ve leanThis chapter summarizes the transformation theory of adult learning, explains the relationship of transformative learning to autonomous, responsible thinking (viewed as the central goal of adult education), and discusses practical implications for educators.
Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice
A defining condition of being human is that we have to understand the meaning of our experience. For some, any uncritically assimilated explanation by an authority figure will suffice. But in contemporary societies we must learn to make our own interpretations rather than act on the purposes, beliefs, judgments, and feelings of others. Facilitating such understanding is the cardinal goal of adult education. Transformative learning develops autonomous thinking.
Transformative Learning Theory
Transformative learning (Mezirow, 1991, 1995, 1996; Cranton, 1994, 1996) is the process of effecting change in a frame of reference. Adults have acquired a coherent body of experience—associations, concepts, values, feelings, conditioned responses—frames of reference that define their life world. Frames of reference are the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences. They selectively shape and delimit expectations, perceptions, cognition, and feelings. They set our “line of action.” Once set, we automatically move from one specific activity (mental or behavioral) to another. We have a strong tendency to reject ideas that fail to fit our preconceptions, labeling those ideas as unworthy of consideration—aberrations, nonsense, irrelevant, weird, or mistaken. When circumstances permit, transformative learners move toward a frame of reference that is more inclusive, discriminating, self-reflective, and integrative of experience. A frame of reference encompasses cognitive, conative, and emotional components, and is composed of two dimensions: habits of mind and a point of view. Habits of mind are broad, abstract, orienting, habitual ways of thinking, feeling, NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION, no. 74, Summer 1997 © Jossey-Bass Publishers
TRANSFORMATIVE LEARNING IN ACTION
and acting influenced by assumptions that constitute a set of codes. These codes may be cultural, social, educational, economic, political, or psychological. Habits of mind become articulated in a specific point of view—the constellation of belief, value judgment, attitude, and feeling that shapes a particular interpretation. An example of a habit of mind is ethnocentrism, the predisposition to regard others outside one’s own group as inferior. A resulting point of view is the complex of feelings, beliefs, judgments, and attitudes we have regarding specific individuals or groups (for example, homosexuals, welfare recipients, people of color, or women). Frames of reference are primarily the result of cultural assimilation and the idiosyncratic influences of primary caregivers. Habits of mind are more durable than points of view. Points of view are subject to continuing change as we reflect on either the content or process by which we solve problems and identify the need to modify assumptions. This happens whenever we try to understand actions that do not work the way we anticipated. We can try out another person’s point of view and appropriate it, but we cannot do this with a habit of mind. Points of view are more accessible to awareness and to feedback from others. Jürgen Habermas (1981) has helped us to understand that problem solving and learning may be instrumental—learning to manipulate or control the environment or other people to enhance efficacy in improving performance; impressionistic—learning to enhance one’s impression on others, to present oneself; normative—learning oriented to common values and a normative sense of entitlement (members of the group are entitled to expect certain behavior); or communicative—learning to understand the meaning of what is being communicated....
References: Cranton, P. Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994. Cranton, P. Professional Development as Transformative Learning: New Perspectives for Teachers of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. Gonzi, A., and others. Key Competencies in On the Job Training. Sydney: University of Technology and Science and Department of Industrial Relations, Employment and Training, 1995. Habermas, J. The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. 1: Reason and the Realization of Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981. Mezirow, J. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991. Mezirow, J. “Transformative Theory of Adult Learning.” In M. Welton (ed.), In Defense of the Lifeworld. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Mezirow, J. “Contemporary Paradigms of Learning.” Adult Education Quarterly, 1996, 46 (3), 158–172. Mezirow, J., and Associates (eds.). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990. Stein, S. Equipped for the Future: A Customer Driven Vision for Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy, 1995. U.S. Department of Labor. What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991.
JACK MEZIROW is emeritus professor of adult education, Teachers College, Columbia University.
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