Processes of Transformational Change and Transformative Learning

By Paul R. Scheele Ph.D. | Lead

The word “transformation” is frequently used, but often without much deep understanding of what it means, especially in terms of our everyday interactions and organizational behaviors. This article will help you become conversant in the latest thinking regarding this important topic.

Defining Transformation

Transformation is a radical shift in thinking, perception, and behavior. In individuals, it denotes significant change in the way of sensing the world and relating to internal representations, change that precludes a return to previous mental models and that leads to large alterations in external behavior. Change, on the other hand, usually refers to an incremental shift in thinking, feeling, and behavior.

Transformational change is the process of altering the basic elements of an organization’s culture, including the norms, values, and assumptions under which the organization functions. (By contrast, transactional change refers to the modification and redesign of the processes and systems in which interactions within the organization take place.) This kind of change affects the way people within the organization perceive their roles, responsibilities, and relationships. And it is precisely this change in individual perceptions that lead to change in behaviors within the organization.

Transformative learning is the process through which transformational change happens. Jack Mezirow, long considered the first major proponent of the field, defined transformative learning this way:

Transformative learning is learning that transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change. Such frames of reference are better than others because they are more likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action. (2003, pp. 58-59)

For Brown and Posner, transformative learning is “the process of construing and appropriating a new or revised interpretation of meaning of one’s experience as a guide to action.” This approach to learning, they said, is centered on “dramatic and fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and the world in which we live” (2001, p. 274).

G. Henderson made this distinction between transformative learning theory and transformational change theory:

Transformative learning theory has its roots in adult learning theory, thus its focus on the cognitive learning processes of the adult individual. Transformational change theory, on the other hand, finds its origins in the social sciences, which examine the effect of social influences that are external to people. (2002, p. 187)

How Transformative Learning Takes Place

A number of researchers have examined how transformative learning takes place. The various lines of thinking are rooted in a constructivist-developmental view and include a variety of positions on adult development and adult learning, as well as conceptions of the self in modernist and postmodernist perspectives. K. Taylor, Marienau, and Fiddler showed that common to the constructivist-developmental theories of learning “is a process of resolving contradictions in dialectical fashion, . . . raising awareness of new possibilities and multiple perspectives; . . . moving toward more complex ways of viewing oneself and one’s situation, potentially leading people to take a more active responsibility for the world in which they live” (2000, p. 22).

According to Cranton, learning occurs when “an individual encounters an alternative perspective and prior habits of mind are called into question”; and it occurs as a dramatic event or a “gradual cumulative process” (2006, p. 23). For Mezirow, transformative learning “may be epochal, a sudden, dramatic, reorienting insight, or incremental, involving a progressive series of transformations in related points of view that culminate in a transformation in habit of mind” (2000, p. 21). Dirkx proposed that transformative learning can be as much a process of everyday occurrences as a “burning bush” phenomenon (2006, p. 132). Kegan and Lahey suggested that transformative learning is the process of transforming our meaning making so that the way we make meaning “becomes a kind of ‘tool’ that we have rather than something that has us” (2009, p. 51). It is the process of gaining successively more complex ways of knowing that defines transformative learning, a process that Kegan and Lahey described as “messy work” that “draws on head and heart, on thinking and feeling” (p. 54). The major outcome of transformative learning, according to Kegan, is going from “being psychologically ‘written by’ the socializing press to ‘writing upon’ it, a shift from a socialized to a self-authoring epistemology” (2000, p. 59). In this regard, transformative learning theory is most interested in the cognitive process of learning, the mental constructions of experience, and the creation of meaning.

Barriers to Transformation

The greatest barrier to transformative learning may be what Kegan and Lahey identified as our built-in “immunity to change,” which fights any cognitive, affective, or behavioral force attempting to change the status quo. What facilitates transformation is the formulation of an adaptive challenge that produces a significant internal conflict, in Kegan and Lahey’s words, an “optimal conflict” (2009, p. 54). Citing the laboratory research of developmental psychologists like Piaget, Inhelder, Baldwin, Werner, and Kohlberg, Kegan and Lahey described the characteristics of the optimal conflict this way:

  • The persistent experience of some frustration, dilemma, life puzzle, quandary, or personal problem that is . . .
  • Perfectly designed to cause us to feel the limits of our current way of knowing . . .
  • In some sphere of our living that we care about, with . . .
  • Sufficient supports so that we are neither overwhelmed by the conflict nor able to escape or diffuse it. (p. 54)

Consider that to effectively facilitate transformative learning, leaders within organizations must purposefully create a context in which optimal conflict can exist. In fact, my dissertation research found this to be so. How to accomplish “optimal conflict” will be explored in further postings and discussions on this blog.

Have you found ways to create safe environments in which we can foster deep dialogue that challenges the status quo in productive ways?


Brown, L. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2001). Exploring the relationship between learning and leadership. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 22(5/6), 274.

Cranton, P. (2006). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators of adults (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dirkx, J. M., Mezirow, J., & Cranton, P. (2006, April). Musings and reflections on the meaning, context, and process of transformative learning: A dialogue between John M. Dirkx and Jack Mezirow. Journal of Transformative Education, 4, 123-139.

Henderson, G. M. (2002, June). Transformative learning as a condition for transformational change in organizations. Human Resource Development Review, 1(2), 186-214.

Kegan, R. (2000). What “form” transforms? A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning. In J. Mezirow & Associates, Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 35-69). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 3-33). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2003). Transformative learning as discourse. Journal of Transformative Education, 1(1), 58-63.

Taylor, K., Marienau, C., & Fiddler, M. (2000). Developing adult learners: Strategies for teachers and trainers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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