In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transformative Learning

  • Introduction
  • Origins and Overviews
  • Frameworks for Understanding and Organizing the Literature of Transformative Learning
  • Guides for Practice
  • Assessing Transformative Learning
  • Emerging International Perspectives on Transformative Learning

Education Transformative Learning
Chad Hoggan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0263


Originating and most often used in the discipline of adult education, the term transformative learning “refers to processes that result in significant and irreversible changes in the way a person experiences, conceptualizes, and interacts with the world” (“Transformative Learning as a Metatheory: Definition, Criteria, and Typology.” Adult Education Quarterly 66.1 [2016]: p. 71, cited under Origins and Overviews). Its origins are in a white paper published in 1978, wherein Jack Mezirow of Teachers College, Columbia University, reported the results of a study of women’s re-entry work programs in community colleges across the United States (Education for Perspective Transformation. Women’s Re-Entry Programs in Community Colleges [1978], cited under Origins and Overviews). In this report, he coined the term perspective transformation to describe the profound changes experienced by some of the women in their study. Over the next several decades, Mezirow developed and continually refined this concept into a comprehensive theory of adult learning, always maintaining a focus on the transformative potential of learning, i.e., its ability to help learners change in fundamental ways rather than merely adding knowledge or skills. During this theory development, his use of terms extended beyond perspective transformation, as he referred to his work as transformation theory and then transformative (or transformational) learning theory. From these beginnings, a large base of literature emerged addressing the profound changes that are possible from learning in adulthood. Of the various names used over time by Mezirow and others, transformative learning is the most ubiquitous term in this scholarship. It is used to refer to Mezirow’s evolving theory of adult learning, but it is also used to refer to any of a number of theories that focus on significant changes that learning can have on people, especially those changes that are not adequately encompassed by the usual descriptors: knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Many of these theories were developed independent of Mezirow’s work, sometimes even prior to it. It is probably most accurate to say that transformative learning is not a single theory, but rather a collection of theories around a similar phenomenon. This collection of theories (and more commonly called “approaches” to transformative learning) derived from numerous, disparate disciplinary perspectives that often had little theoretical connection with each other. Therefore, when scholars write about transformative learning, they may be referring to Jack Mezirow’s theory, another theory in the adult education literature that addresses transformation, or the range of theories (or approaches) as a whole. Nevertheless, beginning with Mezirow there has arisen a literature around the phenomenon of the transformative potential of adult learning. Although historically this literature has been mostly by North American scholars, it is increasingly being used by scholars in other countries (especially Europe) and disciplines. This article organizes and presents some of the most prominent pieces within that literature.

Origins and Overviews

The origins of transformative learning can be traced to the white paper (Mezirow 1978a) and the article (Mezirow 1978b) where the term perspective transformation was introduced to describe the transformative experiences of women in return-to-work community college programs. These articles defined perspective transformation as “a structural change in the way we see ourselves and our relationships . . . toward perspectives which are more inclusive, discriminating and integrative of experience. We move away from uncritical, organic relationships toward contractual relationships with others, institutions and society” (Mezirow 1978b, p. 100). The literature was mostly silent on transformative learning in the 1980s, but in Mezirow 1991a it had evolved into comprehensive theory of learning. From the 1990s to the present, there has been a large and consistently growing body of research around transformative learning, much of it approaching the idea of transformation fundamentally from different theoretical perspectives than from what Mezirow did. For instance, Clark 1993 provides an early classification system, saying that there are three strands of thought in the adult education literature around transformative learning: the work of Mezirow (perspective transformation), Freire (critical pedagogy), and Daloz (adult development). Dirkx 1998 added a fourth strand: Boyd’s description of individuation (based on Jung’s depth psychology) as a type of transformation common in adulthood (see Boyd and Myers 1988 under Depth Psychology). Taylor 1997 was the first review of empirical research around transformative learning theory, concluding that there was empirical support for Mezirow’s model, but also pointing to some specific deficits in the theory and research surrounding transformative learning. Mezirow continued to revise and refine his theory, which Kitchenham 2008 documents well. Gunnlaugson 2008 is a more contemporary classification of the literature surrounding transformative learning, naming it as a metatheory and advocating for new approaches to the learning phenomenon (other than the traditional approaches that had not changed much in the past decade). Hoggan 2016 further clarified transformative learning as a metatheory, offering conceptual tools that scholars could use to understand across (rather than just within) the different approaches.

  • Clark, M. Carolyn. 1993. Transformational learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 1993.57:47–56.

    Provides an overview of three “strands” of thought related to the transformational nature of adult learning: Jack Mezirow’s theory of perspective transformation, Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, and Laurent Daloz’s writing on adult development occurring through formal education.

  • Dirkx, John M. 1998. Transformative learning theory in the practice of adult education: An overview. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning 7:1–14.

    An early overview of the emerging literature surrounding transformative learning, naming four theoretical perspectives, or strands, visible in the literature: transformation as consciousness-raising (based on the work of Freire), as critical reflection (based on the work of Mezirow), as development (based on the work of Daloz and other developmental psychologists), and individuation (based on the application by Boyd of Jung’s model of the psyche and development).

  • Gunnlaugson, Olen. 2008. Metatheoretical prospects for the field of transformative learning. Journal of Transformative Education 6.2: 124–135.

    The first article to introduce the idea of transformative learning as a metatheory. It differentiates between first wave theories of transformative learning (i.e., those that choose a particular theoretical perspective/strand with which to describe transformation) with second wave theories (that did not exist at the time of his writing, but those that would synthesize insights from across the various theoretical perspectives/strands).

  • Hoggan, Chad D. 2016. Transformative learning as a metatheory: Definition, criteria, and typology.” Adult Education Quarterly 66.1: 57–75.

    Provides rationale for thinking of transformative learning as a metatheory. Provides conceptual tools, such as a new definition of, criteria for, and an outcomes typology of transformative learning, based on a review of current approaches to transformative learning.

  • Kitchenham, Andrew. 2008. The evolution of John Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. Journal of Transformative Education 6.2: 104–123.

    Traces the evolution of transformative learning theory as developed by Jack Mezirow. (The mistake in his article title, of “John” rather than “Jack” is unfortunate, but it cannot be changed now.)

  • Mezirow, Jack. 1978a. Education for perspective transformation. Women’s re-entry programs in community colleges.

    The seminal report (white paper) of the grounded theory study that gave rise to the research and theory surrounding transformative learning as it is known today.

  • Mezirow, Jack. 1978b. Perspective transformation. Adult Education 28.2: 100–110.

    Mezirow’s original article, where he begins outlining his new concept of perspective transformation as theory of adult learning and development.

  • Mezirow, Jack. 1991a. Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    Mezirow’s most extensive elucidation of his comprehensive theory of adult learning.

  • Taylor, Edward W. 1997. Building upon the theoretical debate: A critical review of the empirical studies of Mezirow’s transformative learning theory.” Adult Education Quarterly 48.1: 34–59.

    A review of thirty-nine early studies around transformative learning. Taylor concludes that there is empirical support for the theory, but that it needs to have a broader definition of its learning outcomes and that its processes needed to be reconceptualized to include the influence of context, to broaden the possibilities for how the process is initiated, and to account more fully for other ways of knowing (beyond rational thinking) and relationships.

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