Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Jack Mezirow and Transformation Theory

The idea of transformative learning came up in discussions today with partner organisations. This reminded me of Prof. Jack Mezirow, who is widely acknowledged as founding the ‘transformative learning’ concept and a worthy member of this blog’s ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’.

Prof Jack Merizow

Prof Jack Merizow

Mezirow first applied the label ‘transformation’ in a 1978 study of U.S.women returning to post-secondary study or the workplace after an extended time out of education. He built his professional reputation on developing an evolving Transformation Theory that tries to define the features and processes of learning and their implications for adult educators. His work has led to a transformative learning movement in adult education. Other great educational thinkers including Thomas Kuhn, Paulo Freire and Jürgen Habermas all influenced Mezirow’s work.

One of his main areas of work on transformative learning has been the division of knowledge into three distinct types:

• Instrumental
• Communicative
• Emancipatory

Educators consider that gaining instrumental and communicative knowledge are the most common types of technical and practical learning.

Instrumental learning is the simple attainment of skills and knowledge. Communicative knowledge depends on students understanding the meaning of what is being communicated. Emancipatory knowledge is much deeper and is based on the idea that everyone has the potential to break free from the limitations of their own situation to transform their own life.

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…

In the WEA we see the distinctions between teaching subjects, where the outcome is increased knowledge, and teaching students so that they learn how to learn, where the outcomes are multi-faceted, longer-lasting and can be life-changing. The types of learning don’t exclude each other and students can benefit from emancipatory and transformative learning while they are studying specific subjects.

Mezirow suggests transformations come about due to one of four ways:

• Elaborating existing frames of reference
• Learning new frames of reference
• Transforming points of view
• Transforming habits of the mind

Born in 1927 and now retired, Professor Mezirow has been a consultant in adult literacy and community development for UNDP, UNESCO, U.S. AID, USIA, Asia Foundation and World Education in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

There’s a brief and balanced post on Mezirow at with more detail and there’s a lot of information online about Mazirow’s ‘phases of transformative learning’.

The term ‘instructor‘ seems to be at odds with the concept, but the bullet-pointed appendices on the webpage at are interesting. They summarise the characteristics and roles of instructors, students, course content and learning envornments which facilitate transformational learning, together with professional challenges and ethical considerations for instructors facilitating transformational learning.

Any thoughts or more information on Mezirow’s work or transformational learning?

Who’s next for the Hall of Fame? Any suggestions, or even guest blogs?

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

17 Responses to Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Jack Mezirow and Transformation Theory

  1. joaniepthemadhatter says:

    “In the WEA we see the distinctions between teaching subjects, where the outcome is increased knowlege, and teaching students so that they learn how to learn, where the outcomes are multi-faceted, longer-lasting and can be life-changing.”
    These words ring so true to me Ann, as the WEA has done exactly that – changed my life completely! Through taking part in all of the courses on offer at COSC I have grown in knowledge, confidence and self-esteem and am enthusiastic and capable of passing on what I have learnt to others! Thank you!

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks so much for this comment Joanie. It’s great to see your enthusiastic involvement and how much your putting back into the WEA and your community. You’re a wonderful advert for adult education.

  2. joaniepthemadhatter says:
  3. Dear learning DJ may I please request that someone be considered for the Educational Thinkers Hall of fame and their contribution to adult education, apologies if I’ve missed a previous citiation of this individual, o his name…A.Mansbridge…I’m sure there’s more on him than these short few words ?

    • Ann Walker says:

      I love idea of being a Learning DJ Steve – and of course you’re right about Albert. I wonder if anyone would like to do a guest blog about him. His global legacy is 110 years and counting….

  4. Andria Birch says:

    Great to see this as theories of Mezirow and Freire underpin the approach of the WEA Women’s Learning Programme and the WEA approach generally. However try as I might I can’t think of a Woman Educationalist with the same recognition and status. This will be a research project for the weekend and a possible future Women into History campaign…

  5. Andria makes a good point. I think we will see plenty of influential women educational thinkers in the future, but the lead-in time for becoming established as an influential figure is a long one. People like Mezirow have been around for decades, and their ideas were formed at a time when women were a minority among university students, a smaller minority among university staff and senior educationists, and a tiny minority among those who could fly around the planet presenting, testing and developing their ideas.

    Even so, we could certainly identify women thinkers – particularly feminists – who have had a huge influence on education. I’ll look forward to seeing the results of Andria’s weekend reflections, and to new postings on this great blog.

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks to Andria and John. Good points and excellent analysis. The stats for this blog show a steady interest in Carol Dweck and motivation theory. Dr Kathleen P King has continued the work on transformative learning so perhaps the women can be seen coming up on the rails at last. Jane Addams is often mentioned alonsgide the ‘greats’ and we shouldn’t forget Mary Wollstonecraft.

      A very interesting topic as International Women’s Day approaches.

    • Andria Birch says:

      Just found this – no time in week to follow but there are many names here that I didn’t recognise much to my shame:

    • Dr. Angela R. Miles taught adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, Ontario Canada 1989 at the start of my doctoral studies. The anthology that she compiled along with Dr. Geraldine Finn who taught philosophy at CEGEP de l’Outaouais in Hull, Quebec “Feminism: From Pressure to Politics” had a major influence on my education at OISE. Angela’s introduction to a class of 25 women and one man was that it would be a “woman centered space”. that meant it would use a feminist theory in practice. The deepth of that opening has stayed throughout my career, that is: creating learner-centered spaces” that truly embody a transformative perspective.

      • Ann Walker says:

        Replies like this are why I love social media Cheryl-Ann. Bloggers can learn so much from people’s replies and comments. Thanks for taking the time to share this. I hadn’t come across the book of essays and it’s good to get an international perspective.

        Thanks also for following the blog.

        • Thank you Ann for taking the time to respond to each blogger. It is rare to have a “dialogue” that is respectful and thoughtful. No doubt you have the eye to also “hear” what is being said. Your blog inspired me to return to the three basic types of learning so that I could explain to others that the work that is taking place “unintentionally” in my workplace is a combination of Mezirow and Freire. The three types of learning take place within the context of educator-educatee relationships that are blurred. Creativity and transformation allow individuals who are otherwise seen as disabled by society to know and believe that they are artists, musicians, chefs, planners, woodcrafters, and thinkers who engage in expressing themselves in an environment that is intended not to judge but to encourage and be safe.
          Your initiative has helped me articulate something that I have held inside for too long.
          In gratitude, Cheryl

  6. Pingback: Educational Thinkers' Hall of Fame ? Jack Mezirow and … | arofetute

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  8. gogwit says:

    Reblogged this on Gogwit's Blog and commented:
    Thanks, another eye-opening read. Those trained to teach children are not always as aware as we ought to be on the wealth and depth of research into the processes of life-long learning.

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