Invite the Transformative Learning Theory into Your Classroom

When was the last time learning made you uncomfortable?

Although it may sound like an odd question, I bet after a bit of reflection, you can think of a recent time that learning something new caused you to feel uneasy and question your beliefs. I personally encountered this feeling many times earlier this year while reading White Fragility by Dr Robin DiAngelo. While I may have experienced periods of discomfort, I would have subjected myself to twice the amount in order to come to the awakened perspective I received at its completion. 

The stressed and unsettled feelings I endured were a part of the cycle necessary for me to learn and evolve after being presented with new information, a critical step of the transformative learning theory.

The importance of knowing your students

Over the years, educators have accepted that not all learners are the same, and they have developed teaching techniques to appeal to students’ differing learning styles. By getting to know students and becoming familiar with their strengths and weaknesses, teachers can adjust their teaching to best suit student needs and better allow them to learn and succeed.

In addition to learning style differences, the transformative learning theory suggests that the age of the learner and their existing beliefs have a great effect on their learning experience. Students’ existing beliefs are based on their culture, the values they have been taught, and their life experiences. While this may not seem like a groundbreaking realisation, examining the transformative learning theory a bit closer and evaluating its current role in your classroom could provide the insight you need to improve your craft and see students thrive.

Transformative Learning Theory | Leaders of Evolution

Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative learning theory presented initially and theorised by Jack Mezirow, is the theory that adult learners have a unique dimension to learning – acknowledging and reevaluating one’s current beliefs to grow and learn. 

As its name suggests, transformative learning happens when a learner transforms their beliefs. This occurs when a learner encounters new information that conflicts with what they hold to be true. A learner then processes this information against the past experiences they have had and comes to a new understanding. Coming to this new understanding can be a truly eye-opening experience for learners and lead them to adjust their personal values.

The transformative learning theory emphasises the importance of critical reflection during the learning process when a student is presented with novel ideas. It is during this reflection that a student questions their current values and beliefs, reassigns meaning to those beliefs, and makes room for new insights. The act of “making room” for new information gives learners the ability to grow and develop ever-evolving views.

Mezirow theorised that the transformative learning theory has two fundamental elements, instrumental learning and communicative learning. Instrumental learning includes knowledge and problem-solving, while communicative learning focuses on how people communicate their wants, needs, and understandings. According to Mezirow, both kinds of learning must be present to undergo transformational learning—students must not only logically understand the newly presented perspective but also overcome the emotional stress associated with challenging their previous understanding and be able to communicate their changed views.
The transformative learning process is especially critical for young adult learners so they can develop a growth mindset and learn to welcome differing ideas.

Inviting transformative learning in your classroom

Transformative Learning Theory | Leaders of Evolution

Leaders of Evolution believes that transformative learning is important for young adults to encounter before entering the workplace and higher education. By introducing students to new viewpoints and understandings, teachers are equipping students with the skills they need to grapple with information that challenges their beliefs and move forward in the most productive way possible.

To encourage opportunities for transformative learning to occur, Leaders of Evolution has integrated specific elements in our lesson plans to introduce students to new perspectives and provide them with a safe space to explore their feelings, both alone and with others. 

Through guided self-reflection, students are able to assess their current competencies and views about leadership. Then, through online videos, assessment tools, and class discussions, students are exposed to information that can conflict these beliefs. 

It is through this purposeful exposure to different ideas that students can undergo transformative learning, and the discomfort and enlightenment it brings, to become more open-minded students and future employees.

To learn more ideas of ways to encourage transformative learning in your classroom, check out our 21+ free tools, templates and resources here.

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Hannah Hunt

Former Division 1 lacrosse player who is still trying to get her fill of competition through local club sports and intramurals. Hannah is her happiest when doing something active or spending time with friends and family. Currently living abroad with her husband, she stays busy learning the language, exploring new places, and cooking fun recipes.


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