Transformative Learning. It’s more than a transformation of learning.

I’ve had cause to reflect recently on the position of transformative learning within my beliefs about education, pedagogy and personal practice.  This has largely been influenced by my implementation of transformative learning within my own class and the management of the transformative learning project through which I am guiding two of my staff.  The post below is my attempt to interpret and explain the theory of Transformative Learning in the context of learning design.

Transformative learning theory, as developed by Jack Mezirow (1990) and further codifed succintly by Merriam and Caffarella (1999) describes a learning process which recognises the learner’s personal critical reflections in learning design.  The term “transformative” is often interchangeable with “transformational” when naming the theory or relevant practice.  However, it is this interchangeability that leads to some misinterpretation of practice as transformative.  The term transformational can infer a transformation of practice, and hence a transformation of learning.  Though this transformation is commonly guided by current frameworks, the learning practice may not represent transformative learning as described by Mezirow.

To further confuse matters, current frameworks can lead educators to reflect on practice and design for learning in reference to a transformation.  Emerging concepts such as transforming physical and virtual learning spaces (summarised by Joseph Perkins), transforming methods of communication (posited by Goerge Siemens – theory of connectivism) and transforming learning pathways (demonstrated through open courseware such as Alec Couros’s work) can all in part contribute to transformative practice, however when implemented in isolation do not truly represent the intent of the theory.  Transformation of practice and learning design is required for the adoption and implementation of Transformative Learning.  Critical reflection to change frames of reference leading to deliberate planning and re-defining of context as a radical and analytical process are central to the transformations that lead to transformative learning. (Mezirow 1997, Grabov 1997)

Yorks and Marsick (2000) suggest two learning processes can facilitate the implementation of the transformative theory of learning.  They specifically identify collaborative inquiry and action learning.  These learning processes are central to the upper most level of professional recognition within my employing organisation – the Digital Pedagogy License Advanced. Implementation of the Transformative Theory through these learning processes results in observable learning action. I personally reflect on the following frameworks to further guide my learning design within these learning processes;

  1. The inquiry process (in particular community of inquiry).
  2. ISTE NETS for Students.
  3. Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain (in particular Andrew Churches’ work).
  4. Specific curriculum frameworks relevant to my context.

My interpretation of the Transformative Theory of Learning focuses on the following aspects;

  1. Learners learning to think for themselves.
  2. Freedom from unquestioning acceptance (negotiation of learning, practice and assessment).
  3. Teacher as a model learner.
  4. Reflection.

Learners learning to think for themselves in my context begins with a journey to reflect on learning methods and preferences.  The basic assumption I am attempting to disrupt is that I as the teacher determines the most effective way and time for the learner to learn. In partnership with this is the disruption of the concept that the primary method for gaining new knowledge is by interaction with the teacher.  The development of a supportive and inclusive learning environment is critical to this disruption and subsequent increased contribution to learning design and management by learners.  This in part addresses the concept of freedom from unquestioning acceptance, which I personally believe is the most challenging aspect of the Transformative Theory of Learning. By gaining freedom, learners can begin to negotiate learning pathways and processes intelligently and with validation.  I have found collaborative inquiry and action learning as effective methods of facilitating these aspects of transformative learning, as well as positioning the teacher as a learner within the learning community.

In essence, learning design and management no longer occurs in isolation from the learners but involves them as critical contributors and participants. This shift in power within the learning relationship is not something to be taken lightly, and requires significant preparation and management.  Ineffective implementation of the transformative learning theory can be disruptive to  learning.  Despite the collaborative nature of learning design and management, the role of the teacher as a enabler and protector of learning is paramount.

Transformative learning is more than a transformation of practice, however transformation of practice is required for the realisation of the transformative theory of learning.

15 thoughts on “Transformative Learning. It’s more than a transformation of learning.

  1. I’ve been watching your notes about the TL project with great interest, Shane. This idea that students will become participants and contributers in learning design is a deceptively simple concept – yet both teachers and students resist it (in my experience). I’ve had students tell me they’re not at school to think, “can’t you just tell me the answer” and all the usual reactions – and I’m sure I’m not the only one. TL, and the collaborative practice that is essential to TL, is something quite foreign to those who have become accustomed to a particular process (indoctrinated) in school. I suppose in many ways, this resistance is driven by a fear of freedom from unquestioning acceptance.

    TL is powerful, when implemented “right”, but you’re right it can be disruptive – even destructive in some cases – to a learning context. You’re right about the role of the teacher being shifted to that of enabler and protector – but I’d like to know how you prepare and support teachers who want to take on this role? It’s quite different conceptually to anything they’re familiar with.

    Got me thinking on my own practice recently 🙂 Thanks.

  2. Thanks Shane for outlining this so well here. Mobbsey is right that even for teachers who have gone through the ICT certificate, then Digital Pedagogy licence with Smart Classrooms here in Queensland, actually handing over learning control to students and letting them think for themselves is really really hard. I have found myself even when implementing units to get kids making their own decisions about learning still stepping in far too often to show them ‘the right way’.
    The other perennial question of course is: all the great learning experiences in the world still in the end are bookended by assessment (extreme case: NAPLAN) that is still testing pre-transformational learning priorities…

  3. Thanks Nic,

    Preparation of teachers and students is paramount. For the learning project I am running this year, we have spent a whole term in what we call a transition period. This period is used to progressively expose students and teachers to the main concepts of transformative learning. For this to be sucessful support is paramount. To support my students I engage them in conversation about a range if ideas (not limited to content learning within my subject). To support my teachers is a time commitment. I have been into class regularly, and we have met each week for a 2 hour period Friday mornings for discussion and PD. Resistance is there, but then rocks can be eroded by the constant impact of water. Persistence is the key.

  4. I think that ensuring you are there to maintain the project is key. They will look to you for answers, but more importantly leadership. They are experts in the current paradigm remember, so whatever you do will push them out of their comfort zone. You have to think that these teachers will go through stages of structured development. Although I love Andrews work on Blooms; Blooms isn’t for me the most effective taxonomy when it comes to professional development – and rethinking enquiry based learning. It works using conventional ICT – and is better than stock-blooms, but personally I find it doesn’t fit too well with more informal, experiental enquiry.

    Here’s more on that topic – where I think pedagogy brings too much baggage. I favour, and am interested in the components that create cybergogy. The presentation really talks about teacher comfort zones, and understanding the stages of cognition.

    I do a lot of professional development. Skill is never the issue. It is that most teachers have a firm view of themselves. I’d encourage Peer Observation of Teachers (POT) as part of your process. I never have staff, who are looking at new problems, work alone. Nor do I release all the information at the beginning. I want them to push-back and offer things I have not thought of. So in this regard I very much use Biggs theory when it comes to working with teachers.

    You main role is not to teach at all, but to provoke thought and prevent them settling for comfortable ideas. You are there to ask driving questions – and set them on a path to solving a meaningful problem.

    It’s fantastic that you are setting about doing this, and don’t be affraid to offer explicit instruction when you need. My rule is that if I can’t explain it – so you get it – in 3 mins, I don’t bother … I just ask a questions that will lead people to solve it themselves. What I really like is that you are setting about a marathon, not a sprint here. You simply don’t need everyone on board with the idea – having 10% of teachers in your school participating will be enough and acts like a meta-virus once they start doing it with kids.

    Have a look at Edutopia – as what you are outlining here really is project based learning. Good luck! – Let me know if I can help.

  5. Thanks Jonathan, the habit of jumping in is something I’ve focused on breaking both in my self and my staff. All first term in the transitional period I restricted them in their direct answering of questions and direct delivery of content. It was deliberately over the top to break the habit. As we met at the end of last term, I “loosened the leash” a little. The challenge for them now is to realise when direct delivery will best serve the learning. It will need close attention so that they don’t fall into old habits again.

  6. Thanks Dean, the further reading will be useful in the journey. I’ve read a little of your thoughts regarding cybergogy, and am interested in the concept however have minimal experience using games for learning. This is certainly something I want to explore in the future. I am particularly intrigued by your instructional rule, puts a whole other spin on effective instruction and instantaneous reflection on instruction / learning. Cheers for your thoughts.

  7. Your post Shane highlights some interesting points as both Nic & Jonathon have commented. I agree that Transformational Learning can only occur if transformation of practice has been achieved. As an early years teacher, I truly believe that we teach kids out of being self thinking and risk taking learners. I see this happening in our schools, and not just here in Australia. Our students enter the school system as young children curious about the world around them, full of questions and a drive to find out the answers and meaning. They don’t want to be told the answers, because that would require them to sit still for at least a couple of minutes (ever seen a 4 year old sit still for long enough to hear you speak??). They want to EXPERIENCE the answers. They want to think for themselves, come up with theories, test them out, and discover results. They want to learn by doing. But somewhere early in their journey of learning in the school system we train them out of this innate need to experience the answers and we mould them to understand and perform as required in our system. We train them to regurgitate the information we provide to them without thinking about it, so we can then assess them without real life meaning & connection. We need to change this system and it’s practices if we truly want to see transformational learning. And I know you, like myself and others, want to see this and we are working hard to change the system and it’s practices! ;p

  8. Great posting Shane – and would be a good beliefs statement if you didn’t already have your advanced 🙂

    I really resonated with your simple terms of “disrupting” the status quo of teaching and learning… and would be interested in how we as leaders actually get teachers to move into that zone. In particular “Freedom fron unquestioning acceptance” and it’s something that Jo Perkins relates to in his recent posting with lms (blackboard) environments. Even though many teachers are utilising these spaces (now) – are they still very teacher driven? Teachers still tend to choose the when and how of learning even within those environments. It will be a very sophisticated educational system when we have the strength and courage to allow our students to learn in this way (which strangely enough, is how many of them choose to learn at home with areas of their interest).
    Thanks Shane – enjoyed it!

  9. Wow, Shane. You’ve really dug into the guts of transformational learning here. Love that you are brave enough to ‘disrupt assumptions and concepts’ and promote a ‘shift in power’ with regards to learning. No small feat, and it is clear that you are not simply throwing jargon around or paying lip service to edu-talk – you are taking steps and risks to enact this theory into your own practice (and those you are mentoring through the TL project).

    It would be interesting to have a series of questions about learning which you ask students at the beginning and then again at the end of the year. No doubt there would be a maturity in their thinking and own understanding/appreciation of themselves as active learners. What sort of data collection have you planned?

  10. Shane
    An awesome post.
    I like TL learning as a process as it begins with self reflection and ends with action (both clear verbs). It is very easy to get stuck in a cycle of discourse discussion, we see this regularly at big conferences when keynotes start bang on about systems and problems and everyone nods their head (and sends quotes of blame out in tweets). Its easy to blame everyone else and discuss what we can’t control because then we don’t really have to change or take responsibility. But when it starts with self reflection the discourse can only be about the self (rather than everything else that we can’t change). But ultimately ends in action that is again about self rather than a process that focuses on what we can’t change or control.

    I think this article on Status Quo Bias in the Human Brain ( could facilitate some good discussion on why change is so difficult and why we ourselves can be a barrier to change.

    I wonder if your team could do a guest post on your blog about how their journey in TL…

    Ben 🙂

  11. Thanks for your comments Emma. Data collection is going to be a mix of student performance data (to satisfy the powers that be), student satisfaction data and teacher satisfaction data. I had not thought of collecting data on their understanding of learning but that could be very effective. Questionnaires on their understanding of their personal learning preferences and processes, and their application of these to a range of learning environments. You have inspired further thought in me yet again. Cheers

  12. Thanks Ben. I had bookmarked your tweet about the article, am keen to give it some quality reading time. I will be getting my team (including students) to blog about their journey in this project on another blog (hosted under our DETA servers so students can contribute). Once it has launched I will post here regarding that. And I agree, if we look to blame others then learning progression is inhibited.

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