Transformative Learning: Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

 Originally published in

Learning as a concept has many strands and its efficacy is dependant on the style of learning that best suits the individual who ultimately benefits from it.  Providing such a bespoke platform for subjective learning preferences however, is neither practical nor achievable, there are only so many teachers, trainers or instructors to go round and in most cases budgets are inherently finite.  Whilst the older folk amongst us may lament at the prospect of refreshing our knowledge through the ‘seen it all before’ annual training courses, the younger cohorts of society are continually finding ways to satisfy their insatiable desire to assimilate knowledge, by enhancing their personal development through learning.  So if we look at this as a dichotomy between child and adult, why does there exist such a chasm in the efficacy of learning?  Is there an answer to the metaphor: ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?’ Transformative learning may be the silver bullet that pierces through the sentiment of that age-old adage.



Transformative learning is the process of forming and re-forming meaning in order to think independently, devoid of the influences of social and cultural bias and influence.  Ostensibly geared towards adult education, transformative learning aims to encourage the learner to make sense of their world through the understanding of subjective personal assumptions from which they utilise to make sense of their experiences.


Adult learning suffers from assumptions that have been accrued over time; these assumptions have a way of convincing the adult mind of the right way to think and do things, and as a result, any proclamation of an alternative way of doing things is rejected as irrelevant.  On the contrary, a child does not suffer so much by this confirmation bias as they have not yet developed the maturity to think as stubbornly as adults.  For what a child lacks in maturity in thinking, they gain in being able to think creatively, making them malleable to a variety of learning platforms.


Social and political influences are examples of how learning can be stifled; for example possessing prejudicial views on members of society that do not share the same cultural attributes as them (known as ethnocentrism), can affect the capacity for individuals to learn; therefore a robust and educational diversity policy is vital to ensure that any pervasive attitudes towards cultural differences are tackled at source; not just for a fully inclusive workforce, but also for the wider developmental opportunities.


Habits of Mind, Points-of-View and the Power of Reflection

One of the significant challenges for adult learning is to negotiate the barriers that are created from habits of the mind and points of view.  Habits of mind are deep-rooted assumptions that require a process of unlearning before new concepts can be assimilated into learning; whereas points of view are general opinions that share similar biases to habits of mind, however they require less of a cultural shift.


Transformative learning is a highly reflective concept that requires learners to search their inner assumptions in order to critically reflect on both their assumptions and those of others; and also those that drive their own judgements, beliefs, values and feelings.  More aware also, and better able to recognise personal frames of reference and turn them on their head to actively seek alternative ways of thinking.  It is this critical reflection that is ultimately used as a tool to reduce the anxiety that learning outside of one’s comfort zone induces.


Critical reflection is a key aspect of transformative learning.  Making explicit the assumptions that stem learning can only be achieved through understanding the impact that these habits of mind or points of view have on learning, and recognising the need for self-reflection without the spectre of anxiety looming above. If we as adults are able to put our personal biases to one side, we will be better set to embrace learning and the self-development opportunities that come with it.

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