Transformative learning : Changing adult learners’ perspectives


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Learning and change in the adult years: A developmental perspective by Tennant and Pogson (1995) is a book aimed at adult educators and it addresses adult learning in relation to adult development.  Tennant and Pogson believe that, in order to teach adults effectively, adult educators need to know themselves, and so the role of the adult educator is assessed. The writer’s raise pertinent questions that force the reader to consider whether their teaching has improved with practice or whether their role or view or purpose has changed over time, and if so, how and in what ways.  The questions they pose encourage critical reflection about adult education practice.

The authors maintain that development is socially as well as psychologically constructed, and so they have divided the book is into three broad developmental categories which looks at:


  • an adults capacity to learn
  • the adult learners investment of self and
  • the relationship between social and personal development.

Tennant and Pogson clarify the difference between normative life span development and transformational learning, believing that the latter results in emancipatory experiences that challenge social expectations. The writers consider older adult learners in a credit rather than a deficit model, as they conceptualise the notion of ‘life experience’ as a non-traditional yet valid form of intelligence.    

This is an important point because it is the sum total of these ‘life experiences’ that have contributed to the adult learners meaning structures and worldview, and is inherently who they are.  Having one’s worldview challenged can be an exhilarating experience, but this must first be preceded by what Mezirow (1978) referred to as a ‘disorienting dilemma’ in his theory of transformational learning.

Mezirow’s perspective transformation explains how adults revise their meaning structures.  Meaning structures are initially formed uncritically through cultural interactions during childhood, and continue to form throughout the lifespan. When these meaning structures are challenged, adults are forced into a process of critically developing a new meaning structure.  Mezirow viewed this as a rational transformation and posited that once this process is complete, it is irreversible as the learner is not able to regress to levels of less understanding (Taylor, 1998).  

The process to transformative learning begins with ‘a disorienting dilemma’, and is a necessary first step to the onset and occurrence of transformative learning (Mezirow, 1978, cited in Taylor, 1998).   According to Taylor (1998) most studies concur that a catalytic experience triggers the process of transformative learning, but in spite of further studies, it is not clear what constitutes a disorienting dilemma (Taylor, 1998).  A significant event such as immigrating to another country, or the death of a loved one can trigger a transformative learning process, just as equally as a minor event such as a brief encounter, a lecture or a comment passed in dialogue.  Likewise, professional development and mentoring can provide the catalyst and the framework to support a transformative learning process.

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Mezirow, J. (Spring, 1996).  Contemporary paradigms of learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 46 (3), 158-173.

Taylor, E.W. (1998).  The theory and practice of transformative learning : A critical review. Information series 374.  Columbus, OH :Center on Education and Training for Employment.

Tennant, M., & Pogson, P. (1995).  Learning and change in the adult years: A developmental perspective. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.