The strength of Mezirow and his theory of transformative learning in adult education

Prof. Dr. Katarina Popovic / Prof. Dr. Maurice de Greef

A lot of specialists in education seems to have a significant contribution in order to strengthen adult education processes. One of them is Jack Mezirow, emeritus professor of adult and continuing education at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, researcher and author of numerous books. He has an interesting vision due to the fact that his theory makes it possible for adults to create their own learning process, which can be constructive for each situation. The strength of his “transformative learning” embraces the power of reflection. Question is which elements of this vision can contribute to a more powerful learning process in adult education.

Transformational learning: the true adult learning

What was so exciting and inspiring about the first appearance of Mezirow’s transformative learning at the end of the 70’s? It was the first theory that could explain how adults changed the way they interpret the world, the way they are being changed and the role of learning in this process. It opened the whole new understanding of the processes and mechanisms through which the adults make meaning of their lives, acts, information in the world around, thus giving completely new meaning to the individual approach in learning. It was a deep insight into the way how our experience relates with the new learning and how its interpretation can change by learning. Trying to understand the world means in adult learning “to negotiate and act upon our own purposes, values, feelings and meanings rather than those we have uncritically assimilated from others” (Mezirow, 2000).

Under the influence of Habermas, Mezirow states that there are three types of learning: instrumental (1), dialogic (2) and self-reflective (3). The third one deals with meaning and changing the perspective and it is in the focus of the transformative learning theory. According to Merriam and Cafarella (1999) transformational learning is in fact learning by becoming aware of your own situation. One becomes aware of his or her situation by reflecting on it. Mezirow (1991) describes this process as one in which interpretations are used in order to develop new interpretations for guidance of future actions. One uses earlier experience as a kind of “framework” in order to obtain new insights, to change his or her daily activities and his or her daily practice. According to Mezirow this learning process seems to focus on a solution for the learner. More concrete important steps to make are (Merriam and Cafarella, 1999):

1. Disoriented dilemma: what didn’t work out as I hoped to be?

2. Self-study: how does that relate to my action and me as a person?

3. Critical test of assumptions: what are my failures and can be changed?

4. Recognition of the same process: how are others dealing with this?

5. Orientation on options: what can I do differently?

6. Formulation of an action plan: how am I going to do this in practice?

7. Reintegration in life: how do I ensure that these actions will be part of my life?

These steps seems to be seven important steps in order to accomplish a process of transformation learning.

Transformational learning and the relation to self-directedness in learning

According to Raemdonck (2006) self-directedness in learning for low skilled learners seems to be important. Especially low skilled learners already have several negative experiences with learning and therefore learning needs to be constructive for their own daily situation. They need to experience that learning can help them to get a better life or position on the labour market. So goals and elements of the learning process needs to be formulated in interaction with the learner him- or herself. This refers to the process of transformational learning. In seven different steps the learner learns how to change his or her daily situation. Accordingly learning seems to be “learner-centred”. The learner determines what has to be changed and how it should be changed. He or she formulates his or her own goals and possibilities to change the actual situation. Of course guidance of a teacher or a supervisor is needed in order to stimulate the use of these seven steps and the belonging reflection. But learner in transformative learning is not any learner, it is someone who is able to (self)critically reflect on assumptions and critical discourse and to validate a best judgement (Mezirow, 2006). Mezirow considered critical reflection to be the distinguishing characteristic of adult learning, and saw it as the vehicle by which one questions the validity of his world-view (Cooper, 2014).

Perspective transformation

Perspective transformation is one of the key notions in Mezirow’s theory. As he explains: “A cardinal dimension of adult development and the learning most uniquely adult pertains to become aware that one is caught in one’s own history and is reliving it. This leads to a process of perspective transformation involving a structural change in the way we see ourselves and our relationships. If the culture permits, we move towards perspectives which are more inclusive, discriminating and integrative of experience. We move away from uncritical, organic relationships towards contractual relationships with others, institutions and society.” (Mezirow, 1978). It is an emancipatory process where learner becomes critically aware of how psycho-cultural assumptions influence and constrain the way one sees him- or herself and his or her relationships. But why does such a great kind of learning not appear more often? Mezirow explains that this kind of learning usually results from a “disorienting dilemma”, which is triggered by a life crisis or some major life transition and might be painful. The accumulated transformations might also trigger this kind of reflecting, in a less painful way, the same as a dilemmatic situation created by teacher.

The power of transformation

The kind of change called “transformation” is one of the most powerful changes in one’s life, according to Mezirow. It changes our paradigms, the way we see ourselves, the world around us and our relationship with it. It is a way to see the world differently. A transformation is a non-reversible shift in a meaning perspective towards greater inclusiveness, discrimination, openness, flexibility, reflexiveness and autonomy. It is an emancipatory process “par excellence”! Mezirow even called himself emancipationist (2000), but pointing out the enlightenment approach, meaning rational discourse and using power of intellectual consideration. The transformative learning is the ultimate way to change relationships with our own life and experiences, via critical understanding of the way we perceive them.

This kind of change is very individual, states Mezirow, but the effects go beyond the learner. They have an impact on the learning environment, but also on the community through improved social and cultural outcomes that results from the individual changes. Transforming teachers thus become the agents of social change and adult education accepts responsibility for fostering democratic social change.


Transformative learning theory has changed the way we teach adults. Like all strong theories, it has been criticized, tested, revised, and modified (Kitchenham, 2008). Nowadays it is probably the most researched and most influential adult learning theory. Mezirow himself has been changing, expanding and revising the theory in many aspects. Numerous authors have developed different streams and schools of transformative learning, added new elements (for example emotional aspect, which was completely neglected by Mezirow) and developed further some of its dimensions. The number of books, journals, papers, researches, conferences and projects have addressed the theoretical and practical implications of the transformative learning theory, which proofs its theoretical, research and practical potential, continuously opening more space for further reflections, debates and development.


Cooper, S. (2014). Jack Mezirow: Transformative Learning. 19-10-2014. < in September 2014>.

Kitchenham, A. (2008). The Evolution of John Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory. In: Journal of Transformative Education. Vol. 6, Nr. 2, pp. 104-123.

Merriam, S. B. & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1978). Perspective transformation. In: Adult Education Quarterly, vol. 28 no. 2, pp. 100-110.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Fostering Critical Reflection In Adulthood. San Francisco – Oxford: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Mezirow, J. and Associates (eds.). (2000). Learning as Transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2006). An overview of transformative learning. In P. Sutherland & J. Crowther (Eds.), Lifelong learning: Concepts and contexts, (pp. 24-38). New York: Routledge

Raemdonck, I. (2006). Self-directedness in learning and career processes: A study in lower-qualified employees in Flanders. Gent: Universiteit van Gent.

Jack Mezirow (Photo: International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame)

European InfoNet Adult Education, 28.10.2014