Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1978

Jack Mezirow publishes Perspective Transformation

In 1978, Jack Mezirow described a new dimension of learning theory.  He named this rational, cognitive process of critical reflection perspective transformation. When engaging in this learning process, the learner undergoes “a conscious recognition of the difference between [his] old viewpoint and the new one and makes a decision to appropriate the newer perspective as being of more value.” (p. 105).   Simply stated, when we are “led to reflect on and question something we previously took for granted and thereby change our views or perspectives, transformative learning has taken place.” (Cranton p. 192).  

When confronted with a new situation which does not fit with the learners existing meaning perspective and adding knowledge or increasing competencies within the present perspective is not functional, the learner experiences a period of disorientation and disequilibrium.  To resolve the ensuing discomfort, the learner engages a critical examination of the assumptions that underlie his/her role, priorities, attitudes and beliefs.  This process can be acutely threatening to the learner.  The resulting pressure and anxiety may act as a catalyst, stimulating the learner to seek a change in meaning perspective.

The next step in the transformation process is “perspective taking”.  This means seeking the perspective of others who have a more critical awareness of the psychocultural assumptions that shape our histories and experience. As the learner becomes more critically aware of his/her perspective and is exposed to alternatives, the option to change that perspective becomes a possibility.  From this vantage, the learner may then develop a new meaning perspective from which (s)he can experience subsequent life events.  The learner is then left with the crucial decision whether to embrace this new perspective and sustain the actions it requires.  This final step may require the support of others who share the same perspective.

Contemporary existential thinkers divide the full transformation cycle into three phases.  These stages are alienation, reframing, and contractual solidarity.  Figure 1 depicts the transformational cycle from both frameworks.

 Figure 1. Perspective transformation: The transformational cycle

As the learner experiences successive meaning perspective transformation cycles, the developmental task of maturation is accomplished.  In this journey, the learner moves from personal, local meaning perspectives based on uncritical organic relationships to more inclusive, discriminating meaning perspectives based on self consciously contractual relationships. The journey continues in one direction.  As the learner moves forward to new meaning perspectives, (s)he can not return to meaning perspectives from the past (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Maturation through perspective transformation

Cultural norms, personal characteristics and life circumstances impact on a learner’s ability to engage in the perspective transformation process.  Mezirow concludes his writing by outlining future challenges for adult educators. He charges adult education with responsibility for precipitating, facilitating, and reinforcing the perspective transformation process and to implement resulting action plans. He further challenges adult educators to “study the process, methods and product of this kind of education and to evaluate perspective transformation and its effects.” (p. 109).  

Editor's note: This call for critical engagement with the concept of transformative learning was taken up by many in the adult education community. This seminal work from 1978 (along with his book Education for Perspective Transformation: Women's Re-Entry Programs in Community Colleges, also published that year by Teachers College at Columbia University) was followed by a vast number of articles, books, theses, doctoral dissertations and adult education programs that in one way or another contributed to the debates on the theory and practice of transformative learning. Mezirow himself actively engaged in those debates, which led to a further elaboration and refinement of this theory. The critical mass of researchers and practitioners interested in transformative learning has been growing year after year, and in 1998 the first international conference on transformative learning was held in New York, resulting in the book Learning as Transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (Jossey-Bass, 2000). Since then, the conference has been held annually in different North American cities.

References:

Cranton, P. (1998). Transformative learning: Individual growth and development through critical reflection.  In S. M. Scott, B. Spencer, & A. M. Thomas (Eds.), Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education (pp. 188 – 199). Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing Inc.

Mezirow, J. (1978). Perspective transformation. Adult Education, 28 (2), 100 – 109.

Prepared by Patricia Robinson and Laurie Clune (OISE/UT)

March 2001

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