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Adult learning theories for instructional designers: Transformative learning

We often hear about "A-ha!" moments in corporate learning, but not everyone knows how to create them intentionally. Instructional designers strive to make these happen because they are extremely powerful and can make an entire course. It’s a well-known fact that behavioral change doesn't happen easily, and these transformative experiences work wonders when it comes to getting employees to walk a different path.

Read more: What instructional designers need to know about behavioral change

The theory of transformative learning has been developed by Jack Mezirow. In a nutshell, adults don’t automatically apply their old understanding to new situations. Instead, they search for different perspectives to make sense of change. Even though adults tap into their previous experiences when faced with novel ones, they employ critical thinking, resulting in a total transformation of their understanding.

The two focuses of transformative learning

According to Mezirow, transformative learning has two basic focuses: instrumental and communicative learning. Instrumental learning deals with problem-solving, is task-oriented, and evaluates all cause-and-effect relationships. Communicative learning shifts attention to how people communicate what they perceive, feel, need, and want.

Although very different, both elements are paramount in transformative learning. They shed light on various aspects of a new problem or situation. Both logic and emotion play critical roles in assessing previous knowledge or challenging their prior understanding. A true "A-ha!" moment is both cognitive and emotional.

Meaning schemes and why they matter

The cognitive system makes use of prior knowledge and experiences all the time. We acquire assumptions through the stories we are told, cultural beliefs, and general knowledge. A meaning structure includes all the things that set up our expectations.

Meaning structures are both personal and profound. That's why they're mainly relevant when we refer to adult learners. Adults can understand and analyze these meaning schemes through self-reflection and critical thinking. This capacity to evaluate their assumptions and prior understanding offers excellent value to transformative learning.

Read more: Designing online training that focuses on experiences, not events

The process of transformative learning

Transformation is a series of events that lead to the grand finale. The transformative learning theory states that some set phases are crucial when it comes to designing training for adults:

  • The dilemma, or crisis, refers to the situation when the learner discovers that what they believed in the past may not be accurate. It’s not a comfortable moment, but it’s essential in getting the process started.
  • The examination, which happens most often in the form of self-assessment. At this stage, learners take a hard look at their previous understanding.
  • The critical assessment of assumptions is the next step. Learners are looking through a critical lens at their past assumptions. They notice that previous judgments may have been wrong or simply don't apply anymore.
  • After the previous step, it is time to establish a course of action. Trainees decide what knowledge is needed to genuinely understand the initial dilemma and its consequences.
  • The actual knowledge acquisition comes next. This step includes acquiring new information, taking various perspectives into consideration, and receiving feedback from experts.
  • Trying the new roles or perspectives is a necessary step because adults have to see the practicality of any new knowledge. The key to success is applying what they've just learned.
  • The last step is building self-efficacy. People need to feel confident about their new beliefs or perspectives in order for them to stick and become transformational.

Applicability of the transformative learning model

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, instructional designers are looking to create "A-ha!" moments in training. Applying the principles of this model helps you accomplish that.

To succeed, complete the entire process (identify and present a valid dilemma) instead of only focusing on the belief-shattering part. It’s essential to incorporate all the steps and give learners enough time to question their beliefs. Consequently, you have to trust that they will come up with new perspectives on their own.

Moreover, this model may not be suited for fast-paced microlearning. However, trainers can include the various stages as a sequence of modules that take the learner on a transformational journey.

Closing thoughts

Faced with new challenges on the horizon, L&D professionals have to keep up with the latest adult learning theories. Simultaneously, we learn new things about the learning brain all the time, so it’s always good to look at what neuroscience and psychology have to say.