"Jack Mezirow is an idealist...the name of his theory implies change. But for Jack it should be a change for the better. The aim of transformative learning is to help individuals challenge the current assumptions on which they act and, if they find them wanting, to change them for the better."— Christie, 2012
Jack Mezirow (1923 – ), American educational theorist and professor, earned a bachelor of arts degree and a master of arts degree in social sciences and education from the University of Minnesota. He earned his doctorate in adult education from the University of California at Los Angeles. He currently holds the position of emeritus professor of adult and continuing education at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. Mezirow was the founder of the Adult Education Guided Intensive Study (AEGIS) doctoral program at Columbia University. Mezirow's books include Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning (1991) and Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood (with Associates, 1990). Both were published by Jossey-Bass and have been translated into several languages. Mezirow's early career focused on social action and community development. Consequently he served as a consultant in many developing countries where he trained professionals about the role of education in community development. Mezirow refers to himself as an social action educator. Mezirow's psychocritical views began after he discovered the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire saying "...the critical dimension missing from my work was my lack of awareness of centrality of conscientization...".
His major contributions
Transformational theory in the context of adult learning has been articulated by Mezirow as "a dramatic fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and the world in which we live" (p 318) primarily from a cognitive learning process.
Transformational learning is defined as learning "of far-reaching change" in adult learners especially learning experiences that shape someone and produce an impact or shift.
Critical reflection is key to transformation as it challenges learners' assumptions and pushes to reconsider and reframe them.
Transformative learning is also an "intuitive, creative, emotional process" and occurs following a disorienting dilemma, triggered by a life crisis or major life transition. It may occur through accumulation of transformations in meaning over a period of time.
Mezirow conducted a study in the 1970s of women returning to college. He found that learning resulted in fundamental changes in how the women made sense of their new circumstances. They experienced shifts in assumptions about themselves (psychic assumptions); understanding of knowledge and how they came to know something (epistemic assumptions), and their understanding of the context in which they lived (sociocultural assumptions).
Mezirow defines learning as "the process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or a revised interpretation of the meaning of one's experience to guide future action. Further, transformative learning occurs when there is a transformation in one of our beliefs or attitudes or a transformation of our entire perspective (habit of mind)."
Mezirow also defined learning as "perspective transformation" which means that learning has occurred if the learner's perspective has changed due to assimilation of new knowledge.
Mezirow suggested a ten step process for transformative learning with four main components: experience, critical reflection, reflective discourse and action. The learner has an experience; critically reflects on it; examines his beliefs, goals, assumptions, etc. after it. The learner takes part in dialogue and examines new ideas to come out of the critical reflection. This dialogue consists of gathering opinions in one-on-one conversations or within a group. The final step is taking action based on this new level of learning.
Mezirow recognized Paulo Freire's impact in his own thinking and suggested the similarities were in three specific areas: the importance of raising awareness of learners' life situations; the importance of constructing inner meaning of the world; and, the role of learners to become individuals with a liberating drive to make the necessary changes in the world around them.
Quotes by Mezirow
"Learning is understood as the process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or a revised interpretation of the meaning of one's experience in order to guide future action" .
Discourse is "...not a war or a debate; it is a conscientious effort to find agreement, to build a new understanding."
Mezirow believed that "adult educators must be aware that helping adults learn how to move from an argumentative mindset to an empathetic understanding of others’ views is a priority."
"...critical reflection, a distinguishing characteristic of adult learning, refers to questioning the integrity of deeply held assumptions and beliefs based on prior experience..."
"Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand and feel about our world."
Transformative learning is a theory of deep learning that goes beyond just content knowledge acquisition, or learning equations, memorizing tax codes or historical facts and data. It is a desirable process for adults to learn to think for themselves, through true emancipation from sometimes mindless or unquestioning acceptance of what we have to come to know through our life experience, especially those things that our culture, religions, and personalities may predispose us towards, without our active engagement and questioning of how we know what we know.
One critique of transformative learning is the "ten steps" which do not account for long-term or cyclical processes of learning.
The most controversial issue of transformative learning theory is its relationship with social action and power. This is due to Mezirow's integration of transformative learning with Habermas' critical learning theory; his critics believe Mezirow's attempt to fuse theories is selective and detached from political and social action.
Mezirow says that discourse "is not a war or a debate; it is a conscientious effort to find agreement, to build a new understanding" (Mezirow, p322). The development of communicative skills for rational discourse is important; however, those skills may need to be developed first, outside the perspective.
Some educators argue that rational thought is a form of "selfish individualism" and over-emphasized in the perspective.
Mezirow has addressed the role of discourse with others as important for transformative learning but does not consider the role social relationships play in managing the occasionally threatening and emotion-laden experiences of being transformed.
Mezirow does not address the role of affective learning; since emotions can be hard to manage in learners especially where there is critical awareness and change this is problematic.
Mezirow gives too much emphasis to critical reflection; reflection alone does not result in transformative learning.
Transformation is not always positive or transformative; learners have to be prepared for either a positive or negative outcome; the hardest step of transformative learning is to change invalid assumptions and behaviours based on them.
The transformative learning process is not as paradigmatic as Mezirow suggests and may be difficult for educators to orchestrate.
Transformative learning may require higher levels of cognitive functioning that most adults cannot achieve.
Mezirow's original theory did not address the many ways people learn. Mezirow has since recognized that intuition, empathy, relationships, and other forms of learning are important also.
The examination of power and hegemonic assumptions is integral to critical reflection, thereby highlighting a political dimension to transformative learning which Mezirow does not cover.
Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning is said to have much in common with Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘habitus’ and ‘field’(1977).
Some educators point to Mezirow's failure to recognize socially constructed aspects of adult development, including institutions, events, regulations and age transitions that mark developmental stages of adulthood.