A number of critical responses to Mezirow's theory of transformative learning have emerged over the years. One criticism of Mezirow's theory is its emphasis upon rationality. Some studies support Mezirow. Others conclude that Mezirow grants rational critical reflection too much importance. Taylor has since suggested neurobiological research as a promising area that may offer some explanation about the role emotions play, closing the gap between rationality and emotion in the transformative learning process. Taylor implies that with available modern technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission topography (PET), these once obscure factors can now be examined through determining which neurological brain systems are at work during disorienting dilemmas and the journey of recovery that follows. This research also stresses the importance of the role of implicit memory, from which emerges habits, attitudes and preferences that are related to unconscious thoughts and actions.
While this learning process is certainly rational on some levels, it is also a profound experience that can be described as a spiritual or emotional transformation as well. The experience of undoing racist, sexist, and other oppressive attitudes can be painful and emotional, as these attitudes have often been developed as ways to cope with and make sense of the world. This type of learning requires taking risks, and a willingness to be vulnerable and have one's attitudes and assumptions challenged.
Other theorists have proposed a view of transformative learning as an intuitive and emotional process. Dirkx, Boyd, Myers and Ruether link Mezirow’s rational, cognitive and analytical approach to a more intuitive, creative and holistic view of transformative learning. This view of transformative learning is based primarily on the work of Robert Boyd, who has developed a theory of transformative education based on analytical (or depth) psychology.
For Boyd, transformation is a "fundamental change in one's personality involving the resolution of a personal dilemma and the expansion of consciousness resulting in greater personality integration." This calls upon extrarational sources such as symbols, images, and archetypes to assist in creating a personal vision or meaning of what it means to be human.
First, an individual must be receptive or open to receiving "alternative expressions of meaning," and then recognize that the message is authentic. Grieving, considered by Boyd to be the most critical phase of the discernment process, takes place when an individual realizes that old patterns or ways of perceiving are no longer relevant, moves to adopt or establish new ways, and finally, integrates old and new patterns. More recent research has specifically explored the process of transformative learning as it occurs in bereaved elders, maintaining that the “disorienting dilemma” deemed necessary by Meizrow is present in the loss of a loved one, with an additional devastating factor being the isolation that the elderly in particular are likely to face. In another study, transformative learning in the context of suicide bereavement; in these cases the dilemma is compounded by the questioning of conceptions or misconceptions that were held about the relationship with the deceased and resolving the meaning of that relationship during the grieving process.
Unlike Mezirow, who sees the ego as playing a central role in the process of perspective transformation, Boyd and Myers use a framework that moves beyond the ego and the emphasis on reason and logic to a definition of transformative learning that is more psychosocial in nature.
Another definition of transformative learning was put forward by O'Sullivan:Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race and gender; our body awarenesses, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our sense of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy.
Positing that understanding transformative learning may have been hindered by perspectives of rational thought and Western traditions, King provides an alternate model grounded in a meta-analysis of research, the Transformative Learning Opportunities Model.
Recent considerations of these varying perspectives seem to indicate that one perspective does not need to exclude the other. For example, Mezirow and Dirkx discussed their views on transformative learning at a 2005 International Transformative Learning Conference. This dialogue, facilitated by Cranton, continued via email after the conference and the overview was published in The Journal of Transformative Education. Dirkx focuses on subjectivity, in the power of the inner world in one’s shift in view of the outer world. Mezirow emphasizes critical assessment of assumptions. Although their approaches are different, they agree that their perspectives are similar in several aspects. This includes transforming frames of reference that have lost meaning or have become dysfunctional and fostering enhanced awareness and consciousness of one’s being in the world. Both perspectives are required to deepen understanding and to incorporate these ways of learning into transformative education.
One of the difficulties in defining transformative learning is that it bleeds into the boundaries of concepts such as "meaning making" or "critical thinking".
The term "meaning making" (i.e., constructing meaning) is found most frequently in constructivist approaches to education, based on the work of educators such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Lev Vygotsky. In the constructivist view, meaning is constructed from knowledge.
Mezirow posits that all learning is change but not all change is transformation. There is a difference between transmissional, transactional and transformational education. In the first, knowledge is transmitted from teacher to student. In transactional education, it is recognized that the student has valuable experiences, and learns best through experience, inquiry, critical thinking and interaction with other learners. It could be argued that some of the research regarding transformative learning has been in the realm of transactional education, and that what is seen as transformative by some authors is in fact still within the realm of transactional learning.
According to Brookfield, learning can only be considered transformative if it involves a fundamental questioning or reordering of how one thinks or acts; a challenge to hegemonic implications. In other words, reflection alone does not result in transformative learning unless the process involves a critical reflection, a recognition and analysis of taken for granted assumptions.
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