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What Is It?

Transformative learning is a theory and practice in adult education that is interested in how people can transform their  problematic frames of reference to make themselves more inclusive, discerning, reflective, open, and emotionally able to change.


Transformative learning usually includes a disorienting dilemma, or an experience that doesn’t fit within a person’s understanding of the world. Through critical reflection, dialogue with other people, exposure to different perspectives, exploration of new possibilities, and acting on these new perspectives and possibilities a person’s frame of reference can be transformed.

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Adapted from Heifetz/Laurie, 1998 

How Is It Used?

Transformative learning is an important theory to integrate into change processes in systems and organizations. Adults are capable of development throughout their lives, at different rates, and along different lines (i.e. emotional, intellectual). Many professional development programs focus on adding "tools to the toolbox", also known as horizontal development, and perpetuate the human-as-machine model of the workforce that was predominant during industrialization. Although this human resources strategy is still very common today, it is outdated for most jobs which require a vertical development orientation.


This approach intentionally, actively, and lovingly pushes people into their productive zones of disequilibrium in safe and appropriate ways. It encourages and supports their reflective sense-making processes so that they can integrate and act on their new perspectives. They’ve all brought their gifts to this table, but they’ve not done it alone. They remind us that there is another partner in this symbiosis. She is sitting here at the table and across the valley in the farmhouse, too. She’s the one who noticed the ways of each species and imagined how they might live together. Perhaps we should consider this a Four Sisters garden, for the planter is also an essential partner. It is she who turns up the soil, she who scares away the crows, and she who pushes seeds into the soil.


More Info

  • Book: Immunity to Change, Kegan + Lahey

  • Book: Learning as Transformation,Mezirow

  • Website: Vertical Development, Petrie

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