Jack Mezirow

Transforming the Field of Adult Learning

Jack Mezirow, born 1923, was an American sociologist and Emeritus Professor of Adult and Continuing Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is known for his theory of transformative learning, inspired by his wife going back to grad school. But what is transformative learning and how did it transform the field of adult learning? And why should you care?

“Transformative learning is the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self; transformative learning is facilitated through consciously directed processes such as appreciatively accessing and receiving the symbolic contents of the unconscious and critically analyzing underlying premises.” HUH? Basically transformative theory is the idea of people changing the way they interpret their experiences and their interactions with the world.

………..an individual becomes aware of holding a limiting or distorted view. If the individual critically examines this view, opens herself to alternatives, and consequently changes the way she sees things, she has “transformed” some part of how she makes meaning out of the world. (Cranton, n.d.)

Mezirow believed that transformations often follow some variation of the phases (or steps), originally ten phases, of meaning becoming clarified, he continued to develop his theory over the course of 20+ years
The ten phases are as follows:
  • A disorienting dilemma
  • A self examination with feelings of guilt or shame
  • A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  • Planning a course of action
  • Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan
  • Provision trying of new roles
  • Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s perspective

So how is this field changing?

At the time of his theory adult learning focused primarily on the mastery of basic skills, Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning “reached right into changes of the identity,” wrote the adult education theorists Peter Sutherland and Jim Crowther. “The theory has helped trigger sweeping changes and ongoing debate on fronts ranging from social activism to graduate and adult education, to human resources development. It also forms the basis for AEGIS (Adult Education Guided Intensive Study), the unique doctoral program in adult learning founded by Mezirow at TC in 1982 and since replicated worldwide.” Now that is amazing! I’d like to have a doctoral program. Not only has he changed the field of adult learning he spoke all around the world and his work has been used by people in medicine, corporations, social work, elementary schools and the military.

Why should you care?

Because he shaped the world you are currently in. If you’ve ever learned as an adult you channel Mezirow through your transformative phases of learning. And who doesn’t love a sweet man inspired by is wonderful wife.

Peace, Love, and Educational Psychology

Natalie Hewitt


For more information on each phase of the transformative learning process visit https://sites.google.com/site/transformativelearning/elements-of-the-theory-1.


Mezirow, J., and associates. (2000). Learning as transformation: a critical perspective on a theory in progress. San Fransisco: Josey bass

Mezirow’s Ten Phases of Transformative Learning – Transformative Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2015.

Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and Motivation in   the Postsecondary Classroom. Bolton, MA:   Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

TC Media Center from the Office of External Affairs. (2014, October 11). Retrieved October 11, 2015, from http://www.tc.columbia.edu/news.htm?articleID=9698

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