In the 1980’s, Malcolm Knowles popularized certain assumptions about adult learning that have been the basis of a model you know as andragogy. The term andragogy, which was first used in Europe and then in America, helped professionalize the idea of adult education as a process that was different than the one used for educating children (Merriam & Bierema, 2014).
Principles of Andragogy
If you have been involved in the world of training and adult education, then you are most likely familiar with these six assumptions that are often stated as principles of adult education:
- Need to know why. Adults need to know the reason for learning something. This is often thought of as the need for helping the learner understand “what’s in it for me.”
- Self-concept. Adults have a self-concept that they are self-directing human beings. They resist or resent instances when others impose their will on them. Think of the resistance to compliance or other training that is forced on them.
- Role of experience. Adults enter a learning situation with a wealth of experience. This may serve as a resource to make learning meaningful.
- Readiness to learn. Adults become ready to learn when the experience will help them deal with life situations, such as performing tasks relevant to their social role.
- Orientation to learning. Adults are life-centered or problem-centered in their desire to learn. They are motivated when they see that learning will solve real-life situations.
- Motivation. Although adults are motivated by external rewards, the most powerful motivators are internal pressures.
Although it seems obvious that adults are at a different point in their lifecycle than children, the six assumptions were criticized by some as being too rigid. For example, when adults are learning something new they may prefer being led by a teacher. And some young learners are able to be self-directed in their learning. In a more recent book, Knowles and co-authors clarified that adult learners are not homogeneous and any application of the model or process should be adapted for individual differences (Knowles, Elwood & Swanson, 2015).
In the world of academia, there are many other theories that relate to adult learning. One that I thought would be of interest to you and that I wanted to explore in more depth is transformative or transformational learning. It is now one of the dominant theories in the world of adult learning even though it was introduced decades ago.
Transformative learning refers to those learning experiences that cause a shift in an individual’s perspective. It is based on the idea that learning is “the process of making a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of an experience” (Mezirow, 1990). This happens when adult learners change their assumptions or expectations. What often follows is a change in their frame of reference for interpretation and understanding.
Often transformative learning is a result of a life change, such as a parent who re-enters the workforce after raising children, people who are newly diagnosed as HIV-positive, or adults who became entrepreneurs after years of working in structured organizations. It can also result from less dramatic changes, such as older adults who begin to use the internet or a person who becomes an activist in a meaningful social organization.
How to Foster Transformative Learning
From the perspective of those who design learning experiences, you may be wondering how can we foster these deep and enduring transformations? In a research review, Taylor (2007) described some factors that were shown to foster transformational learning. In addition, Henderson (2010) outlines ways to foster transformative learning in an online environment.
- Relationships. Several studies showed that transformative learning is fostered by establishing supportive and trusting relationships. This is the basis for dialogue and discourse, discussed later. Building relationships requires a learning climate that is open to differing perspectives and is non-hierarchical in nature. Online, trusting relationships are easier to build in virtual classroom or work group situations when participants can see each other through photos or video, when learners can hear the voice of the moderator or instructor and when they share a common goal.
- Critical Reflection. Transformative learning often goes hand in hand with self-reflection. This involves challenging the assumptions people rely on to understand the world. For example, you can foster transformative learning by asking open-ended questions that help learners relate new knowledge to their own life experiences. Probing questions that promote critical reflection have no easy or simple answer. You can design critical reflection into formal courses by asking participants to respond to questions through blogging and other internal social tools. It can also be part of thoughtful online discussions.
- Direct and Active Experience. In his research review, Taylor (2007) found that one of the most powerful ways to foster transformative learning is by offering direct experiences that are meaningful to learners. In one example, doctors and nurses studying palliative care were required to visit hospices, funeral homes and anatomy labs. This idea can be transferred to workplace learning by initiating programs that encourage direct experience. For example, employees who wish to develop leadership ability could initiate a socially beneficial campaign to lead in the workplace.
- Readiness for the Transformative Experience. Another factor that encourages transformative learning is an individual’s self-awareness and readiness for the experience. A few studies showed that individuals who were in a transitional mindset were likely to experience a transformation. They may have been in the midst of a dilemma or at the limits of their ability to create meaning with their current level of knowledge. The implication being that it is important to help learners develop the type of self-awareness and acceptance of discomfort in order to allow a transformation to occur.
- Discourse. In her research review, Henderson (2010) points out how discussion is a critical aspect of transformative learning and that there are benefits to doing this online. First, some adults are more comfortable speaking online than in person, so they will be more engaged. Also, online discussions are flexible in mode. They may take place asynchronously in forums, so participants have time to think through their responses or they may take place synchronously in chat rooms. In addition, online discussions occur naturally when small groups tackle problems and issues.
Transformation in the Workplace
Much of the research in transformational learning examines learners in an academic environment. It’s exciting to think about transformations that can occur in a workplace environment. The research points to the fact that this type of deeper learning involves building social relationships and requires more than one-off courses. It requires changes in the workplace that foster a culture of learning, support, reflection and meaningful conversation.
What is your experience with transformative learning? Share in the Comments section below.
- Edwards, R., Hanson, A., & Raggat. Peter. Boundaries of Adult Learning.
- Henderson, J. An Exploration of Transformative Learning in the Online Environment. 26th Annual Conference on Distance Learning and Teaching, 2010.
- Knowles, M. From andragogy to pedagogy. New York: Association. Knowles, M. 1984. The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing, 1980.
- Knowles, M. The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing, 1984.
- Knowles, M., Holton III, Elwood, F., and Swanson, Richard, A. The Adult Learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Burlington: Elsevier Science, 2015.
- Merriam, S.B. & Bierema, L. L. Adult learning: linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.
- Mezirow, J. Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1990.
- Taylor, E. An update of transformative learning theory: a critical review of the empirical research (1999-2005), International Journal of Lifelong Education, 26: 2, 173 — 191, 2007.