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New Work on Transformative Learning

by Victoria Marsick & Jack Mezirow - January 25, 2002

An introduction to a series of articles on transformative learning

Over the past two decades, adult educators have been engaged in professional discourse regarding transformative learning. This interest has produced several books (Mezirow, 1990, 1991, 2000), Cranton (1994, 1996, 1997), over 75 doctoral dissertations (Taylor, 1998), a continuing exchange in the journal Adult Education Quarterly, four international conferences with dozens of conference papers, and many presentations and seminars in universities in the United States and 17 other countries.

This initial group of articles in this TCR content collection on transformative learning were presented at the Third International Conference on Transformative Learning, held at Teachers College, Columbia University, in October 2000. Since that conference, a Fourth International Conference was held in Toronto, Canada at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education from November 1 - 4, 2001.

Transformative learning refers to learning that results in deep change or a transformation of our tacitly acquired frames of reference - composed of sets of assumptions and expectations - that determine, filter, and often distort the way we think, feel, decide, and act.

Transformative learning has been defined in terms of critical examination and fundamental change in problematic frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, or basic mindsets). Transformation enables people to alter their mindsets in ways that are more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change. Such frames are likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action than other frames of reference.

Transformative learning differentiates between instrumental and communicative learning. Instrumental learning involves control or manipulation of the environment. It involves empirical establishment of the truth of a claim that something is purported to be. Communicative learning involves shared meaning through interpersonal interaction. Communicative learning involves critical assessment of assumptions that support contested beliefs and dialogue that results in a dialectically derived, tentative best judgment upon which to act.

Transformative learning can be either instrumental or communicative. Its process involves:

  1. Critical reflection on assumptions supporting a problematic belief, feeling or value judgment - its source, nature and consequences
  2. Engagement in discourse (dialogue devoted to assessing contested beliefs) to arrive at a tentative best judgment upon which to act until new perspectives, evidence or argument are encountered that are found to be more justified through further discourse. Free full participation in discourse is central to adult learning and education in a democracy.
  3. Reflectively and critically taking action on the transformed frame of reference.
  4. Developing a disposition for critical reflection on one's own assumptions and those of others.

Adult educators are seen as cultural activists working to create and support circumstances that encourage free full participation in critically reflective discourse by all adult learners in a variety of learning contexts.


Cranton, P. (1994). Understanding and promoting transformative learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cranton, P. (1996). Professional development as transformative learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cranton, P. (1997). (Ed.) Transformative learning in action: Insights from Practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, No. 74. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. D. & Associates. (1990). Fostering critical reflection in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. D. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. D. & Associates. (2000). Learning as transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Taylor, E. (1998). The theory and practice of transformative learning: A critical review. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Ohio State University.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 25, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10876, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:22:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Victoria Marsick
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    Victoria Marsick is Professor of Education in the Department of Organizations and Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research focuses on workplace learning, learning organizations, and international models of management. Recent publications include Informal and Incidental Learning in the Workplace (Routledge), Sculpting the Learning Organization (Jossey-Bass), and Team-Learning Survey (Organizational Design and Development).
  • Jack Mezirow
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    Jack Mezirow is Emeritus Professor of Adult and Continuing Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Professor Mezirow's research interests are in adult learning and education. His work as resulted in an evolving Transformation Theory that specifies generic dimensions and processes of learning and their implications for educators of adults. His most revent book is Learning as Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2000).
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