Use of Mezirow’s Adult Transformative Learning Theory in High School

It is usually some experience with “otherness” that becomes, as Mezirow explains, a “disorienting dilemma” which initiates the journey of social conscience. For this reason I frequently take students on service trips to China that provide such a striking contrast to their own lives.


The most practical way for me to help students to begin the journey of social conscience is to take them on service trips outside of Hong Kong.  Invariably, students have much to think about when they return from these trips and resume their normal lives.  While these experiences are often a vital first step, teachers need to ask how can these kinds of short-term experiences can most effectively move students towards long-term growth and even transformation.

Mezirow’s Theory in the High School Classroom

Fortunately, there is a helpful theoretical starting point to discuss such concepts related to long-term growth. In the 1970’s Columbia professor Jack Mezirow postulated his Adult Transformative Learning Theory; now more than 30 years later there is a journal, the Journal of Transformative Education, devoted to the study of this topic as well as annual conferences. The theory is also quite user-friendly. Here’s the framework:Image result for jack mezirow adult transformative learning theory

1) A disorienting dilemma,
2) self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt or shame,
3) a critical assessment of assumptions,
4) recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared,
5) exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions,
6) planning a course of action,
7) acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans,
8) provisionally trying new roles,
9) building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships,
10) a reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s perspective.

Steps 1-4 happens quite naturally on most service trips and, of course, it is vital that teachers process these experiences with their students. However, the real value of service experience needs to be developed in the long-term as students move through steps 5-10, which requires sustained attention from teachers. This is where schools need to do more. Students often come back and say, “My life has been changed,” but what I think they really mean is that they have had a temporary altered shift in perspective, and they desire to integrate this change into their daily life. However, reality sets back in and that glimpse of a new perspective is lost by their return to a busy routine. Teachers need to give students a place to continue this internal search for a new equilibrium. This is why integrated service learning program is far superior to one-off service outings.

It is important to note that Mezirow’s work explicitly states that this is an adult learning theory. However, my research found that genuine transformation can occur in high school. I was able to demonstrate that certainly some adolescents who take social conscience courses at HKIS go through what Mezirow calls a personal transformation. This is important for 21st century schools to consider, for the global challenges we face are so threatening that we need to offer students access to higher levels of consciousness at a younger age, so as to give them the chance to consider their own contributions to the global community earlier in life.

Debriefing a Service Trip Using Mezirow’s Theory


The most powerful experience in our Humanities I in Action class is our four-day, three-night trip to an orphanage in southern China. Students find the trip to be eye-opening, heart-breaking, and paradigm-shifting. When we return, students can be quite shaken by the experience. On our first day of debrief, I usually use the following Mezirow-derived questions to help students make sense of the trip.

  1. A disorienting dilemma: What was disturbing, disorienting, maybe even shocking to you as you think about the weekend? What moved you out of your comfort zone?
  2. Self-examination with feelings of guilt or shame: Do you feel any of these emotions or any other negative feelings now that you’re back in the ordinary world?
  3. A critical assessment of assumptions: Have you started to think about any ‘biq questions’ in your life as a result of the trip?
  4. Recognition that one’s discontent and process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change: Do you have anyone to share your experience with? Did you have or have you had valuable conversations with students (or teachers) on the trip that have helped you make sense of the experience?
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions: Have any of you gotten beyond simply asking ‘big questions’ (#3) and started exploring new ways of acting or living as a result of the trip?

This set of questions has proven to be very effective in helping students make sense of this powerful experience.  Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 9.16.52 AM

The Joy of Transformative Learning

Finally, it is important for teachers to understand that while the initial emotions involving experiences like the one above, as Mezirow notes in his theory, are what we consider “negative” emotions: disorientation, confusion guilt, shame, helplessness, hopelessness, etc., the process itself leads towards transformation.

Thus, teachers should feel inspired that such an all-encompassing learning theory has the potential to direct students as young as high school age towards a path that can lead to lives of purpose and joy.  Perhaps no statement better summarizes the vision of transformative learning than that of O’Sullivan (2003):

Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race and gender; our body awarenesses, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our sense of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy.

O’Sullivan describes not only the great change that teachers of service-learning oftentimes witness in their work, but also speaks to the intuitions and rewards experienced by educators when study and service are successfully integrated. This is the “pearl of great price” for social conscience educators.


O’Sullivan, E. (2003). Bringing a perspective of transformative learning to globalized consumption. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 27, 326–330.

Note: The feature image above comes from a trip some years ago when which a group of HKIS teachers, parents, and students visited western Guangdong Province in southern China to meet and support scholarship winners.  Teacher Bill Jordan (in foreground) trained students as clowns to entertain students at a school we were visiting.

Additional information on this site:

  • To gain an overview of my research, visit “What is Social Conscience?”
  • To read my literature review about the roles of the social conscience educator, which includes a reference to Mezirow’s work, click here.
  • To read a summary of my research findings about the roles of the social conscience educator, click here.

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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3 Responses to Use of Mezirow’s Adult Transformative Learning Theory in High School

  1. Pingback: The Yin-Yang Symbol as Curricular Model: A Transformative Approach to Christian Education in Asia | Social Conscience Education

  2. Pingback: Education for Transformation: Introducing Humanities I in Action | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  3. Pingback: “Creating Humanities II in Action: Our Story” by Matthea Najberg, Jonathan Chung, and Nicole Lim | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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