Transformational Learning Theory in the Context of Adult Learning Term Paper

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Transformational Learning

More than twenty-five years ago, Jack Mezirow initiated a profound movement in the field of adult education, that of transformative learning theory. Since this time, the concept of transformative learning has been a topic of much research and theory building in the field of adult education as described in more detail in this research paper. Although Mezirow is considered to be the major developer of transformative learning theory, other perspectives about transformative learning have emerged and are still emering, indicating that Mezirow's work was just a beginning.

Today there are four major models of transformative learning: the cognitive-rational approach of Mezirow, Freire's social transformation, the concept of development by Daloz and spirituality dimensions advocated by Dirkx and Healey. And, critics such as Boyd, and Clark and Wilson have criticized Mezirow's theory as too rationally driven. Even so, Merizow's theory still serves as a widely-used foundation to explain or compare the process that adult learners use to critically examine their beliefs, assumptions, and values as they acquire new knowledge and experience a "re-framing" of their perspective of circumstances, issues, and subsequent actions (Taylor, 1998). Transformative learning may not always be appropriate as a goal of adult education, but most educators agree that it does have postive potential and it is therefore important that adult educators understand it.

2.0 Background

Jack Mezirow developed the concept of perspective transformative learning in 1978. Mezirow explained his theory is an abstract, generic, individualized process of adult learning (Mezirow, 1991). Transformative learning offers an explanation for change in meaning structures that originated in two domains of learning based on the epistemology of Habermas'communicative theory, instrumental learning and communicative learning. Instrumental learning is concerned with learning through task-oriented problem solving and determination of cause and effect relationships -- learning to do, based on empirical-analytic discovery. Communicative is defined as learning involved in understanding the meaning of what others communicate concerning values, ideals, feelings, moral decisions as well as other concepts as freedom, justice, love, labor, autonomy, commitment and democracy.

Mezirow believed that when instrumental learning and communicative learning involve reflective assessment of premises and movement through cognitive structure by identifying and judging presuppositions, transformative learning is occurring. (Mezirow, 1991). Mezirow developed transformative learning to explain how expectations, framed within cultural assumptions and presuppositions, directly influence the meaning derived from experiences. He identified ten sequential stages of transformative learning (Mezirow, 1995):

1. A disorienting dilemma

2. Self-examination with feelings of guilt or shame

3. A critical assessment of assumptions

4. Recognition that one's discontent and process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change

5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions

6. Planning of a course of action

7. Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one's plans

8. Provisionally trying out new roles

9. Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships

10. A reintegration into one's life on the basis of conditions dictated by one's new perspective.

"Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world; changing these structures of habitual expectation to make possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective; and, finally, making choices or otherwise acting upon these new understandings" (Mezirow, 1991). According to Mezirow, transformational learning is optimized by communication free of distortion and manipulation, but these factors are inevitable. Transformational theory states that these barriers can be overcome through critical reflection, rational discourse, and experience (Mezirow, 1978). For learners to change their specific beliefs, attitudes, and emotional reactions, they must engage in critical reflection on their experiences, which in turn leads to a perspective transformation (Mezirow, 1991).

Today, transformative learning has evolved into a more comprehensive and complex description of how learners construe, validate, and reformulate the meaning of their experience (Cranton 1994). Cranton states that "Perspectives on adult learning have changed dramatically over the decades. Adult learning has been viewed as a process of being freed from the oppression of being illiterate, a means of gaining knowledge and skills, a way to satisfy learner needs, and a process of critical self-reflection that can lead to transformation. Thus, Cranton concludes that, "The phenomenon of adult learning is complex and difficult to capture in any one definition." Although there are many conflicting meanings, perhaps the more modern-day definition developed by O'Sullivan (2003) best captures the broader views of today's transformative learning:

"Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race and gender; our body awarenesses, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our sense of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy."

3.0 Perspectives

There are four major models of transformation learning: the cognitive-rational approach of Mezirow, Freire's social transformation, the concept of development by Daloz and spirituality dimensions advocated by Dirkx and Healey. Some views these models as contradictory, while others say it's a matter of emphasis that differentiation the theories.

3.1 Mezirow's Cognitive-Rational Approach

Mezirow's cognitive-rational approach focuses on the process of critical reflection and discussion. Rational thought and reflection are considered most important factors for transformational learning. For learners to change their meaning schemes (beliefs, attitudes, and emotional reactions), they must first engage in critical reflection on their experiences, which in turn leads to a perspective transformation (Mezirow 1991). These meaning structures are frames of reference that are based on individuals' cultural and contextual experiences and these influence how they behave and interpret events. Mezirow believes that perspective transformation usually results from a "disorienting dilemma," which is triggered by a life crisis or major life transition, although it may also result from an accumulation of transformations in meaning schemes over time (Mezirow 1995).

3.2 Paolo Freire's Social Transformation

Social transformation acknowledges social inequities and champions liberation. The main difference between Mezirow and Paolo Friere is that the later focuses more on social transformation while the former is more concerned with personal transformation. Friere believes that social transformation occurs as the critical consciousness of the oppressed are awakened so that they learn to perceive social political and economic contradictions and to take action against oppressive elements (Friere, 2002). This awakening of one's critical consciousness is a result of the educational process. Friere states that the disempowered already know a great deal about their sources of their oppression and what must be done to rise above them. But, what they do not have is an organized approach to translating their knowledge into action. The purpose of education, therefore, is to elicit knowledge and responses.

3.3 Daloz's Developmental Approach

Developmental Approach views understanding the meaning of one's life as fundamental to being human, and sees mentorship as a crucial factor for transformational learning. Daloz (1986) stated that it is frightening for students to let go of old conceptualizations of self and the world. He challenged teachers to place more emphasis on structuring their teaching for fostering personal development of the students rather than developing specific competencies. He frequently used the metaphor of transformation as a journey in which the mentor or instructor served as a gatekeeper as well as a guide for students on the journey (Daloz, 1999). Daloz suggests that mentors perform three functions: they support; they challenge; and they provide vision (Daloz, 1986).

3.4 Dirkx's and Healy's Spirituality Learning

The spiritual-integrative approach recognizes the resolving of inter-psychic conflicts as the key for transformational learning to take place; this view emphasizes the extra-rational. Dirkx (1998) asserts that the imagination facilitates learning through the soul, saying that transformational learning transcends beyond the ego-based, rational approach that relies on words to communicate ideas to an extra-rational, soul-based learning that emphasizes feelings and images. Healey (2000) researched practitioners of insight meditation and reported that they had an expanded self-awareness that led to a deep self understanding and mindfulness in the present.

4.0 Strengths and Weaknesses of Mezirow's Cognitive-Rational Approach

As previously discussed, Mezirow's theory of transformation emphasizes reflection, rational discourse, and experience. Although critics acknowledge these factors as central to transformative learning, some contend that Merizow's views are too rationally driven. Robert Boyd moves beyond the ego and the emphasis on reason and logic (Boyd and Myers, 1988). For example, he has developed a view of transformative learning as an intuitive, creative and emotional process. Further, he believes that the process of discernment is central to transformative education. This process involves receptivity, recognition, and grieving. An individual must be open to receiving alternative expressions of meaning, recognize that the old ways of perceiving are no longer relevant and move to adopt new ways, integrating old and new patterns.

Clark and Wilson have also critized Mezirow for focusing too exclusively on individual…[continue]

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