Following Mezirow: A Roadmap through Transformative Learning

By Daniel Harbecke

There is a fundamental divide between understanding a concept and applying it in practical use – any experienced teacher can confirm this.  For those who lack this sort of background, there’s always Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning, which ranks the application of ideas at a higher level than knowing them (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

This is perhaps one of the reasons why Jack Mezirow’s theories of Transformative Learning tend to be overlooked in the modern scope of training and education.  Even for educators who understand that transformation is a profound force in learning, trying to introduce it into an actual learning experience is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle: how do you set out to transform someone?  Further, there are ethical considerations in creating a situation that could radically alter a student’s worldview – transformative learning is by definition a life-changing experience.

Bloom’s Taxonomy reveals where making use of Transformative Learning breaks down, well within the first three levels of cognitive awareness: Knowledge, Comprehension and Application.  Yet something amazing becomes evident in the Taxonomy’s second half: the more advanced levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy comprise the same elements at the core of Transformative Learning: Analysis, Evaluation, and Creation.

Education has the potential to create opportunities for supervised, protected change in worldview.  If transformation can be described by those factors at work in higher thought, except on a grander scale, we can develop a better understanding of the process – not to directly prompt revolutions in thinking, but to guide them as they unfold.

What is Transformation?

We are in a constant state of change, whether we recognize it or not.  These changes take place in our physical, personal, social, and spiritual realms, often so slowly that we fail to notice them:

  • A time in our childhood when we put away our toys for the last time.
  • The changes in our bodies due to aging and lifestyle.
  • Adjusting the nature of our relationships, or deciding to begin or end them.
  • The evolution in our thoughts about life, and statements of purpose.

Though M. Carolyn Clark referred specifically to transformational learning, there are two types of transformation: a change that can occur gradually, or a sudden, powerful experience (Clark, 1993).  Although the gradual variety forms most of our lives, the directions we take in life revolve around the powerful events of extreme upheaval.  Events we view as “negative” are generally those which we are not prepared to endure, and even “positive” change can lead to periods of insecurity and turmoil.

According to transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber, each of us has a “center of gravity”, or a familiar level of development.  A gradual change takes place when we recognize the “partial” nature of our level of development, having explored it thoroughly and becoming, in essence, bored with it.  A powerful change, on the other hand, is to “run into something that doesn’t make sense… and at that point, there’s a kind of dissonance… an ‘earthquake’ that goes on.”  The resolution can be seamless, in which it seems to happen to us unawares, or take on an abrupt or “shocking” outcome.  At the onset of the new vista, there is “a fresh orientation, a new vitality… seeing the world through a new lens” (Wilber, 2003).

Mezirow’s Transformational Learning

Studying the reactions of women re-entering community college programs in the 1970s, Mezirow outlined transformational learning as it takes place in some variation of the following 10 phases:

  1. A disorienting dilemma;
  2. Self-examination (with feelings of shame or guilt);
  3. A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions;
  4. Recognition of a connection between one’s discontent and the process of transformation;
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions;
  6. Planning a course of action;
  7. Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan;
  8. Provisional trying of new roles;
  9. Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships;
  10. A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective.

Depending on the situation and the student involved, some phases may be more emphasized, others marginalized.  However, the process begins distinctly with the “disorienting dilemma” – a choice of two alternatives – which must be resolved.  The dilemma is whether to reinforce the worldview in question, or to begin the process of revision.

Conclusion: A Sequence for Self-Reflection

In many instances, transformative learning can be an exciting, enjoyable experience.  However, depending on the scale, transformation can be a very frightening event.  Instructors who recognize the signs can help mildly flustered students through the process.  In the rare instance of great anxiety, it may be necessary to help students find a counseling professional to navigate the change. 

One of the most important aspects of Transformational Learning is what Mezirow called critical reflection: the ability to reflect upon what has been learned to fit the new information into one’s worldview.  To lead the process, Mezirow suggested the following seven-stage sequence (Mezirow, 1994).  Use this sequence directly, or with its framework in mind, to help create the best outcomes for a period of fundamental re-visioning.

1. A disorientating dilemma.

      Picture the event.

2. Self-examination of affect (guilt, shame, etc.).

      What are you aware of feeling? Describe it.  (“It’s like…”)

3. Critical assessment of assumptions.

      What does it mean to you to feel this?

      What advice are you giving yourself in the picture?

      How do you interpret what is happening?

      What is your intention?

4. Exploration of new roles.

      How would you prefer this to be different? (Frame and Action)

      When this begins to occur for you, even a little bit, what will be different about you?

5. Planning a course of action.

      What are you aware of that keeps this from happening?

      Describe the dangers to change.

      Describe the benefits of staying the same.

      Do you act on the changes now? What’s different at those times?

6. Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementation.

      What will you need to know/accomplish/overcome for this to occur (more often)?

7. Trying out new roles.

      How will you know when you are more on track?

References

Anderson, L. & Krathwohl, D. A. (2001). Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.

Clark, M. C. (1993). Transformational learning. In S. B. Merriam (Ed.), An update on learning theory. New directions for adult and continuing education. (Vol. 57). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1994). Understanding transformation theory. Adult Education Quarterly, 44(4).

Mezirow, J., & Taylor, E. W. (2009). Transformative learning in practice: insights from community, workplace, and higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wilber, K. (2003). Kosmic Consciousness. Denver, CO: Sounds True, Inc.

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