This is a book summary of Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning by Jack Mezirow (Amazon).
🔒 Premium members have access to the companion post: Transformative Learning Synthesis: How to Transform Your Perspective (+ Infographics)
- All content in quotation marks is from the author (content not in quotations is paraphrased).
- All content is organized into my own themes (not necessarily the author’s chapters).
- Emphasis has been added in bold for readability/skimmability.
Book Summary Contents:
- About the Book
- Socialization, Reflection, & Emancipation
- Adult Learning & Adult Development
- Transformation Theory & Transformative Learning
- 10-Step Process of Perspective Transformation
Perspective Transformation: Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning by Jack Mezirow (Book Summary)
About the Book
“Few efforts have been made to develop a synthesis of the different theories that educators of adults can use.”
- “This book incorporates ideas from a wide range of writers in the fields of philosophy, psychology (developmental, cognitive, counseling, and psychoanalytic), sociology, neurobiology, linguistics, religion, and education, as well as, of course, presenting my own thoughts about the dynamics of making meaning, reflection, and transformative learning.”
- “A missing dimension in the psychological theories is meaning—how it is construed, validated, and reformulated—and and the social conditions that influence the ways in which adults make meaning of their experience. There is need for a learning theory that can explain how adult learners make sense or meaning of their experiences, the nature of the structures that influence the way they construe experience, the dynamics involved in modifying meanings, and the way the structures of meaning themselves undergo changes when learners find them to be dysfunctional.”
The first thing we need to do is understand Jack Mezirow’s terminology.
- to construe, interpret, or make sense of our experiences (in other words, to give them coherence).
- construed both prelinguistically (through cues and symbolic models) and through language.
Specific habits of expectation.
- the particular knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, value judgments, and emotional reactions derived from earlier, often unreflective interpretations (that constitute interpretations of experience; that become articulated in an interpretation).
- determines the perceived content of our experience (when our meaning schemes are inadequate to explain facets of our experience, we are faced with areas or dimensions of apparent meaninglessness).
- may pertain to how to do something (instrumental learning), how to understand what others mean (communicative learning), or how to understand oneself.
- concrete manifestations of our meaning perspectives (and translate these general expectations into specific ones that guide our actions).
- become more differentiated and integrated or transformed by reflection on the content or process of problem solving in progressively wider contexts (much more likely to be examined critically and transformed by reflection compared to meaning perspectives).
Generalized sets of habitual expectation, or groups of related meaning schemes (similar to what other authors have referred to as a ‘paradigm’ or ‘personal frame’).
- a habitual set of expectations that constitutes an orienting frame of reference that we use in projecting our symbolic models (orientations; personal paradigms).
- structures of largely prerational, unarticulated presuppositions and epistemic, cultural, and psychic assumptions (within which our past experience assimilates and transforms new experience; often result in distorted views of reality).
- act as perceptual and conceptual codes (to form, limit, and distort how we think, believe, and feel and how, what, when, and why we learn).
- provide us with criteria for judging or evaluating (right and wrong, bad and good, beautiful and ugly, true and false, appropriate and inappropriate; serves as a usually tacit belief system for interpreting and evaluating the meaning of experience).
- determine the essential conditions for construing meaning for an experience (by defining our expectations; selectively orders what we learn and the way we learn it).
- determine our concept of personhood (our idealized self-image, and the way we feel about ourselves).
- influence what we remember (if an experience provides interpretations that are compatible with, extend, or help to integrate our meaning perspectives, we are more likely to perceive and remember it; if the emotional stress of a conflict of beliefs causes us to transform a meaning perspective dramatically, that transformation will be remembered).
Socialization, Reflection, & Emancipation
“Primary socialization accomplishes what (in hindsight, of course) may be seen as the most important confidence trick that society plays on an individual—to make appear as necessity what is in fact a bundle of contingencies, and thus make meaningful the accident of birth.” — Berger and Luckmann (Note: also see the lottery of birth)
We learn many of our ways of understanding the world unconsciously in childhood through socialization.
- we internalize the rules, roles, conventions, expectations, and attitudes of our parents or mentors (in the context of an emotionally charged relationship; and then apply them in abstract form to the rest of society).
- we take for granted and are unaware of social norms and cultural codes which distribute power and privilege, and culturally-determined perspectives usually remain unconscious in adulthood (but they are very important in determining the way we interpret experience).
- most of what we have learned about ourselves has not been examined for unconsciously incorporated assumptions (about the stability of our roles, internal prohibitions, or patterns of thought, perception, and response).
- our meaning perspectives mirror the way our culture and those individuals responsible for our socialization happen to have defined various situations (our parents’ location in the social structure and their own personal biographies and idiosyncrasies influence our conception of reality).
- symbolic models, meaning perspectives, metaphors, and meaning schemes are all or almost all products of unreflective personal or cultural assimilation (a distorted assumption or premise is one that leads the learner to view reality in a way that arbitrarily limits what is included, impedes differentiation, lacks permeability or openness to other ways of seeing, or does not facilitate an integration of experience; the possibility of distortion of assumptions and premises makes reflection and critical discourse essential for validation of expressed ideas).
To the extent that adult education strives to foster reflective learning, its goal becomes one of either confirmation or transformation of ways of interpreting experience. ‘Reflection’ in other theories may be called: metacognition, reflection-in-action, and/or mindfulness.
- the central dynamic in intentional learning, problem solving, and validity testing through rational discourse (involves a review of the way we have consciously, coherently, and purposefully applied ideas in strategizing and implementing each phase of solving a problem).
- involves validity testing (validation of prior learning, or attending to the grounds or justification for our beliefs, is the central function of reflection; when we find reason to doubt the truth, validity, or authenticity of assertions made or implied about our physical environment, our social interactions, and our personal world of feelings and intentions, we must resolve these issues before we can continue to learn; our efforts to understand the world generate the continuous testing of our most fundamental assumptions).
- checking back on our problem-solving process (were our generalizations based upon a representative sample, our inferences warranted, our logic sound, our control of the variables appropriate, our anticipated consequences of alternative actions inclusive, our analysis fully discriminating, our evidence convincing, and our actions consistent with our values?).
- involves a critique and assessment/reassessment of assumptions (critique and reassessment of the adequacy of prior learning leading potentially to its negation are the hallmarks of reflection; reestablish its validity by identifying and correcting distortions in its content, process, or premises; critically assessing the content, process, or premise(s) of our efforts to interpret and give meaning to an experience).
- can be either confirmative or transformative (becomes transformative whenever assumptions or premises are found to be distorting, inauthentic, or otherwise invalid/unjustified; we see through the habitual way that we have interpreted the experience of everyday life in order to reassess rationally the implicit claim of validity made by a previously unquestioned meaning scheme/perspective; meaning schemes/perspectives can be transformed through a reflective assessment and critique of the presuppositions upon which they are based).
- makes reinterpretation and enlightened action possible (making decisions or taking other action predicated upon the insights resulting from reflection).
Content, Process, & Premise Reflection:
Through content and process reflection we can change (elaborate, create, negate, confirm, problematize, transform) our meaning schemes. Through premise reflection we can transform our meaning perspectives (more inclusive, discriminating, permeable (open), and integrative of experience).
- Content reflection: reflection on what we perceive, think, feel, or act upon.
- Process reflection: an examination of how we perform the functions of perceiving, thinking, feeling, or acting and an assessment of our efficacy in performing them.
- Premise reflection: involves awareness of why we perceive, think, feel, or act as we do and of the reasons for and consequences of our possible habits of hasty judgment, conceptual inadequacy, or error; might lead us to question the merit and functional relevance of the question; involves the process of “theoretical reflectivity” which may cause us to become critical of epistemic, social, or psychological presuppositions; might involve an assessment of the validity of norms, roles, codes, “common sense,” ideologies, language games, paradigms, philosophies, or theories that we have taken for granted; pertains to problem posing as distinct from problem solving (problem posing involves making a taken-for-granted situation problematic, raising questions regarding its validity).
Critical Reflection & Critical Self-Reflection:
- Critical reflection: often used as a synonym for premise reflection; a critique of the premises/presuppositions upon which habits of expectation are predicated.
- Critical self-reflection: involves a searching view of the unquestioningly accepted presuppositions that sustain our fears, inhibitions, and patterns of interaction (such as our reaction to rejection, and their consequences in our relationships); the form of inquiry in critical self-reflection is appraisive rather than prescriptive or designative; emancipatory knowledge is knowledge gained through critical self-reflection (as distinct from the knowledge gained from our “technical” interest in the objective world or our “practical” interest in social relationships).
One cannot become emancipated through indoctrination. The emancipatory interest is what impels us, through reflection, to identify and challenge distorted meaning perspectives. It is interest in the knowledge resulting from self-reflection, including interest in the way our history and biography have expressed themselves in the way we see ourselves, our assumptions about learning and the nature and use of knowledge, and our roles and social expectations and the repressed feelings that influence them.
- goal is to help learners move from a simple awareness of their experiencing to an awareness of the conditions of their experiencing (how they are perceiving, thinking, judging, feeling, acting-a reflection on process; and beyond this to an awareness of the reasons why they experience as they do and to action based upon these insights).
- freedom from libidinal, linguistic, epistemic, institutional, and environmental forces that limit our options and our rational control over our lives but have been taken for granted or seen as beyond human control (these forces include the misconceptions, ideologies, and psychological distortions in prior learning that produce or perpetuate unexamined relations of dependence).
- we come to see our reality more inclusively, to understand it more clearly, and to integrate our experience better (learner is presented with an alternative way of interpreting feelings and patterns of action; the old meaning scheme or perspective is negated and is either replaced or reorganized to incorporate new insights).
- dramatic personal and social changes become possible (when we become aware of the way that both our psychological and our cultural assumptions have created or contributed to our dependence on outside forces that we have regarded as unchangeable; learning to understand our individual historical and biographical situation more fully contributes to the development of autonomy and responsibility in deciding how to define our problems and the course of action that is most appropriate under particular circumstances).
Adult Learning & Adult Development
Examining critically the justification for our interpretations and the meaning schemes/perspectives that they express is the major imperative of modern adulthood. Transformation in the way one lives and thinks is the ultimate criterion for evaluating adult education.
Goal/objective of adult education = fostering reflective and transformative learning; helping learners learn what they want to learn and at the same time acquire more developmentally advanced meaning perspectives (to help learners become more critically reflective, participate more fully and freely in rational discourse and action, and advance developmentally by moving toward meaning perspectives that are more inclusive, discriminating, permeable, and integrative of experience).
- helping adults elaborate, create, and transform their meaning schemes through reflection on their content, the process by which they were learned, and their premises (add to, extend, or change the structure of our expectations, that is, our meaning perspectives/schemes).
- negation or transformation of inadequate, false, distorted, or limited meaning perspectives/schemes (this involves the testing of fundamental assumptions rather than mere extension of knowledge).
- a dialectical process of interpretation in which we interact with objects/events and use thought processes to make/revise an interpretation in a new context (guided by an old set of expectations; using a meaning that we have already made to guide the way we think, act, or feel about what we are currently experiencing; using our established expectations to explicate and construe what we perceive to be the nature of a facet of experience that hitherto has lacked clarity or has been misinterpreted; attribute an old meaning to a new experience; applying the knowledge resulting from prior thought and/or prior tacit learning to construe meaning in a new encounter; construing and appropriating a new or revised interpretation for guiding action; using a prior interpretation to construe a new or a revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience as a guide to awareness, feeling, and future action).
- the extension of our ability to make explicit, schematize (make an association within a frame of reference), appropriate (accept an interpretation as our own), remember (call upon an earlier interpretation), validate (establish the truth, justification, appropriateness, or authenticity of what is asserted), and act upon (decide, change an attitude toward, modify a perspective on, or perform) some aspect of our engagement with the environment, other persons, or ourselves.
- involves five interacting contexts: a meaning perspective, the communication process, a line of action, a self-concept, and the external situation (most adult learning is multidimensional and involves learning to control the environment, to understand meaning as we communicate with others, and to understand ourselves).
Most significant adult developmental task = the critiquing of assertions based upon culturally assimilated habits of expectation that distort reality and produce dependence, leading to transformation of these expectations; movement toward more developmentally progressive meaning perspectives that are more inclusive, discriminating, integrative, and permeable (open) than less developed ones.
- progressively enhanced capacity to validate prior learning through reflective discourse and to act upon the resulting insights (anything that moves the individual toward a more inclusive, differentiated, permeable (open to other points of view), and integrated meaning perspective, the validity of which has been established through rational discourse).
- overcoming limited, distorted, and arbitrarily selective modes of perception and cognition (through reflection on assumptions that formerly have been accepted uncritically).
- improving our ability to anticipate reality by developing and refining our meaning schemes/perspectives (so that we may use them more effectively to differentiate and integrate experience).
Dialogue / discourse:
- our language binds us into a dialogic community that has common meaning perspectives concerning the contexts and meanings of words (dialogic communities strive to achieve consensus regarding the conditions under which an expressed idea is considered to be true or valid; participation in dialogic communities is profoundly important for anyone who wants to understand and facilitate adult learning, autonomy, responsibility, and freedom).
- necessary to validate commonly held meanings (allows us to relate to the world around us, to other people, and to our own intentions, feelings, and desires).
- occurs whenever an individual with particular aims communicates with another person in order to arrive at an understanding about the meaning of a common experience so that they may coordinate their actions in pursuing their respective aims (reaching an understanding is the inherent purpose of human linguistic communication).
- requires freedom, democratic participation, equality, reciprocity, and prior education (through which one has learned to assess evidence effectively, make and understand stand relevant arguments, develop critical judgment, and engage gage in critical reflection).
Transformation Theory & Transformative Learning
The formative learning of childhood becomes transformative learning in adulthood.
Central dynamic / fundamental postulate of transformation theory = the idea that uncritically assimilated habits of expectation or meaning perspectives serve as schemes and as perceptual and interpretive codes in the construal of meaning.
Constructivist assumptions underlying transformation theory:
· a conviction that meaning exists within ourselves rather than in external forms such as books.
· the personal meanings that we attribute to our experience are acquired and validated through human interaction and communication.
- seeks to elucidate universal conditions/rules that are implicit in linguistic competence or human development (seeks to explain the way adult learning is structured and to determine by what processes the frames of reference through which we view and interpret our experience are changed or transformed).
- emphasizes that people make an intentional movement in adulthood to resolve contradictions and to move to developmentally advanced conceptual structures (by transforming meaning schemes/perspectives through critical reflection).
- emphasizes the importance of the movement toward reflectivity in adulthood as a function of intentionality and sees it advanced through increased ability and experience (which may be significantly influenced by educational interventions).
- holds that age involves changes reflecting qualitatively different dimensions (of context awareness, focus, goal awareness, critical reflectivity, and greater integration of the cognitive dimensions of learning).
Two dimensions to transformative learning:
· transformation of meaning schemes (through content and process reflection).
· transformation of meaning perspectives (through premise reflection).
- involves an enhanced level of awareness of the context of one’s beliefs and feelings, a critique of their assumptions and particularly premises, an assessment of alternative perspectives, a decision to negate an old perspective in favor of a new one or to make a synthesis of old and new, an ability to take action based upon the new perspective, and a desire to fit the new perspective into the broader context of one’s life (in a nutshell).
- becoming aware, through reflection and critique, of specific presuppositions upon which a distorted or incomplete meaning perspective is based and then transforming that perspective through a reorganization of meaning (this is the most significant kind of emancipatory learning; conscious and intentional; moves forward as distorted assumptions in meaning structures become transformed through critical reflection).
- assessing our assumptions about the content or process of problem solving, finding them unjustified, and creating new ones or transforming our old assumptions (and hence our interpretations of experience).
- involves reflectively transforming the beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and emotional reactions that constitute our meaning schemes (may refer to content and process reflection which can lead to transformation in meaning schemes but does not always do so; it may result in an elaboration, confirmation, or creation of a scheme).
- involves critical reflection upon distorted premises (which can lead directly to transformations in meaning perspective; new interpretation successfully challenges an entire meaning perspective).
- reinterpreting an old experience (or a new one) from a new set of expectations (thus giving a new meaning and perspective to the old experience).
- involves processes of scanning, construal, imaginative insight, and interpretation (all directed by a line of action and selectively preconditioned by our meaning perspectives, but adds the transforming processes of reflection and validity testing).
- taking action to implement transformative insights and revised interpretations derived from critical reflection (action is not only behavior, the effect of a cause, but rather “praxis,” the creative implementation of a purpose; action includes making a decision, making an association, revising a point of view, refraining or solving a problem, modifying an attitude, or producing a change in behavior).
- a social process with significant implications for social action (correcting the distorted sociolinguistic assumptions that have constrained the adoption of more developmentally advanced meaning perspectives; learning to take social action, often collective social action; when distortions are sociocultural, social action becomes an integral part of the process of transformative learning; social action may involve production of changes in relationships, organizations, or political, economic, or cultural systems).
- irreversible once completed (that is, once our understanding is clarified and we have committed ourselves fully to taking the action it suggests, we do not regress to levels of less understanding. Reaching this point of full understanding and commitment can be extremely difficult, however, and many people do regress before they reach this point).
10-Step Process of Perspective Transformation
The transformations likely to produce developmentally advanced meaning perspectives usually appear to occur after the age of 30. Psychologists have found that the transition into the autonomy crisis—and perspective transformation—occurs between 35-55 years, and its duration may extend from 5-20 years. Many individuals fail to negotiate this crisis successfully and enter adulthood with rigid and highly defended thought patterns.
Note: The sequence of transformative learning activities is not made up of invariable developmental steps; rather, the activities should be understood as sequential moments of “meaning becoming clarified.”
1. A disorienting dilemma
Any major challenge to an established perspective can result in a transformation. These challenges are painful; they often call into question deeply held personal values and threaten our very sense of self.
- can occur through an accretion of transformed meaning schemes resulting from a series of dilemmas.
- can occur in response to an externally imposed epochal dilemma (such as a death, illness, separation or divorce, children leaving home, being passed over for promotion or gaining a promotion, failing an important examination, or retirement; epochal transformations often are associated with a life crisis that impels us to redefine old ways of understanding).
- can result from an eye-opening discussion, book, poem, or painting.
- our personal dilemmas often are precipitated or reinforced by what we hear and see and read (if a social movement supports an alternative meaning perspective that affords relief from the stress generated by our dilemma, we will be more likely to be receptive to it; identifying with a social movement provides perhaps the most powerful reinforcement of a new way of seeing our own dilemma).
- can result from efforts to understand a different culture with customs that contradict our own previously accepted presuppositions.
- can begin when we encounter experiences, often in an emotionally charged situation, that fail to fit our expectations and consequently lack meaning for us.
- can begin when we encounter an anomaly that cannot be given coherence either by learning within existing schemes or by learning new schemes.
2. Self-examination with feelings of guilt or shame
3. A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions
4. Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change
5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
6. Planning of a course of action
7. Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
8. Provisional trying of new roles
9. Building of 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 new perspective
- changed self-concept that enables a reintegration into one’s life context on the basis of conditions dictated by a new perspective.
- a feeling of rebirth, of a new beginning.
Perspective transformation is the central process of adult development. The most significant transformations in learning are transformations of meaning perspectives.
- when occasionally we are forced to assess or reassess the basic premises we have taken for granted and find them unjustified (perspective transformation, followed by major life changes, may result).
- involves more critical understanding of how one’s social relationships and culture have shaped one’s beliefs and feelings (becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world).
- illumination comes only through a redefinition of the problem (redefinition in turn is achieved by critically reassessing the assumptions that support the current meaning scheme(s) in question).
- changing the structures of habitual expectation to make possible a more inclusive, discriminating and integrative perspective (acquire meaning perspectives that are more inclusive, integrative, discriminating, and open to alternative points of view).
- often involves profound changes in self (changes with cognitive, emotional, somatic, and unconscious dimensions; involves an empowered sense of self).
- involves more functional strategies and resources for taking action (making choices or otherwise acting upon the new understandings).
- occurs not only in isolated individuals but also in people involved in groups and social movements (others precipitate the disorienting dilemma, provide us with alternative perspectives, provide support for change, participate in validating changed perspectives through rational discourse, and require new relationships to be worked out within the context of a new perspective).
- should involve a recognition that what was initially thought to be a private dilemma is shared by others and may be a public issue (personal transformation involving sociolinguistic distortions can happen only when a perspective of social change is involved, and social change, in turn, depends upon personal transformation).
- is a social process often involving points of view expressed by others that we initially find discordant, distasteful, and threatening but later come to recognize as indispensable to dealing with our experience (we look to others to communicate alternative perspectives that may explain our dilemmas; when we find a promising perspective, we do not merely appropriate it but, by making an imaginative interpretation of it, construe it to make it our own; the resulting perspective never will be exactly the same as that originally expressed by the other, just as the full range of meaning that we attach to words or concepts always will vary to some extent from the connotations attributed to the same words or concepts by others).
- the social process further involves testing our new perspective on friends, peers, and mentors (their reinforcement can be vitally important in making transformation possible; we validate the new perspective through rational discourse; we also have to work out the changed relationships with others that result from our new perspective).
A developmentally advanced meaning perspective is one that is:
- more inclusive, discriminating, and integrative of experience.
- permeable (open) to alternative native perspectives so that inclusivity, discrimination, and integration continually increase (greater openness to the perspectives and points of view of others; accepting of others as equal participants in discourse).
- based upon full information.
- free from both internal and external coercion.
- objective and rational in assessing contending arguments and evidence.
- critically reflective of presuppositions and their source and consequences (greater awareness of the sources and consequences of norms, codes, reaction patterns, and perceptual filters that make up the context of daily life).
- able to accept an informed and rational consensus as the authority for judging conflicting validity claims (increased quality of participation in and willingness to submit to the mediating authority of reflective discourse).
- progressive growth in decontextualization.
- changes in long-established patterns of expectations and behaviors.
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