Understanding Mezirow's transformative learning theory

Mezirow's transformative learning is defined as “an orientation which holds that the way learners interpret and reinterpret their sense experience is central to making meaning and hence learning.” Put in simple terms, transformative learning is the idea that learners who are getting new information are also evaluating their past ideas and understanding, and are shifting their very worldview as they obtain new information and through critical reflection. It goes beyond simply acquiring knowledge, and dives into the way that learners find meaning in their lives and understanding. This kind of learning experience involves a fundamental change in our perceptions—learners start to question all the things they knew or thought before and examine things from new perspectives in order to make room for new insights and information. Many learners and experts agree that this kind of learning leads to true freedom of thought and understanding.

Mezirow says that transformative learning has two basic focuses—instrumental learning and communicative learning. Instrumental learning focuses on task-oriented problem solving, and evaluation of cause and effect relationships. Communicative learning focuses on how people communicate their feelings, needs, and desires. Both of these elements are important in transformative learning—students need to be able to focus on different types of their understanding and view new perspectives that are both logical and emotional in order to challenge their previous understanding.

Meaning schemes or meaning structures are another important element of the transformative theory and transformational learning according to Mezirow. Perspectives and meaning schemes two major elements of meaning structures, and are our predispositions and assumptions, which set the state for our expectations. A meaning structure is basically the concepts, beliefs, judgments, and feelings that shape an interpretation of information. Students are able to understand their meaning structure through self-reflection, self-directed learning, and critical theory. They are able to critique their assumptions to understand if what they understood as a child still holds true now that they are an adult. We are thereby able to understand ourselves, and our learning better. The understanding of our past perspective and the ability to look at new structures and perspectives are key to the transformative learning theory.

Source: https://www.wgu.edu/blog/what-transformative-learning-theory2007.html

 The Transformative learning process

Source: Sharpe, J. 2016, "Understanding and unlocking transformative learning as a method for enabling behaviour change for adaptation and resilience to disaster threats", International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, vol. 17, pp. 213-219.

According to Mezirow, this theory explains how adult learners make sense or meaning of their experiences, how social and other structures influence the way they construe that experience, and how the dynamics involved in modifying meanings undergo changes when learners find them to be dysfunctional (Mezirow, 1991)

The aim of transformative learning is to Putting transformative learning theory into practice 11 help individuals challenge the current assumptions on which they act and, if they find them wanting, to change them. This includes a mental shift as well as a behavioural one. The hope of transformative learning is that better individuals will build a better world.

An essential element of Mezirow’s theory is the need to develop communicative skills so that internal and external conflicts, which result from changes in perspective, can be resolved via rational discourse rather than force. Mezirow has argued that rational discourse demands complete and accurate information, freedom from coercion or distorting self-deception, an ability to weigh evidence and assess arguments objectively, an openness to other points of view, an equal opportunity to participate, critical reflection of assumptions and a willingness to accept informed, objective and rational consensus as a legitimate test of validity. The insistence on rationality as a key to ‘Communicative Action’ and eventual transformation has been a contested aspect of transformation theory.




Mezirow J. (1991) Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Last modified: Monday, 20 June 2022, 3:33 PM