Transformation Theory of Education

Introduced by Jack Mezirow and Victoria Marsick in 1978 in a paper originating from grounded research.

Concepts: transformative learning, meaning perspective, meaning schemata, frame of reference, perspective transformation, domains of learning. 

The idea, in short: A dilemma can lead to challenging our assumptions and presuppositions and changing our perspectives as well as ourselves.

What gets actually transformed?

Transformative learning is experienced as an interplay of action and understanding, producing an altered state of being. It may unfold in steps, noticeable as patterns of activities and behavior, leading to a shift in a person’s meaning perspective. The steps may be enacted in highly individual ways, happening in different sequences, being repeated, or excluded. The learner may struggle to integrate the new meaning perspective with their existing meaning perspectives and larger life.

The Transformative Process

  1. A disorienting dilemma is encountered (for example, involving their beliefs and life choices).
  2. Self-examination generates feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame due to the implications of the new worldview. As a result, I am not so certain anymore about my previous ways of being.
  3. A critical assessment of assumptions. Self-examination may lead to critical reflection on underlying basic beliefs. (For example, I may critically reflect on why I had not valued myself and have missed opportunities in life because of that initial assumption about my place in the world.)
  4. Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared. Through rational discourse with others, I discover a common humanity.
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions. Rational discourse is used to work through possible alternate ways to move forward in life.
  6. Planning a course of action. I plan a way forward in accord with my new larger, more flexible, and developing worldview.
  7. Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan. I engage.
  8. Provisional trying of new roles. I try it on; I see what happens and modify and adjust the role as required.
  9. Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships. A period of practice.
  10. A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspectives. I integrate the new responses to life and the new skills and abilities with those I care about, respectful of the newly acquired, expanded, and more flexible worldview.


We have assumptions and expectations of ourselves, others, and the world. These form part of our ‘frame of reference’ or ‘meaning perspective’ through which we filter our incoming sense impressions of the world, creating our perceptions.

Let us call these assumptions and expectations our worldview. Our worldview has a certain kind of impact on us; it makes us a certain kind of person. It also has a form, qualities, or characteristics.

The meaning perspective selectively shapes and delimits perception, cognition, feelings, and disposition by predisposing our intentions, expectations, and purposes. The meaning perspective provides the context for our meaning-making.

Assumptions and expectations we may broadly call our memories (of good and bad) or previous learnings; in some sense, it is our shape from the past. Seen in this way, worldview is our past manifest in our cognitive processes. So we have memory, we are experiencing, we are anticipating. An important principle in memory is recency effects.

At times, in our activities, we may encounter a different worldview from our own. We may notice and become aware of the implications of that different worldview which confronts us with a choice.

Ignoring and moving on is one choice.

Working to integrate these implications into our worldview, thereby enlarging it, is another choice. Transformative learning gives a new shape to our new past, resulting in a shift in our meaning perspective, away from a narrow, problematic, fixed, or static meaning perspective toward a more inclusive, discriminating, open or permeable to different ideas, flexible, holistic, reflective or examinable, and autonomous meaning perspective.

Transformative learning is a non-reversible directional change that accelerates as it progresses.

A paradigm is a collectively held meaning perspective; a paradigm shift indicates a whole new set of concepts or beliefs in a community taking over a pre-existing set.

Transformative learning is a perspective transformation similar to a paradigm shift for an individual.

To summarize, our worldview feeds our meaning perspective in terms of assumptions and expectations, which are cognitive processes. We are constantly encountering the world through our sensory experiences. This sensory experience is construed and appropriated by our meaning generator. This meaning generator is the process-relational operation emerging from the context of the meaning perspective.

Meaning and Sense-Making Structures

A meaning schema is a belief or basic idea about how something ought to or does work.

A meaning perspective is a more fundamental belief, forming the structure of assumptions within which your past experience assimilates and transforms the new experience. These are equivalent to personal constructs, perceptual filters, conceptual maps, personal ideologies, habits of expectation, or ideas about how the world works. Other words might be a habit of mind, perspective, concept, attitude, outlook, way of thinking, strongly held group of opinions or beliefs, deeply held value, identity, worldview.

Contextual meaning perspectives host contextual meaning schemata.

My present meaning and sense-making guide my present action.

Meaning-making structures are meaning schemata contextualizing my experience in a social-emotional tone or narrative.

Sense-making structures are sense schemata contextualizing my experience in a cognitive-conceptual tone or narrative.

Domains of Learning

The instrumental domain involves understanding “how things work.” These relate to cause-effect relationships and problem-solving. Meaning or sense in this domain is created deductively through experimenting with the environment to become more effective in controlling it in a given problem arena.

The communicative domain involves the relationship between people, how people communicate or converse, how people present themselves, and generally, how beliefs and practices of human communication occur. It includes understanding, describing, and explaining intentions; values; ideals; moral issues; political, philosophical, psychological, or educational concepts; feelings, and reasoning. In this domain, we learn about cultural and social group norms of behavior and thought. Meaning in this domain is created through abductive reasoning, using our experience to understand another’s, and where each step in the logic chain suggests the next step.

Types of Transformations

An epochal transformation shifts the learner’s meaning perspective very quickly, over perhaps minutes or days. The difference is immediately obvious to the learner involved, and the transformation of the meaning perspective is directly experienced.

An incremental transformation results from small shifts in meaning schemata that, over time, perhaps over months or years, lead a learner to realize that a meaning perspective has shifted. There is a dawning awareness that a meaning perspective has changed rather than a direct experience of the change, a kind of retrospective remembering.

Both types of transformation assume there is a conscious appreciation of a shift.

Types of Learning

Learning within a meaning schema is mainly in the instrumental domain and may come about by extending an ability such as to use mathematics or problem-solve.

Creating a new meaning schema can be in both domains and may come about by immersing in a new field of endeavor.

Transformation of a meaning schema is learning through reflection on the content or the processes of determining action. This learning can be in both domains.

Transformation of a meaning perspective is learning that results from reflection on underlying beliefs and assumptions. This learning is most likely to be in the communicative domain.

Key Elements of Transformative Learning

A disorienting dilemma, critical reflection, and rational discourse are key to transformative learning. Application and experiencing any of these elements, a combination of them, or all of these may or may not lead to a transformative learning experience.

A disorienting dilemma is one type of significant stimulus that causes a significant level of disruption or disturbance in a person. As a result, the disoriented person is led to examine and reflect on why they are doing what they are doing in their lives.

They may also examine the beliefs and implicit or tacit assumptions underlying their own beliefs and subsequent actions. With critical reflection, a person intentionally construes new meanings. Critical reflection can utilize three frames: content, process, and premise reflection.

Content is what happens, how it happens, or the data available about an area of concern.

Process is concerned with whether the content is sufficient, the interpretation of data is adequate, and the strategy for collecting and judging the data is adequate.

Premises are underlying beliefs and assumptions and include why the area of concern is being focused on.

Critical reflections require some means to illuminate underlying belief structures; detachment from beliefs to be objective and dispassionate enough about what is being reflected upon and to allow for new ideas and points of view to emerge; perseverance in the face of ambiguity, restlessness, awkwardness, agitation, or surprise to see what develops or emerges from the reflective process; and the ability to think through what is being uncovered in a rational-enough manner, so that incongruences are highlighted and examined rather than avoided or overlooked.

Rational discourse is a way of discussing with others logically and objectively, personally and socially held beliefs and assumptions. It implies highlighting incongruences, biases, or blind spots. An awareness of the context is assumed. Ideally, the interlocutors would have accurate and complete information, be free from coercion and distorting self-deception, open to alternative points of view, empathize, weigh the evidence, and assess arguments objectively. Equal opportunity to participate during discourse, a willingness to seek understanding and agreement, and to accept a resulting best judgment is assumed.