Learning Theories

Transformative Learning Theory: How to Learn Through Challenging Assumptions

Harvard Business Publishing’s 2018 State of Leadership Development Report found that only 40% of workers age 36 and younger called their employer’s L&D programs “excellent.” How can L&D departments increase learner satisfaction as this group becomes increasingly influential in the workplace?

You can work toward more satisfied learners by applying learning theories that are focused on dynamic education, such as Transformative Learning Theory. Transformative Learning Theory is an impact- and adult-centered framework with high engagement potential.

What is Transformative Learning Theory?

According to Transformative Learning Theory, everyone has a preconceived worldview that they reflect on and change when they gain new information. Jack Mezirow developed it as a learning theory for adult education, and it connects back to Adult Learning Theory’s focus on adults’ established life experiences. Under both theories, adults have more life experiences that lead to a stronger worldview that needs more outside influence to change.

Transformative learning involves multiple phases:

  1. A “disorienting dilemma” that challenges the learner’s worldview
  2. Self-examining and assessing assumptions
  3. Planning how to understand the situation more fully
  4. Gaining knowledge or skills to complete that plan
  5. Trying new roles and renegotiating relationships
  6. Building confidence and skills in those new roles and relationships

The process of transformative learning takes more than presenting facts and memorizing them. Instead, the learner has to think about how their biases, experiences, and relationships impact their understanding.

Transformative Learning Theory concepts in L&D

By understanding the concepts behind Transformative Learning Theory and how they relate to the workplace, you can find ways to apply the theory in your L&D program. Implementing Transformative Learning Theory concepts in your L&D program can help you promote a more holistic learning model that accounts for each team member’s experiences.

Meaning structures

Meaning structures are the frames of reference we use to make sense of the world. They have two dimensions:

  • Meaning perspectives: Our biases from psycho-cultural assumptions like social norms, language, and personality traits
  • Meaning schemes: Our beliefs, concepts, feelings, and judgments that impact our interpretation of a concept

Mezirow argues that we struggle with learning anything that doesn’t match our meaning structure, but we also feel the urge to understand our experiences. So, when an experience doesn’t line up with our meaning structures, we feel compelled to reevaluate how we understand the world.

Every workplace has a culture based on its practices, team members, and goals that shapes how employees work and learn. Your new employees bring over the meaning structures they developed at their former jobs, such as how they prioritize tasks or interact with colleagues. A thorough onboarding process can help them adjust their meaning structures to your workplace’s expectations.

A similar process happens when an employee learns about technology on the job. For example, if you’re shifting from one software to another, your team will need to change their assumptions about their workflow in relation to the new program. Or, an employee without much technical knowledge might need to adapt to new ways of understanding problems to use technology in the workplace.

The above examples involve changing meaning schemes rather than meaning perspectives. According to Mezirow, it can take plenty of reflection and discussion for someone to change their meaning perspective.


In the transformative learning process, reflection refers to looking at your assumptions and past experiences to see if they stay relevant in the face of new information. Mezirow argues that reflection often happens during problem-solving. It can involve reflecting on the approach’s:

  • Content (i.e., the nature of the evidence)
  • Process (i.e., how you use the evidence)
  • Premise (i.e., how you frame the problem and its solution)

In L&D, reflection happens on both the learner’s and trainer’s sides. Learners have to reflect on their knowledge while solving a problem in a project, while trainers look back on their curriculum to align their programs with learners’ needs.

A democratized training needs analysis can help both sides look back on learners’ needs and how their program is meeting them. During these analyses, all team members examine the curriculum’s content, process, and premise to find areas of improvement.

Instrumental learning

According to Mezirow, transformative learning has two focuses—instrumental learning and communicative learning. The first, instrumental learning, covers task-based problem-solving and cause-and-effect evaluation. It involves asking, “Does this idea match facts based on an objective analysis?”

Setting evidence-based metrics for work performance and L&D effectiveness empowers trainers to make objective assessments of their processes for future improvement. For instance, you can use an established evaluation model to make your training’s impact measurable, then use those results as evidence of your L&D program’s performance.

Active learning centers around the task-based problem-solving involved in instrumental learning. While passive learning provides facts for learners to memorize, active learning asks learners to apply that knowledge and back up their arguments with empirical evidence.

Communicative learning

The second focus of transformative learning, communicative learning, refers to understanding what others mean and communicating what you mean to others. When you take part in communicative learning, you ask, “What is the justification for my belief or someone else’s?” Communicative learning isn’t as straightforward as instrumental learning and takes a back-and-forth process among learners.

Mezirow says that you can’t establish the truth for topics that need communicative learning—instead, you need to turn to an authority figure, use force, or take part in rational discourse to find justification. Only help from an authority figure or active discussion is feasible in most cases. Fortunately, both of these options are simple to provide in L&D.

Your most experienced employees have the authority and expertise to help their teammates gain knowledge through communicative learning—you simply have to give them a chance. Try helping your team members solve issues that don’t have a cut-and-dry solution by providing institutional knowledge and access to your organization’s experts.

Even when an employee is still learning your field, they have valuable ideas to contribute to the communicative learning process. Processes like peer feedback let them share perspectives to become better at their jobs.

Shared experiences transform viewpoints

Many of the concepts in Transformative Learning Theory go back to challenging our perspectives and sharing meaningful experiences. The Collaborative Learning approach involves both of these practices through a social, bottom-up, and democratized learning experience. It also incorporates the Transformative Learning Theory concepts you discovered today.

  • Meaning structures: Collaborative Learning allows everyone to share their understanding of topics that matter to them and gain new perspectives by listening to others.
  • Reflection: During Collaborative Learning, learners give and receive feedback to constantly improve their L&D program.
  • Instrumental learning: The community-based activities used in Collaborative Learning go hand-in-hand with active and instrumental learning, which requires learners to apply empirical knowledge to practical actions.
  • Communicative learning: Communicative learning shines in a Collaborative Learning environment where everyone can share their viewpoint to find the answers to tough questions.

If you’re looking for ways for your employees to feel challenged and involved in their learning program, try a Collaborative Learning approach—your team will appreciate it.