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?