Transformative Learning

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“This is task-oriented training. It doesn’t need to change their world. They just need to know how to do the task.” – Anonymous Team Lead

“I was voluntold to do this. I don’t think that it will work, and I’m not really interested in doing any more than I have to.” – Anonymous Individual Contributor

“Transformative learning is touchy-feely and inappropriate for the workplace.” – Anonymous Manager

Your organization is going through a huge conversion. A new ERP system will be rolled out across the organization. There’s talk about eliminating silos and creating a single source of truth. Employees are worried that they are going to be made redundant by a system that promises efficiency, transparency, and a third “ncy” that no one can remember. Everyone will have to learn how to use the new system, or they will be free to seek other opportunities elsewhere. It all sounds bad. Really bad. Your learning and development team has the task of preparing training for the new system. It’s complicated. No one’s seen it yet. You’re worried because 37% of the employees have been with the company for ten years or more using Excel, Word, and other desktop applications to maintain everything from inventory to safety data. Information is deeply siloed and a source of individual power in the company. These will not be receptive learners. What will you do?

Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative learning theory has received a lot of attention in the workplace lately with the focus on diversity and inclusion because of Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and other social movements demanding that society and our workspaces reflect and respect a wide variety of ethnicities, beliefs, and lifestyles. The collaborative, community-based learning style of transformative learning seems tailor-made for reflective thought about attitudes and interactions with other people. Transformative learning seeks to create a change of heart that will result in a perspective transformation for learners. But is the theory useful for creating other types of learning experiences in the workplace?

Jack Mezirow, the father of transformative learning, described it as “an orientation which holds that the way learners interpret and reinterpret their sense experience is central to making meaning and hence learning.” It is a psycho-critical constructivist approach to learning that focuses on how individuals build knowledge by disassembling and reassembling their beliefs and assumptions to create new meaning for themselves. Though transformational learning was not originally conceived for workplace learning, it did address many of the schemata changes, meaning rearranging, and a reflection that is necessary to successfully navigate change. There is a dearth of research on transformative learning in the workplace. However, a strong argument can be made for the value of transformative learning as an integral piece of a successful change management project.

Transformative Learning Process

Transformative learning begins with a disorienting dilemma or experience. This is the cornerstone of transformative learning. A disorienting experience or dilemma is an event that challenges an individual’s assumptions about their beliefs, personal schemata, or their place in the world. During the 1980s, there were massive layoffs in the American automotive industry as automation was introduced into the manufacturing process. The industry’s mostly-coercive approach (“my way or the highway”) devastated individual careers, families, and communities. The fallout from this approach is still being felt in the American manufacturing sector.

The next nine phases of transformative learning can be arranged into four process groups: experience, critical reflection, reflective discourse, and action. As instructional designers, we are tempted to focus on the action phase. Don’t ignore the emotional and social aspects of change that are vital to the experience, critical reflection, and reflective discourse. Incorporating all ten steps of the transformative learning process will build a solid foundation for skill transfer. It also presents an opportunity to reassure and validate learners and make them feel like they have agency in the learning process.

Transformative learning seeks to meet learners where they are and create a collaborative learning experience. It’s no longer an individual’s disorienting dilemma but a community navigating change together. A learning experience engaging employees rather than making an adversary of them is the best approach for training in a hostile environment. Remember the hearts and minds? Objective reframing and cognitive realignment help learners see themselves and their situations differently. Engagement should be at the forefront of the ID’s mind. To accomplish this, you will have to work closely with the change management team if your organization has one. If not, this is an excellent time to get acquainted with change management and work to incorporate it into the learning experience.

Advice For Instructional Designers

So when the new ERP system is announced, the main question isn’t: How will we train everyone on this new system? First, find out what your audience is asking: Why does this have value for me? How will this help me? Is this happening because the company thinks I’m doing a bad job? Don’t avoid these questions. Seek them out and engage employees. Training is an opportunity for conversation with managers, supervisors, and individual contributors as well as conveying essential skills. As ID practitioners, we can be agents of change that will build an organizational culture adaptive and agile with employees encouraged to advocate for themselves and take charge of their future. It is an opportunity to explain the why as well as the how, and to help employees redefine themselves and their roles in a new and uncertain environment.

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