Facilitating Transformative Learning:
A Framework for Practice

What is transformative learning?

Learning is about transformation, it's about change, it's about seeing yourself in relation to the world differently (Lyn in Apte 2003:92).

This is the potential of transformative learning; how learning sometimes transforms people’s perceptions, enabling them to see things differently and act differently in their world. Transformative learning is a possibility in many contexts, particularly when a person, organisation or community is facing a major challenge.

Transformative learning involves change in the frames of reference that we use to make sense in our lives. Frames of reference structure the ways that we interpret the meaning of our experiences, and therefore guide our action and provide the rationale for our action (Mezirow 2000). Much adult learning is additive; people gain new information, develop understandings, and extend their skills within their current frames of reference. However, people may be experiencing a challenge that requires them to do things differently if they are to be effective. However, our previous knowledge, strategies and personal strengths may actually be blocking the emergence of new solutions. Organisations as well as individuals have anxiety management systems that provide some stability in times of uncertainty, change or chaos AND limit options for adaptive responses. 

Therefore, to facilitate transformative learning we are often navigating complex processes of learning and change. As educators, managers or professional leaders we are already an audience for the participant’s current frames of reference and need to respond in some way to that. We can also be an audience for emerging knowledge and capability. 

Mezirow (1981) initially described the process of transformative learning by identifying a series of stages, based on his research into the experiences of women entering college in later life. In Mezirow's more recent publication (2000) he reworks the stages and presents them as elements of transformative learning. They are:

  1. a disorienting dilemma; 

  2. self examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt or shame; 

  3. a critical assessment of assumptions; 

  4. recognition that one's discontent and the process of transformation is shared; 

  5. exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions; 

  6. planning a course of action; 

  7. acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one's plans; 

  8. provisional trying of new roles; and

  9. a reintegration into one's life on the basis of conditions dictated by                 

     one's new perspective (Mezirow 2000:22).

Overview of the framework for practice

Whereas the process outlined by Mezirow focuses on transformative learning from the participant’s perspective, I explore transformative learning from the facilitator’s perspective. The framework that I present is comprised of four components, and I picture these components as the four quadrants of a circle. Each component represents a particular focus for the facilitator:

  1. Confirming and interrupting current frames of reference

  2. Working with triggers for transformative learning

  3. Acknowledging a time of retreat or dormancy

  4. Developing the new perspective.

 

As a facilitator, I have found that the significance of the four components varies between different initiatives and different participants. Further, I have found that transformative learning rarely occurs sequentially; the process is more likely to be circular and recursive, revisiting various components in a series of loops (Taylor 1997). 

 

The framework has been designed as a resource for practice and it could be used when developing the program/ project and preparing for the kinds of issues that might arise. Secondly, the resources could be used when reviewing progress, to address emerging issues or to increase the impact. Thirdly, it could be used when designing an evaluation of the program/ project.

Strategies in facilitating each component

Confirming and interrupting current frames of reference:

  • preparing the initiative: considering the interface of our assumptions and their assumptions

  • tuning into the participants’ social worlds and what confirms their current perspective

  • reflecting on gripping narratives – these can show the hopes and dilemmas

  • inviting participants to consider the case for change and their readiness

  • taking up the role of empathic provocateur 

 

Working with triggers for transformative learning:

  • assisting people to face the contradictions and dilemmas

  • drawing on the potential of diverse perspectives 

  • maximising the potential of surprise

 

Acknowledging a time of retreat or dormancy:

  • facilitating the process throughout defensive responses

  • acknowledging the person’s current position in regards the change, including any ambivalence

  • pacing our response through any time of dormancy

 

Developing the new perspective:

  • supporting tentative steps and experimentation

  • acknowledging any restraints arising from the various social and work environments.

 

 

References

 

Apte, J (2003a). The facilitation of transformative learning: A study of the working knowledge of adult educators. Doctoral thesis. Sydney: University of Technology Sydney.

 

Mezirow, J (2000). ‘Learning to think like an adult: core concepts of transformation theory’, in Mezirow, J. & Associates (eds.), Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory in progress.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

 

Taylor, E (1997). ‘Building on the theoretical debate: A critical review of the empirical studies of Mezirow's transformative learning theory’, Adult Education Quarterly, 48 (1), 34-60.

Learn more

Apte J (2009) Facilitating Transformative Learning: A Framework for Practice. Australian Journal of Adult Learning. V 49, n 1, pp 169-189.