Transformative or transformational learning is more often associated with high school and college education. However, in recent times, this concept has become popular with organizations that are seeking to transform its employees and prepare them to take up challenging job roles and additional responsibilities.
What is transformative learning?
Transformative learning is a type of learning experience that causes a shift in an individual’s perspective or attitude. This learning is based on a learning theory propounded by Jack Mezirow (2004). The theory proposes that learning is “the process of making new interpretations based on the meaning derived out of experience”.
In adult learners, this results in changes to viewpoint, expectations, and assumptions after life-changing situations or events. This is followed by a change in frames of reference for understanding and interpretation.
Simply put, people often develop the ability to reflect upon something that had been taken for granted or were unaware of and make conscious decisions about it. This is termed as a transformative experience.
Example: A transformative experience happens in the way an individual views life after being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. It can also be less dramatic like older adults who transform into social activists after learning to use the Internet.
Fostering transformative learning
There are ways to ensure the learning experience brings in the required transformation among the learners. Here are some factors that need to be considered that can foster transformational learning.
- Supportive relationships: Relationships can be built in a learning climate that encourages differing perspectives, opinions, and is non-hierarchical. A trusting and supportive relationship helps foster transformative learning. This type of trust can be built easily in virtual classrooms or workgroups when learners share a common goal and can view each other and hear the voice of the moderator.
- Challenging assumptions: Transformative learning happens only when there is self-reflection. The self-reflection can result in challenging assumptions on their understanding of the world. Transformative learning can be fostered by asking open-ended questions to learners. This will promote critical-thinking skills that will help learners relate new knowledge to their own life experiences. Examples include the use of blogs and internal social tools for online discussions and responses to questions.
- Meaningful experiences: The most effective way to foster transformative experiences is to provide direct experience that are meaningful to learners. Example: Doctors studying palliative care were required to visit funeral homes and hospices.
- Self-awareness and readiness: One of the most important factors for an individual to undergo a transformative experience is to be self-aware and be ready for the experience. Individuals who were in a dilemma or had limited understanding owing to the current level of knowledge are likely to experience the transformation. Learners must accept the initial level of discomfort for the transformation to happen.
Stages of transformative learning
Transformative learning occurs only when critical reflection and differing perspectives are encouraged in the learning environment. Here are the stages through which a learner goes through during a transformative learning experience:
- Disorienting dilemma
- Self-examination with feelings of anger, fear, shame, or guilt
- A critical assessment of assumptions
- Recognition of discontentment and the process of transformation is shared
- Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
- Planning a course of action
- Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
- Provisional trying of new roles
- Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
- Reintegrating into one’s life based on conditions dictated by a new perspective
Transformative learning environments
Activities that encourage self-examination and exchange differing perspectives can ensure transformative learning. Learners can be benefited if the environment has the following characteristics:
- Learners are encouraged to reflect and share their perspectives openly.
- Learners are considered holistically as part of the entire learning process.
- Learners are encouraged to look at alternative methods of learning.
- Learners are encouraged to explore new concepts in an atmosphere of trust and care.
- Learners are encouraged to question reality in ways that promote change in perspectives.
Though much of the transformational learning experience is used in the field of education, this concept can be effectively used in the workplace environment. But for this to happen, the workplace must foster an open culture of conversation, learning, support, and self-reflection.