Transformative Learning: Mezirow & Taylor

I’ve read several articles about “transformative learning,” a theory of adult learning proposed by Jack Mezirow more than three decades ago. Mezirow defines transformative learning as “learning that transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change” (Mezirow, 2003, p. 58).  I like these terms (inclusive, discriminating, etc.), though I guess I must mull over whether I believe this is learning.  The transformative aspect fits with our thoughts about learning as becoming something new. Mezirow feels that transformative learning is a uniquely adult form of learning; children and adolescents do not yet have the level of autonomous thinking required for transformative learning.  Just for reference, here is Mezirow’s breakdown of the foundational steps which we undergo in our development of autonomous thinking (Mezirow, 1997, p. 9):

  • Children first
  1. recognize cause-effect relationshiops
  2. use informal logic in making analogies and generalizations
  3. become aware of and learn to control their emotions
  4. become empathic of others
  5. usetheir  imagination to construct narratives
  6. think abstractly
  • Adolescents:
  1. think hypothetically
  2. become critically reflective of what they see, read, or hear
  • Adults: become
  1. more aware and critical in assessing assumptions
  2. more aware or and better able to recognize frames of reference and paradigms
  3. more responsible and effective at working with others to collectively assess, solve problems, and arrive at a best judgment

Adults are more likely to assess and transform their assumptions and frames of reference when they encounter a disorienting dilemma which triggers such critical reflection.

Mezirow’s theory derives in part from Habermas’s ideas about instrumental versus communicative learning.  Instrumental learning seeks to control and manipulate the environment, and is focused on improving prediction and performance.  Instrumental learning assesses truth claims; its logic is hypothetical-deductive. Communicative learning, on the other hand, strives to understand what someone means. To do this, we must be aware of assumptions, intentions, and qualifications, so that we may assess the beliefs of others.  To do so, we attempt to judge claims to rightness, sincerity, authenticity, and appropriateness.  The logic of communicative learning is analogic-abductive inference (see Mezirow, 2003, p. 59).  According to Mezirow, communicative learning requires discourse.  And it is transformative learning, Mezirow asserts, that “foster[s] the development of the skills, insights, and especially dispositions essential for critical reflection—and self-reflection—on assumptions and effective participation in critical-dialectical discourse (reflective judgment)” (Mezirow, 2003, p. 62; italics mine). Without rational discourse, as we tried to assess meaning (required in communicative learning), we would have to fall back upon tradition, authority, or power.  Mezirow clearly finds rational discourse preferable.  He sets the following ideal conditions for rational discourse, and states that these are also the ideal conditions for education.  In either, a participant will:

  1. have accurate and complete information
  2. be free from coercion and self-deception
  3. be able to weigh evidence and assess arguments ‘objectively’
  4. be open to alternative points of view, and care about how others think or feel
  5. be able to become critically reflective
  6. have equal opportunity to participate in various roles
  7. be willing to accept an informed, objective, and rational consensus as a legitimate test of validity

Truth, the last statement suggests, is determined by rational consensus.

Edward Taylor’s articles presented alternative theories of transformative learning (Freire’s social transformation, Boyd’s individuation) and summarized the literature on transformative learning. He explained that some have critiqued Mezirow’s emphasis on the rational, at the expense of the emotional or affective aspects.  An additional criticism has been that Mezirow focuses too strongly on individual transformation.  Instead, some argue, “[l]earning needs to be seen as located in relations among humans, acting in specific settings, such that the setting and learning activities contribute to the definition of self and the structure of cognition (Wilson 1993). …this perspective could possibly provide insights into why some disorienting dilemmas lead to a perspective transformation and others do not” (Taylor, 1998a, p. 28; bold mine).

Taylor’s review of the literature on transformative learning supported the “ideal conditions” Mezirow laid out for rational discourse and education, but added additional practices and conditions (Taylor, 1998a), including:

  • promoting safety, openness, trust
  • learner-centered; student autonomy, participation, collaboration
  • activities that encourage alternative perspectives, problem-posing, and critical reflection
  • teachers who are trusting, empathetic, caring, authentic, sincere, and display high integrity
  • opportunity for personal self-disclosure
  • time to discuss and work through through emotions
  • feedback and self-assessment
  • solitude
  • self-dialogue

This is quite an extensive list, and thus harder to critique or support. I do think solitude is necessary for deep learning, though I also see so many social elements to our learning processes. When I was mentoring some teenage girls at a summer camp once, and they became super catty and argumentative, the impression came very strongly to me that they needed to take time each day to be alone.  (This was actually a policy at the camp — 30 minutes a day at your “quiet rock” — but my girls had stopped following this particular instruction.)  My mother used to make us come in from playing for 30 minutes each afternoon, too.  I think with a few moments of solitude, we’re actually rejuvenated for the relationships which help us to learn and “transform,” in Mezirow’s model.


Mezirow, J. (1994). Understanding transformation theory. Adult Education Quarterly, 44(4): 222-232. doi:10.1177/074171369404400403.

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74: 5-12. doi:10.1002/ace.7401.

Mezirow, J. (1998). Transformative Learning and Social Action: A Response to Inglis. Adult Education Quarterly, 49(1): 70-72. doi:10.1177/074171369804900109.

Mezirow, J. (2003). Transformative learning as discourse. Journal of Transformative Education, 1(1): 58-63. doi:10.1177/1541344603252172.

Taylor, E. W. (1998a). The theory and practice of transformative learning: A critical review. ERIC Clearinghouse… (full version)

Taylor, E. W. (1998b). The theory and practice of transformative learning: A critical review (EXEC SUMMARY). ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.

Taylor, E. W. (2000). Fostering Mezirowʼs Transformative Learning Theory in the Adult Education Classroom: A Critical Review. CJSAE/RCEE, 14(2): 1-.

Taylor, E. W. (2007). An update of transformative learning theory: a critical review of the empirical research (1999-2005). International Journal of Lifelong Education, 26(2): 173-191. doi:10.1080/02601370701219475.||D404A21C5BB053405B1A640AFFD44AE3.

Taylor, E. W. (2008). Transformative learning theory. New directions for adult and continuing education, 119: 5–15. doi:10.1002/ace.


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