Transformative Learning
The Rational and the Spiritual
Transformative Learning
A meta-cognitive process used to transform old
assumptions and judgments into new meaning-making
perspectives. Originally rooted in Mezirow’s Transformative
Learning Theory.
It potentially leads to:
•Transformation which can occur suddenly or over time.
•Deciding for yourself what has value and what is right.
•Thinking on your own instead of operating from old habits of mind.
•Integrating deeper aspects of yourself into consciousness.
Rational vs. Spiritual / Emotional
Transformation Learning
Mezirow’s Transformative
Learning Theory:
Spiritual / Emotional
A rational learning process within
conscious awareness.
Focus is on an intuitive, emotional, or
spiritual learning experience.
A meta-cognitive process that applies
critical thinking to frames of reference that
are based on judgments, beliefs, values,
and cultural influences that are taken for
Learning involves soul or inner work,
often making the unconscious become
conscious. To integrate our inner world
with our experiences in and from the
outer world.
A transformation in which the resulting
point of view is a new frame of reference,
which is more open-minded, reflective,
meaningful, and inclusive.
Learning is intimately connected to the
sacred and involves the spiritual as part
of who we are. Transformation involves
transcending ego and integrating
spiritual experience, creating new
frames of reference,
Ego plays a main role in this process.
Mezirow’s transformative process involves…
a disorienting dilemma or feelings of fear, shame, guilt, or anger.
recognition that another way of thinking is possible and perhaps
context awareness of the conditioned beliefs and concepts.
critical reflection and assessment of assumptions and beliefs.
critical-dialectical discourse with others to understand the shared
nature of the problem.
validation of the new frame of reference or belief.
exploring new ways of taking action within the framework of the new
Spiritual or emotional transformative process
reclaiming and restoring “the soul to the world of education, to
advocate an education of the soul.” (Dirkx 2006, p.128)
understanding the ways we make sense of our lives and how we
interact in the world, to learn to focus on meaning as it is within the
heart and spirit. To do this we need to understand ourselves.
becoming aware of and integrating powerful unconscious feelings
and images within the educational context of intellectual and
cognitive growth.
increasingly tuning into this aspect of ourselves and gaining a more
substantial respect for the intensity and beauty of our everyday lives,
and allowing it to transform our sense of who we are and our place
in the world.
“The path of understanding the inner world
leads through the outer world.”
(Dirkx 2006, p.129)
Spiritually transformative learning requires that:
We must understand and
incorporate a holistic view in order
to fully understand how adults
learn and how educators can
effectively facilitate the process of
These experiences potentially
cause radical shifts in a person’s
consciousness. [Akin to Mezirow’s
“disorienting dilemma”]
We must experience relevance
and personal meaning.
Learners must be deeply engaged
even in mundane learning
Deeply meaningful learning
experiences challenge our old
habits of thinking and feeling at a
very deep level, to where they
become troubling and cause our
frame of reference to become
obsolete and irrelevant.
But also…
It is the everyday experience that
is the context for our meaning.
Move toward “the enchantment of
everyday life.”
It is only in the outcome of a learning experience
that we can distinguish between a nontransformative learning experience and a
transformative one.
They are transformative when there is a radical
change in one’s cognitive, emotional, and/or
spiritual way of being.
Although Mezirow and Dirkx are on seemingly
different tracks in terms of rationality and
spirituality, both make concessions to the other.
Mezirow concession: the spiritual
aspect of living and learning is an
“elusive but obviously significant
dimension of transformative
learning.” But Mezirow believes
that the outcome must also
involve “a rational process of
critically assessing one’s
epistemic assumptions as a
critical dimension of the process
involved in transformative
learning…that it is this process,
within awareness, that saves
transformative learning from
becoming reduced to a faith,
prejudice, vision, or desire.”
“…the full process of transformative
learning includes both this mode
of learning as [Dirkx has]
described it and, once this
dimension of learning is brought
into awareness, the transformative
actions may be understood to
feature a rational process
involving critical reflection of
epistemic assumptions as a basis
for transforming a frame of
reference…any insightful theory of
transformative learning in adult
education should include both
dimensions of the learning
Dirkx’ concession:
Dirkx’ concession: “one of the
outcomes of transformative
learning is a fundamental change
in what [Mezirow refers] to as a
frame of reference. Furthermore, I
would agree that transforming our
frames of reference involves both
rational and extra-rational
processes. In the perspective I
have described, the unconscious
is recognized as a powerful
source of creative and potentially
constructive force within our lives.
“These unconscious dynamics are
expressed symbolically…in our
dreams, fantasies...these
unconscious energies represent
the language of the self and its
journey toward wholeness. They
are the source and driving force
for fundamental transformation
within our lives. Whether we
consciously participate in this
process or not reflects the degree
to which the process will be
In addition…
“…the kinds of transformative learning we are talking about might
be different and that it may be important in the scholarship of
transformative learning to preserve those differences.”
“…the (spiritual / emotional) frame of reference is informed largely
by unconscious psychic energy that is largely unaddressed
through the critical reflection process.”
“Becoming aware of the influence of this energy and working
through the issues it represents requires not only conscious
attention but a methodology that allows these powerful energies
gradual expression within conscious awareness.”
“…this energized cluster of relational experience becomes
available to conscious awareness, and we are able to gradually
incorporate it into our sense of who we are…we are seeking an
integration of mind and soul.”
Fostering Transformative Learning
Use of narratives and story-telling
Use of the arts in the educational process
Creating a sacred learning space and fostering the
contemplative mind
Use of Narratives / Story-telling
(Clark & Rossiter, 2008)
Use of narratives allows us to make sense of experiences and to create
coherence out of chaos. It is a meaning-making endeavor.
When our personal narratives no longer help us to make sense of our life
experience, we must change it. Transformative learning becomes a matter
of rewriting one’s personal narrative / life story. (Kenyon and Randall, 1997; Randall, 1996)
A narrative is subjective, and it attempts to relate learning and development
from the inside as opposed to outside observation. From this point of view,
creating a life narrative is the main focus of adult development. (Rossiter, 1999)
Narrative learning is largely constructivist learning, which means learning
through experience. Adult learning is also widely considered to be deeply
connected to experience.
Narrative contexts are social and cannot be separated from this aspect;
therefore, narratives need an audience (similar to Mezirow’s discourse). A
narrative makes experience accessible, “conceptualizing the learning
3 Modes of Narrative Learning:
(Clark & Rossiter, 2008)
1. Journaling: this form of writing presents all characteristics of
narrative learning if it is sustained over a period of time or through
the duration of a class. Students “create a conversation between
themselves and the material they’re learning, and they construct a
text which itself becomes the object of reflection.” (p. 67) Students are
engaged cognitively and connecting with prior learning.
2. Concept-Focused Autobiographical Writing: another mode of selfreflection, it is used to delve into a topic from one’s personal point of
view, inductively, constructing a narrative from life experience that
must conform to a topic or concept until it fully illuminates it.
3. Instructional Case Studies: used often in textbooks to illustrate a
point or concept, one can create these as real or as fiction. In it, an
issue must be addressed or corrected. The story is simple, but
students’ engagement to it is complex because they must write the
ending to the story while linking it to prior experience.
(Fisher-Yoshida, 2009)
Often used in corporate environments to develop and support staff
members when there are perceived weaknesses or differences of
opinions with employees.
It is used to provide input and feedback to allow employees to
correct behavior that is considered inadequate or problematic by
getting them to become aware of their operating assumptions.
It might involve discussion, modeling behavior, confrontation,
assessments, building trust and rapport, and/or considering different
It is hoped that a shift in perception will result, which in turn will
create a shift in behavior.
The concept and possibility of change must be embraced by those
being coached, or the intended shift will not be possible.
The Use of Arts-Based Approaches (Butterwick & Lawrence, 2009)
The arts communicate social narratives in a cultural context.
By creating or performing their own artistic projects, students or
clients can engage in the artistic process of discovering insights not
usually accessible in everyday modes of learning and expression.
Forms of artistic expression can be poetry, painting, sculpture,
photography, weaving, quilts, writing, or performing in theater-like
The arts can communicate those concepts that are difficult to define
or discuss and can become the “teachable moment.”
Caution must be used so that people are not forced into participating
and experiencing a traumatic event. Although a disorienting
dilemma is desired, it is recommended that classroom or training
experiences be safe for those participating.
Creating Sacred Spaces / Using Contemplation (Hart, 2004)
Developing Interiority in Education: developing a “spaciousness” in
order to “meet and take in” the world around us, which involves
developing discernment, imagination, virtue, reflection, balance, and
presence. The four dimensions of consciousness related to learning
are presence, clarity, detachment, and resilience.
Presence: being open to ourselves in a non-defensive way, being
flexible, curious with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Here one can be
accommodating and willing instead of simply assimilating information.
There is simple attention and flow, and shifting can occur without
resistance. This ability often leads to peak or transcendent
Clarity: achieved through silence and often through the use of
imagination and creativity, ideas and solutions cannot be willed but
realized through emptiness, surrender, and receptivity. It can be
considered listening. Scientifically described as alpha, theta, and
gamma wave brain activity, which are associated with creative
Creating Sacred Spaces / Using Contemplation (cont.)
Detachment / Witnessing / Metacognition: develops a capacity for
watching thoughts arise without judgment, clinging, or resistance. It
builds the capacity for reflection, impulse control, acceptance, and
tolerance; it can also potentially lead to metacognition.
Resilience / Balance / Well-Being: helps to create psychological and
physiological changes that positively impact well-being to counteract
the stresses of living, which potentially affects the capacity to learn.
Summary: neurophenomenological data appear to show
changes in the mind and brain that result from
contemplative practice. The effects include shifts in
states of mind, long-term trait patterns, and changes in
brain structure. Studies also show improvement in
cognitive performance.
Other Classroom Ideas
for Fostering Transformative Learning
Creating / Forming authentic relationships within the classroom
(Cranton, 2006; Taylor, ed)
Teaching racial, gender, culture, and sexual orientation inclusion
(Merriam, 2009)
Using fiction (Jarvis, 2006)
Empowering learners (Cranton, 2006)
Using assessments, models, and checklists to help determine
progress and resistance (King, 2005)
Providing ways to turn shifts in frames of reference into action (Merriam,
Dirkx, J. (1997). Nurturing soul in adult learning. New Directions for Adult & Continuing
Education. 74, 79-88. Retrieved from
Dirkx, J., Mezirow, J., & Cranton, P. (2006). Musings and reflections on the meaning,
context, and process of Transformative Learning: a dialogue between John M. Dirkx and
Jack Mezirow. Journal of Transformative Education. 4, 123-139. Retrieved from
Hart, T. (2008). Interiority and education: exploring the neurophenomenology of
contemplation and its potential role in learning. Journal of Transformative Education. 6,
235-250. Retrieved from
Hart, T. (2004). Opening the contemplative mind in the classroom. Journal of
Transformative Learning. 2, 28-46. Retrieved from
Merriam, S., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood: a
comprehensive guide. San Francisco, CA: John Wile & Sons.
Mezirow, J. (2003). Epistemology of Transformative Learning. Unpublished manuscript
2003 by Jack Mesirow.

Transformative Learning