6e. Transformative Learning

Michael Tsao, Kazuya Takahashi, Jamal Olusesi, and Shikha Jain
The University of Georgia


Romanesque Architectural Design is an architecture company that specializes in 12th century architecture. The company was started 20 years ago by three professional architects in their late 50s. The company is a middle-tier firm staffed mostly by retired consultants who are familiar with the architectural time period that the company caters to and younger full-time workers who strictly adhere to traditional architectural design methods. In order to establish more profitable contracts, the company’s employees need to be able to use a new age architectural design software so that they have a better chance of having their designs accepted for more lucrative contracts.

Most of the staff use traditional methods for drafting their designs directly onto the drawing board. Most of them retired from major architectural firms because they felt the firms were becoming too technically oriented. The company hired a consultant to give a training seminar on AutoCAD, one of the most popular architectural design software tools on the market. During the first session, as the consultant introduced himself, he could see expressions of frustration every time he mentioned AutoCAD. The first task the consultant had the trainees do was to fill out a questionnaire. The reasoning for this task was to gather information on the trainees’ frame of mind when it came to learning this tool. The questionnaires came back and revealed that every one of the older staff members felt incapable of learning software as difficult as AutoCAD;the younger staff members felt that this software would take away from the historical nature of the architectural time frame in which they dealt. AutoCAD is robust enough to handle their specific architectural designs. However, the young staff members simply do not like the idea of using architectural software in their design methods.

During the next session, the instructor explained to the employees how he has had many trainees in the past who have felt just as they do now. He described how his past trainees’ comfort level rose dramatically after a minimal time of exposure to AutoCAD. To help reiterate this, the instructor displayed examples of his past trainees’ architectural designs created using AutoCAD. Then the instructor showed that the tools in AutoCAD mimicked the normal tools that they use and tried to establish that the learning curve for AutoCAD is not as great as they thought. He also tried to establish how using AutoCAD would eliminate certain limitations that they encountered when using traditional methods, explaining how AutoCAD would help them create a more precise and robust design. Then he discussed how the click-and-drag components made AutoCAD as easy as using a word processor in some aspects. He then had the trainees work on simple examples using AutoCAD as a practice assignment. He suggested that they should ask one another for constructive feedback or to report to him regarding difficulties and obstacles they faced while using the software.

In the next session, some trainees stated that they had an easier time using the software than expected and that they saw the potential benefits that AutoCAD could have for future projects. The instructor started an open debate among trainees who felt they were becoming more comfortable using AutoCAD and the rest of the class, about how and why they have this assumption. As the trainees worked on more simple examples, the consultant could see their faces light up as they realized how easy it is to use AutoCAD. To increase their comfort level, the instructor told them to create an original design using traditional methods as an outline and transfer their design onto AutoCAD. This was an attempt to help the trainees blur the lines between their old habits and new technical capabilities. After the post-questionnaire was turned in, the results showed what the instructor expected – trainees stated that they saw AutoCAD as a valuable tool they could use while maintaining the historical nature of their architectural design.


Transformative learning is learning to purposively question one’s own assumptions, beliefs, feelings, and perspectives in order to grow or mature personally and intellectually (Herod, 2002). Taylor (1998) suggests that the process of transformation occurs according to the following phases, as suggested by Mezirow:

  1. a disorienting dilemma;
  2. self-examination with feelings of guilt or shame;
  3. a critical assessment of assumption;
  4. recognition that one’s discontent and process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change;
  5. exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions;
  6. planning of a course of action;
  7. acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans;
  8. provisionally trying out new roles;
  9. building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships; and
  10. a reintegration of new assumption into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective.

Definition Animation

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Caption: The Flash animation shown above depicts the 10 Phases of Transformation of Mezirow. After being faced with a disorienting dilemma in phase 1, the learner steps through the remaining phases reflecting on his/her own experiences. In phase 2, the learner experiences self-examination with feelings of guilt or shame. Phase 3, the learner experiences a critical assessment of assumption. Phase 4, the learner recognizes that their discontent and process of transformation is shared and that others have negotiated a similar change. Phase 5, the learner explores options for new roles, relationships, and actions. Phase 6, the learner plans a course of action. Phase 7, the learner acquires the knowledge and skills needed for implementing new plans. In Phase 8, the learner provisionally will try out new roles. Phase 9, the learner builds competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships. In the final phase, the learner reintegrates new assumptions into their life on the basis of conditions dictated by their new perspective. Upon completion of the 10 phases, the learners will have transformed their own beliefs, assumptions and experiences into a new meaningful perspective. This animation was designed and developed by Eddie Hutchinson, HueiHsein Liu, Taylor Mason, Darin Parker, and Kim Rodriguez.

Scenario breakdown of the Mezirow phases of transformation

The learner must first face a disorienting dilemma. A disorienting dilemma is triggered by a life crisis or major life transition, although it may also result from an accumulation of transformations in meaning schemes over a period of time (Mezirow, 1995, p. 50). Mezirow (1997) points out that transformative learning theory always begins with a disorienting dilemma. This kind of method can be used to identify the sources of their assumptions. Identifying the assumptions is one of the primary steps of transformative learning. In the scenario the instructor gave the questionnaire to the trainees so that they could go through the process of self-examination. The instructor could sense the frustration of the veteran architects and young full-time workers in having to learn how to use design software (AutoCAD). A learner must become aware of their assumptions and make them explicit. The questionnaire the instructor gave allowed the trainees to assess and clarify their assumptions. Some trainees may have written their personal story of why they fear new technologies. The instructor stated to the learners how he had had many trainees in the past who had felt just as they did. This strategy helped learners recognize the process of transformation is shared amongst themselves and that others have negotiated similar change.

After the instructor shared learning experiences with the trainees they moved onto hands-on activities. The instructor showed examples that the trainees could follow and then gave them a simple practice assignment. This task allowed the trainees to explore options for new roles. Then the instructor showed that the tools in AutoCAD mimicked the tools that they were used to. This is the instructor’s chosen course of action to aid the trainees’ acquisition of knowledge and skills. The instructor asked the learners to create an original design using traditional methods as an outline and transfer their design onto AutoCAD to increase their comfort level. This was an attempt to help the trainees provisionally try out new roles and build competence and self-confidence in these roles. At the end of the course, the instructor used the post-questionnaire to help the learners reintegrate their new assumptions.

Meaning schemes

Meaning schemes are frames of reference that are based on the totality of an individual’s experiences over a lifetime of cultural assimilation. Meaning schemes consist of specific beliefs, value judgments, attitudes, and feelings. When their meaning schemes interpret and assimilate a new experience, it may either just reinforce the perspective or gradually stretch its boundaries. As a result, a novel experience is either flatly rejected or the experience itself is transformed in order to fit into existing meaning schemes. People may change their meaning schemes as they add to or assimilate new information to their prior scheme and, in fact, this kind of transformation may commonly occur through learning. In the scenario, the instructor told the trainees to create an original design using traditional methods as an outline and to transfer their design into AutoCAD. This process is very important to bridge their prior meaning schemes and new meaning schemes.

Meaning perspectives

Transformation of meaning perspectives is more rare than the transformation of meaning schemes. Transformative learning does not happen by itself; it takes place when learners face a radically different and incongruent situation or information that cannot be assimilated into their meaning perspective. Learners’ experiences significantly affect their perspectives, an interpretation of experience, which is a part of transformative learning. Meaning perspective is “a collection of meaning schemes made up of higher-order schemata, theories, propositions, beliefs, prototypes, goal orientations, and evaluations” (Mezirow, 1990, p. 2) and “a way of seeing the world, that is, the perspective or view through which meaning emerges from experience” (Cranton, 1994, p. 42). For instance, in the scenario, the learners had a limited understanding of AutoCAD (meaning schemes), and they felt that the only valuable way to work in architectural design was through manual labor and hard work (meaning perspective).

Interestingly, words like assimilation and ideas like “incongruent situation” align quite well with Piaget’s Constructivism ideas of assimilation and disequilibration. Further, Mezirow’s transformation of a meaning perspective aligns quite well with Piaget’s accommodation.

The transformative learning theory has held three common themes from the beginning of its proposal in 1978 by Jack Mezirow, which are centrality of experience, critical reflection, and rational discourse (Taylor, 1998).

Centrality of experience

Centrality of experience is the starting point. People’s assumptions are generally constructed by their interpretation of experience. The instructor in the scenario used the questionnaires to check the learners’ frame of mind (centrality of experience) that is constructed from their experiences.

Critical reflection

Critical reflection attempts to deconstruct the learner’s prior assumptions such as beliefs, value systems, attitudes, and social emotion in a rational way. According to Burbules and Berk (1999), critical thinking is best suited for recognizing faulty arguments, assumptions lacking evidence, and obscure concepts.

In the scenario, the learners are retired consultants who are familiar with the architectural time period which the company specializes in and younger full-time workers who strictly follow traditional architectural design methods. Most of them retired because they feared the firms were becoming too technically oriented. The younger workers simply did not like the idea of using architectural software in their design methods. This anti-technology feeling, therefore, forms their assumption and prevents them from accepting the use of AutoCAD. The questionnaires that the instructor used served not only to examine the learners’ meaning perspectives, but also to help the learners critically reflect on their experiences.

Mezirow points out that learners must engage in critical reflection on their experiences, which could subsequently lead to transformation of meaning perspective. Thus a perspective transformation is the goal. It is “the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world.” This critical reflection of assumptions then changes “these structures of habitual expectation and makes possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective” and makes learners choose or otherwise act upon these new understandings (Mezirow, 1991, p. 167).

Transformative learning theory changes learner’s epistemic, sociolinguistic, and psychological perspectives and transforms the learners themselves. Adult learners are usually tenacious in holding on to their assumptions, and even if they overcome the initial personal and social resistance to questioning their assumptions, their critical reflection does not become any less troubling (Cranton, 1994, p. 18). In the scenario described, the results of the questionnaire show how the learners feel frustrated and incapable of learning the AutoCAD software. This disquieting emotion is felt when learners engage in the process of freeing themselves from assumptions that limit their opinions or choice of perspectives.

Transformative learning is based on Habermas’s theory of communicative action: the concepts of instrumental, communicative and emancipatory knowledge. The instrumental domain is where learners form a hypothesis about their perceptions. The communicative domain mainly focuses on learners’ interaction to make meaning through understanding others. The emancipatory domain is the place where learners can free themselves from any restrictions and actively question their assumptions. Cranton concisely listed three types of reflection that involves movement toward the emancipatory domain: content, process and premise reflection (Cranton, 1994, p. 48). Content reflection is an examination of the content or description of a problem; process reflection involves checking on the problem; premise reflection happens when the problem itself is questioned. The importance of the premise reflection is repeatedly stressed throughout Mezirow’s theory, and he concludes that “premise reflection is the dynamic by which our belief systems – meaning perspective – become transformed (Mezirow, 1991, p. 111).”

Table1. Types of Reflection and Meaning Perspectives (Cranton, 1994, p. 51).
Reflection Perspective
Psychological Sociolinguistic Epistemic
Content What do I believe about myself? What are the social norms? What knowledge do I have?
Process How have I come to have this perspective of myself? How have these social norms been influential? How did I obtain this knowledge?
Premise Why should I question this perception? Why are these norms important? Why do I need/not need this knowledge?
Table 2. Scenario chart-Types of Reflection and Meaning Perspectives (Cranton, 1994, p. 51).
Reflection Perspective
Psychological Sociolinguistic Epistemic
Content I am against new forms of technology-oriented methods in my work place, for example AutoCAD. My colleagues don’t believe the new technologies such as AutoCAD is vital or necessary to our work environment. Knowledge of traditional architectural design methods and strategies (prior knowledge).
Process I am accustomed to using traditional method such as drafting my designs on drawing boards. Therefore, I’m not comfortable using other technology-oriented methods. Because it helps to maintain the traditional methods of architectural design in our firm. I have obtained a degree in architecture from an accredited university and I have several years of work experience.
Premise My experience and new knowledge gained from the training seminar has helped changed my meaning perspective. Because traditional design methods are shared by all current staff members. New technology-oriented design methods are available and intended to make my faster, cheaper, and easier.
Table 3. Types of Reflection and Learning (Cranton, 1994, p. 51).
Reflection Learning
Instrumental Communicative Emancipatory
Content What is the causal relationship event? What do others say about this issue? What are my assumptions?
Process How did I empirically validate the causal relationship? How did I obtain consensual validation on this issue? How do I know my assumptions are valid?
Premise Why is this knowledge important to me? Why should I believe in this conclusion? Why should I revise/not revise my perspective?

Meaning Making

Meaning making refers to the transformation of learners’ assumptions and offers a new interpretation of their prior assumptions. This process emphasizes that transformative learning is not a goal of learning, but rather a process of helping learners become more autonomous in their learning. Thus, transformative learning is, in a sense, the deconstruction of learners’ prior assumptions through critical reflection as well as the reconstruction of their assumptions through meaning making.

Rational discourse

“Rational discourse is 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 classmates” (Mezirow, 1991). For example, the instructor started an open debate between trainees who felt they were becoming more comfortable using AutoCAD and the rest of the class about how and why they have their assumptions. This debate was a good example of rational discourse and an essential factor for changing meaning perspective because they are engaged in sharing their own feelings on their current view of AutoCAD.


The most important aspect of transformative learning theory is that one has to establish and clarify the learners’ prior assumptions. Once this is done, strategies can be developed to help transform these assumptions. When learners go into critical reflection they have sufficient evidence to accept the validity of the new concept and to change their meaning perspectives or schemes. Through this developmental process, they become able to free themselves from their previous assumptions and become critical thinkers as well as autonomous learners.


Burbules, N. C., & Berk, R. (1999) Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits. In Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler, eds.: Critical Theories in Education. New York: Routledge. Retrieved October 2, 2006 from http://faculty.ed.uiuc.edu/burbules/papers/critical.html

Cranton, P. (1994). Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Habermas, J. (1984). The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Trans. Thomas McCarthy (Vol. 1). Boston: Beacon.

Herod, L. (2002). Adult learning from theory to practice. Retrieved July 2, 2012, from http://www.nald.ca/library/learning/adult_learning/adult_learning.pdf

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow. J. (1995). Transformation Theory of Adult Learning. In Welton M. R. (Eds.), In Defense of the Lifeworld (pp. 39-70). New York: SUNY Press..

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education (Vol. 74, p. 5-12).

Taylor, E. (1998). The theory and practice of transformative learning: A critical review. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 423 422).


APA Citation: Tsao, J., Takahashi, K., Olusesu, J. & Jain, S. (2006). Transformative Learning. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/