An Extended Epistemology for Transformative Learning Theory ... | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation
News & Events Header

Teachers College Newsroom

Skip to content Skip to content

An Extended Epistemology for Transformative Learning Theory and Its Application Through Collaborative Inquiry

This paper extends Jack Mezirow's theory about the transformative dimensions of adult learning. Drawing on John Heron's conceptualization of how learning is grounded in feelings and emotion, the authors suggest that transformation be understood as changed habits of being. Collaborative inquiry, a methodology based on an epistemology rooted in experience and dependent on relationship, is presented as an effective strategy for facilitating learning and transformative learning. Three cases of collaborative inquiry projects are presented.

The purpose of this paper is to stimulate discussion about the epistemology of transformative learning and to describe collaborative inquiry as an ideal strategy for facilitating such learning. Jack Mezirow's work outlining the transformative dimensions of adult learning has been generative for theory building and research. We join the discourse with suggestions that extend Mezirow's theory to a more wholistic conceptualization. We then show how collaborative inquiry, a methodology based on an epistemology rooted in experience and dependent on relationship, provides practitioners with a useful structure for facilitating adult learning.

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE AND LEARNING-WITHIN-RELATIONSHIP

We believe that the holistic epistemology developed by John Heron, which theorizes the foundational role of affect, provides a compelling framework for articulating how experiential knowing relates to learning and transformative learning. Heron suggests that epistemology must be understood in the larger context of the human psyche. His integrated theory describes the activities and functions of four modes of psyche - affective, imaginal, conceptual and practical. The extended epistemology that springs from these modes of psyche includes four ways of knowing - experiential, presentational, propositional and practical. Heron uses the metaphor of parenting to describe how each way of knowing arises from, and is situated within, two modes of psyche.

Although Heron describes a learning cycle among the four ways of knowing, his primary theoretical description of the interrelationship among the ways of knowing is one of "up-hierarchy," in which experiential knowing is depicted as the ground from which all others forms of knowing grow. We believe that Transformation Theory as currently articulated by Mezirow pays too little attention to the way in which critical reflection is interdependent with other ways of knowing. We suggest that Heron's model provides a theoretical perspective on the interdependence of multiple ways of knowing and the primacy of affect that can usefully be pursued in the discourse about transformative learning.

The epistemological differences in perceptions about how meaning is created and tested lead to different implications for design of learning interventions. An educator following Mezirow would emphasize conceptual practices such as dialogue under the rules of free and open discourse. When Heron writes about learning, he describes an array of facilitative practices designed to elicit a balanced engagement with all four ways of knowing.

We distinguish between Mezirow's description of discourse and a phenomenon we call learning-within-relationship. We use the term learning-within-relationship to describe what happens when an epistemology of balance is enacted in the context of a group: learners are fully engaged with their own whole-person knowing as well as the dynamic whole person of their fellow learners. We suggest that a shortcoming in Mezirow's Transformation Theory is the inadequate account of how adults can be helped to create the conditions for reflective discourse. Conditions of trust, solidarity, security, and empathy cannot be created from a conceptual commitment to their importance, no matter how heart-felt that commitment. The holistic epistemology, as actualized in collaborative inquiry, can provide these conditions.

COLLABORATIVE INQUIRY--PUTTING THE EXTENDED EPISTEMOLOGY INTO PRACTICE

Collaborative inquiry is a systematic process ideally suited for facilitating learning-within-relationship. Small groups of learners come together as peers to pursue a question of mutual interest. Using systematic procedures for learning from their personal experience, participants generate new knowledge from repeated episodes of reflection and action. They share equal power and responsibility for making decisions, practice critical subjectivity and intersubjectivity in mutual pursuit of new meaning, and follow explicit validity procedures.

We describe three inquiries, focusing our narrative on how the collaborative inquiry process creates a place of nexus for individual personal growth and action in the world. After describing each inquiry, we interpret the case using Mezirow's description of six types of meaning perspectives - epistemic, sociolinguistic, psychological, moral-ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic.

THE COMMUNITY WOMEN

Linda Smith is a community-based adult educator committed to what she describes as "the validation of grass-roots knowledge." Wondering "How can I join with people who have grass-roots knowledge in order to validate the importance of this kind of knowledge?" Linda searched her network of connections and discovered the community women.

The community women had been working for a year as volunteer peer counselors in clinics that serve new mothers. They were diverse in race, language, and education. When they met Linda, they had been working together for a year, but not as a cohesive unit. Within their group of ten, they tended to work in pairs or trios defined by race or language. Relying on expert knowledge, they turned often to a large reference book about breastfeeding.

After a year of inquiry, the community women had grown confident that their personal experience was as important a guide for counseling practice as the big reference book on which they had been dependent. About the same time, their two-year grant came to an end. Having learned to value their own experience, when the women asked themselves how they might raise money for the stipends that made their counseling work possible, they hit upon the idea of using their knowledge about communicating across cultural difference. Having once thought of themselves as working "mother-to-mother," they now made plans to work "group-to-group." During the next eighteen months, the community women facilitated inquiry processes for organizations interested in cross-cultural communication.

Looking back on the group's experience, one woman observed, "I think on our meetings as golden. We learned to believe in ourselves, and we all stood taller."

THE TECHNOLOGY EDUCATORS

Joyce Gerdau (now Joyce Lee) recruited eight technology educators to pursue an inquiry about the impact of educational technology on teaching and learning. All held state-wide educational leadership positions as administrators, staff developers, or coordinators of programs for the state of New Jersey. Through six action/reflection cycles over a period of eight months, the participants identified nine assumptions that participants believed should guide their respective practices. The last assumption captures a shift in their perspective about their work with teachers. "Above all, the integration of technology should be a humanizing process and we should remember that technology itself is not the solution, that the application of technology is only one solution to improving the educational system." The group's insight reflects a systemic understanding of education and technology's role in the schools.

Growth in members' capacity to perceive education systemically grew, in part, from their experience of learning to perceive the systemic character of their learning within the collaborative inquiry process. They grew to appreciate how their interrelatedness created a power greater than a sum of individual powers. At the group's closing meeting, Martin asked rhetorically, "How come I get all excited and pumped up about this process? This is the first time I have experienced at this level the adrenaline as a participant - this collaborative learning."

INQUIRY INTO WHITENESS

This third example is not one inquiry, but a federated design in which several different collaborative inquiry groups were convened to assist members in learning about the impact of white consciousness on their personal beliefs and behaviors. A team of researchers studied the learning experience of participants in four of these groups. From the many examples these researchers provide, we describe the experience of Eleanor, who teaches writing in a highly diverse community college in northern California.

Eleanor typifies the way in which personal transformation manifests itself in multiple ways and demonstrates how changes in epistemic, psychological, and sociolinguistic frames of reference are interrelated. Eleanor's shift in personal consciousness changes her capacity to notice her own racist thoughts and also changes the way she thinks about her responsibility as a white person to speak out about race and racism. Before her participation in collaborative inquiry, perceiving the world through her frame of "good girl," Eleanor thought it was "rude" to admit that she was conscious of race. Now she understands that her silence communicates a false message of acquiescence or support for race-based inequities. Eleanor's change in personal consciousness affects her behavior as a teacher and as a white person in the world. Before her participation in the inquiry, Eleanor avoided issues of race and culture, even though she is a writing instructor in a community college where the students are nearly all persons of color. Now, understanding that writing about race and culture can be liberating for her students, she bravely ventures into communications that she previously avoided. Eleanor's new meaning perspectives have encouraged her to speak out in faculty meetings in ways that have provided leadership for institutional change.

CONCLUDING REFLECTION

As an interpretive reflection, we re-interpret each case as an example of the nexus between individual personal growth and action in the world. We conclude with some cautionary comment for adult educators, regarding the challenges of facilitating collaborative inquiry.

Published Monday, Oct. 20, 2003

An Extended Epistemology for Transformative Learning Theory and Its Application Through Collaborative Inquiry

The purpose of this paper is to stimulate discussion about the epistemology of transformative learning and to describe collaborative inquiry as an ideal strategy for facilitating such learning. Jack Mezirow's work outlining the transformative dimensions of adult learning has been generative for theory building and research. We join the discourse with suggestions that extend Mezirow's theory to a more wholistic conceptualization. We then show how collaborative inquiry, a methodology based on an epistemology rooted in experience and dependent on relationship, provides practitioners with a useful structure for facilitating adult learning.

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE AND LEARNING-WITHIN-RELATIONSHIP

We believe that the holistic epistemology developed by John Heron, which theorizes the foundational role of affect, provides a compelling framework for articulating how experiential knowing relates to learning and transformative learning. Heron suggests that epistemology must be understood in the larger context of the human psyche. His integrated theory describes the activities and functions of four modes of psyche - affective, imaginal, conceptual and practical. The extended epistemology that springs from these modes of psyche includes four ways of knowing - experiential, presentational, propositional and practical. Heron uses the metaphor of parenting to describe how each way of knowing arises from, and is situated within, two modes of psyche.

Although Heron describes a learning cycle among the four ways of knowing, his primary theoretical description of the interrelationship among the ways of knowing is one of "up-hierarchy," in which experiential knowing is depicted as the ground from which all others forms of knowing grow. We believe that Transformation Theory as currently articulated by Mezirow pays too little attention to the way in which critical reflection is interdependent with other ways of knowing. We suggest that Heron's model provides a theoretical perspective on the interdependence of multiple ways of knowing and the primacy of affect that can usefully be pursued in the discourse about transformative learning.

The epistemological differences in perceptions about how meaning is created and tested lead to different implications for design of learning interventions. An educator following Mezirow would emphasize conceptual practices such as dialogue under the rules of free and open discourse. When Heron writes about learning, he describes an array of facilitative practices designed to elicit a balanced engagement with all four ways of knowing.

We distinguish between Mezirow's description of discourse and a phenomenon we call learning-within-relationship. We use the term learning-within-relationship to describe what happens when an epistemology of balance is enacted in the context of a group: learners are fully engaged with their own whole-person knowing as well as the dynamic whole person of their fellow learners. We suggest that a shortcoming in Mezirow's Transformation Theory is the inadequate account of how adults can be helped to create the conditions for reflective discourse. Conditions of trust, solidarity, security, and empathy cannot be created from a conceptual commitment to their importance, no matter how heart-felt that commitment. The holistic epistemology, as actualized in collaborative inquiry, can provide these conditions.

COLLABORATIVE INQUIRY--PUTTING THE EXTENDED EPISTEMOLOGY INTO PRACTICE

Collaborative inquiry is a systematic process ideally suited for facilitating learning-within-relationship. Small groups of learners come together as peers to pursue a question of mutual interest. Using systematic procedures for learning from their personal experience, participants generate new knowledge from repeated episodes of reflection and action. They share equal power and responsibility for making decisions, practice critical subjectivity and intersubjectivity in mutual pursuit of new meaning, and follow explicit validity procedures.

We describe three inquiries, focusing our narrative on how the collaborative inquiry process creates a place of nexus for individual personal growth and action in the world. After describing each inquiry, we interpret the case using Mezirow's description of six types of meaning perspectives - epistemic, sociolinguistic, psychological, moral-ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic.

THE COMMUNITY WOMEN

Linda Smith is a community-based adult educator committed to what she describes as "the validation of grass-roots knowledge." Wondering "How can I join with people who have grass-roots knowledge in order to validate the importance of this kind of knowledge?" Linda searched her network of connections and discovered the community women.

The community women had been working for a year as volunteer peer counselors in clinics that serve new mothers. They were diverse in race, language, and education. When they met Linda, they had been working together for a year, but not as a cohesive unit. Within their group of ten, they tended to work in pairs or trios defined by race or language. Relying on expert knowledge, they turned often to a large reference book about breastfeeding.

After a year of inquiry, the community women had grown confident that their personal experience was as important a guide for counseling practice as the big reference book on which they had been dependent. About the same time, their two-year grant came to an end. Having learned to value their own experience, when the women asked themselves how they might raise money for the stipends that made their counseling work possible, they hit upon the idea of using their knowledge about communicating across cultural difference. Having once thought of themselves as working "mother-to-mother," they now made plans to work "group-to-group." During the next eighteen months, the community women facilitated inquiry processes for organizations interested in cross-cultural communication.

Looking back on the group's experience, one woman observed, "I think on our meetings as golden. We learned to believe in ourselves, and we all stood taller."

THE TECHNOLOGY EDUCATORS

Joyce Gerdau (now Joyce Lee) recruited eight technology educators to pursue an inquiry about the impact of educational technology on teaching and learning. All held state-wide educational leadership positions as administrators, staff developers, or coordinators of programs for the state of New Jersey. Through six action/reflection cycles over a period of eight months, the participants identified nine assumptions that participants believed should guide their respective practices. The last assumption captures a shift in their perspective about their work with teachers. "Above all, the integration of technology should be a humanizing process and we should remember that technology itself is not the solution, that the application of technology is only one solution to improving the educational system." The group's insight reflects a systemic understanding of education and technology's role in the schools.

Growth in members' capacity to perceive education systemically grew, in part, from their experience of learning to perceive the systemic character of their learning within the collaborative inquiry process. They grew to appreciate how their interrelatedness created a power greater than a sum of individual powers. At the group's closing meeting, Martin asked rhetorically, "How come I get all excited and pumped up about this process? This is the first time I have experienced at this level the adrenaline as a participant - this collaborative learning."

INQUIRY INTO WHITENESS

This third example is not one inquiry, but a federated design in which several different collaborative inquiry groups were convened to assist members in learning about the impact of white consciousness on their personal beliefs and behaviors. A team of researchers studied the learning experience of participants in four of these groups. From the many examples these researchers provide, we describe the experience of Eleanor, who teaches writing in a highly diverse community college in northern California.

Eleanor typifies the way in which personal transformation manifests itself in multiple ways and demonstrates how changes in epistemic, psychological, and sociolinguistic frames of reference are interrelated. Eleanor's shift in personal consciousness changes her capacity to notice her own racist thoughts and also changes the way she thinks about her responsibility as a white person to speak out about race and racism. Before her participation in collaborative inquiry, perceiving the world through her frame of "good girl," Eleanor thought it was "rude" to admit that she was conscious of race. Now she understands that her silence communicates a false message of acquiescence or support for race-based inequities. Eleanor's change in personal consciousness affects her behavior as a teacher and as a white person in the world. Before her participation in the inquiry, Eleanor avoided issues of race and culture, even though she is a writing instructor in a community college where the students are nearly all persons of color. Now, understanding that writing about race and culture can be liberating for her students, she bravely ventures into communications that she previously avoided. Eleanor's new meaning perspectives have encouraged her to speak out in faculty meetings in ways that have provided leadership for institutional change.

CONCLUDING REFLECTION

As an interpretive reflection, we re-interpret each case as an example of the nexus between individual personal growth and action in the world. We conclude with some cautionary comment for adult educators, regarding the challenges of facilitating collaborative inquiry.

How This Gift Connects The Dots
 
Scholarships & Fellowships
 
Faculty & Programs
 
Campus & Technology
 
Financial Flexibility
 
Engage TC Alumni & Friends