In Search Of Stories: SARN Explores Transformative Learning

Hi. Welcome to another exciting year with the Saskatchewan Action Research Network. We have a new theme for this year’s blog series—a topic suggested by a reader (hey, if you are reading this, thank you for your idea).

This year, SARN is exploring transformative learning in adult literacy and basic education. We need your help! We are looking for stories from students, instructors, counselors, administrators—any participant who has changed as a result of involvement in literacy/basic education programming. We are especially interested in stories that include how and when literacy/basic changed the way a participant “sees the world in a different way, or perhaps sees himself or herself in a different way” (see Patricia Cranton’s article below).

Perhaps you can help a student write their story and get them published? Let’s involve our learners more this year.

If you would like more information or want a template form that should help you tell your story, please send a note to either Jacqueline Bruce ( or me ( Stories should be no longer than 1500 words and Jacqueline and I will help with any editing that may be needed..

Please pass along this invitation together with Patricia’s blog installment. We are really forward to this exciting series and really looking forward to those stories… Again, contact Jacqueline or me for more information.

Allan Quigley


Dr. Patricia Cranton.

Dr. Patricia Cranton. Professor of Adult Education, University of New Brunswick

Transformative Learning in Adult Literacy and Basic Education
 by Dr. Patricia Cranton

There are times in the practice of adult education when a student or instructor undergoes a meaningful shift in the way he or she sees the world in a different way, or perhaps sees himself or herself in a different way.  These are usually moments of joy and appreciation.

Transformative learning theory describes this process.

Dr. Patricia Cranton is a Professor of Adult Education at the University of New Brunswick


Dr. Jack Mezirow

Dr. Jack Mezirow, Professor of Adult Education

What Is Transformative Learning?

Transformative learning theory originated with Dr. Jack Mezirow when he witnessed the experience of his wife Edee who returned to college after many years.  He later  conducted a study of women’s re-entry into college in 1975 to 1978.  He proposed that a perspective transformation included the following phases:

A disorienting dilemma, self-examination, assessment of assumptions and a sense of alienation, relating to others, exploring options, building competence and self-confidence, planning a course of action, acquiring the skills for the course of action, trying out new roles, and reintegrating the social context.Transformative learning theory originated with Dr. Jack Mezirow when he witnessed the experience of his wife Edee who returned to college after many years.  He later  conducted a study of women’s re-entry into college in 1975 to 1978.  He proposed that a perspective transformation included the following phases:

 “Am I Alone In This?” An Example

To take just one example, a person has an experience that challenges her beliefs about herself.  This leads her to question herself and think about the assumptions she might be making about the role of women.  There can be a sense of isolation or alienation (asking, “Am I alone in this thinking?”) followed by relating to others who have the same experience.  Through conversations with others, she can explore options that lead to feeling more competent and confident.  The transformative learning process is complete when the person finds a way to act on her revised perspectives and reintegrates into the social context.

“Habits of Mind” & A Definition

Mezirow periodically adjusted his definition of transformative learning over the years, but essentially it remained the same.  In 2003, he wrote: “Transformative learning is learning that transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change.  Such frames of reference are better than others because they are more likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action” (pp. 58-59).  That is, when people encounter an experience or perspective that is in conflict with their beliefs and values, that encounter has the potential to call those beliefs and values into question and to lead to a deep shift in the way people see themselves and/or the world.

There are, says Mezirow, “habits of mind—the groove in which our mind runs. Habits of mind are a product of past experiences, knowledge of the world, cultural background and psychological inclinations.  People develop habitual expectations—what happens before is likely to happen again.  Mezirow identified six types of habits of mind:

  • Epistemic habits of mind are those related to knowledge and how we acquire knowledge.
  • Sociolinguistic habits of mind are related to social norms, cultural expectations, and the way language reflects those norms and expectations.
  • Psychological habits of mind have to do with people’s self-concept, inhibitions, anxieties, and fears.
  • Moral-ethical habits of mind define good and evil, morality, and the extent to which people see themselves as responsible for advocating for justice in the world.
  • Philosophical habits of mind are based on worldview, political views, and religious doctrine.
  • Aesthetic habits of mind include values, tastes, judgments, and standard about beauty.

Habits of mind are not easily accessible: they tend to be deeply embedded and unexamined.  As such, they can create constraints that prevent people from learning or critically questioning their perspectives.

Since Mezirow’s original research, many other scholars have come forth with alternative ways of understanding transformative learning.  Transformation may not be the cognitive and rationale process that Mezirow describes; it might be intuitive, spiritual, or relational and collaborative. Transformative learning has also been related to social change, social justice, and ideology critique.

“Learning Companions” Rather Than Instructors

The practice of literacy educators and basic education educators is often neglected in the transformative learning literature. Some argue that a certain level of cognitive development and, hence, formal education is a prerequisite for transformative learning. This assumption may serve to discourage researchers from examining the experiences of literacy learners. Yet, in the field of adult literacy education, anecdotes and stories abound that can only be interpreted as transformative learning.

In a paper presented with two colleagues, Brenda Wright and Allan Quigley, we examined the experiences of eight adult literacy educators in terms of how they fostered transformative learning.  Every interview and narrative revealed a strong current of the educators’ deep caring for their learners and an explicit passion for their work as well as a belief in the learners’ abilities. It was the nature of the relationships among educators and learners that led us to the term learning companion as a descriptor of how literacy educators see their role in fostering transformative learning.

“Scared Stiff” & a Closing Note

I have not worked as a literacy educator nor as a basic education teacher, so my comments must be limited.  I have, however, worked with educators who are literacy and basic education teachers and have learned a great deal from them. I also think that my work with tradespeople making the transition into teaching their trades is relevant here.

For many years, I worked in a program at the University of New Brunswick for tradespeople who wanted to become teachers of their trades.  They were carpenters, auto mechanics, marine mechanics, refrigeration experts, and the like.  Almost all of these people had never been a student at a university, but it was on a university campus where this mandatory program was held. The program they need to complete as a prerequisite for their being hired at the New Brunswick Community College was conducted at UNB.  These good folks were scared stiff.  They did not know what to expect. They were afraid that they would have to write “academic” papers, and they had no idea how to do this.

In this program, we focused on what people needed and wanted to learn.  I used a participatory planning strategy in which the course was developed with and by the participants.  When the students realized that they had a say in what was going to happen, they began to be involved in a more meaningful way, trusting that someone was going to listen to what was important to them.  And this, quite often, became a transformative learning experience for them. From “scared stiff” to adults confident in their own voice and abilities.

I hope that my comments encourage others to foster transformative learning in their practice in both literacy education and basic adult education. .

Some Suggested Additional Readings

Cranton, P. & Wright, B. (2008).  The transformative educator as learning companion.  Journal of Transformative Education, 6, 33-47.

Cranton, P. (2013). Transformative learning.  In P. Mayo (Ed.) Adult learning: A reader (pp. 267-275). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Cranton, P., & Wright, B. (2007). The transformative educator as learning companion. In P. Cranton & E. Taylor (eds.), Proceedings of the 7th international transformative learning conference.

Kroth, M., & Cranton, P. (2014). Stories of transformative learning. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Wright, B., Cranton, P., & Quigley, A. (2007). Literacy educators’ perspectives of transformation and authenticity. Paper presented at the 48th Annual Adult Education Research Conference, Halifax, Nova Scotia.



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