Understanding Transformative Learning

Transformative learning is a theory developed in the 1970’s. The purpose of the theory is to describe what drives people into deep states of self-reflecting, and how people use these states in order to change their views of the world.

1. What causes the process of transformative learning

In most situations, this process is triggered by a life crisis. However, we are not talking about traumatic experiences, but rather of existential crisis. Be it a middle life crisis, a quarter life crisis, or another type of existential dilemma, the process is usually the same. A person is faced with a challenge that causes them to be dissatisfied with their life. Perhaps they are unable to choose a path in life, or they have reached their biggest life goals and they now find themselves without purpose. When this happens to an individual, they will be forced into a deep state of self-reflection. This process can take months, or it can take years, but when it has run its course, the individual in question will come out of this experience with a new sense of identity, as well as a new view of the world.

2. The steps of this learning process

Transformative learning has three dimensions: a psychological dimension which causes the self-reflection, a convictional direction which causes a revision or one’s belief system, and a behavioral dimension which causes lifestyle changes that match one’s new view of the world. In his theory, Mezirow described 10 steps that all people go through when experiencing this learning process:

  • Acknowledging the dilemma that caused the life crisis
  • Entering a deep state of self-examination
  • Experiencing a sense of alienation
  • Experiencing discontent towards others
  • Coming up with new behavior options
  • Coming up with new ways to build confidence
  • Developing a new life plan
  • Acquiring the skills or the knowledge to implement the new plan
  • Experimenting with the new self or the new life plan
  • Reintegrating the world
  1. The emotional/spiritual approach

While Mezirow described this process strictly from a rational point of view, over the years there have been many people that insisted that the theory lacks an emotional or a spiritual approach. Robert D. Boyd is one of the theorists that redefined Mezirow’s initial theory. Boyd believed in a more spiritual approach of this learning process, insisting that it must go beyond resolving the life dilemma. He believed that the process must also lead to an expansion or consciousness which leads to a greater personality integration.