and a half years ago I left a job in the Washington, D.C. association
community and returned to school to earn a master’s degree in
education. I was always deeply interested in the process of
learning itself, mostly because I had so many wonderful learning
opportunities as I was growing up. I thought the opportunity
to spend some time exploring the complexities of the learning
phenomenon in a more formal setting would be an excellent experience.
was not prepared for what actually happened to me during that
year. The intensive learning experience I had in graduate school
catalyzed a fundamental shift in the way I look at the world.
The experience was a profoundly transformative one, and now
I cannot see the world through the same lens I used before the
fall of 1996. This transformation is certainly not complete—it
continues as I grow my own understanding of learning—but it
is nevertheless a gift given to me, one I cherish every day.
this point, you’re probably saying, “Okay that’s nice, but I’m
not creating a degree program. My learning setting is quite
different. How does the idea of transformation apply to me?”
Well, I have good news for you. I believe that those of us who
design learning experiences can create the hothouse conditions
under which learner transformation is possible. This design
effort requires a commitment to certain beliefs and practices,
and a willingness to experiment with new ideas. Before we examine
the specifics of a design process, however, let’s consider what
we mean by “transformation” and its importance in the New Economy.
and the New Economy
idea of learning as a transformative
process has been a thread of inquiry in adult learning for
more than two decades. First introduced by Columbia University
Mezirow in the late 1970s, the theory argues that learners
can change the way they make sense of the world around them
through critical reflection on experience. Other leading thinkers
in the field, including Stephen
Brookfield, Patricia Cranton, and Robert Kegan,
have also written about learning’s transformative power. In
my work as an association learning professional, I use the following
simple definition to explain the idea of transformative learning
to colleagues and participants: it is the capacity of learning
to change the way learners think about themselves, their work
and their world.
is learner transformation something to which we should pay attention?
Well, the best answer can be found in the rapidly changing landscape
of the New Economy. Our organizations today constantly face
new and unexpected challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities.
Under these circumstances, the learning opportunities we create
to develop people must do more than help them keep up with the
world as they know it. These learning experiences must also
introduce learners to new ways of thinking, so they may create
new ways of acting. This important distinction from training
is worth exploring briefly.
goal of most training programs is to show participants a new
way of “doing” things. Usually, that new way is the organization’s
preferred or “sanctioned” approach which does not allow much
room for interpretation on the part of the learner. The goal
of such training, then, is to change the learner’s behavior
in order to increase efficiency and/or effectiveness on the
job. For straightforward learning needs, such as computer instruction,
this approach presents little difficulty.
most of our learning needs today are not in this category. The
complex character of the New Economy makes it that much more
important for learners to feel comfortable trying new and even
experimental approaches to solving problems and creating value.
In a time when our work frequently requires masterful improvisation,
the effort to stimulate deep changes in the ways people act
from the outside is unlikely to succeed. Instead, we must embrace
the concept of transformative learning, and challenge our learners
to reflect critically on work and challenge their basic assumptions,
so that they may design their own new ways of acting more effectively.
most important caveat to keep in mind is that none of us has
the power to transform another by fiat. Even the richest, most
elegantly designed learning experience cannot, by itself, effect
the change in perspective we’re considering in this article.
For transformation to be a possibility, our learners, facilitators
of learning, the learning context and the learning environment
must blend to create a space filled with the energy of change.
To help you create such a space, let me offer five suggestions:
end with compelling questions
seminars are framed around “outcomes” or “objectives.” To be
honest, I’ve never been a big fan of these tools, primarily
because they limit the scope of possible inquiry in learning.
What happens if there is fertile learning territory to be explored
just beyond the boundaries of the articulated outcomes? Sometimes
brave learning facilitators will guide learners to that place
only to be criticized for straying too far off the subject on
the almighty “smile sheet” evaluation forms we use to measure
success. Once chastened, our facilitators may choose to be brave
an alternative, I propose that we use big compelling questions
as a starting point for creating learning experiences with transformative
potential. Great questions open our minds to a wide variety
of possibilities and, in conversation with learning colleagues,
give us plenty of room to investigate new directions. Although
some questions cry out to be answered, others defy easy response
and invite us to reflect more deeply. This special quality of
questions makes them ideally suited to spark a process of transformation.
me offer an example drawn from a learning experience that my
organization will offer in March 2001. One of the central questions
we will consider is, “What roles can information professionals
play in supporting and encouraging innovation in their organizations?”
This inquiry, along with the other “big questions” around which
this experience is designed, will encourage our learners to
take a fresh look at their work and, hopefully, move them toward
a new way of thinking about the contributions they can make
to their organizations.
also recommend that even as we try to help learners find answers
to the questions we pose, we continue to generate new and even
more compelling questions to replace them. We should never allow
our learners to think that because the seminar is over, the
learning is over. As we sometimes say in the world of education,
“There is much we don’t know that we don’t know.” Questions
become our pathways for continuing inquiry into this “unknown”
world, as well as possible routes to new perspectives on that
Balance support and challenge
field of adult learning understands that adults need both physical
comfort and psychological safety in their learning setting.
Issues such as a comfortable chair, nearby bathrooms and an
easy-to-read font size on PowerPoint slides can make an enormous
difference in the quality and impact of the learning experience.
Likewise, adult learners must be continuously invited into the
experience and must be made to feel safe and not threatened
by learning. This kind of support is critical to placing the
learning experience on a firm foundation.
do not spend enough time, however, looking for ways to challenge
our learners to surface and examine their assumptions. An increased
level of challenge in our learning experiences can dramatically
grow their transformative power. On this point, some people
say that we need to push our learners outside their normal comfort
zones. In the spirit of balancing support
and challenge, I prefer to think of it as challenging our
learners to broaden the zones of inquiry in which they feel
comfortable, with the support and guidance of learning facilitators
of the greatest shortcomings of most learning experiences is
the failure of designers to fully integrate all of an experience’s
elements—content, questions, context, environment and so forth—for
maximum impact. A great example of this missed opportunity is
the ubiquitous luncheon speaker. Do we normally take the time
to share with the speaker the key themes that will be considered
during the seminar or workshop? And if we do, do we then go
back and link the speaker’s themes with other sessions? Finally,
once the speaker delivers her remarks, do we ask our learning
facilitators to advocate for or question that perspective with
their learners in subsequent conversations? Generally speaking,
the answer to all these questions is no, and that is an unfortunate
orchestrating the learning experience in the way I describe
requires more of our time, I believe that it is not only worthwhile
to do it but also part of our responsibility to our learners.
When we organize a seminar or workshop for our learning colleagues,
they entrust us with their hopes for a powerful learning experience.
If we believe in the importance of transformative learning for
our learners, we cannot let them down.
the United States, we tend to focus on learning as primarily
an individual activity, something that we do apart from others.
(Indeed, we base public education on this premise.) Unfortunately,
this is largely untrue. Most learning begins as an individual
process of self-discovery, but it cannot last for very long
in that form. The learning with the greatest and most enduring
impact on us is shared and social, learning that involves teams,
groups, or communities working together to solve problems, explore
important questions or complete projects.
though the idea of transformative learning implies a shift in
the perspective of individual learners, such shifts are unlikely
to occur without collaboration. Reflection is a social process.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to create spaces
in which we can examine our own assumptions by ourselves. We
need others’ points of view to help us co-create this reflective
space. (This is why the coaching relationship is so powerful
for so many people.) If we free learners and facilitators to
collaborate with each other as equals in a learning process,
then our experiences will be richer, more meaningful and of
greater transformative value.
afraid to experiment or inspire
as we help our learners become comfortable with improvisation
in their work, so too must we embrace the chances we have to
experiment in the way we create learning experiences. It is
the desire to experiment that, more than anything else, leads
to significant innovation, and learning is a field in which
innovation is critical. Too often, our quest for an acceptable
bottom-line result drives us to act timidly. We would not accept
this from our learners, so how can we accept it from ourselves?
important, we must take the opportunity to inspire our learners.
We need to recognize the inescapable truth that we are learning
beings, that learning is at the core of our existence and that
it is as essential to our lives as breathing, sleeping, eating,
and drinking. Why can’t our learning experiences inspire our
learners to become more than they are, to become more than they
ever imagined they could be? Why should we settle for something
ordinary, when something extraordinary is within our grasp?
If we’re going to create learning experiences with transformative
potential, we must make inspiring our learners a higher priority.
I close this article, let me say a word about the relationship
between new learning technologies and the transformation process
we’ve considered here. The “elearning” craze is sweeping the
nation, and I am ready to see it go away. (I confess that part
of my distaste comes from the term elearning itself, which to
me is a contrivance designed to sell applications and consulting
services.) I do not question the importance or value of using
technology to provide learning opportunities. But I must suggest
that we are vastly over-compensating for years of failure using
traditional training approaches with the belief that we can
shift nearly all learning to the World Wide Web. Moreover, we
are focused on entirely the wrong thing when we look at how
much we can save in training costs by using various learning
technologies. What we really need to consider is the opportunity
lost when offering a cost-effective learning experience instead
of truly robust one.
it comes to transformation and technology, I don’t believe the
two ideas connect at this time. Although we are seeing marked
improvement in the quality of the experiences offered by “distance”
or “distributed” learning technologies, those experiences are
still largely one-dimensional. Perhaps in the next decade we
will encounter a technology that can provide the same combination
of elements available to us during in-person learning experiences.
I doubt it, but as a firm believer in the importance of innovation,
I don’t totally discount the possibility. Still, for now, I
would suggest to you that the transformative power of learning
is likely to be unlocked only when learners gather in the same
place to collaboratively create their learning space.
A Final Word
Kegan was one of my professors in graduate school and the author
of an adult development theory that is one of the field’s most
challenging theories to understand. In class, when he would
present this thinking to a lecture hall full of intelligent,
yet perplexed graduate students, he would say, “Look, I’m not
asking you to buy this. Just rent it for a while.” Well, the
same holds true for the ideas presented in this article. I recognize
that embracing learning as a transformative force is difficult,
particularly if you are accustomed to designing learning experiences
in a certain way that has been “successful” over time. Looking
at learning through this lens requires us to think about our
work in a new way. It demands that we take on new responsibilities,
embrace experimentation, and even entertain the possibility
of failure. For most of us, these are not easy things to do.
must always try to keep in mind, however, that it is not just
about us. As I argue above, our learners entrust us with a certain
level of responsibility for their learning. In designing learning
experiences on their behalf, we honor their trust by trying
to connect them with the ideas, concepts, and capabilities they
tell us they need. But, as educators, we must also honor that
trust by linking them to the ideas, concepts, and capabilities
“they don’t know that they don’t know.” In the fast-paced, complex
New Economy, transformative learning is one of those remarkable
ideas that can make a profound difference, not just for our
individual learners, but also for our organizations, our communities
and for our society as a whole. So, go ahead and rent it for
a while. You might be surprised what you learn.
De Cagna, Ed.M. is “the learning guy” for the Special Libraries
Association in Washington, DC, where he tries every day to practice
what he preaches. He serves on a national council of association
educators with the American Society of Association Executives
(ASAE) and is a frequent speaker and author on questions of
learning. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.