Use of Mezirow’s Adult Transformative Learning Theory in High Schools

The practice of holistic education should ideally include both in-class instruction and out-of-class experiences. How do we effectively use these kinds of holistic experiences to realize the potential for transformation?  Given that the word “transformation” seems to occur with increasing frequency in conversations with colleagues as well as in public discourse, it seems valuable to draw upon research available on this concept.

Fortunately, there is a helpful theoretical starting point to discuss transformation. Jack Mezirow postulated his Adult Transformative Learning Theory in the 1970’s; now more than 30 years later there is journal, the Journal of Transformative Education, devoted to the study of this topic as well as annual conferences. The theory is also quite user-friendly. Here’s the framework:

1) A disorienting dilemma,
2) self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt or shame, 3) a critical assessment of assumptions,
4) recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared,
5) exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions,
6) planning a course of action,
7) acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans,
8) provisionally trying new roles,
9) building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships,
10) a reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s perspective.

For teachers that have led trips to new environments that challenge students, it’s easy to see the path that ‘disorienting dilemmas’ leads students along. Steps 1-4 happen quite naturally on trips and we as teachers need to process these experiences with students. We probably do this with varying degrees of success on the trip. However, the real value of a holistic educational experience should come in the long-term as students move through steps 5-10, and this requires sustained attention from teachers to move students through this process. This is where I think we need much more attention as a school. Students often come back and say, “My life has been changed,” but I think what they really mean is that they have had a temporary altered shift in perspective and desire to make that change integrated into their normal life. However, reality sets back in and that glimpse of a new perspective is lost by the onset of their busy routine. We need to find a way to give students a place to continue this internal search for a new equilibrium. That’s why I’ve felt that service learning is so valuable because (as I do in my classes) an orphanage experience can be integrated into a current unit and referred to throughout the rest of the year’s work.

Mezirow’s work explicitly states that this is an ADULT transformative learning theory. However, my research makes the case that genuine transformation can occur in high school (and perhaps even at a younger age). The global challenges coming at us are so threatening that I think we need to offer the students the opportunity for higher levels of consciousness at a younger age so as to give students the chance to consider their own contributions to the global community earlier rather than later.

I’d like to finish with an inspiring quote from O’Sullivan about this kind of education:

“Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race and gender; our body awarenesses, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our sense of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy.”

Let’s continue trying to better understand how to offer this kind of transformative education to students.


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