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Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide to Theory and Practice

reviewed by Jeannette Alarcon - March 28, 2017

coverTitle: Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide to Theory and Practice
Author(s): Patricia Cranton
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 1620364123, Pages: 174, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

Patricia Crantons third edition of Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide to Theory and Practice highlights new directions in her use of these concepts and her recent empirical work. The authors expertise comes from over two decades of working on theoretical and practical aspects of transformative learning theory in adult learning environments (e.g., university classrooms and professional development workshops). Her approach to sharing this scholarship highlights not only student learners experiences, but positions practitioners as transformative learners as well. Crantons work in this area not only encourages self-reflection, but also calls attention to emancipatory learning practices. It highlights awareness regarding power dynamics to create a more liberating adult learning environment.

Building from a traditional definition of transformative learning, this volume weaves together Crantons foundational theoretical frameworks (Baumgartner, 2012; Habermas, 1984; Mezirow, 2013) and empirical work. Together, they provide a solid overview, a theoretical framework, and a set of practical suggestions for people employed in the fields of higher education, adult education, and professional education. The author defines transformative learning as a process that leads to a deep shift in perspective (p. xxii) that results in critical self-awareness and a change in mindset. The volume provides useful contexts and strategies for building toward critical reflection. It also calls attention to the impact of power in the roles of being either a transformative learner or facilitator.

Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning is organized into a preface, ten chapters, references, and several useful tables. In the preface, Cranton intends that the texts purpose is to [e]xplain transformative learning theory and describe the process from the learners perspective, exploring individual differences in transformative learning, and presenting practical strategies for fostering transformative learning, while emphasizing that adult educators themselves are transformative learners (p. xii).


Cranton describes the main additions to this third edition as inclusive of recent theoretical developments (p. xii) in the field of transformative learning and in response to an increase in its application to fields outside of higher education. The first half of the book centralizes the theoretical perspectives that are key to transformative learning theory. The second half of the text provides practical strategies for practitioners working in higher education and other adult education settings.


The volumes first three chapters include a lineage of thought that details both the foundational and contemporary conversation around adult learning theory. It also nests transformative learning theory within this context. Chapter One situates the concept of transformative learning within adult learning theory. While Cranton follows the traditional definition of transformative learning described above, in this chapter she acknowledges the ways newer voices in the field influence her consideration of less tangible aspects (e.g., Dirkx, 2012). These include intuition, soul, and imagination when thinking through the process of transformative learning itself. The sections included within this chapter address the development of adult learning theories and the ways they interact with transformative learning theory. Additionally, the author provides useful information that guides practitioners to see distinct knowledge constructs and purposes for each.

Chapter Two provides a thorough explanation of the origins of transformative learning theory. It draws on Mezirows conceptualization of habits of mind and the ways a shift to these habits is key to transformative learning for adults. Chapter Three marks the end of the body of theoretical work that provides an overview of this field. Cranton acknowledges one of the main critiques of Mezirows scholarship, namely a lack of criticality or attention to the idea of social change. Her response includes the fact that adult learning theory is rooted in social change. For example, the author notes the origins of the field that focused on adult access to educational spaces in the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, Cranton looks forward to including alternate ways of knowing as instrumental to transformative learning.


Chapter Four and Chapter Five bring empirical work to the conversation. Cranton shares examples of her studies of transformative learning across many settings. They are further used to illustrate points made in previous chapters. In Chapter Four, she shares an intimate look at her experiences with transformative learning. They highlight the importance of discursive spaces facilitated by the instructor. The author simultaneously points out the impact of student-to-student interactions. While there is a great deal of evidence provided throughout the text demonstrating the strategies an individual practitioner might employ, Cranton also discloses that its success depends on a variety of complex factors that are often out of the instructors control. For example, Chapter Five is titled Individual Differences. It provides a deeper explanation of the various responses one should anticipate when facilitating transformative learning experiences. The author also describes several recent extensions to the theory that have been recently added to the literature base.


The remaining chapters (Chapter Six to Chapter Ten) focus on helping educators think through the complexity of implementing transformative learning practices and facilitating appropriate learning experiences. Cranton provides a comprehensive guide for enacting transformative learning experiences. This includes an examination of the role of power. She views this as of the utmost importance for maintaining an environment where learners can support each other as they experience dilemmas during transformative learning processes. Many topics are covered in the second half of the book. They include the myriad roles that educators carry out, ways to acknowledge or navigate power, critical questioning or raising critical awareness, and mechanisms of support for individuals within the learning environment. In the final chapter, the author presses educators to recognize themselves as transformative learners. Toward this end, Cranton includes a set of critical questions meant to guide this reflective process. Her concluding remarks indicate a view that to facilitate transformative learning experiences for others, practitioners must embark upon the same journey themselves.


Overall, Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning is useful for educators in higher education, professional development, and other adult education settings. Though the content is rather complex, Cranton provides several features to guide the reader. She also gives useful contextual information for those who are interested in embarking on a transformative learning journey with adult learners. At the same time, the author includes a variety of new directions to push seasoned practitioners to continue their own transformative learning journeys.



Baumgartner, L. M. (2012). Mezirows theory of transformative learning from 1975 to present. In E. W. Taylor & P. Cranton (Eds.), The handbook of transformative learning: Theory, research and practice (pp. 99115). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Dirkx, J. (2012). Nurturing soul work: A Jungian approach to transformative learning. In E. W. Taylor & P. Cranton (Eds.), The handbook of transformative learning: Theory, research and practice (pp. 116130). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Mezirow, J. (2003). Epistemology of transformative learning. In C. Wiessner, S. Meyer, N. Pthal, & P. Neamann. (Eds.), Transformative learning in action: Building bridges across contexts and disciplines (pp. 310314). Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Transformative Learning, Teachers College, Columbia University. New York, NY: Columbia University.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 28, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21896, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:59:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Jeannette Alarcon
    University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    E-mail Author
    JEANNETTE DRISCOLL ALARCÓN is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the Department of Teacher Education and Higher Education. Her teaching and research center enacting educational justice in elementary school settings, critical pedagogy and understanding school cultures. Recent publications include The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy and Decolonizing mentoring: A Latina Muxerista approach in Equity and Excellence in Education. She is currently engaged in a Participatory Action Research project with a group of first-year elementary school teachers exploring the ways in which their first-year experiences highlight supports and disconnects with their teacher preparation program.
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