In-depth Exploration of Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2531 |

Pages: 6|

13 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Words: 2531|Pages: 6|13 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Table of contents

  1. Roots of Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory 
  2. Background Information, Assumptions and Principles
  3. Learning Domains and Meaning Perspectives
  4. Main Stages of Transformative Learning
  5. Conclusion

Jack Mezirow’s transformative (sometimes referred to as transformational) learning theory emphasized the importance of integration of experience into a person’s worldview. Founded on constructivist principles, Transformative learning occurs as an active exploratory process, after an individual experiences a disruptive event (what Mezirow calls a disorienting dilemma), requiring an understanding and a critical assessment of previously learned assumptions to affect one's frame of reference. This paper outlines some important aspects of Mezirow’s theory.

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Roots of Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory 

Learning is a lifelong activity as human beings constantly take in new information and knowledge from every experience. We all learn. However, theorists differ in their perspectives on the factors that enable or support human learning. According to behaviourists who focus on observable behaviour, like BF. Skinner, learning is something people do in response to external stimuli; while cognitive theorists like Jean Piaget, Edward Tolman, and Albert Bandura try to explain human behavior by focusing on the internal mental process as the basis for learning.

Constructivist perspectives consider learning to be an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than simply acquiring it, wherein the belief is that knowledge is constructed based on assumptions that are previously learned from personal experiences and the environment.

First introduced by Jack Mezirow in 1978, the theory of transformative or transformational learning is focused on the processes involved in becoming critically aware of and assessing one's own and others' tacit assumptions and expectations that inform interpretations, by which meaning is made. Based on several core constructivist assumptions and influenced by humanist and social learning theory principles, the theory has changed the way we view adult learning by revealing many insights into the role of prior learning, critical reflection and rational discourse in interpreting meaning of one’s experiences.

Transformative learning refers to the way in which an individual learns through experiences that cause a change in their perspective or worldview. This type of learning is typically a result of a major life event or change, such as when one becomes a parent, starts a new job, or receives a terminal diagnosis. Though not always brought about by extreme events, transformational learning can occur from any situation or event that elicits strong emotional reactions andor facilitates a different way of looking at and thinking about the world around. These life events, or personal crises, constitute what Mezirow refers to as disorienting dilemmas and they are the seen as the catalyst for the transformation.

Going well beyond the scope of describing how people simply acquire knowledge, Mezirow’s theory explores how people can discover meaning and fundamentally change their perceptions from new insights and understandings through a process of critical reflection and validity testing. Understanding Mezirow’s theory of adult transformative learning helps one begin to grasp the deep, structured shift experienced by individuals as they learn from experiences constructed through their own individual frames of references and meaning perspectives. Transformative learning, in practical terms, can help an individual become a more critical, self-reflective, autonomous, and ultimately more responsible human being. This paper outlines some of the underlying assumptions, key concepts, and important dimensions of Mezirow’s theory.

Background Information, Assumptions and Principles

Jack Mezirow (born in 1923, North Dakota) was an American sociologist known for his work on adult learning. He earned his B.A. and M.A. Degree in Social Sciences from the University of Minnesota and received a doctorate in adult education from the University of California at Los Angeles. He spent years as a consultant for the UN, and other US and world agencies before joining the faculty of Teachers College in 1968. Mezirow worked as an emeritus professor of Adult and Continuing Education at Columbia University before he passed away in September 2014.

In his book Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, Mezirow credits the work of Paulo Freire as a major influence on his understanding of the learning process. It was through a newfound conceptualization of Freire’s theorizing of conscientization, or critical consciousness of the world that Mezirow came to understand a missing element of his own work. Freire held that a transformative relationship exists between the awareness of one’s sociocultural reality (that shapes their lives) and their capacity to actively transform it. Upon his realization, he underwent a change in his own meaning perspectives that provided a personal context to reflect upon while building his theory of transformative learning.

The time Mezirow spent working with Roger Gould while studying difficulties that arise as adults develop psychologically, was an influential precursor. Exploring the way adult learners overcome learning impediments developed in childhood through transformative experiences added a psychological component to the model, that led Mezirow’s to conclude that learning difficulties arise from “distorted concepts about formation and use of knowledge.”

Another major influence on Mezirow’s work, and a key contributing factor to the conceptualization of his theory, was his experience witnessing his wife’s transformation, in her learning processes, when she returned to college to complete her undergraduate education. Inspired by her experience, he began a massive study on adult women returning to school that laid the foundation for much of his learning theory.

It is also clear to see the influence that elements from other prominent theories had on Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. Particularly Jurgen Habermas’ communicative action theory in expanding the domains of learning under the scope of a transformational process, and with his description of the role of argument and rationality; and Thomas Kuhn’s perspectives on paradigms. Kuhn’s paradigm refers “to a collection of ways of seeing, methods of inquiry, beliefs, ideas, values, and attitudes that influence the conduct of scientific inquiry” which becomes synonymous with Mezirow’s meaning perspective (the lens we see the world through).

Transformative learning theory is founded on the constructivist assumptions that human beings actively participate in constructing their reality; that process is an ongoing and constant activity centered on change and novelty; and experience is validated through communicative and reflective action. Mezirow ascertains that meaning is created through learning; humans construct knowledge from their personal experiences as they interpret individual experiences. How we see the world is a result of our perceptions and makes up our meaning perspectives.

The perceptions and presuppositions people hold are influenced when they experience an incongruence with what is already believed to be true or is expected in any given situation. He further believed that our actions are guided, in an orthogenetic manner, toward a frame of reference with a more inclusive self-image and integration of experience; ideas are either rejected or actively incorporated in direct correspondence to a person’s motivation and intention. This occurs through a process of critical reflection that involves interpreting meaning, challenging structures of assumptions, and validating, using elements from one’s social dimension.

The theory is based on the further assumption that several things are crucial for learning, first and foremost, learning requires a context or situation within which the learning is to occur. Additionally, people need to be capable of understanding and have a habit of mind that encompasses their way of seeing the world based on background, experience, culture, and personality. Third, they must have a communication system that facilitates problem-solving, as it is necessary in the application of critical reflection and rational discourse. Lastly, Mezirow argues that how we evaluate and interpret our situations, relies on a self-concept that includes elements relating to the way a person views themselves, or their personal identity.

Learning Domains and Meaning Perspectives

Adapted from German sociologist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas’ domains of learning, Mezirow says that transformative learning has two basic focuses- instrumental and communicative learning- and that it occupies a third domain of emancipatory learning. Instrumental learning occurs through manipulating parts of the environment and focuses on problem solving and evaluation of cause-and-effect relationships. Where instrumental learning focuses on “how to” control things in the physical realm, communicative learning looks at how people communicate and how we come to understand the meaning of what is being communicated. Communicative learning involves being understood - by oneself and others - and understanding the perceptions of others. When a person becomes aware of problematic assumptions, in either of these domains, an emancipatory interest impels them to engage in a process of critical self-reflection or discourse “to identify and challenge distorted frames of reference”. Through the process of emancipatory learning, we gain knowledge and become aware of the ways in which our psychosocial assumptions shape and constrain our views; this is where transformational leaning takes place.

How we come to know the things we believe is central to the theory, and Mezirow believed that meaning making is focused and formed within the constraints and limits of what we already hold true (whether accurate or not) in our existing frames of reference or meaning structures. These structures are comprised of assumptions (based on values, beliefs, knowledge, feelings, and experience) that contribute to our understanding and interpretation of the world around. They include distortions, prejudices, stereotypes, moral consciousness, social norms, learning styles, philosophies, world view, patterns, preferences, and unquestioned or unexamined perceptions.

The two types of meaning structures are meaning perspectives and meaning schemes. Meaning perspectives are the broad-based structure of assumptions that inform our interpretations of life experiences. Whereas, meaning schemes are the specific components (beliefs, attitudes, judgements) which shape a particular interpretation, meaning perspectives are made up of several meaning schemes that provide people with an explanation for things. Basically, a meaning perspective serves as the orienting frame of reference or backdrop to interpret and evaluate the meaning of any experience against. Many of our meaning perspectives are generated from meaning schemes formed in early childhood, through acculturation, without intentional reflection; overtime, if they are reenforced and congruent with our experiences, they become ingrained and are therefore more difficult to change.

Mezirow broke down meaning perspectives into three categories, epistemic, sociolinguistic, and psychological. What we know, our knowledge base, and what we know to do with it, forms our epistemic meaning perspective. This is shaped by cognitive and learning factors such as developmental stages, personal intelligence, thinking style (concreteabstract), scope of awareness, sensory perceptions, attention, externalinternal evaluation criteria and reflectivity. Through our interactions with others and the influence of society, we develop a social self and what Mezirow called a sociolinguistic meaning perspective. Things like social normsroles, culture, language, scripts, ethnocentrism, philosophiestheories, and secondary socialization, direct out meaning perspective as it relates to others. Lastly, how we feel and view ourselves makes up our psychological meaning perspective. The “personalprivate self” is informed by our self-concept, locus of control, tolerance of ambiguity, inhibitions, psychological defense mechanisms, neurotic needs, and attachment styles.

Both meaning schemes and perspectives can be challenged, created, and transformed. Mezirow emphasized that learning occurs by refining or elaborating our meaning schemes, gaining new meaning schemes, transforming meaning schemes, and transforming meaning perspectives. When transformation occurs within meaning perspective or meaning scheme, a previous assumption is changed.

Using instrumental learning, we attempt to determine the truth through objective measures, such as testing an assumption about what will happen when you push a button. However, in the absence of empirical methods to test our presuppositions we employ methods of communicative learning to establish the validity or justification for our belief by reflecting (both introspectively and publicly) on the content, process, and premises of our understandings.

Thus, one can reflect on, discuss, and critique: the exact nature (content) of a situation; the process of problem-solving (that may be useful or relevant to encounters with similar situations); or the basis (premise) it rests on. Examining these aspects of personal and socially held beliefs and assumptions through rational discourse can aid in identifying any biases, blind spots, or incongruencies.

Mezirow argued that certain conditions be met for rational discourse to affectively enable a person to transform distorted assumptions, or “arrive at more developmentally advanced meaning perspective”. Ideally, participants should (1) have accurate and complete information, (2) be free from coercion and distorting self-deception, (3) have the ability to objectively assess arguments and weigh evidence, (4) be open to alternative points of view, (5) be able to become critically reflective of assumptions and their consequences, (6) have equal opportunity to participate in the various roles of discourse, and (7) be willing to accept an informed, objective and rational consensus as legitimate test of validity.

Mezirow contented that the reflective process is first initiated upon a person’s experience of a disorienting dilemma in the context of problem-solving and identified 10 phases through which a person engages in this perspective transforming type of learning.

Main Stages of Transformative Learning

Mezirow argued that his theory was not a “stage theory” but that transformative learning is facilitated through a number of stages as described below.

The first stage, and the subject matter, of the transformative learning process occurs when a person experiences an incongruence within their current meaning structure, causing (1) a disorienting dilemma. This stage is typically marked by a major life event or change but can relate to any event that causes a person to call into question pre-existing beliefs, ideas, or assumptions (frames of reference), whether accurate or not. After a disorienting dilemma, individuals engage in (2) a self-examination of their feelings and (3) a critical assessment of assumptions to evaluate how past experiences and guiding assumptions connect to the dilemma. It is at this stage that the learning becomes transformative upon the realization that their perspective may not be the only perspective and a decision is made whether to reject the new perceptions or integrate them. What follows is stage (4) the recognition that discontent and the process of transformation is shared, and the realisation that others have negotiated and undergone similar changes and challenges. After which, (5) an exploration of new roles or actions begins. The individual considers and explores alternative ways of being in the world that are compatible with the new perception. In stage (6) a plan of action is developed and then (7) knowledge and skills for implementing the plan are acquired. A good plan requires a comprehensive understanding of the entire situation, and it is only after a person has the tools and skills required can they move forward to (8) try out the plan. This takes effort, and plans may be revised as a person consider new perspectives. They continue to gain new experience and learn through attempting new provisional roles that contribute to the (9) development of competence and self-confidence. Lastly there is (10) a re-integration that occurs on the basis of new perspectives; that is to say that the perspectives are incorporated into the persons meaning perspectives.


In conclusion, Mezirow's Transformational Learning Theory has provided valuable insights into the process of adult learning and personal transformation. By emphasizing critical reflection, perspective transformation, and the development of new meaning schemes, this theory has paved the way for a deeper understanding of how adults can engage in transformative learning experiences.

Throughout this essay, we have explored the key concepts and components of Mezirow's theory, including the importance of disorienting dilemmas, critical reflection, its main stages and assumptions and principles. We have seen how transformative learning goes beyond simple acquisition of knowledge and instead focuses on a profound shift in an individual's beliefs, values, and perspectives.

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Mezirow's theory has been widely applied in various educational contexts, including formal and informal settings, professional development programs, and personal growth initiatives. It has proven to be a valuable framework for facilitating personal and social change, fostering empathy, and promoting lifelong learning.

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In-Depth Exploration of Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory. (2023, August 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 18, 2024, from
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