Model Three: The Nature of Transformational Learning

Transformational learning “is the process of effecting change in a frame of reference.” (Mezirow, 1997, p.5) We all possess a body of experience that is the basis for our assumptions about the way in which our world operates. We tend to reject ideas that contradict our preconceptions (Mezirow, 1997). This resistance to contradictions is rather strong. Something has to occur that gets the learner’s attention – that jars them into wondering about a new way of thinking. This goes beyond learning about information.

Going Beyond the Information Given

Informational learning adds to the capacity of a learner to deal with situations in their world. By contrast, transformational learning alters the way in which a learner views the world in which she lives. Mezirow takes a cognitive/rational approach to this form of transformational learning. (Baumgartner et al., 2003, p.23) He emphasizes reflection upon previously held assumptions on the world and how it operates. Mezirow’s approach to transformational learning also has a social aspect. He claims that we need to have a reflective discourse with others to assist in the transformational process. Going beyond instrumental learning, Mezirow’s transformational learning involves communicative learning (Baumgartner et al., 2003, p.24) — learning not simply the words that are spoken in an interaction, but learning what people mean. Reflection on the assumptions imbedded in the social discourse creates new understandings. This transformational process can be sudden or gradual.

Mezirow (2000, p. 22) developed a ten-step process related to transformation: disorientation (this situation does not fit my preconceptions), emotional reaction (fear, anger, guilt, shame), assessment of presently held assumptions, understanding that one is not alone, exploration of new roles, creating a plan of action, gaining knowledge for the plan, trying on the selected new role, development of confidence in the new role, and finally, integration of the new perspective into one’s life. The key to all of these steps is critical reflection and reflective discourse — concepts that have also been explored, on the teaching side, by Donald Schön (1993) and Ernest Boyer (1990) and those involved in the classroom research movement (Cross, 1990, Angelo and Cross, 1993).

Reflection and Transformation

Critical reflection on one’s assumptions can lead to altered world views and changes in schemes of meaning and an appreciation of other views and cultures. Reflective discourse requires that people talk with others about what is happening to find the truth of their perspectives. This involves challenging each others’ assumptions and building consensus. (Mezirow, 1996) Mezirow claims that transformations are recursive and that they are irreversible (Mezirow, 2000; Baumgartner, 2001): “Research supports aspects of his 10-step process as well as his claims that the process is recursive and that people’s perspective transformations are lifelong.” (Baumgartner, et al., 2003, p. 27)

In a classroom that recognized the significance of transformational learning (as opposed to instrumental learning), there would be a high degree of critical reflection and reflective discourse. The students and the instructor would have to interact extensively (Mezirow, 1997, p. 10):
“To facilitate transformational 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.”

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. It also 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.

The goal would include informational learning but would emphasize communicative learning (Mezirow, 1997, p. 11):
“The process involves transforming frames of reference through critical reflection of assumptions, validating contested beliefs through discourse, taking action on one’s reflective insight, and critically assessing it. This understanding of the nature of significant adult learning provides the educators with a rationale for selecting appropriate educational practices and actively resisting social and cultural forces that distort and delimit adult learning.”

Self-Directed Learning

Both behaviorists and constructivists can promote self-directed learning. They each have different methods because they each have different beliefs about how humans learn. Constructivists see self-directed learners as being intrinsically motivated to achieve their full potential independently. Behaviorists believe that learners are positively reinforced (or punished) in the self-directed acquisition of new information which will in turn affect their behaviors.

Self-directed learning, in its ideal form, is found among individuals who are able to learn independently. Self-directed learning “is a process, a goal, and a personal attribute of a learner.” (Baumgartner, et al., 2003, p. 31). A learner does not need to be either self-directed in their learning or dependent on the teacher; the development of self-directed learning can be on a continuum where control by the teacher decreases and self-direction increases as competencies increase (Candy, 1991, p.9). Self-directed learning models fall into three categories. Sequential models prescribe a specific number of steps that are usually followed. Interwoven models focus on learner characteristics that play a role in the learning interactions and results. Instructional models focus on educators who integrate self-directed learning within the instructional sequence. (Baumgartner, et al., 2003, p. 31)

Professional School of Psychology and Transformational/Self-Directed Learning

At the Professional School of Psychology (PSP) we believe that Independent learning relies on the learners’ existing knowledge structures. It encourages deep-level learning (qualitative changes in people’s understandings) and increased question-asking. Attention is given to the development of critical thinking skills, enhanced reading and comprehension skills, and development of a climate that is supportive of self-directed learning. (Candy, 1991, p. 322-337). In higher education the self-directed aspects of instruction are founded on the belief that learners are inherently self-motivated to learn or can develop this self-motivation:
“The conventional approach to the development of competence as a self-directed learner has been to place adults into situations where they are expected to assert control over valued instructional functions, This approach is based on the combined beliefs (1) that adults are inherently self-directing, (2) that the best way to learn autonomous behavior is to behave autonomously, and (3) that the ability to learn independently in one situation or context is generalizable to an ability to do so in a different setting.” (Candy, 1991, p. 339.)

To include self-directed learning in our instructional approaches at PSP we must believe that our learners have lives beyond our classrooms and that the development of self-directed learning will assist them in their future learning.

Model Four: The Nature of Appreciative Learning