Transformative Learning Theory (Mezirow)

Summary: Transformative learning is a theory of adult learning that utilizes disorienting dilemmas to challenge students’ thinking. Students are then encouraged to use critical thinking and questioning to consider if their underlying assumptions and beliefs about the world are accurate. 

Originator: Jack Mezirow (1923-2014)

Keywords: adult education, higher education, academic development, disorienting dilemmas, assumptions, beliefs, worldview, change, transformation, critical reflection

Transformative learning theory was developed by Jack Mezirow in the late 1900s. He used this theory to describe how people develop and use critical self-reflecting to consider their beliefs and experiences, and over time, change dysfunctional means of seeing the world.  Mezirow was interested in peoples’ worldviews and what leads people to change their particular view of the world.[i]

Mezirow describes transformative learning as “learning that transforms problematic frames of reference to make them more inclusive, discriminating, reflective, open, and emotionally able to change.”[ii]

So, what must happen for a person to change their view of the world? Mezirow believed that this occurs when people face a “disorienting dilemma.” Disorienting dilemmas are experiences that don’t fit into a person’s current beliefs about the world. When faced with a disorienting dilemma, people are forced to reconsider their beliefs in a way that will fit this new experience into the rest of their worldview. This often happens through “critical reflection” in the context of dialogue with other people.[iii]

A Case Study

Researcher Michael Christie presents the following case study as a real life example of transformative learning theory in action. Christie describes his experience teaching adult woman in a Graduate Diploma course for Adult and Vocational Educators. Throughout the course, he asked his students to “keep a critical incident file of their experiences.”

The content of the course provided many new ideas that functioned as disorienting dilemmas for these woman. The woman were forced to think through their assumptions in a number of areas, including beliefs about gender roles. Christie states, “For example, the belief that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ was undermined, the assumptions underpinning it challenged, and a new perspective enacted.”

Applications of Transformative Learning Theory

Disorienting dilemmas often occur in the context of academic learning environments, as teachers provide space to critically engage with new ideas. Teachers who want to utilize transformative learning in their classrooms can consider implementing the following opportunities for students.

  • Providing opportunities for critical thinking – Teachers can create opportunities for critical thinking through providing content that introduces new ideas. Students then need the opportunity to engage with new content through journaling, dialoguing with other students, and critically questioning their own assumptions and beliefs.
  • Providing opportunities to relate to others going through the same transformative process – Transformation often happens in community as students bounce ideas off one another and are inspired by the changes friends and acquaintances make.
  • Providing opportunities to act on new perspectives – Finally, research indicates that it is critical for teachers to provide the opportunity for students to act on their new found beliefs. There is some indication that true transformation cannot take place until students are able to actively take steps that acknowledge their new belief.



[i] Christie, M., Carey, M., Robertson, A., & Grainger, P. (2015). Putting transformative learning theory into practice. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 55(1), 10-30

[ii] Mezirow, J. (2009). Transformative learning theory. In J. Mezirow, and E. W. Taylor (Eds), Transformative Learning in Practise: Insights from Community.

[iii] Howie, P. & Bagnall, R. (2013). A beautiful metaphor: Transformative learning theory. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 32(6), 816-836.

Erik Erikson biography

Once described by a colleague as “Freud in sonnet form”, [5] psychological giant Erik Erikson blurred the line between science and art. A prolific researcher best known for his model of human development as a series of eight stages, Erikson’s long and abundantly rich life demonstrated a keen appreciation for the art of living. A look into the life and life’s work of Erik Erikson reveals the lasting impact of this great thinker.


Self-Perception Theory (Bem)

Summary: Self-perception theory describes the process in which people, lacking initial attitudes or emotional responses, develop them by observing their own behavior and coming to conclusions as to what attitudes must have driven that behavior.

Originators and Key Contributors:  Psychologist Daryl Bem originally developed this theory of attitude formation in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Keywords: identity, perception, behavior, attitude, marketing, therapy


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Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, Turner)

Summary: Social identity theory proposes that a person’s sense of who they are depends on the groups to which they belong.

Originators and Key Contributors: Social identity theory originated from British social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1979.

Keywords: identity, ingroup, outgroup, social comparison, categorization, intergroup


Mindset Theory – Fixed vs. Growth Mindset (Dweck)

Mindset Theory

Your intelligence and other characteristics – where do they come from?  Can they change?

People vary in the degree to which they attribute the causes of intelligence and other traits.  Are they innate and fixed factors (“fixed” mindset) or are they variable factors that can be influenced through learning, effort, training, and practice (“growth” mindset)?  A “growth” mindset is generally seen as more advantageous.

Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist on the faculty at Stanford University, proposed mindset theory as a way to understand the effects of the beliefs that individuals hold for the nature of intelligence.  This in turn has implications for learning and education.

Keywords: mindset, intelligence, traits, fixed mindset, growth mindset


Narcissism (Kernberg)

Kernberg describes the significance of object-relations on self-esteem regulation and pathological narcissism.


Key Concepts

Otto Kernberg’s theories have been instrumental in the continual development of the ‘Object-relations theory’ of psychology. This field of thought, developed by Melanie Klein in the mid 1900s, is one of the central schools of thought stemming from Freud’s psychodynamic theory. It emphasizes early interactions between infants and their primary caretakers (i.e. objects). These interactions are internalized over time as mental constructs and thus affect self concept and the nature of future relationships.

Kernberg has left numerous marks on object-relations theory, including his theory on narcissism, a form of transference based psychotherapy, a developmental model, and a construct for analyzing personality organization (most notably, borderline personality organization). His work on narcissism is often contrasted with that of Kohut, which although discusses similar phenomena, is marked by opposing points of view.

In Kernberg’s theory on narcissism, he focuses on the effect of object-relations on self-esteem[1]. He refers to narcissism as a basic structure of typically developing individuals. He defines it as libidinal investment of the self. Practically, it refers to the way in which self-esteem is regulated. Various forms of narcissism are discussed, as delineated below.

Normal adult Narcissism

Normal adult narcissism is considered the narcissism characteristic of typically developing individuals. This state is achieved to due the existence of healthy object relations. Meaning, the individual has experienced positive relationships with early caretakers, and has thus internalized a positive mental concept of the self and of others (objects).

A by-product of positive object relations is an integrated sense of self. The individual is able to cope with ambivalence and with the coexistence of good and bad in individuals and the self. Furthermore, the superego is adaptive and able to cope with disparity between the self and ideal self. Thus, a stable self concept is formed that can readily regulate self-esteem from within. Individuals who present normal adult narcissism have an inner voice which tells them they are good enough. With this basis, individuals can be active and effective players in their lives, and have a stable moral system while expressing innate drives such as aggression and sexuality in acceptable ways.

Normal infantile narcissism

As children develop, their objects relations and self concept are not yet fully integrated. Therefore, their regulation of self- esteem is partly focused at external gratification. In order to feel good about themselves, they need others to admire them or their possessions. However, at an early stage of development, this is age appropriate.

Regression to infantile narcissism

This is a pathological form of narcissism in which the superego has remained infantile, and thus maintained childish values and ideals.

Narcissistic personality disorder

This is the classic narcissistic pathology[2]. These individuals present aberrations in self-love, expression of love to others, and a deviant moral system and superego. Self- love refers to characteristic self absorbance. They are grandiose, and fantasize about excessive success in love, beauty, happiness, and influence. However, their self-love is excessively unstable and relies exclusively on praise and admiration of others.

When the environment does not respond as expected, or when they perceive an inability to achieve their grandiose aspirations, they come crashing downwards with intense feelings of worthlessness, depression, and extreme anger. Relationships are usually functional in nature, as they are necessary for regulating the narcissists’ self-esteem. When they perceive that others have achieved or own something that they haven’t, they present extreme envy and work toward destroying the object or achievement of the other by devaluation. They have a tendency to take advantage of others in order to feel superior. This precludes the ability to form stable and long lasting relationships.

According to Kernberg, this pathology develops as a result of early pathological object relations, which result in negative and ambivalent internalized mental images of the self and other. The defense mechanism characteristic of this state is splitting, a primitive method where the self and others are regarded as either entirely good or entirely bad. Having been let down by early relationships, the narcissist develops a mechanism where he becomes self sufficient by creating a pathological symbiosis between the self, the ideal self, and the ideal object. Meaning, in fantasy, the narcissist unifies the desires he has of himself and other, and therefore does not need others.

However, by taking the ideal self from the superego and unifying it with the self, the superego is weakened and becomes overly strict. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult for the individual to pass the superego’s high standards. Taken together with the fact that the narcissist does not have comforting object relations to fall back onto, failure becomes imminent and debilitating. When they manage to override the strict ambitions of their superego they feel on top of the world, but when they don’t manage to get there, they come crashing down with no internal structure telling them they are good enough.

Additional Resources and References



  1. Kernberg, O. F. (1985). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Rowman & Littlefield.
  2. Kernberg, O. F. (1993). Severe personality disorders: Psychotherapeutic strategies. Yale University Press.

Erikson’s Stages of Development

An eight stage theory of identity and psychosocial development.

Erik Erikson, a German psychoanalyst heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud, explored three aspects of identity: the ego identity (self), personal identity (the personal idiosyncrasies that distinguish a person from another, social/cultural identity (the collection of social roles a person might play)[1].


Key Concepts

Erikson’s psychosocial theory of development considers the impact of external factors, parents and society on personality development from childhood to adulthood. According to Erikson’s theory, every person must pass through a series of eight interrelated stages over the entire life cycle[2].

1. Infancy: Birth-18 Months Old

Basic Trust vs. Mistrust – Hope

During the first or second year of life, the major emphasis is on the mother and father’s nurturing ability and care for a child, especially in terms of visual contact and touch. The child will develop optimism, trust, confidence, and security if properly cared for and handled. If a child does not experience trust, he or she may develop insecurity, worthlessness, and general mistrust to the world.

2. Toddler / Early Childhood Years: 18 Months to 3 Years

Autonomy vs. Shame – Will

The second stage occurs between 18 months and 3 years. At this point, the child has an opportunity to build self-esteem and autonomy as he or she learns new skills and right from wrong. The well-cared for child is sure of himself, carrying himself or herself with pride rather than shame. During this time of the “terrible twos”, defiance, temper tantrums, and stubbornness can also appear. Children tend to be vulnerable during this stage, sometimes feeling shame and and low self-esteem during an inability to learn certain skills.

3. Preschooler: 3 to 5 Years

Initiative vs. Guilt – Purpose

During this period we experience a desire to copy the adults around us and take initiative in creating play situations. We make up stories with Barbie’s and Ken’s, toy phones and miniature cars, playing out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the blueprint for what we believe it means to be an adult. We also begin to use that wonderful word for exploring the world—”WHY?”

While Erikson was influenced by Freud, he downplays biological sexuality in favor of the psychosocial features of conflict between child and parents. Nevertheless, he said that at this stage we usually become involved in the classic “Oedipal struggle” and resolve this struggle through “social role identification.” If we’re frustrated over natural desires and goals, we may easily experience guilt.

The most significant relationship is with the basic family.

4. School Age Child: 6 to 12 Years

Industry vs. Inferiority – Competence

During this stage, often called the Latency, we are capable of learning, creating and accomplishing numerous new skills and knowledge, thus developing a sense of industry. This is also a very social stage of development and if we experience unresolved feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among our peers, we can have serious problems in terms of competence and self-esteem.

As the world expands a bit, our most significant relationship is with the school and neighborhood. Parents are no longer the complete authorities they once were, although they are still important.

5. Adolescent: 12 to 18 Years

Identity vs. Role Confusion – Fidelity

Up until this fifth stage, development depends on what is done to a person. At this point, development now depends primarily upon what a person does. An adolescent must struggle to discover and find his or her own identity, while negotiating and struggling with social interactions and “fitting in”, and developing a sense of morality and right from wrong.

Some attempt to delay entrance to adulthood and withdraw from responsibilities (moratorium). Those unsuccessful with this stage tend to experience role confusion and upheaval. Adolescents begin to develop a strong affiliation and devotion to ideals, causes, and friends.

6. Young adult: 18 to 35

Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation – Love

At the young adult stage, people tend to seek companionship and love. Some also begin to “settle down” and start families, although seems to have been pushed back farther in recent years.

Young adults seek deep intimacy and satisfying relationships, but if unsuccessful, isolation may occur. Significant relationships at this stage are with marital partners and friends.

7. Middle-aged Adult: 35 to 55 or 65

Generativity vs. Self absorption or Stagnation – Care

Career and work are the most important things at this stage, along with family. Middle adulthood is also the time when people can take on greater responsibilities and control.

For this stage, working to establish stability and Erikson’s idea of generativity – attempting to produce something that makes a difference to society. Inactivity and meaninglessness are common fears during this stage.

Major life shifts can occur during this stage. For example, children leave the household, careers can change, and so on. Some may struggle with finding purpose. Significant relationships are those within the family, workplace, local church and other communities.

8. Late Adult: 55 or 65 to Death

Integrity vs. Despair – Wisdom

Erikson believed that much of life is preparing for the middle adulthood stage and the last stage involves much reflection. As older adults, some can look back with a feeling of integrity — that is, contentment and fulfillment, having led a meaningful life and valuable contribution to society. Others may have a sense of despair during this stage, reflecting upon their experiences and failures. They may fear death as they struggle to find a purpose to their lives, wondering “What was the point of life? Was it worth it?”

Additional Resources and References


  • The Life Cycle Completed (Extended Version): Erikson’s own well-written book that explains the stages and identity crisis directly from the firsthand source.
  • Handbook of Identity Theory and Research [2 Volume Set]: This impressive handbook brings “unity and clarity to a diverse and fragmented literature.” presenting perspectives from many different theoretical schools and empirical approaches: psychology (e.g., narrative, social identity theory, neo-Eriksonian) and from other disciplines (e.g., sociology, political science, ethnic studies).


  1. Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity: Youth and crisis (No. 7). WW Norton & Company.
  2. Erikson, E. H. (1993). Childhood and society. WW Norton & Company.

Self-Theories (Dweck)

Summary: Carol Dweck and others have Identified two implicit theories of intelligence.  Those learners who have an “entity” theory view intelligence as being an unchangeable, fixed internal characteristic.  Those who have an “incremental” theory believe that their intelligence is malleable and can be increased through effort.

Originators: Carol Dweck, based on over 30 years of research on belief systems, and their role in motivation and achievement. 

Key Terms: entity theory, incremental theory