The Transformative Learning Theory was first articulated by Jack Mezirow of Columbia University after researching factors related to the success, or lack of, of womens’ reentry to community college programs in the 1970's, with the resulting conclusion that a key factor was perspective transformation . He went on to describe a 10 phase transformation process which emerged as common to many of the women who successfully re-entered community college.
Mezirow argued that transformations often follow some variation of the following phases of meaning becoming clarified:
The first phase was a disorienting dilemma. This dilemma represents the first of three key themes of Mezirow’s TLT, experience – Doug had an experience which did not fit with his pre-existing meaning structure, causing a disorienting dilemma. As long as our experiences fit, or can be fit, into our existing meaning structures we tend to not engage in transformative learning. These dilemmas can be epochal (all at once) such as Doug’s “Ah-ha, or lights-on experience”, or incremental, that is, a gradual recognition over time of a disconnect between our meaning structure and our environment.
The next two phases are important aspects of the second of the theory’s themes – critical reflection. After experiencing a disorienting dilemma
- A self examination with feelings of guilt or shame
- A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions
- Doug experienced this discomfort with his epistomology and reviewed it’s validity given his experience on the hike.
The next phase represents the third of the theory’s themes, rational discourse. Exploring with others the newly discovered “misfit” between your premises and your environment. Specifically:
- Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change
- Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
- Doug’s discussions with his group allowed him to explore this “misfit” how competition wasn’t always the best approach to performance situations and explored other potential roles or approaches.
"A key proposition of transformative learning theory recognizes the validity of Habermas's (1984) fundamental distinction between instructional and communicative learning." (Mezirow 2003)
Instrumental learning is the acquisition of skills and knowledge (mastering tasks, problem solving, manipulating the environment - - - the “how” and the “what”). In contrast, transformative learning is perspective transformation, a paradigm shift, whereby we critically examine our prior interpretations and assumptions to form new meaning - - - the “why.” This perspective transformation is achieved through (1) disorienting dilemmas, (2) critical reflection, (3) rational dialogue, and (4) action.