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Transformative Learning Theory:
Addressing New Challenges in Social
Abstract Transformative learning theory has emerged as an educational approach
concerned with understanding and facilitating profound change at both individual
and societal levels. The congruence between the features of transformative
learning and the central concerns of social work education suggests that this
approach to learning may be beneﬁcial as the profession addresses new challenges,
including engaging with the global environmental crisis. This chapter discusses the
features of transformative learning and explores their application in integrating
ecological concerns into social work education.
Education for professional social work practice, like education for most other
professional disciplines, faces a number of challenges as we move deeper into the
twenty-ﬁrst century. A rapidly shifting political, economic and social landscape
means that many of the traditional social work concerns, such as poverty, dis-
crimination and a concern for social justice, have either changed in nature, altered
in the way they are manifest, or come to be understood in a new and globally
related manner. New areas of concern have also emerged. For example, we have
become increasingly aware of the connections between environmental issues such
as climate change and human well-being, and begun to consider how social work
as a profession might respond to this new and increasingly urgent challenge.
Some sections of this chapter ﬁrst appeared in the article Jones, P. (2010). Responding to the
ecological crisis: Transformative pathways for social work education. Journal of Social Work
Education, 46(1), 67–84. They are reprinted here with the permission of the Council on Social
Work Education (CSWE).
P. Jones (&)
James Cook University, Townsville, QLD, Australia
Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015
M. Li and Y. Zhao (eds.), Exploring Learning & Teaching in Higher Education,
New Frontiers of Educational Research, DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-55352-3_12
In such a rapidly changing context, social work education can no longer rely on
the traditional approaches and pedagogies that have served it well until now. Just
as the practical approaches to professional practice must adapt to the changing
landscape, so too must the underlying assumptions about learning and the edu-
cational processes and practices that accompany them change in response to the
new challenges. What social work education requires is an approach to learning
that allows it to continue expressing its core concerns for social justice and
emancipatory practice, but grounds these in an understanding of how students
learn and in particular, how learning which leads to more open and inclusive ways
of knowing might happen.
Transformative learning theory, as developed by Mezirow (1990,1991,2000,
2003,2012) and others (see, for example, Brookﬁeld 2000; Cranton 2002; Cranton
and Taylor 2012; Dirkx2006,2012; Taylor 2006), provides such an organising
framework for social work education, both as an explanatory theory of learning
and as a guide for educational practice.
This chapter discusses the nature of transformative learning and explores the
utility that such an approach may have for social work education. It then looks
more speciﬁcally at one of the key new challenges confronting social work as a
profession—how to expand the social work agenda to better include a focus on the
natural environment and the impact of environmental issues on human well-
being—and discusses the ways in which a transformative approach to social work
education might facilitate deeper engagement in this area.
12.2 Transformative Learning
The concept of transformative learning has proven to be a very rich vein of
scholarship in the ﬁeld of adult learning, creating opportunities for wide ranging
discussion and debate about the nature of adult learning and of its relationship to
personal and social change (Dirkx2006; Marsick and Mezirow 2002; Taylor and
Snyder 2012). At its heart, transformative learning theory is about the nature of
change, and about the processes through which we produce a shift in the way we
see and make meaning of the world. Mezirow, one of the leading proponents of
this theoretical orientation, describes transformative learning as
…learning that transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of ﬁxed assumptions and
expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more
inclusive, discriminating, open, reﬂective, and emotionally able to change (2003,
Central to this theory is the concept of structures of meaning—the frames of
reference which we acquire uncritically through processes of socialisation and
acculturation and which are often distorted as a result of the internalisation of
dominant sociocultural assumptions prevailing in our social context. Transfor-
mative learning is said to occur in those situations where we become aware of the
268 P. Jones
inadequacy of these frames of reference (often through an explicit, disorienting
experience) and subsequently engage in critical reﬂection on their very basis. This
critical reﬂection, a key process in transformative learning, may in turn lead to the
awareness of alternative ways of thinking and to testing out such alternatives
through dialogue and action (Mezirow 2012).
The second of the key processes of transformative learning relates to the role
and importance of rational discourse or, as Mezirow has referred to it, critical-
dialectical discourse (2003). Mezirow’s argument here, building on the work of
Habermas (1980), is that critical reﬂection on underlying assumptions, such as
would lead to perspective transformation, is not a solitary activity but rather takes
place, at least in part, through discourse. Discourse here refers to ‘the process in
which we have an active dialogue with others to better understand the meaning of
an experience’ (Mezirow 2000, p. 14). In particular, Mezirow is concerned with
dialogue devoted to assessing contested beliefs, and it is through such discourse
that the process of transformation is promoted, developed and enacted. As Taylor
notes ‘It is within the arena of rational discourse that experience and critical
reﬂection are played out. Discourse becomes the medium for critical reﬂection to
be put into action…’ (Taylor 1998,p.11).
Most transformative learning theorists agree that such learning can only be said
to have truly occurred when it produces action based on the newly transformed
frames of reference. For Mezirow, transformative learning is not necessarily linked
directly and inevitably to social change. Perspective transformation may, for
instance, relate to epistemic or psychic distortions, and while transforming these
existing presuppositions will entail taking action in the social world, such action
may relate more to individual behaviour than direct, collective social action
(Mezirow 1991). However, and importantly, Mezirow argues that processes of
transformative learning help to create the conditions for both individuals and
society that are necessary for emancipatory social transformation and engagement
in participative, democratic processes (2003).
While Mezirow is generally recognised as having initiated the discussion on
transformative learning, it has indeed been a discussion, with many other theorists
and practitioners critiquing and extending Mezirow’s work or taking the concept
of transformative learning in different directions with new theoretical orientations.
In particular, most if not all of these approaches attempt to address the criticism
that Mezirow’s primary focus on cognitive-rational processes limits the ability of
transformative learning theory to account for other forms of change and to facil-
itate shifts in other aspects of people’s lives.
The Jungian or subjectively oriented approach to transformative learning pro-
vides a useful example of the way in which Mezirow’s approach has been
expanded. This perspective has perhaps been most fully developed and expressed
in the work of John Dirkx (see, for example, 1997,1998,2001,2012). Dirkx
argues that his approach to transformative learning is consistent with and articu-
lates the work of theorists such as Mezirow, but that his focus is on the experience
of the learner’s ‘inner world’ rather than cognitive, epistemic and sociocultural
dimensions of the learning process (Dirkx et al. 2006). In describing this
12 Transformative Learning Theory …269
difference, and the focus of his own approach, Dirkx notes of the work of Mezirow
and others that their approach
…represents the way of logos, the realm of objectivity and logic, the triumph of reason
over instinct, ignorance and irrationality. [However,] Transformative learning also
involves very personal and imaginative ways of knowing, grounded in a more intuitive and
emotional sense of our experiences. This aspect of transformation, the way of mythos,
reﬂects a dimension of knowing that is manifest in the symbolic, narrative and mytho-
logical (1997, p. 1–2).
Dirkx’s concern is with the inner world and the ways in which this interacts
with and shapes the learning experience. Dirkx is not referring here to aspects of
our personal or individual world such as our particular beliefs, values or attitudes,
but rather to the ‘shadowy’ inner world, ‘that part of the inner world that volun-
teers questions without being asked, offers comments uninvited on our behaviour,
conscious thoughts or our creations’ (Dirkx et al. 2006). Dirkx contends that a
theory of transformative learning must adopt a holistic approach that encompasses
these aspects of the learner.
Alternatively, ‘developmental’ approaches to transformative learning are rep-
resented most clearly in the work of Baumgartner (2001), Daloz (1999,2000) and
Kegan (1994,2000). Kegan discusses in some detail the importance of under-
standing what ‘form’ is actually transformed in transformative learning processes.
He points out the difference between informational learning which deepens ‘the
resources available to an existing frame of reference [and] …brings valuable new
contents into the existing form of our new way of knowing’ (2000, p. 49), and
transformational learning which involves not only changes in what we know, but
also how we know. This, according to Kegan, might involve developing the
capacity to move beyond concrete thinking into abstract reasoning, where one is
situated within a pre-existing frame of mind and the other actually reconstructs the
In developing his ideas around transformative learning, Kegan draws on con-
cepts generated in the ﬁeld of constructive-developmental psychology. As he notes:
Adult educators with an interest in supporting transformational learning can look to
constructive-developmental theory as a source of ideas about (1) the dynamic architecture
of ‘that form which transforms’, that is, a form of knowing; and (2) the dynamic archi-
tecture of ‘reforming our forms of knowing’, that is, the psychological process of trans-
formations in our knowing (2000, p. 53).
In this sense, Kegan is concerned with an epistemological view of transforma-
tion, an idea about human development that is concerned with the process whereby
people come not simply to new ideas but rather to a new set of ideas about their
ideas (2000). The importance of this epistemological approach to transformative
learning is that it not only highlights the developmental processes involved, but also
clearly limits those experiences that can be thought of as truly transformational. As
Kegan notes (2000, p. 59), ‘not every kind of change, even important change,
constitutes transformation’. Kegan departs from Mezirow’s description of the
transformative process by widening the consideration of transformative experience
270 P. Jones
to a wider, life-span development, rather than focusing exclusively or primarily on
adulthood. In this way, he argues that an understanding of the creative processes of
development, which learners are engaged in throughout their lives, will greatly
enhance our understanding of transformative learning.
Daloz (2000) similarly draws on constructive-developmental psychology in
exploring transformative learning as an epistemological question, arguing that
‘what shifts in the transformative process is our very epistemology—the way in
which we know and make meaning’ (p. 104). Daloz emphasises the importance of
the interaction between learner and external context in determining whether the
potential for development of more adequate frames of reference is realised or not.
A more recent theoretical development has seen a number of writers drawing on
the work of Wilber (1996,2000a,b) and his ‘integrally informed’ approach to
psychology and society. Gunnlaugson (2005) notes that attempts have been made
recently (see, for example, Cranton and Roy 2003; Cranton and Taylor 2012)to
develop integrated models of transformative learning, bringing together perspec-
tives from different disciplines and approaches. While recognising that there is
great value in this, he argues that it simply does not go far enough and that these
integrative frameworks ‘fall short of being comprehensive, balanced and inclusive’
(2005, p. 331). The signiﬁcance of Gunnlaugson’s use of Wilber is that it has the
potential to greatly expand the focus of transformative learning from the rational-
cognitive and affective-emotional orientations of previous theorists. The integral
approach includes a concern with not just personal, but intrapersonal, relational,
cultural, planetary and universal dimensions of being (Gunnlaugson 2005).
12.3 Facilitating Transformative Learning
This brief description of the nature of transformative learning, and some of the
theoretical directions that it has moved in, points to its potential value as an
educational approach, but says little about how such an approach might be oper-
ationalized. Indeed, it raises the question of how such transformative learning
might actually be facilitated and what kinds of classroom relationships and
practices might be involved in such a process. For Mezirow, his primary concern
regarding this issue is to identify the conditions and capacities required for such
transformations to occur. As he argues:
Creating the conditions for and the skills of effective adult reasoning and the disposition
for transformative learning—including critical reﬂection and dialectical discourse—is the
essence of adult education and deﬁnes the role of the adult educator, both as a facilitator of
reasoning in a learning situation and a cultural activist fostering the social economic, and
political conditions required for a fuller, freer participation in critical reﬂection and dis-
course by all adults in a democratic society (2003, p. 63).
Mezirow argues that effective adult education helps learners to move towards
positions of greater autonomy, a process which must include a focus on developing
the skills and attitudes required for critical reﬂection. Approaches which may help
12 Transformative Learning Theory …271
learners to move towards these objectives include those which are learner-centred,
group-oriented, interactive and participatory (Mezirow 1997, p. 10). In particular,
Mezirow emphasises the need for educators to draw on the experiences of learners
themselves, and to engage in ‘discovery learning’, including the use of role-plays,
simulations, case studies and group projects (1997). In utilising such techniques,
educators are challenging students to begin identifying and questioning the
assumptions of others as well as their own.
Cranton (1996,2002,2006) has written extensively on the processes involved
in facilitating transformative learning. She notes that there are no teaching
methods that guarantee transformative learning. However, she argues that an
environment of challenge may be the common feature that underlies teaching for
transformation. Cranton (2002,2006) proposes a number of speciﬁc strategies
designed to create such an environment and facilitate such learning. These include
creating an activating event, encouraging the articulation assumptions, promoting
critical self-reﬂection, promoting openness to alternatives, engaging in discourse,
the revision of assumptions and taking action based on those revisions. She states,
‘We cannot teach transformation. We often cannot even identify how or why it
happens. But we can teach as though the possibility always exists that a student
will have a transformative experience’ (Cranton 2002, p. 71).
While Cranton’s work reﬂects a deep engagement with Mezirow’s conceptu-
alisation of transformation, given the expanding understanding of transformative
learning, and the range of approaches that have built on Mezirow’s initial artic-
ulation, it is unsurprising that a diversity of approaches to facilitating such learning
has also emerged.
Dirkx (2006), reﬂecting the Jungian approach to transformation, discusses a
number of speciﬁc strategies to be used in group settings whereby emotion-laden
images can be used to foster learning, including the use of active imagination
activities, metaphors and analogies and working with such images through text.
Dirkx notes that ‘imaginative approaches to emotion and affect are beginning to
supplement reliance on critical reﬂection and analysis as a means of furthering
deep and potentially transformative experiences’ (2006, p. 24).
Also approaching the fostering of transformative learning with a focus on the
extrarational, Davis-Manigaulte et al. (2006) and Kasl and Yorks (2012) describe
methods for promoting expressive ways of knowing. Particular strategies included
the use of guided visualisations, group discussion and art activities such as
drawing, clay work and collages. Davis-Manigaulte et al. argue that such activities
can operate as a bridge between precognitive experiential knowing and rational
knowing. Tolliver and Tisdell (2006) look at methods for engaging spirituality in
the classroom, as a method for fostering transformation, while Lipsett (2002)
draws on a cosmological, ecozoic approach to facilitating transformative learning
in her account of the use of spontaneous painting as a pathway for such experience.
Adopting a different approach to facilitating transformation, Johnson-Bailey
and Alfred (2006) employ a political framework as black women educators in their
transformative teaching practice. They state that they try to ‘provide a classroom
setting where we engage with our students, our colearners, in critical reﬂection,
272 P. Jones
critical thinking, reframing questions, deconstructing issues, and dialogue and
discourse’ (Johnson-Bailey and Alfred 2006, p. 56). Brookﬁeld (1990), also
adopting an explicitly political approach, has explored the use of critical incidents
to promote critical thinking and uncover learners’ assumptions.
Many approaches to facilitating transformation have explored approaches that
involve interrogating and creating text or other creative expressions. The use of
popular and literary romantic ﬁction is discussed by Jarvis (2006,2012) while
Burke (2006) focuses on intensive writing designed to promote skills for critical
thinking in writing and analysing text. Experiential learning portfolios are seen by
Brown (2002) as a teaching strategy which may facilitate learner self-knowledge
and Karpiak (2003) discusses the use of autobiography as a method for promoting
insight and transformative learning experiences.
Looking in a different direction, Robinson (2004) discusses the use of medi-
tation in facilitating transformative learning. Her autobiographical account not
only acts as an illustration, but also a prelude to considering the use of meditation
in the classroom. Robinson argues that in such classroom settings, ‘the key is in
building the discipline of concentration, of abiding with whatever mind-states may
arise in a moment-to-moment way—in a state of presence’ (2004, p. 115). In this
manner, according to Robinson, students may become more aware of the extra-
rational aspects of self and of learning, increasing potential for transformation.
The material presented above on the development and application of trans-
formative learning theory points to both the diversity of theoretical orientation and
practical application, and the emergence of some common themes and issues.
While there is a lively discussion about the nature and boundaries of transfor-
mative learning, there is broad agreement that transformative learning is learning
which provokes fundamental change in the way a person sees and makes sense of
their world. Furthermore, there is agreement that transformative learning is a
process which involves praxis, the enacting of personal change in the social world,
whether through changed personal behaviour, participation in action for social
change, or a combination of both.
Critical reﬂection and dialogue are generally seen as crucial aspects of the
transformative process, even while the speciﬁc understanding of what these con-
cepts mean and how they might be enacted remains open for debate.
12.4 Transformative Learning in Social Work Education
The discussion above explores the nature of transformative learning and discusses
some of the ways in which writers and practitioners have suggested such learning
might be facilitated. For a professional discipline like social work, the question
then becomes to what degree might such an approach be useful in supporting
professional education to meet the challenges of the shifting contextual landscape.
One way of assessing the utility of any theoretical approach is to assess the degree
12 Transformative Learning Theory …273
of congruence between the core assumptions and values of the theory and of the
It is difﬁcult to arrive at a consensus regarding the deﬁnition of social work. In
part, this is due to the wide range of areas in which social workers practice and the
diversity of social and personal issues with which social workers are concerned.
However, it is also partly because of the dynamic nature of the profession as its
role in society constantly changes and adapts in response to wider social and
The International Federation of Social Workers provides a useful starting point
in its deﬁnition of social work, which states
The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relation-
ships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising
theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points
where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social
justice are fundamental to social work. (IFSW 2012).
While various deﬁnitions will reveal differences in the particular emphases
placed on aspects of social work, there is probably broad agreement that social
work is a profession which has faced, and continues to face, challenges in terms of
its purpose, legitimacy, and its role in contemporary society (Ife 1997; Mullaly
2007). Inherent in most deﬁnitions, however, is a recognition that social workers
can operate at a range of levels of social organisation, from the individual to the
global, across a number of different domains, including family work, group work,
community practice, social policy and education, and in a wide range of ﬁelds of
practice such as child protection, income support, advocacy, community health,
sexual assault and disability services (Alston and McKinnon 2001; Chenoweth and
Looking then, for points of congruence between the concerns of the profession
and features of transformative learning theory, we can see that both transformative
learning theory, in its many variations, and social work education are primarily
focused on the interactions of the individual in the social world. Mezirow’s cog-
nitively oriented approach to transformation theory, for example, still has a pri-
mary social-relational focus as learners enact altered meaning structures in the
social world, particularly through rational discourse and dialogue. For social work
education, the acquisition of new skills and knowledge, and the inculcation into
social work values and ethics, is primarily directed at equipping learners to
become effective practitioners, and to deal effectively with the sociopolitical
context in which practice occurs. That is to translate theory and knowledge into
action in the social world.
Social work education and transformative learning theories are also both con-
cerned with issues of change. This may involve change at the level of the indi-
vidual as learner (for example, via perspective transformation) or the support and
facilitation of change in others (as in many forms of social work practice). Both are
also concerned, however, with broader change. The deﬁnition of social work
provided above highlights the ways in which contributions to social change are
274 P. Jones
built into the idea of what social workers do and, indeed, are an ethical require-
ment in some cases. Similarly, most accounts of transformative learning argue that
individual change must be linked, via praxis, with action and change in the social
arena. The emphasis placed on the centrality of social change varies amongst
transformation theories (Brookﬁeld 2012), and this is also the case with social
work education and practice, where critical/radical approaches place greater
emphasis on this aspect of education and practice.
The inclusion of social change as a focus in both transformative learning the-
ories and social work is indicative of the importance of the emancipatory tradition
inherent in each. Both of these ﬁelds can be considered broad churches in the sense
that they encompass theories and orientations with a range of ideological per-
spectives, but the importance of the emancipatory tradition in shaping each is
Social work education is increasingly concerned with the centrality of experi-
ence as a source of learning, and has a strong tradition of facilitating such learning
through ﬁeld education experiences as well as experiential approaches to the
classroom. Experience is also central to all transformative learning theories, which
see experience as the starting point for learning and transformation. Discussions of
transformative learning inevitably highlight the place of critical reﬂection and
dialogue/discourse as essential components of the transformative process. The
discussion of social work education, above, has also highlighted the ways in which
these have become signiﬁcant, in many ways essential, aspects of social work
In many respects, this reﬂects the fact that a great deal of social work education
already incorporates some aspects of a transformative approach. Critical reﬂection,
for example, has emerged as a core component and concern of social work edu-
cation and practice (see, for example, Clare 2007; Fook and Askeland 2007; Gould
and Taylor 1996; Napier and Fook 2000; Osmond and Darlington 2005; Redmond
2005; Sheppard 1998; Yelloly and Henkel 1995; Yip 2006). Similarly, dialogical
approaches have been recognised as invaluable to social work education (see, for
example, Ross 2007; Rozas 2004; Tsang 2007), and there is a continuing recog-
nition of the importance of experiential learning and praxis (Anderson and Harris
2005; Carey 2007; Gibbons and Gray 2002).
There is an emerging sense, then, that transformative learning theories and
social work education share a set of similar foundations, aims and processes. The
level of congruence between these two areas argues for a further exploration of
their relationship and the ways in which this might be used to both understand the
experience of social work education and to guide its development and imple-
mentation. In particular, it is useful to consider the ways in which a transformative
learning perspective might prove a valuable approach in supporting the social
work profession’s engagement with some of the key challenges facing the pro-
fession, including the role of social work in addressing the global environmental
12 Transformative Learning Theory …275
12.5 The Ecological Challenge for Social Work
Over the last decade, and more dramatically in the last few years, increasing
evidence of major problems in the earth’s ecological balance, particularly relating
to the issue of climate change, has seen the level of concern expressed about
ecological issues increase dramatically. In the face of the overwhelming evidence
of climate change, there would be few people in the world today who would argue
that humans are having no impact, or only a benign impact, on the natural world. It
is widely and generally agreed that humans have reached population levels and
technological capacities that mean we are capable of destroying the fragile eco-
systems which sustain us.
The fundamental conclusion drawn by much of the emerging evidence is that
there is a crisis and we are the cause. Many recent reports also make the point that
environmental problems impact inequitably on the world’s poorest, and operate to
further prevent many people from moving from poverty into more sustainable
lifestyles (United Nations Environment Programme 2007). The prominence of
environmental issues in recent domestic political debate in the UK, USA and
Australia make it increasingly clear that the issue of the environment will continue
to move from the periphery of economic and social policy to being one of, if not
the, core issue. Such a conclusion recognises the centrality of the environment and
the ways in which all aspects of human life are related back to the state of the
global ecosystem. This acknowledgment also clearly links issues of global social
justice with issues of the environment.
Given this level of recognition, it is an interesting and important exercise to
think about social work’s role in understanding and responding to the global
ecological crisis, and to assess the ways in which the profession might build on
existing theoretical and practice foundations to make a contribution to facilitating
the social, economic and political transformations that will be required to move the
planet towards a sustainable future. On a philosophical level, this will require a
paradigmatic shift in the way social work as a profession understands its role and
purpose as well as its conceptualisation of the relationship between people and the
Yet, despite the increasing and urgent evidence of the ways in which the
ecological crisis is impacting human well-being, and the obvious connections
amongst the concerns of environmental, ecological and social justice, social work
has generally been reluctant to claim, or even explore, a role in the task of
addressing this crisis and ﬁnding ways to move forward. A review of the major
social work journals (Jones 2011) reveals a paucity of literature linking the pro-
fession and the natural environment, and although social work programs may
include a consideration of environmentalism as an ideology or a social movement,
there are few examples of courses devoted speciﬁcally to linking the social and
ecological in theory and practice.
Yet a concern with people’s environment has been described as one of the
distinguishing features of the social work profession, and it was in the very earliest
276 P. Jones
efforts at organised welfare that this became evident (Besthorn and McMillen
2002; Coates 2003). This concern is often referred to as social work’s ‘person-in-
environment’ perspective. Despite the use of the term ‘environment’ in this lit-
erature and in social work theory and practice, the relationship between humans
and the natural environment has, to a large extent, been ignored or excluded from
the ongoing development of ecological or person-in-environment models in social
work (Besthorn and McMillen 2002; Coates 2003). Instead, a conceptualisation of
‘environment’ has been developed that is almost exclusively limited to a person’s
social environment, that is, a person’s relationships with other individuals, groups,
communities and organizations. This highlights the need for a profound philo-
sophical shift if social work is to actively engage with the emerging issues of the
environmental crisis (Dominelli 2012).
On a practical level, this philosophical shift will need to be facilitated by a
pedagogical approach to social work education that is capable of challenging
existing paradigms, critically evaluating emerging alternatives and encouraging
action grounded in new ways of understanding the world. Transformative
approaches to social work education may help us to move towards the necessary
goal of equipping students with an expanded ecological consciousness and a clear
sense of the interdependence of social and environmental issues.
In this way, the ecological crisis presents as both a challenge and an opportunity
for social work. The challenge is to respond to an emerging dynamic, when that
response may very well involve a fundamental reassessment of the values that
underpin the profession. The opportunity is to do exactly this, in a way that builds
on social work’s existing foundations, and in doing so place the profession in a
position to make signiﬁcant and meaningful contributions to the creation of an
ecologically sustainable future.
12.6 Transformative Approaches for Ecological Social
If we accept that social work may, and should, have a role to play in addressing the
ecological crisis, then we are presented with the question of what is required, for
the profession and for social work education, if this challenge is to be taken up.
One answer is to simply ‘add-on’ the natural environment as one of the core issues
with which the profession and professional education is concerned. To some
extent, this is already happening, albeit slowly and with questionable impact, as
mention of ecological sustainability creeps into social work mission statements
(for example, de Silva 2006). However, there is a strong case to be made that such
an approach will not produce the fundamental shift that is required if we are to
grapple in a meaningful way with the ecological crisis.
The nature of the fundamental shift required is one that moves us away from the
anthropocentric approach which has been a core characteristic of much social
12 Transformative Learning Theory …277
work, towards a more ecocentric worldview. Ecocentric philosophies highlight the
fact that humans do not stand above nature (Attﬁeld 2003; Eckersley 1992). Such
approaches point out that while technological development has greatly increased
our ability to have an impact on global ecological processes, in every real sense we
remain simply a single species in a complex ecological web, joined in myriad
relationships with other species, and with non-living components and systems
within the ecological whole. We are part of nature, not separate from it. It is our
perceived separation from nature, a form of environmental alienation, which lies at
the heart of the ecological crisis. In this sense, it can be argued that we have lost
sight of our place in the natural world and, perhaps most importantly, lost the sense
of connection, of relationship to the other parts of the web. This matters because if
we do not see or understand our relationship to something then it is easy to ignore
the impact that our actions might have, and to not recognise or care about the
consequences of that impact.
For decades, now environmental philosophers and ethicists have grappled with
the nature and consequences of anthropocentrism and the merits and varieties of
eco-centric alternatives (see, for example, Bookchin 1995; Paavola and Low 2005;
Stenmark 2002). It would be a mistake, however, to think that the importance of
environmental philosophy is restricted to abstract conceptualisations of our rela-
tionship to, and place within, the environment. In fact the fundamental, ontological
assumptions that underpin these belief systems have direct and practical impli-
cations in many areas of our lives. The public policies developed by governments
are shaped by particular ways of thinking about these issues, and these extend
through areas that have direct relevance for social work, including the nature and
orientation of economic, political, legal, health and education systems. Some
commentators have argued that if the ecological crisis continues to deepen, such
philosophical debate will be of direct relevance when considering the very nature
of participatory democracy and authoritarianism (Dobson 2007; Low and Gleeson
2001). Consideration of this dimension alone, i.e. the links between ecology,
public policy and democracy, should alert the profession to the need for an
expansion of existing ecological approaches, and a deeper concern and engage-
ment with issues of the natural environment.
While there are signs of a growing awareness within some areas of higher
education of the need for such an expanded ecological knowledge and awareness
(see, for example, Moody and Hartel 2007; Shephard 2008), there is as yet little
evidence of such a shift within social work (for discussions of exceptions to this,
see Coates 2003; Mckinnon 2008; Jones 2011). Yet outside of the profession, there
are some strong arguments as to what is actually required, particularly in relation
to the role that higher education must play. Capra (2002), for example, has
described the process of increasing academic specialisation and noted the way in
which this has served to alienate the social sciences from ‘the world of matter’ (p.
xix). He argues that such a division will no longer be possible as, in the near future,
all disciplines will need to become focused on the quest for ecological
278 P. Jones
Similarly, Orr (1992,1999) advocates for the importance of having educational
systems that develop students’ ecological literacy—the idea that we must reclaim
and reconnect to our understanding of the natural world. He argues that the
Western educational model needs to be changed if we are to address the ecological
crisis. O’Sullivan (1999,2002,2012) has also approached the question of learning
for ecological sustainability by engaging in a far-reaching and visionary articu-
lation of a new form of education, one which he refers to as ‘integral transfor-
mative learning’ (2012, p. 173). The educational vision articulated by O’Sullivan
is one that is profoundly holistic and integral. He argues that the features of such
an educational approach will include an orientation to knowledge that is synthetic
and holistic, that is time-developmental in nature, and that includes ‘earth edu-
cation’, by which O’Sullivan means ‘not education about the earth, but the earth as
the immediate self-educating community of those living and non-living beings that
constitute the earth’ (1999, p. 76).
Building on similar arguments, but with a speciﬁcally social work focus,
Besthorn (2002,2003) is one of the voices calling for an ecological revolution in
social work education. He argues that if the profession is to meet the challenge of
the current crisis then social work needs to move towards a deep-ecological
consciousness. Besthorn describes such a consciousness as converging along three
dimensions: environmental awareness, spiritual sensitivity and political activism.
Each of these dimensions is clearly interrelated with the others, but it is perhaps
the ﬁrst of these, the development of environmental awareness, or ecological
literacy, where social work education has the greatest potential to build upon
existing approaches, both theoretical and practical, and make a signiﬁcant shift
towards a more fully ecological orientation.
The importance placed on reﬂecting on fundamental assumptions as part of the
process of developing and enacting a new world view makes transformative
learning theory particularly important when considering the direction social work
education may need to take if we are to develop a new, ecologically oriented
approach to theory and practice. Mezirow has suggested that there are two key
types of reﬂection involved in the transformative process, ﬁrstly, critical reﬂection
of assumptions, or objective reframing, which involves critically reﬂecting on the
assumptions of others, and secondly, critical self-reﬂection of assumptions, or
subjective reframing, which involves critical self-reﬂection on one’s own
assumptions and in particular, the ways in which one’s world view may be limited
and distorted (Mezirow 2000; Taylor 1998).
Both of these forms will be critical to the development of an ecologically
oriented social work. Encouraging students to critically consider the assumptions,
values and beliefs of modernity, and the ways in which these are implicated in the
current ecological crisis, will be an essential step in developing a new world view.
Equally important, however, will be creating the space within which students can
reﬂect on the ways in which the presuppositions of the dominant paradigm have
shaped their personal world views and their own values and beliefs, particularly
the way in which they see their relationship with the non-human world.
12 Transformative Learning Theory …279
In pursuit of an expanded ecological consciousness, a central task for social
work education will, therefore, be to break through the existing level of ecological
alienation and encourage students to re-evaluate their relationship to the non-
human world. Developing such an awareness of their connections to the natural
world and of the nature and extent of the ecological crisis will, for many students,
constitute a disorienting dilemma—a recognition that our old ways of thinking and
acting are no longer sufﬁcient and that we need to seek out new models and ways
of being. Critical reﬂection on the sociocultural assumptions that have lead to the
crisis, and the ways in which we have internalised these, will lead to a search for
alternatives. The paths suggested by writers such as O’Sullivan and Orr, who call
for the development of an expanded environmental awareness and ecological lit-
eracy, then need to be considered and assessed, and it is through critical-dialectical
discourse that such assessment may occur. A task for social work education is,
therefore, to create awareness of these alternatives but also to create the dialogical
spaces in which students can openly engage in a critical assessment of their merits
and validity (Jones 2011).
The emphasis on praxis is an important dimension of this theory when viewed
in relation to the task of developing an ecologically oriented social work. Faced
with the enormity of the ecological crisis, social work education must look to
pedagogy with an explicit orientation towards change, both at the individual and
social levels. Transformative learning approaches appear to offer just such a
12.7 Facilitating Ecological Transformation in SW
The challenge for social work educators is, therefore, to integrate transformative
learning theory with a range of existing methods focused on reﬂective, dialogic
and experiential approaches, and to apply this theory and method to the devel-
opment of ecological awareness and eco-literacy amongst students. In my own
teaching practice, this process is often begun with an attempt at producing a
disorienting dilemma—an experience that alerts students to the limitations of their
existing frames of reference in relation to the environment. Challenging students
on the nature and extent of their environmental alienation is often a good place to
start. How many native plant species endemic to their region can they name? Who
can describe both the location and process of sewage disposal in their community?
Where are the boundaries of their local catchment area or bio-region? Such
questions often reveal the poor levels of environmental literacy amongst students,
but are most useful when followed by the question ‘why do not we know the
answers to these questions?’.
Challenging students’ existing frame of reference can also be helped by getting
them out of the classroom setting. In the course I teach on eco-social justice, we
280 P. Jones
often hold classes off-campus, visiting degraded waterways, revegetation projects,
community gardens and suburban sub-divisions. In all of these settings, it is
instructive to see students realise how much they do not know about both the
natural world and our impact on it. The depth of this realisation is often apparent in
students’ reﬂections on the experience.
A wide range of activities can be employed to help challenge students’ pre-
conceptions and reveal blind-spots in their own knowledge and understanding. For
many, such disorienting experiences are enough to open the door to an active and
enthusiastic engagement in critical reﬂection on the assumptions inherent in our
society and the connection between these assumptions and our own values, beliefs
Developing forms of assessment that promote both objective and subjective
reframing is also an essential component of a transformative approach to
expanding ecological awareness. In various iterations of the eco-social justice
course mentioned earlier, assessment has included autophotography, reﬂective
learning folios and critically reﬂective autobiographies. All of these forms have the
advantage of being able to incorporate critical engagement with conceptual
material, such as a consideration of the foundations of modernity, with students’
own lived experience. The most recent form in use in this course, for example,
asks students to write an autobiographical piece (as overview, or focusing on
critical incidents) which illustrates the degree to which the values of modernity
have, or have not, impacted on their personal relationship with the non-human
world. Based on the experiences of students involved with these tasks, such crit-
ically reﬂective processes can be very challenging but are also often rewarding.
Challenging students’ existing beliefs, and facilitating reﬂection on the sources
and impact of these beliefs are important steps in creating the potential for learning
and change. There is a danger, however, that if the process stops there students
may be ‘stranded’—aware that their existing frames of reference are limited, but
unclear as to how they might move forward. Creating safe and supportive spaces
for dialogue and rational discourse then becomes an essential part of the trans-
formative process. In particular, students need opportunities to explore and assess
the validity of alternative ways of seeing and being in the world. Debates around
our place on the anthropocentric–ecocentric continuum are often useful in this
regard, as are visioning exercises that encourage students to imagine the possi-
bilities and day-to-day realities of an ecologically sustainable society.
The transition from abstract concepts to practical action is also a crucial phase
of the transformative learning process for the profession of social work and social
work education. Students need to be given opportunities to take action to test out
their newly expanded frames of reference. Various models of service learning
could be applied here, including participation in environmental projects as part of
course design, but where practical constraints make this difﬁcult other approaches
may be useful. In my experience, students are often simply unaware of the range of
possible actions which they could take, as individuals and collectively, personally
and professionally, that would contribute to the social transformations required if
we are to address the ecological crisis.
12 Transformative Learning Theory …281
Presenting a range of eco-actions, or socio-environmental strategies, at various
levels of social organisation, and providing examples of practice and activism
which are grounded in an ecological paradigm, gives students a starting point for
considering what actions they themselves can take. This is also an important
opportunity for educators to model their own eco-oriented practice, providing
students with powerful examples of the ways in which an ecological orientation
may actually manifest in the practice of a social worker. Considering the possi-
bilities for action often leads students to testing out such action in their own lives,
and importantly in their own practice.
While such actions may initially be small-scale and often individual in nature,
this is an important step in testing out transformed frames of reference and of
enacting change in the social world. Truly, transformative learning will also be
characterised by persistence, and so it is encouraging to hear back from past
students about the ways in which an ecological orientation has manifest in the
professional practice. For example, describing her work in a migrant support
program with an environmental focus, a social work graduate recently wrote:
I am writing to tell to you all this because I never expected in my wildest dreams that I
would get involved this much into environmental issues. I actually thought of the subject
as a waste of time in the beginning. Now I am learning more and realise how crucial it is
for community sustainability.
Hopefully, what these small steps represent is the beginning of the process
whereby social work, building on its existing foundation of a concern for people in
their environment, shifts from a thoroughly anthropocentric, modernist orientation
towards an expanded ecological perspective. If social work is to have a role in
addressing the ecological crisis, this shift will be essential.
Transformative learning theory suggests both a way of understanding the deep,
often profound, learning experiences of adults who have been lead to challenge
their own worldviews, and a pathway for educational practices designed to
facilitate such change. With key elements of critical reﬂection and dialogue, and
an emancipatory orientation that links individual and social change, transformative
approaches to education seem particularly suited to the profession of social
work—already characterised by a focus on these elements. The links between the
two become especially salient when considering the challenges facing the social
work profession as it moves into the twenty-ﬁrst century, particularly those posed
by the global environmental crisis.
To fully engage with, and address this issue, social work education needs to
shift from its current anthropocentric orientation. Transformative learning provides
an example of a pedagogical model that can be used in building the foundations of
this shift in social work education, but only if the will to do so is present. In this
282 P. Jones
sense then, while a transformative learning approach will be invaluable in
developing the theoretical and practical orientation required for an ecologically
oriented social work education, the fundamental task is that of ﬁrst recognising the
urgency and validity that underpins this need.
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