Bringing the unconscious into consciousness is part of what Dirkx (2001a) termed soul work


In today’s society, with the media attention given to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, we are well aware of the powerful and lifelong impact such tragic experiences can have on people’s lives. In these cases, Mezirow’s (1991) original term distorted assumptions seems reasonable. It is most often the role of counselors and therapists more so than the role of adult educators to help individuals work through these perspectives. 


The source of our unexamined psychological habits of mind can also be more prosaic. Simple childhood experiences that would not necessarily be labeled as traumatic can have a profound impact on self-perception. For example, I think of my well-meaning grandmother who told me that my legs were “big,” and therefore she would pay me 25 cents not to wear shorts. To this day, I am uncomfortable in shorts or short skirts and rarely wear them. 


And, of course, past educational experiences, such as childhood school failure and criticism by teachers or peers, can contribute to people’s perceptions of themselves as learners. Individuals who see themselves as incompetent learners, unable to write or study or incapable of critical thinking, for example, can likely connect their self-concept to earlier learning experiences. 





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