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Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults, 2nd Edition

reviewed by John M. Dirkx - November 08, 2006

coverTitle: Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults, 2nd Edition
Author(s): Patricia Cranton
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787976687 , Pages: 240, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

Over 25 years ago, Jack Mezirow (1978) used the term “perspective transformation” to describe the developmental process observed in women participating in college re-entry programs. In referring to a process now known simply as transformative learning, Mezirow was calling attention to the ways in which these women overcame dependency roles and relationships that were culturally induced and how their educational programs facilitated their growing self-confidence. Since publication of this report, the study of transformative learning has rapidly expanded to include hundreds of journal articles, scores of dissertations, numerous books, an international conference, a new scholarly journal, graduate courses and seminars, and even doctoral and masters degree programs specifically featuring transformative learning and transformative education.

Patricia Cranton represents a significant contribution to the expansion and dissemination of this generative idea. In 1994, she published the first edition of the book under review here, a text that many regarded as a practical guide to Jack Mezirow’s (1991) work on transformative learning. In this earlier edition, Cranton (1994) described her intention as providing “a description of the transformative learning process as educators observe it, within familiar contexts—as well as guidelines and strategies for working toward transformative learning” (p. xii). She identified her primary audience for the book as practicing adult educators and students of adult education. In the second edition of this book, her purposes and audience remain unchanged, but in this revised edition, Cranton expands her discussion of transformative learning to include the role of imagination and spirituality, affect, connected knowing, and ideas from critical theory. While the book is approximately the same length as her earlier volume, the narrative provides a rich tapestry of ideas that extend our thinking of transformative learning beyond its early roots in Mezirow’s (1991) notion of critical reflection.

Basically, the book is divided into two equal sections. The first section provides a theoretical overview of what Mezirow (2000) refers to as a “theory in progress.” The second half explores how educators might effectively foster transformative learning in practice. Relying on the knowledge constitutive interests of Jurgen Habermas (1971), Cranton introduces the theoretical section by discussing what she refers to as the dimensions of adult learning, and locating transformative learning as a “subset of adult learning” (p. 18). While acknowledging the potential for transformative learning within technical and practical dimensions of adult learning, Cranton clearly aligns transformative learning more closely with Habermas’ (1971) emancipatory interest: “It is when instrumental and communicative learning leads us to question our previously held views about ourselves and the world around us that the potential for transformative learning exists” (p. 18). Cranton echoes the liberatory and self-reflective threads that characterize the various theoretical orientations that are now evident in the study of transformative learning (Dirkx, 1998; Taylor, 2000).  In developing the theoretical overview, Cranton clearly acknowledges her commitment to the epistemic, rational perspective described by Mezirow (2000). As she suggests, “When people critically examine their habitual expectations, revise, them and act on the revised point of view, transformative learning occurs” (p. 19). She augments this perspective, however, by including additional theoretical ideas such as connected knowing, group, organizational, and social change, ecological perspectives, and the extrarational approach. The latter refers to a parallel view of transformative learning developed by Robert Boyd (1991) using Jungian psychology, in which the unconscious is emphasized as a major influence on our thought, behavior, and development. Of these, Cranton argues that the extrarational perspective, grounded in developing a conscious relationship with the unconscious, provides the greatest contrast with Mezirow’s original work and “holds the most promise for expanding the theory” (p. 49).

As she applies this theory to specific cases of adult learners, Cranton illustrates how these complex theoretical ideas can be used to help illuminate the struggles in which individual adult learners engage. In these case analyses, she first frames the learning from the perspective of critical reflection (Mezirow, 1991), but she then expands her analysis to include extrarational considerations. Undergirding this discussion is Cranton’s belief in a more holistic understanding of transformative learning: “As different as the paths are, it seems they are going to the same place. If we want, as we say we do, a holistic theory of transformative learning, then both paths can be valid” (p. 51). Readers will find her discussions of these different cases helpful in sorting out and imagining what these ideas look like “on the ground.” Cranton concludes her theoretical overview of transformative learning by summarizing the work on individual differences as it applies to our evolving understanding of transformative learning. Using Jung’s psychological type theory (Myers, 1985), this work arguably represents Cranton’s most original and unique contribution to transformative learning theory.

The second half of this volume explores how transformative learning may be facilitated in practice, addressing such issues as the roles that educators play in helping adults learn, the need to foster a sense of power and authority among learners, the development of critical reflection and self-knowledge, and the use of learning environments that support the difficult work represented by transformative learning. Cranton demonstrates how the theoretical ideas discussed in previous chapters can be addressed within these various topics. She summarizes a number of strategies, such as the use of questions, journals, experiential activities, critical incidents, and more aesthetic-based activities, as methods for fostering critical reflection and learner self-awareness. Throughout these more practice-oriented chapters, she also weaves discussion of difference and how “[p]sychological type theory gives us one way of understanding these differences and selecting strategies that will be helpful to as many people as possible” (p. 157). Her exploration of support needed in fostering transformative learning draws attention not only to the usual concerns associated with group contexts, but also to issues related to personal adjustment, taking action based on what one is learning within these environments, potential conflicts that may arise, and ethical concerns associated with fostering transformative learning within one’s practice. “What right,” Cranton encourages us to ask, “[D]o I have to encourage you to question what you believe? When is it a responsibility and when is it an imposition?” (p. 175)  In her concluding chapter, Cranton stresses the importance for educators to actively use this transformative learning process to foster their own self-awareness.

In this revised edition, Cranton provides the fields of higher and adult education with a useful and practical guide to understanding some of the basic but often complex theoretical ideas that have come to constitute our evolving understanding of transformative learning. She also attempts to address some of the persistent criticisms of transformative learning, including its lack of attention to issues of power, the broader social contexts of learning, and the powerful role that unconscious, emotional dynamics often play in the process. The book’s lucid organization demonstrates a helpful dialectic between theory and practice and Cranton makes effective use of specific examples from practice to develop and illustrate many of her points.

At times, I looked for deeper exploration of some of the contested issues around transformative learning. For example, Cranton suggests that a transformative perspective may be incorporated within technical, practical, and emancipatory forms of learning. Yet, the dominance of a technical point of view within much of Western higher and adult education reflects the powerful cultural, institutional, and dispositional characteristics that shape our approaches to teaching and learning. A teacher of computer applications within a local community college who wishes to incorporate a transformative dimension to her teaching may face considerable resistance not only from potential employers and college administrators, but also from the students themselves.

In seeking to develop a more holistic understanding of transformative learning, Cranton draws on both cognitive and Jungian psychology—fields that reflect fundamentally different understandings of the nature of human nature. Fostering critical reflection within the learning process suggests the primacy of reason and rationality within our everyday lives, an assumption strongly contested by views of transformative learning grounded in Jungian psychology (Boyd, 1991). The former suggests transformation and emancipation arises from critical reflection, analysis, and the reframing of our fundamental assumptions. In Jungian psychology, more emphasis is placed on imaginative engagement with manifestations of the unconscious within our lives, such as unconscious content of emotion-laden experiences and images and the stories and myths that we use to unconsciously make sense of and guide our lives (Dirkx, 2006). Rather than simply reflecting aspects of a broader, holistic process, it is possible that these differing perspectives might be revealing fundamentally different dimensions of adult learning and development.

In all fairness, however, such issues are beyond Cranton’s intention for this text. As she indicates in her preface, she set out to provide practitioners and students with a practical guide to understanding and beginning to use transformative learning. Researchers and students seeking an understandable introduction to the field, as well as practitioners looking to incorporate the idea of transformative learning into their practices, will find this text a very helpful place to begin.


Boyd, R. D. (1991). Personal transformation in small groups: A Jungian perspective. London: Routledge.

Cranton, P. (1994). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators of adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dirkx, J. M. (1998). Transformative learning theory in the practice of adult education: An overview. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 7, 1-14.

Dirkx, J. M. (2006). Engaging emotions in adult learning: A Jungian perspective on emotion and transformative learning. In E. Taylor (Ed.) Fostering Transformative Learning in the Classroom: Challenges and Innovations (pp. 15-26). New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education, No. 109. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Habermas, J. (1971). Knowledge and human interests. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mezirow, J. (1978). Education for perspective transformation: Women’s re-entry programs in community colleges. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

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

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. In J. Mezirow & Associates, Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 3-33). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Myers, I. B. (1985). Gifts differing (7th ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Taylor, E. W. (2000). Analyzing research on transformative learning. In J. Mezirow & Associates, Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 285-328). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 08, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12832, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:55:04 AM

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About the Author
  • John Dirkx
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    JOHN M. DIRKX is Professor of Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education and Director of the Michigan Center for Education and Work. His career has focused on the preparation and continuing professional development of educators in adult and higher education. Dirkx’s primary research reflects interests in the emotional, transformative, and spiritual dimensions of teaching and learning. He is the co-author of A Guide to Planning and Implementing Instruction for Adults: A Theme-based Approach. He also recently co-authored (with Julie Brockman) “Learning to become a machine operator: The dialogical relationship between context, self and content,” and “Musings and reflections on the meaning, context and process of transformative learning: A dialogue between John M. Dirkx and Jack Mezirow.” Current projects include a three year study of learning circle methodology as a means of fostering institutional change in teaching within a community college, and a project-based professional development project with Can Tho University in Can Tho, Vietnam. Dirkx is also co-editing a volume in the New Direction for Adult and Continuing Education series that focuses on emotion and adult learning.
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