News from the SHU Transformational Learning SIG

Report from the Transformational Learning SIG 1 February 2018

The Transformational Learning Special Interest Group is an open and autonomous group of academics from all faculties. It has been meeting every six weeks to explore ideas around the theory of Transformative Learning, a concept originated by Jack Mezirow (2000) and subsequently developed by others. The group is led by Chris Cutforth from Sport and supported by LEAD.

This week the group met for the third time. Using a set of key questions devised by Chris, it set out to understand how Transformative or Transformational Learning (TL) theory can be applied to practice.

TLSIG discussion activity

The Transformational Learning SIG discusses ways for applying the theory to practice

Following a reminder of the essential ideas behind Mezirow’s 10 Stage framework (see the briefing in the new Transformative Learning toolkit on this site), the group centred this week’s discussion on a small number of ideas. The discussion is summarised here.

How do we think about using TL in a university curriculum?

TL is designed to challenge young people’s beliefs as they become adults in education. While their beliefs may have served them well enough through to adulthood, on arriving at university there is a need for the student to evaluate their thinking more critically by challenging their thinking patterns. But how does an academic or a course use TL? Tim Parker asked, does this framework work at a macro level involving a widespread change in educational culture and practice, for example at course level, or should we be looking more at the micro level of specific teaching interventions such as setting and supporting problem-based activities? We concluded that micro interventions can work in combination with macro strategies, working as catalysts to develop students’ criticality and graduate level habits given the right support from tutors and peers. In this way, TL would seem to bring benefits to delivery at course and individual levels as a way to develop more critical habits expected of graduates.

TL, it was thought, is about developing the students’ metacognitive knowledge (what they know about themselves, especially as effective learners) as much as it is about factual, procedural or theoretical knowledge and beliefs. This was highlighted with examples from Nursing where there is a need to learn exacting factual and procedural knowledge to given standards and where developing creative practices can be unhelpful and potentially dangerous. Does TL have a role here? By considering the need to develop the student, and their learning and professional dispositions, it becomes clear that the TL framework can provide a powerful way to rethink how we engage students. Specifically, the group noted the example of needing to develop resilience in all of our students as a beneficial outcome of using TL; TL is a structured approach in which students are challenged to encounter dissonance and develop strategies for reconstructing knowledge in a supportive learning environment. This, it was thought, will develop student confidence by requiring them to review existing beliefs and explore and enact new ideas. TL also, therefore, has potential benefits for developing employability through the curriculum. Chris suggested we could also consider this as distinguishing between the development of professional behavioural skills and cognitive or intellectual skills.

The methods associated with TL would seem to relate to self-theories such as self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 1999; Yorke & Knight, 2004) it was argued.

Some nice phrases came out of the discussion. Sharon Frankland used the term ‘touch points’ to reflect a sense of continuity in the use of a TL strategy through the curriculum, explaining how TL may have a more cultural rather than instrumental purpose. Vicky Norman saw the potential of TL to develop student curiosity and ‘a thirst for learning.’ Both of these ideas confirm the interest in the group to alter the learning environment.

Rich pictures

The group considered a discussion stimulus technique called ‘Rich Pictures’. It can be used to support the exploration key questions both within the group itself and also as a method to engage students. The method providesa way to circumscribe an idea using an approach similar to visual concept-mapping. The group is likely to return to this at subsequent meetings and it would like to hear from any academic who has used Rich Pictures methodology.

Making an impact

The group looked to the future and how it could work to impact on academic practice more widely. A key challenge noted by all was how to engage colleagues in the ideas as a way to develop consistently student-centred practice. Reiterating the mood evident in previous meetings, there is a strong desire to work together to make a difference across the university. The group wants to encourage others to take part in these discussions and exploratory activities. It wants to ensure that thinking develops in ways that go beyond the original theoretic concepts so that it is relevant and adaptable for SHU practitioners. To this end the group, with the support of LEAD, will,

  • Summarise its activities, hence this post;
  • Produce a useful online toolkit in Teaching Essentials to make it easy for others to adopt and apply the ideas;
  • Generate examples of practice in the form of a collection of mini-case studies and imaginary scenarios to help communicate what TL looks like in practice;
  • Work towards developing a workshop for the next Learning & Teaching Conference in June;
  • Continue to meet every six weeks and make it easy for others to join and participate in the group.

What you can do

The TL SIG invites you to engage with it by contacting us through LEAD (! Teaching Essentials).  Specifically, the group needs,

  • Your questions about Transformative Learning so we can build an FAQ;
  • Mini-case studies or examples of teaching practice that demonstrate how you challenge your students’ beliefs and support them to develop their critical thinking;
  • Let us know if you have experience in using Rich Pictures or similar methods that may be helpful in analysing ideas as a basis for TL;
  • Your experience and ideas.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1999). Creating contexts for learning and self-authorship. Vanderbilt University Press

Mezirow’s,  J. & Associates (2000). Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory in progress. Jossey-Bass.

Yorke, M. & Knight, P. (2004). Self-theories: some implications for teaching and learning in higher education, Studies in Higher Education 29(1): 25–37.

Questions discussed by the group

The group considered some of the following questions. You may want to explore them with your own colleagues.

  • The word transformation – what images come to mind?
  • Transformational learning – what images come to mind?
  • What do the above terms mean for your subject discipline?
  • What do the above terms mean for your students?
  • What might the terms mean for staff?
  • Is TL universally positive or are there possible downsides that need to be considered?
  • Can you share any examples of transformational and/or transformative learning?
  • What experience do you have of transformation or transformational learning?
  • What are the opportunities for TL at SHU?
  • What are the barriers and constraints to TL at SHU and how can these be overcome?
  • What are the implications for adult education practice?

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