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;
- The inquiry process (in particular community of inquiry).
- ISTE NETS for Students.
- Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain (in particular Andrew Churches’ work).
- Specific curriculum frameworks relevant to my context.
My interpretation of the Transformative Theory of Learning focuses on the following aspects;
- Learners learning to think for themselves.
- Freedom from unquestioning acceptance (negotiation of learning, practice and assessment).
- Teacher as a model learner.
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.