Mezirow J.. 1997. Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 1997


Outlines the theory of transformational learning and its integration into adult learning practice.

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Key Findings: 

The article proposes that, within adult education, a primary requirement is for autonomous thinking, and that transformative learning facilitates this mode of thinking. Transformational learning requires a set of ideal conditions for its full realisation, and these conditions are influenced by the quality of the education experience, as well as socio-political factors. Transformational learning involves “[i] transforming frames of reference through critical reflection of assumptions; [ii] validating contested beliefs through discourse; [iii] taking action on one’s reflective insight; and [iv] critically assessing it” (Mezirow 1997: 11). This identifies transformative learning as a social process, which is adaptive and has a fundamental communicative aspect. It also establishes the need to identify and resist social and cultural influences that impinge on the ability and capacity for deeper learning.


Mezirow is one of the early, and leading, developers of transformational learning theory. In Mezirow’s presentation of his theory, he articulates an approach that closely resembles the organisational adaptive management cycle, with processes of personal reflection, validation through discourse, experience through action, and assessment or evaluation. While transformative learning theory has been developed largely in the adult education literature, the broader social links are evident through the critical role of discourse in the learning experience. Discourse requires particular conditions to exist for it to be effective, and these conditions also enable learning. Full information, lack of coercion, openness, active listening are examples of some of these requirements. Altering frames of reference by challenging underlying assumptions is central to the transformational learning theory. Entrenched frames of reference can lead to an automatic rejection of ideas, information or knowledge that fails to meet preconceptions of what is considered valid. Frames of reference may be perceived as ‘rational’ (i.e. mental/cognitive), but according to Mezirow, frames of reference also include conative (i.e. desire, impulse) and emotional elements. Therefore, frames of reference are as much about beliefs as they are about facts. An important lesson for adaptive learning is that social and cultural forces (at multiple scales) can entrench maladaptive frames of reference, individually and collectively. The challenge, therefore, is to encourage processes that test established behaviours and norms, while maintaining stability within the larger system.