The Essence of Transformational Adult Learning

The Essence of Transformational Adult Learning
Summary: Abstract – The theory of transformative learning theory, first articulated by Mezirow and further refined in his later publications, is about change - dramatic, fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and the world (Mezirow and Taylor, 2009). In contrast, Knowles' model of andragogy focuses on the characteristics of the adult learner and his or her life situation (Knowles, Holton and Swanson, 2005). This article compares and contrasts the essence of Mezirow's transformational learning and Knowles' model of andragogy and provides supporting research evidence for each one. It also formulates an approach to the instructional design of learning for adults who are returning to school that incorporates appropriate concepts from these two theories.”

The Essence of Transformational Learning

Learning is about transformation, it’s about change, it’s about seeing yourself in relation to the world differently,” (Apte, 2003, pg. 168). This phrase essentially summarizes the core concept of Meizrow’s theory of transformational learning. Meizrow viewed learning as a journey of a learner changing their frames of reference by interpreting experience and these interpretations would then guide their actions and empower the learner to give a rationale for those actions (Meizrow, 2000). In essence, learning then becomes a shaping of worldview, as it causes learners to reflect on the process of validating ideas that are in conflict with assumptions brought forward by the learner through prior knowledge, (Meizrow, 1991).

This journey of self-reflection involves series of paradigm shifts that become the framework by which transformative learning occurs, thereby undergirding a process of discovery (Meizrow, 2000). This process of discovery helps each learner to navigate a shift exclusivity of learning to a more inclusive approach that allows the learner to be more holistic in their application of experience and prior knowledge to the process. Learning then also shifts from being rigid and prescribed to more permeable and malleable as the learner embraces the uniqueness of who they are, what they are learning and why it is important the them in their particular situation of life (Kroth & Boverie, 2009). Learning, then also becomes more integrated into the life of the learner and not merely facts and figures that are regurgitated in such a way merely be extrinsically assessed. The assessment now becomes much more internalized as these paradigms shifts help the learned differentiate learning from being and how to balance the reality of needing to grow and develop while guarding against becoming codified in their being (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The discovery process enables learners to use intentional, deliberate and assimilative inquiry to navigate changes in worldview that are more transformative than learning facts and figures. In this sense it could be said that the renewing of one’s mind in more transformational than merely changing one’s mind which has a more temporal reality (Plantinga & Wolterstorff, 1984).

In congruence with these philosophical, existential, and epistemological issues, Meizrow, (2000) also crafted a series of elements that from the learner’s perspective are critical in producing continued motion towards this process of discovery and transformation. These elements include:

  1. A disorienting dilemma or trigger that leads to reflection and begins the transformative process (Reushle, 2009). These disorienting dilemmas can occur in two forms:
  2. Self-examination, through a reflective questioning process which can be accompanied by intense feelings of guilt, fear anger or shame, (Taylor, 1997).
  3. Critical assessment of assumptions and the inspiration to think Meizrow differently and face contradiction (Apte, 2009).
  4. Sharing with others one’s discontent with the process and connecting with others to balance the internal with the external (Lang, 2004).
  5. Exploration of new roles, relationships and actions that will help correct the course of the learner and point them into a new direction based on the new ideas that have entered into their noetic structure (Plantinga & Wolterstorff, 1984) which is a philosophical framework of how ideas and beliefs, like schema, connect (Davis, 1991).
  6. Planning a course of action to validate the learning that is occurring and assimilate it into the learner’s individual reality.

This process of action planning requires the final three elements of Meizrow’s theory to ensure that the plan of action is developed, implemented and evaluated in the life of the learner. The learner, as a part of the action process must acquire knowledge and skills sufficient for implementing the new action plan, provisionally try out the new roles that are associated with the new action plan (Meizrow, 2000) (Kuhl, 1985), and reintegrate the action plan, the new ideas, the shifts of belief and other paradigm shift into their life in such a way that their transformed noetic structure and worldview is now dictated by a new perspective (Reuschle, 2009).

However, the important aspects to take into consideration when this process begins through the elements are the speed of discovery and influence on these discoveries (Kroth and Boverie, 2009). Discovery can be viewed, by the learned as being imposed (these dilemmas are happening to me), or intentional (these dilemmas are happening because of me) and the speed of this discovery can be classified as evolutionary (slow) or revolutionary (immediate). These axes being established Kroth and Boverie crafted a four quadrant theory based on the combination of these elements.

  • Quadrant 1 shows dilemmas that fall into the category of revolutionary and imposed. These cause initial shock trauma and pain and are related to what Meizrow called the beginning of perspective transformation, (Meizrow, 2000).
  • Quadrant 2 shows dilemmas that are revolutionary and intentional which brings about epiphany and enlightenment (Kroth & Boverie, 2009).
  • Quadrant 3 show the evolutionary characteristics of  dilemmas and how, when imposed, reveal a slow set of disturbances to belief systems and perspectives that are associated with stories, experiences and ideas that have a gripping intensity on perspective or belief (Gergen & Kaye, 1996).
  • Finally Quadrant 4 shows dilemmas that are revolutionary and intentional. These dilemmas are a series of generative explorations into belief or perspective that reflect Meizrow’s ideas that perspective transformation moves the person into self-examination and self reflection to really search for meaning and purpose (Meizrow, 2000).

This transformational evolution through discovery can be used to facilitate growth in many areas of the adult life, from religious belief to career development, from professional growth to life coaching, and even from archaeology to epistemology, all of these areas can be streams by which discovery and transformation can be a process that causes results of lasting and positive change for the learner and/or professional (Vygotsky, 1978).

The Essence of Knowles’ Model of Andragogy

In examining Knowles Model of Andragogy, there are immediately two conflicting theories that must be understood. Knowles’ posed that the principles of andragogy were far superior for the adult learner because the traditional learning framework of pedagogy was lacking it is essence for learners whose experience plays a vital role in their growth (Knowles, 1980). Pedagogy can be best defined in it’s most constructive framework and that is of a student exclusive infrastructure where students only need to learn what is taught by the instructor, prior experience is not necessary for learning, and the instructor’s concept of a learner is that of dependency (Knowles, 1980). In contrast to this, andragogy is a framework that sees the instructor as the facilitator who guides the learners through a process of understanding rather than merely managing coursework (McGrath, 2009). This is what makes adult education unique in that an adults retains the ability to analyze and apply materials to real world scenarios based on their experiences and prior knowledge. This process of andragogy then can be viewed not only as a process of learning but as a process of understanding humanness and one’s individual potential (Henschke, 1998).

Within andragogy there are six areas of emphasis that Knowles felt were required to ensure success for the adult learner Taylor & Kroth, (2009).

  1. First, adult learners imperatively need to understand why they are learning what is being presented. Problems must be identified and goals established so that each learner knows where he/she fits into the learning process (Woodard, 2007). If the learner is has no prior knowledge of the subject being presented, then it is imperative that he/she understands the goal of what new learning is occurring and why it is important for the situation that it represents. If there are perspectives or assumptions that need to be altered or changed, then that needs to be clearly communicated to the learner as well (Taylor & Kroth, 2009). This is very similar to the introduction of dilemmas in Meizrow’s (2000) transformative learning theory, but in this case, the instructor has more control over the speed of the discovery and is empowered to help make the changes more evolutionary than revolutionary (Kroth & Boverie, 2009). This process of communication will help the adult learner understand the nature and points of contact for what is being presented and learned.
  2. Second, learners must be empowered to be self-confident. Even for self-directing learners (Pratt, 1993), it is imperative that the information is exhaustive so that the learner walk away from the learning feeling confident that the new concepts and perspectives can be applied to their situation and a process of change can begin (Woodard, 2007). Knowles felt that every learner needs to be oriented to the idea that solvency for real world problems came through education and that education then reciprocates competence and skill back to the learner (White, 1959). This cyclical process creates a relationship where the learner had a readiness to learn that would increase his/her success at implementing change (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2001). This is in contrast to Meizrow where he believed that transformative learning was at the heart of a real change in perspective (Meizrow, 2000). Knowles assertion that a learner is able to assume a perspective that learning is a process of analysis, synthesis and evaluation that are beneficial to the learner even if transformation does not occur (Stevens, Gerber, & Hendra, 2010).
  3. The third area of emphasis is the personal (perhaps emotional) concept of the learner him/herself and the process that the learner undertakes to  move from being dependant as in the traditional pedagogical model with a clearly self-directed model of behavior and dependency which is at the core of andragogy, (Knowles et al. 2011) (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

The implications here are that the learner must first learn to take control over his/her own learning which means empowering the learner through a framework that communicates, models, reinforces through feedback, and continuously helps to motivate the learner to continue to direct themselves to him/herself through the learning process (Woodard, 2007). In this, Knowles’ uncovers a notable issue within the theory of transformative learning; it is possible that not every change is a transformational change (Keegan, 2000). Further the learner must be able to recognize and understand the differences between informative and transformative learning, so that he/she may use that as a factor in their self-direction. Keegan (2000) felt that this would be a difficult concept for most learners. For Meizrow (2000), there is an implication that informative learning is merely and information exchange and will not have a lasting impact o the learner because an exchange of information may not lead to a dilemma that then promotes the learner towards self-reflection and action planning (Apte, 2009). For Knowles, all learning is summative in the sense that each adult has the capacity to combine intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to respond to learning (Schein, 2010). Now as far as a learner self-directing, it would seem that both models of learning would place an emphasis on self-direction as a means through the process, the difference is that Meizrow’s goal is a more existential one (Reuschle, 2009), whereas Knowles’ puts a higher premium on experience, communication and some level of shift for the learner, which speaks to the fourth area of andragogy, experience and prior knowledge (Woodard, 2007).

For many learners, prior knowledge and a continuing evolution of learning has been empowered through mentor-mentee relationships and portfolio development, and both of these practices have been reported as being major influencers in the success of adult education programming (Stevens, Gerber & Hendra, 2010). For the successful learner there is a process of understanding the gaps in their knowledge and the applicability of what knowledge they possess to real world problem solving in situations that they are facing (McGrath, 2009). This is especially true when the environment itself leads to a felling of safety when discussing these issues and possible solutions. This is in sharp contrast to the core of Meizrow’s model which relies on the introspection of the learner and external coaching to inspire new thinking (Apte, 2009). Finally, the two remaining areas of focus for Knowles, center on a learner’s readiness to learn and their motivation to learn (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2011). Inherent in these areas are some issues that must be addressed for each learner who is engaging new ideas and skills. First, it is difficult to fully assess andragogical success through traditional assessment tools as they are anathema to the core beliefs of the theory itself (Heller, 2004). These traditional assessments speak to a more pedagogical approach that would lead to a regurgitation of facts rather than their assimilation for the learner. The tendency in andragogy is to rely on anecdotal evidence rather than experimental (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007). Further it is difficult to ascertain what indicates success in andragogical practice (Rachal, 2002) and this begs certain questions concerning the definition of adulthood versus childhood (Pratt, 1993)  as well as other areas of concerns among other theorists including the real time needed to conduct learning in an andragogcial environment (Grace, 1996). Even with these concerns, the subject of adult motivation is important to the discussion of andragogy, as the theory does not work with unmotivated learners or instructors who can not recognize an unmotivated learner (McGrath, 2009). Schein (2010) held that the level of intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is ultimately dependant on the learner him/herself and his/her own perceptions, work ethic, and values. This certainly points to the harsh reality of being pointed to a dilemma, especially in the realm of a revolutionary and imposed world where sudden and extreme dilemmas provide a rich ground for new perspective to be found (Apte, 2009) (Miller, 1993). Certainly Meizrow’s theory, although not a proponent of a consistently safe environment for these shifts in paradigm to occur as is the nature of Knowles theory in facilitation (McGrath, 2009), provides a rich environment for intrinsic motivation that may leave many who attempt to build on a foundation of andragogy finding that although an understanding of the adult student is certainly a positive outcome for this framework, andragogy may have a difficulty in expanding or clarifying the definition and process of learning (Siemens, 2006) and how motivation can occur with out it being prescribed or externally imposed (Pratt, 1993); although many believe that adult learners in general are typically well motivated intrinsically (Merriam et al, 2007). To this end, there are some who have gone as far as to question andragogy as being included as a complete and cohesive theory at all (Hartee, 1985) because it fails to fully define learning or learning’s context (Cercone, 2008). Yet even beyond all of these objections, it is obvious that adult education has a specific set of foci that must be addressed and that learner motivation, albeit whatever combination of intrinsic and extrinsic is a key to the development of coursework that will help to bridge the gaps of learning that are a part of human growth and experience.

Instructional design approach for adults returning to school

Both of these learning theories have a place in the spectrum of adult learning for the next generation of learners, however, with the increasing influence of social media and other connecting forces, and with the advent of Smartphone technology, communities are emerging where a clustering occurs of similar affinities (areas of interest), coupled with technology that is allowing an open environment of interaction, sharing, dialoguing and thinking together (Siemens, 2005). Given these realities, it is not difficult to see where a connective theory of learning could be the intersectional framework where all of these theories could be brought together (Kop & Hill, 2008). Yet, there are still distinct instructional design values that can not be ignored since the goal of design theory is to foster the sharing of information, skills, knowledge and experience among adults who share the same affinities (Snyder, 2009). These affinities therefore cause these intersections and this is where a higher form of collaboration can occur.  Stephen Downes has written extensively, across many different spectrums of internet based connecting, about the power of connectivism as a platform for developing a new learning model (Downes, 2007). This model holds the promise to embrace technology and affinity based internet and professional communities and organize them into a structure that can be powerful in approaching learning and problem solving across disciplines, people groups, and geography in a way that would even redefine diversity in every sense of the world of research and education (Siemens, 2006). In his model, Downes (2006) discusses these affinity structures as being teaching and learning communities that are self sustaining and dedicated to continuing development in their shared affinity (Kop and Hill, 2008). These communities, or nodes, are then joined together my some other means, a problem as an example, and these nodes then join with other nodes for the sake of solving this problem. This joining of nodes becomes a network and these networks can quickly grow to become a vast schema of different ideas, perspectives, and innovations that could help to solve problems in ways never heard of in the past. This core skill of cultivating the ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts would then become an objective for the learners who are a part of this model (Siemens, 2008).

At this juncture, this model would only be a part of a developmental theory as it would only describe change in behavior among nodes and networks and seek to explain how new ideas, perspectives and solutions are developed in these networks (Kop and Hill, 2008), however, scientifically it would not be hard to begin to map these behaviors logically and then verify these behaviors and their correlative values to satisfy the needs of a theory of science (Miller, 1993). This is especially true  if one realizes that much of the connectivity of the internet especially surrounding social networking is already being documented and studied for the purposes of establishing demographics and marketing to affinity groups online (Zarella, 2011). This is not to say that there is a lack of proven models that could intersect with this connective model and help to establish learning objectives that are measurable, clearly define terms, develop processes where principles are derived from assumptions and provide robust explanations of what psychological and philosophical dynamics are related to the learning process (Gredler, 2005). With these foundations in place, coupled with the connected affinity scaffolding, this certainly could provide a platform for adult students who are returning to school and who have established affinities to subjects intrinsic and extrinsic to the subject matter being studied, and who also are tech-savvy to the point that they are comfortable interacting with others online using a variety of tools (de Waard, 2011).

From this framework, now the best of both Meizrow and Knowles’ theories can be applied to scenarios based on the nature of the learning being undertaken or problem being solved. Within this framework, a model like Apgar’s INSPECT model (Apgar, 1999) would be useful as a rubric by which these other theories could be applied and intertwined to help solve real life problems and to engage learners who bring experience to the table in a way that would be meaningful and fulfilling at all stages of the process. The INSPECT model’s design is one of layering learning scenarios that personally affect the learner and be subjectively valued by the learner (Meizrow, 1991) (Merriam et al., 2007), while highlighting the fact that adults need learning to be based on self-identified goals that will act as a premise to solve problems that are currently affecting them (Cercone, 2008). This is done through a process by which learners can choose their work or academic related educational ventures (Apgar, 1999). This seven step process leads from initial inspection which imposes the question of integration in to the daily life of the learner; since for many learners, the outcomes are the highest motivator (Woodard, 2007), concentrating on these outcomes will keep the focus from one particular methodology and empower a search for a real solution to a real problem (Pritchett, 1995). From this initial inspection the leaner is then asked to navigate the course of learning that is central for his/her career aspirations or personal goals (Apgar, 1999). Having established the inspection of this learning and determined it to be profitable for the learner, the learner can now not only navigate the learning process and structure but also scrutinize the learning to understand what his/her investment will be, how it will actually affect them and if they have a readiness for the learning based on their knowledge of tier learning style, perspectives, learning environment, etc. (Knowles et al, 2011). This is also true in the midst of a crisis situation, the learner can move from critical assessment to exploration of options to planning a course of action through the framework of connectivity and Apgar’s model (1999). To this point either of the learning theories have been satisfied though the INSPECT framework and the learner is moving towards being more self-directed which a goal for either platform.

Once a plan of action has been formulated then there is a series of steps that follow for the learner. The learner must pursue the knowledge that is critical for moving forward with the crated plan (Reushle, 2000); the learner must evaluate in an iterative way looking at the established goals in order to make course corrections if necessary (Woodard, 2007); capitalize on opportunities to try out new roles (Apte, 2009) and then transferring that learning to others through narratives and other means so that the intrinsic nature of the learning can break out and impact others (Gergen & Kaye, 1996) (Lang, 2004). This amalgam of leaning theory and modeling accompanied by a set of best practices for implementation of learning strategies and holistic approaches to a learner-centered environment where a combination of andragogy, transformative e-learning, technological delivery through m-learning, and connectivism are taking place (Anderson-Inman, 2009), will be the grounds for a revolution of education that will satisfy the customization of learning that will be demanded as “greater numbers of people will seek personal meaning in their lives in response to an intense, high-tech, always on, fast-moving society” (Marx, 2006, pg. 18).


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