Transformative Learning: Unpacked and Defined by Jack Mezirow
From Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice by Jack Mezirow
Children commonly acquire a foundation of the specific learning required to think autonomously. This includes the ability and disposition to (1) recognize cause-effect relationships, (2) use informal logic in making analogies and generalizations, (3) become aware of and control their own emotions, (4) become empathic of others, (5) use imagination to construct narratives, and (6) think abstractly. Adolescents may learn to (7) think hypothetically, and (8) become critically reflective of what they read, see, and hear.
In adulthood, the task is to strengthen and build on this foundation in order to assist the learner to understand new subject content, but, in the process of doing so, to become (1) more aware and critical in assessing
assumptions—both those of others and those governing one’s own beliefs, values, judgments, and feelings; (2) more aware of and better able to recognize frames of reference and paradigms (collective frames of reference) and to imagine alternatives; and (3) more responsible and effective at working with others to collectively assess reasons, pose and solve problems, and arrive at a tentative best judgment regarding contested beliefs.
Becoming critically reflective of the assumptions of others is fundamental to effective collaborative problem posing and solving. Becoming critically reflective of one’s own assumptions is the key to transforming one’s taken-forgranted frame of reference, an indispensable dimension of learning for adapting to change.
Education for Transformative Learning
Adult educators need to understand that transformative learning can take several
forms involving either objective or subjective reframing. Transformative learning
is rooted in the way human beings communicate and is a common learning
experience not exclusively concerned with significant personal transformations.
To facilitate transformative learning, educators must help learners become aware and critical of their own and others’ assumptions. Learners need practice in recognizing frames of reference and using their imaginations to redefine problems from a different perspective. Finally, learners need to be assisted to participate effectively in discourse. Discourse is necessary to validate what and how one understands, or to arrive at a best judgment regarding a belief. In this sense, learning is a social process, and discourse becomes central to making meaning.
Effective discourse depends on how well the educator can create a situation in which those participating have full information; are free from coercion; have equal opportunity to assume the various roles of discourse (to advance beliefs, challenge, defend, explain, assess evidence, and judge arguments); become critically reflective of assumptions; are empathic and open to other perspectives; are willing to listen and to search for common ground or a synthesis of different points of view; and can make a tentative best judgment to guide action. These ideal conditions of discourse are also ideal conditions of adult learning and of education.
Transformative learning requires a form of education very different from that commonly associated with children. New information is only a resource in the adult learning process. To become meaningful, learning requires that
new information be incorporated by the learner into an already well-developed symbolic frame of reference, an active process involving thought, feelings, and disposition. The learner may also have to be helped to transform his or her frame of reference to fully understand the experience.
Educators must assume responsibility for setting objectives that explicitly include autonomous thinking and recognize that this requires experiences designed to foster critical reflectivity and experience in discourse.
Education that fosters critically reflective thought, imaginative problem posing, and discourse is learner-centered, participatory, and interactive, and it involves group deliberation and group problem solving. Instructional materials reflect the real-life experiences of the learners and are designed to foster
participation in small-group discussion to assess reasons, examine evidence, and arrive at a reflective judgment. Learning takes place through discovery and the imaginative use of metaphors to solve and redefine problems.
To promote discovery learning, the educator often reframes learner questions in terms of the learner’s current level of understanding. Learning contracts, group projects, role play, case studies, and simulations are classroom methods associated with transformative education. The key idea is to help the learners actively engage the concepts presented in the context of their own lives and collectively critically assess the justification of new knowledge. Together, learners undertake action research projects. They are frequently challenged to identify and examine assumptions, including their own.
Methods that have been found useful include critical incidents, metaphor analysis, concept mapping, consciousness raising, life histories, repertory grids, and participation in social action (Mezirow and Associates, 1990).
These methods encourage critical reflection and experience in discourse. The focus is on discovering the context of ideas and the belief systems that shape the way we think about their sources, nature, and consequences, and on
imagining alternative perspectives.
In fostering self-direction, the emphasis is on creating an environment in which learners become increasingly adept at learning from each other and at helping each other learn in problem-solving groups. The educator functions as a facilitator and provocateur rather than as an authority on subject matter. The facilitator encourages learners to create norms that accept order, justice, and civility in the classroom and respect and responsibility for helping each other learn; to welcome diversity; to foster peer collaboration; and to provide
equal opportunity for participation. The facilitator models the critically reflective role expected of learners. Ideally, the facilitator works herself out of the job of authority figure to become a colearner by progressively transferring her leadership to the group as it becomes more self-directive. These are familiar concepts in adult education.
Transformative learning is not an add-on. It is the essence of adult education.
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