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?


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.


  • Great article! This really shows how transformative learning can affect the learners ability to comprehend and apply what it being taught. This concept can be applied outside of formal education as well. The two types of transformation (gradual or sudden) is very eye opening and to some it is the first and other the latter.

  • This article truly expanded my knowledge further on transformative learning as it also reminded me of a book, Deep Change, that I read during my Master’s program. They both are similar in ways, such as possibly being a positive or negative outcome, but through it, we learn to embrace whatever comes out of it. I was taken aback when the article stated that transformative learning is defined as a life-changing experience. Before reading this, I interpreted this term as an ordinary change that can occur in a day to day life. However, I agree that this type of learning is much more impactful and viewed uniquely by each individual.

  • This article actually gave me an AHA moment. While I am responsible for the learning at the corporate level for our products I never really thought about the fact that many of my “learners” might be going thru a Transformational Learning Time outside of the content we are training them on. Just the act of starting a new job, with maybe a new company or division, a different geography perhaps new customers is a lot for anyone and there is likely a Transformative Learning experience happening in the background and on top of what we are actually training. Putting that in context our trainers need to be both trainer AND COACH to help our learners best understand the content they are learning and get thru what is likely a transformative experience as well. Thank you for the article. Much food for thought here.

  • I have a BS in Philosophy and that area of study is inherently filled with Transformative learning. In fact the moments of Transformative learning that I had in different classes are what I have retained most 10 years later. I hadn’t realized at the time that was how I was learning. I thought it was really interesting when the article broke down that that, “The dilemma is whether to reinforce the worldview in question or to begin the process of revision.” That regardless of what the particular dilemma is, what the learner is doing is deciding if they are going to maintain and reinforce their current stance or if this new information or perspective is enough to change their stance. And that is really powerful. In a way transformative learning is a way of opening minds and encouraging self-reflection.

  • Faryal Raheel Joseph

    This is a wonderfully written and thought-provoking piece. Bloom’s Taxonomy is well-integrated, which I enjoy. I thought Transformation was a significant theory before reading this essay. Following my reading of this paper, I feel this is one of the most essential hypotheses. This notion, in my opinion, may be applied to many aspects of our life. After learning more about a subject, my impressions of it have swiftly altered. Experiences that change our consciousness abound throughout our life.

  • This article brought up many good points that I really had not thought about. Specifically, I like how it talks about transformative learning can be exciting and enjoyable, but also how it has the ability to be frightening. It is easy to relate to this on both sides for me, as I have had learning experiences that have created both enjoyable and frightening experiences. It was nice to see the breakdown of the process.

  • This article is well written and very insightful. I like the incorporation of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Before reviewing this article, I felt that Transformation was an important theory. After viewing this article, I believe that this theory is one of the most important theories. I think that this theory can be applied to every aspect of our daily lives. I’ve had my perceptions of things that have changed quickly after learning more about the topic. Our lives are full of experiences that shift our consciousness.

  • This post has really helped me critique the learning theories in new ways. Upon first glance, Transformative Learning seems so natural and well thought out but after reading those post I realize that while there are many pros, there are also cons. How can you simulate an “aha” moment – I’m not sure that you can. This has made me re-evaluate other Learning Theories too, such as Social Learning Theory, although I believe that this theory values the “learn by doing” methodology that I value, some situations may not be practical to practice so other theories need to take precedence for effective learning.

  • Wow! What a deep and insightful article on transformative learning. I am keeping this one in my facilitation toolbox. I think transformation in learning is an abstract concept. Everyone is uniquely different in how they process and apply learning based on their individual experiences. If you take a class of 20 students and teach the same material to all, the outcome of transformation will look different for each of them. Mezirow’s critical reflection can definitely be presented to individuals for personal and professional growth and even applied during the unknowns that change brings during transitions and crisis, like what we are experiencing currently with COVID.

  • yes…Really helpful with my paperwork. Thanks

  • I really enjoyed reading this article, in my current course one of our projects required is to create a lesson plan, it was really interesting to read about Bloom’s Taxonomy. We’re required to incorporate Bloom’s levels into our objective descriptions. It helped reading this article to get me on the right track for my course – TRDV411 Instruct Methods & Delivery, very informative.

  • Wow. This article by Daniel Harbecke brings up remarkable points about the significance of education and the value of theory, while encouraging an open minded spirit about how to apply this information to our lives. Reading this article has spearheaded a shift in my mindset regarding theory and expertise, and how to link the two in a well balanced manner. Thank you for your contributions and your time.

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