Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory

Adults are the products of their individual histories and experiences, which influence their attitudes, thinking processes, and conceptualizations of their worlds. John Mezirow believed that adults can be “transformed” through a process involving a “disorientating dilemma” followed by critical reflection and new interpretations of experience. Expanding this theory to teaching, the educator must encourage students to examine their personal assumptions, explore other possibilities and test all for validity. Learning comes from the examinations and new idea formulation. The application of critical thinking skills uses this methodology. Many universities are changing the way learning takes place; rather than lecture they are using methods of discovery which yield transformational learning.

Teachers bring their own experiences and learning to the classroom. Not every instructor is able to separate their personal frames of reference from their teaching. Have you ever been in a political science class where the instructor makes it clear that the class will be taught from only one perspective…his? The best professors are the ones that engage the students in such a way that they learn from making connections from their experiences and those of others. Because thinking is a traditionally solitary endeavor, using team learning is a great way to expose individuals to thinking in other ways.

Instructors must be careful to teach the subject material in such a way that students are exposed to a “disorientating dilemma” which will begin the learning process. By its nature, transformational learning requires being more open to the perspectives of others. However, it is much easier to teach from a personal viewpoint, skipping the critical learning process in which the student questions assumptions. I have had professors that essentially say, “what I say is the way it is.” Transformational learning requires that the students have a vested interest in their own learning process, rather than being “spoon fed” a bunch of information to memorize or accept.
The role of the learner cannot be neglected. The student must be a willing participant, ready to engage in the learning process. The teacher can create the atmosphere in the classroom, but the student must be receptive.

Transformational learning causes a change in thinking after digesting information. The student must make the connections within himself to create this new awareness. Knowledge then becomes a part of the student as he begins to make new associations and own it for himself.

As an instructor, I love to see the “aha” moments when the light clicks on in a student’s eye. He has taken something that I taught, rolled it around, and pulled out the truth – transforming himself by learning.
Imel, S. Transformative Learning in Adulthood.
Merriam, S. The Role of Cognitive Development in Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory. Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, 60-68 (2004).
Mezirow, J. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1991