Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory

The aim or outcome is to transform a meaning perspective, reassessing presuppositional beliefs reflectively and acting on insights. Reflection and action then alter deep and fundamental beliefs, principles, and feelings through a perception shift that radically alters our understanding of ourselves, others, and our sense of possibility.

We mediate and make sense of our experiences through beliefs, values, and assumptions.

Personal transformation usually begins with a disorienting dilemma, followed by critical reflection, self-examination, and a reorientation that results in revised action and deep learning. Engaging in such discourse advances our meaning perspective developmentally. Transformation occurs by challenging taken-for-granted assumptions through social and historical critique from all perspectives.

Mezirow proposes three meaning perspective types: psychosocial, sociolinguistic, and epistemic.

Epistemic meaning perspectives connect with what we know and how we come to know it. They are embedded in our developmental phase, cognitive or learning style, and sensory preferences.

Sociolinguistic meaning perspectives relate to the social norms, language use, and cultural codes that underpin our assumptions.

Psychological meaning perspectives relate to our self-understanding and how our self-concept, inhibitions, defense mechanisms, and psychological type preferences shape us.

We interpret and evaluate the meaning of experience through these meaning perspectives, involving a usually tacit belief system, a habitual set of expectations, and an orienting reference frame.

Transformative learning is a cognitive-rational approach to adult education that leads to empowerment. Knowledge is created from interpretations and reinterpretations in light of new experiences. Transformative learning transforms our reference frames, meaning perspectives, mental habits, and mindsets to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective. Participating in constructive discourse uses others’ experiences and validation.

A personal crisis may involve a disorienting dilemma, initiating a fluid, nonlinear, cumulative process involving feelings and emotions. As a result, the person engages in critical reflection and reevaluates assumptions about self and the world. She then engages in reflective discourse to discuss her new perspective, testing its validity and gaining others’ validation. Then, she undertakes action from the new perspective.

The coach helps the client articulate and understand assumptions and beliefs, uncover their roots, and choose freely whether to maintain the beliefs. Such beliefs may lie in childhood or experience, be embedded in culture or language, or be influenced by media.

Clients articulate and question their meaning perspectives using three reflection types: content, process, and premise reflection. Premise reflection involves probing the problems’ relevance and leads to perspective transformation; assumptions, beliefs, and values are questioned, leading to transformative learning.

Techniques include critical incident analysis, role play, journaling, and biography. An autobiography that takes account of social and historical standpoints informs the coaching process, leading ultimately to perspective transformations.

Steps and principles revisited.

Disorienting dilemma – Critical reflection – Self-examination – Reorientation – Revised action – Deep learning.

Reorientation – Choose freely.

Self-examine epistemic, sociolinguistic, and psychosocial meaning perspectives through critical incident analysis, role play, journaling, and autobiography that account for social-historical standpoints.

Critical reflection challenges assumptions using a social-historical critique of content, process, and premise or through dialogue.

IMPACT coaching model (Cox, 2006)

Identify life chapters – Make sense of transitions – Plan – Act – Consider – Track.

In the beginning, identify and make sense of life transitions using exercises and structured reflective practice, potentially leading to transformative learning. Explore life experiences in-depth and identify transitions before following through on the learning cycle. Look for sources of hope, joy, and wellbeing as you help the client know themselves better.

Coaching applications

Encourage the client to learn from mistakes and explore elements of her successes using self-examination techniques. When reviewing experiences, help the client come to terms with negative feelings and view past behavior with understanding and empathy. Help the client uncover assumptions and beliefs that prevent her from functioning more skillfully.