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Learning & Development Blog


Transformative Learning Theory In Action

Eureka! Many remember 2001: A Space Odyssey for depicting one of the most famous epiphanies in cinema history. With bones splintering across the screen and kettle drums thundering in the background, a solitary ape invented a weapon in an electrifying moment of inspiration. It probably would have shouted, “Eureka!” too, if it could utter anything more than simple grunts.

Yet, how well do you think the ape retained that lesson? Would it find itself staring at its invention a few weeks later, wondering, “Now, how exactly did I get this thing to work?” If L&D asked it to complete a follow-up survey rating its retention, would it respond, “2 – needs more work”?  I reckon it would not. Sociologist Jack Mezirow would call this scene an example of Transformative Learning, and it’s one of the stickiest kinds of learning you can experience.

That ape didn’t simply read about how to use a bone as a weapon in a manual or watch a how-to video, it underwent a transformation. The experience shifted its perspective on how to interact with the world.  Prior to this insight, that bone was no different from a rock, i.e., an inanimate object, clutter. From that moment on, the ape would see every new object it picked up as a potential tool. Mezirow developed the Transformative Learning Theory to describe such transformations, and its principles are powerful tools of which everyone in the L&D industry should take advantage.

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What Is Transformative Learning Theory?

The Transformative Learning Theory holds that learners all have different assumptions, expectations, and beliefs that help them make sense of the world around them. A person’s culture, society, psychology, and personal experiences all shape those views. They start to develop during childhood and determine their perception of causality. For example, if you say, “Thank you,” I say, “You’re welcome.” If I commit a crime, I would become a criminal. And, if I become a criminal, I would feel ashamed. Someone of differing culture and psychology might have different expectations. Such perspectives usually operate outside of one’s conscious awareness, and they’ll persist until challenged. That’s where the transformations come into play.

Mezirow believes there are two types of learning: instrumental and communicative.  Instrumental learning involves knowledge, problem-solving, and procedural tasks. Communicative learning focuses on how one communicates their emotions, needs, or desires. For a new lesson to truly take root, the learner must sustain a change in perspective. One of those assumptions, expectations, or beliefs that help make sense of the world must change. In doing so, the learner undergoes a transformation, and genuine learning occurs.  

Mezirow breaks out the process into a number of detailed steps. I boil them down to two essential conditions. First, the learner must encounter some sort of dilemma that challenges one of their assumptions. Then, they must critically reflect on that assumption, testing its validity.

Encountering such a dilemma is disconcerting. It’s certainly no fun to realize your views are incorrect or that you’re incapable of completing an important task. It’s human nature to try and resolve such a situation, especially when it’s unavoidable. Deliberately putting a learner in a situation like that might seem a little cruel, but it will undoubtedly provide them with the motivation they’ll need to learn. Furthermore, Mezirow believes that instructors should take steps to ensure the learners feel like they’re in a safe place. Critical reflections require patience, and perspective transformations require mental leaps that might feel risky to the learner. If you want your learners to succeed, they can’t be afraid to make mistakes or feel rushed. The key to Transformative Learning lies in that critical reflection. Create an environment that elicits authentic reflection for your learners, and your lessons will stick like epoxy. Let’s consider this theory in action. 

Transformative Learning Manual Transmission

 Transformative Learning Theory In Action

If you’ve ever had to learn how to drive a stick shift, you’d know it’s an agitating process. You already learned how to drive, maybe you’ve already been driving an automatic for years. You put the car into drive, hit the gas, and off you go. Then, you get into a car with a manual transmission and nothing makes sense. It’s frustrating. You think about giving up. Nevertheless, you do some research. You learn about the clutch and watching your RPMs. The steps seem simple enough, so you decide to give it a try. You stall the car. Then, you try again repeatedly without success. Maybe you get it in gear a couple of times, but you can’t quite figure out how you did it. There’s a disconnect between what you learned about driving stick and what you’ve observed in your attempts. That’s when critical reflection comes into play. You sit back and think things through. You realize the relationship between the clutch, the accelerator, and the speed of the car is dynamic. You can’t just unvaryingly complete each step in the process. You need to feel it out, find the balance. That’s when you get it. It might take more practice to get it down perfectly, but the transformation is complete. You learned how to do it, and it’ll be a tough lesson to forget.

Now, this theory is certainly effective, but you might be thinking, “If it’s so great, why isn’t it plastered across every blog and forum about instructional design?” One of the key components to Transformative Learning Theory is also its greatest weakness: critical reflection. Anyone can encounter a dilemma, but how can you guarantee they’ll resolve it? You can’t just lock your learners in a room until each them has their epiphany.

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Transformative Learning In Corporate Training

Let’s say your company is implementing a new piece of software. Employees conducted a process with one application, now they’re switching to another, and it requires an entirely new thought process to operate. You need them to change their perspective. Using the old logic will never allow the employees to complete the procedure with the new application. So, you need to develop training that elicits a perspective transformation. First, you stimulate their motivation by conveying their dilemma. Then, you give them time to reflect on the situation and prod them with a thought provoking question. How certain can you be that everyone will achieve that perspective transformation? If the problem is too easy to solve, it won’t require much serious reflection. The lesson won’t hit hard enough, and retention will be poor. On the other hand, if the dilemma is too difficult to decipher, nobody will learn anything.

Every learner that enters your organization will bear their own assumptions, experiences, and levels of intelligence. Researching your audience will significantly improve your success rate. Conducting surveys prior to developing the training can help you determine just who you’re teaching. What applications have they worked with before? How much experience do they have learning new software, procedures, etc.? How much do they care whether they learn the new system? Discover who they are and where they’ve been, and you’ll know where they’ll go when you push them.

Nevertheless, no matter how well you know your audience and how much you tailor the content to them, it’s impossible to fully satisfy the needs of every member of a group. There are always outliers. There’s always a curve. Though these tactics will get you closer to understanding your audience, you’ll still never be able to guarantee that everyone will get their “aha” moment. Even Mezirow admits that transformation is a rare occurrence.

The Transformative Learning Theory is difficult to execute, but it undoubtedly deserves more attention than it receives. In addition, its inclusion in your training does not need to be so critical. If it’s unfeasible to hinge your entire lesson on achieving a perspective transformation, then don’t do it. Instead, you can use Mezirow’s principles to augment your learning. Face the learner with a dilemma, provide them with a safe space, and give them room to reflect. Then, carry on with the lesson. If a learner didn’t get their epiphany, then they’ll still get a chance to learn the content in a more traditional way. However, those who do will retain that lesson indefinitely, and they can be your champions for training those that need additional help.

Here's How We Used It

We recently had the opportunity to employ the Transformative Learning Theory in a couple of eLearning modules. A client asked us to develop training for their representatives that conveyed the difference between insuring small and big companies. The module was higher in concept and didn’t need to impart detailed procedures. Thus, it begins with a series of thought-provoking short answer questions. The learners face problems they previously didn’t even know existed, but the questions gently guide them to the frame-of-mind the client wished for us to impart. Once the learners have completed the reflection questions, the module’s main content displays, filling in the gaps and clarifying any lingering confusion the learner might have.

Another client is an immense repository of legal documents. Citing a relevant case is crucial part of any lawyer’s work, and our client’s robust search engine makes the process remarkably easy. However, to take full advantage of the site’s capabilities, learners must know how to search with Boolean terms and connectors. When the client hired us to design an interactive eLearning module on that topic, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to apply the Transformative Learning Theory. The lesson starts by asking the learners to search for a particular document with only limited information to go on. When the search is unsuccessful, we ask them to reflect on the issue. Then, we give them the chance to experiment with Boolean terms and connectors in a controlled environment. The learners eventually complete the search successfully and obtain a new perspective on how to conduct that task.


Despite genuine transformations being rare and difficult to achieve, the Transformative Learning Theory provides keen insights into the way humans retain new lessons. People develop assumptions throughout their lives based on a number of conditional circumstances. When something challenges these assumptions, people can feel they’re facing a crisis. By reflecting on those assumptions and testing their validity people can undergo perspective transformations. More than simply learning a new bit of information, these transformations last indefinitely and alter the way one perceives the world around them. Applying these principles doesn’t have to be as grandiose as the first hominid to discover a tool, but they can be immensely powerful to incorporate into your training.    

elearning ebook scenario based learning    

Taylor, Edward W., Cranton, Patricia. The Handbook of Transformative Learning:Theory, Research, and Practice. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012. Print.