ATD Blog

Role of Transformative Learning Theory in Workplace Learning

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Learning and development (L&D) professionals are confronted with the challenge of balancing transactional learning elements, like engagement data and reach, with transformational elements, like behavior changes and learning application. L&D measurement experts, Dr. David Vance and Peggy Parskey, call these elements efficiency and effectiveness measures, respectively. While transactional and efficiency data are generally simple to collect using a good learning management system (LMS), transformational and effectiveness data are not as simple because they can require reporting subjective observations from learners and their managers.

No organizational leader wants to expend resources on learning without understanding outcomes. So how can leaders better understand what learning is and how to improve it in the course of daily work? You can view learning collectively: The more knowledge and skills within an organization, the higher performing it tends to be. Many academic and journal articles bear that out.

But for L&D pros, learning starts at the personal level. For this reason, understanding learning theory may help you better design learning products and resources. Three of the best-known adult learning theories are Knowles’ andragogy approach, Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, and Mezirow’s transformative learning. Before you trudge through dense academic theory on the internet, let’s drop anchor on Mezirow’s transformative learning theory.

Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory is a method for changing frames of reference, which are defined as the sum of a person’s experiences, values, opinions, and understandings. Frames of reference have two components:

  • Habits of mind. These are broad, often abstract, codes of thinking, usually based on assumptions, that encompass psychological, social, political, and cultural beliefs. Habits of mind are stable and typically enduring.
  • Points of view. These are conceptions that shift when new information is available or new conclusions are formed.

Mezirow ultimately theorized that transformative learning occurs in 11 phases. In 2002, Gregory Henderson consolidated the 11 phases into four:

1. Disorienting dilemma
2. Critical reflection
3. Development of new perspectives
4. Integration

While reviewing the full list of Mezirow’s phases is well worth a few hours of reading, the four phases here provide a gist of the theory. More importantly, they provide valuable insight into learning product and resource design. Let’s begin.

Disorienting Dilemma

The phrase “disorienting dilemma” conveys a sense of distress in the first stage of learning. Many learners have emotional realizations when they lack the expertise needed to move into a desired job or career. Some learners even experience imposter syndrome when their colleagues seem more advanced in one skill or another. However, some people experience aha or eureka moments in this phase.


This phase is important for L&D pros. People often experience triggers at the beginning of a learning program that challenge their frames of reference or clarify the necessity to learn. In cases where learners are “voluntold” to participate in a learning program, learning designers can simulate disorienting dilemmas in learning activities through role play, realistic case studies, or real-world stories, for example, to generate the necessity.

Critical Reflection

When learners start to engage with material, it should enable critical reflection. In this phase, the learner begins to question and evaluate the assumptions embedded in their frames of reference. Critical thinking happens when a person sees the visible and invisible connections between current, past, and future phenomena. Critical reflection is similar: We reflect on what we know, how we know it, and how the learning material relates to all of it.

One way that learning pros can build critical reflection into learning materials is to promote discussion. Each learner has unique frames of reference, based on their lived experiences, so discussing material between unique learners is a great incubator of critical reflection, and may produce rich insights.

Development of New Perspectives

If we think of “perspective” in photographic terms, it means “from where you are standing.” If you’re looking at an object and you move closer or step to the right or left, your perspective changes; you see additional detail and your frame of reference may change. Critical reflection causes a learner to shift perspective and develop new insights, or learn. That is what L&D pros want, that learners take away new information or shift perspective.


Of this phase, Mezirow was quite hopeful. He theorized that once new perspectives develop, learners are very unlikely to revert to previous perspectives. So learning professionals should build in elements that allow learners to annotate their new perspectives as well as those of other learners. They can continue to use these notes for reference as they move into the next phases.


In this phase, learners put their new frames of reference into action. This is the most difficult phase for organization leaders to measure, or even observe. When technical or hard skills are involved one can observe a learner performing learned skills. However, when human or soft skills are learned, it’s challenging for leaders to tell if they are being integrated into practice.

For example, did the associate who participated in a communications program become a better communicator? Did they do so consistently? What does better communication look like? The answers really come down to subjective frames of reference. Transformative learning theory doesn’t provide instructions about how to improve the process of shifting frames of reference, just guidance on how they typically change. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t pragmatic applications of the theory; knowledge of the consolidated phases described here can provide a starting point for stimulating transformation.


Learning professionals should consider creating or improving strategies to measure transformational and effectiveness data as well as transactional and efficiency data. Doing so may make a fuller measure of learning in an organization possible. Studying Mezirow’s theory is a good place to start.

About the Author

Dr. Neil Ifill is a manager of learning and development, specializing in learning and instructional design. In his mind, developing good relationships with clients create a sense of partnership instead of simple client/provider engagement.

He holds a PhD in Business Management, with a specialization in Management Education, from Capella University and an MS in Management, specializing in Organization Development, from The Catholic University of America. Neil has multiple academic and contemporary interests but is most interested in organizational learning and the confluence of organizational culture and leadership. He believes that we live in a world that is full of answers, and we need to have the courage to ask more questions.

Neil was born in Barbados, and his career has spanned hospitality, human resources, and L&D. He is always up for learning new things.

“My defaults for learning are books, academic articles, journalistic magazines, YouTube, and Masterclass. But some of the best learning can come from discussions with others, especially when you have little knowledge about the subject or disagree with their perspectives.” – Neil Ifill

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