2020 entry reference

Transformative Learning

By: C. Hoggan

Source: Crossref
Added: January 17, 2021

Originating and most often used in the discipline of adult education, the term transformative learning “refers to processes that result in significant and irreversible changes in the way a person experiences, conceptualizes, and interacts with the world” (“Transformative Learning as a Metatheory: Definition, Criteria, and Typology.” Adult Education Quarterly 66.1 [2016]: p. 71, cited under Origins and Overviews). Its origins are in a white paper published in 1978, wherein Jack Mezirow of Teachers College, Columbia University, reported the results of a study of women’s re-entry work programs in community colleges across the United States (Education for Perspective Transformation. Women’s Re-Entry Programs in Community Colleges [1978], cited under Origins and Overviews). In this report, he coined the term perspective transformation to describe the profound changes experienced by some of the women in their study. Over the next several decades, Mezirow developed and continually refined this concept into a comprehensive theory of adult learning, always maintaining a focus on the transformative potential of learning, i.e., its ability to help learners change in fundamental ways rather than merely adding knowledge or skills. During this theory development, his use of terms extended beyond perspective transformation, as he referred to his work as transformation theory and then transformative (or transformational) learning theory. From these beginnings, a large base of literature emerged addressing the profound changes that are possible from learning in adulthood. Of the various names used over time by Mezirow and others, transformative learning is the most ubiquitous term in this scholarship. It is used to refer to Mezirow’s evolving theory of adult learning, but it is also used to refer to any of a number of theories that focus on significant changes that learning can have on people, especially those changes that are not adequately encompassed by the usual descriptors: knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Many of these theories were developed independent of Mezirow’s work, sometimes even prior to it. It is probably most accurate to say that transformative learning is not a single theory, but rather a collection of theories around a similar phenomenon. This collection of theories (and more commonly called “approaches” to transformative learning) derived from numerous, disparate disciplinary perspectives that often had little theoretical connection with each other. Therefore, when scholars write about transformative learning, they may be referring to Jack Mezirow’s theory, another theory in the adult education literature that addresses transformation, or the range of theories (or approaches) as a whole. Nevertheless, beginning with Mezirow there has arisen a literature around the phenomenon of the transformative potential of adult learning. Although historically this literature has been mostly by North American scholars, it is increasingly being used by scholars in other countries (especially Europe) and disciplines. This article organizes and presents some of the most prominent pieces within that literature.