December 3, 2023

Transformative Learning & Transformative Experiences

Author: Clark
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In my quest to not just talk about transformation but find a way to go beyond just experience, I did some research. I came across a mention of transformative experiences. And that, in turn, led me to transformation learning. And the distinction between them started me down a path that’s still evolving. Practicing what I preach, here’s how my thinking’s developing.

I’ll start with the reverse, transformative learning, because it came first and it’s at the large end.  Mezirow was the originator of Transformative Learning Theory. It’s addressing big learnings, those that come about from a “disorienting dilemma”. These are life-changing events. And we do want to be able to accommodate this as well, but we might also need something more, er scalable.  (Do we really want to ruin someone’s life for the purpose of our learning goals?:) So, what’s at core? It’s about a radical reorientation. It’s about being triggered to change your worldview. Is there something that we can adapt?

The author of the paper pointed me to her co-author, who unveiled a suite of work around Transformative Experience Theory. These are smaller experiences.  In one article, they cite the difference between transformative learning and transformative experiences, characterizing the latter as “smaller shifts in perspective tied to the learning of particular content ideas”.  That is, scaling transformative learning down to practical use, in their case for schools. This sounds like it’s more likely to have traction for day to day work.

The core of transformative experience, however, is more oriented towards the classroom and not the workplace. To quote: “Transformative experiences occur when students take ideas outside the classroom and use them to see and experience the world in exciting new ways.”  All well and good, and we do want our learners to perceive the workplace in new ways, but it’s not just presenting ideas and facilitating the slow acquisition. We need to find a handle to do this reliably and quickly.

My initial thought is about ‘surprise’. Can we do less than trigger a life-changing event, but provide some mismatch between what learners expect and what occurs to open their eyes?  Can we do that systematically; reliably, and repeatedly?  That’s where my thinking’s going: about ensuring there’s a mismatch because that’s the teachable moment.

Can we do small scale violations of expectations that will trigger a recognition of the need for (and willingness to accomplish) learning?  My intuition says we can. What say you?  Stay tuned!

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