Transformative Learning

The Power of “Disorienting Dilemmas”

Icon squareby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

As regular readers of this blog know, the Reinert Center is spending the academic year focused on the theme of transformative learning. We’re offering a set of workshops and web-based resources that can help faculty and graduate students to create transformative learning experiences for their students.

However, we also recognize that teaching can be a transformative learning experience for instructors, as well. Often, this happens when we encounter a significant disruption in our expectations — a class discussion takes an unexpected and challenging turn, a student encounter in office hours reveals an unexamined bias, a discovery in our research unsettles our whole way of conceptualizing a unit in our course. Such disruptions often involve a shift in perspective; when this occurs, we rarely can go back to our old ways of proceeding.

One essential concept in transformative learning theory is that of the “disorienting dilemma.” Mezirow’s foundational work (2000) lays out 10 “phases” of transformative learning, which originate with some kind of “disorienting dilemma” — an experience that challenges one’s current beliefs/understanding and – importantly – requires a fundamental shift in perspective in order to resolve the dilemma.

For Mezirow, encountering a disorienting dilemma leads to transformation when that encounter is followed closely by other phases, including self-examination of the feelings associated with the encounter, critical assessment of assumptions, exploration of options, planning a course of action, building capacity to pursue that course of action, practice with new perspectives or roles, and, ultimately, an integration of the new perspective into one’s life (summarized from Roberts, 2006). Educators in Jesuit contexts will likely hear echoes of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm in these phases.

As we head into the winter break, we invite you to use the lens of transformative learning to reflect back on your semester. Devoting some quiet reflection time to the following questions may help you move from “disorienting dilemma” to “transformative learning”:

Were there any “disorienting dilemmas” in your teaching this semester? A disruptive moment in class or in conversation with a student that brought you to up to the edge of your own comfort?

What happened in this situation? What are the textures and details of this story?

How did you feel in the moment? How do you feel now, looking back on the experience?

What assumptions did you have leading up to that experience? In what ways were those disrupted?

What are some alternative ways you could have responded in the moment, or afterward?

What kinds of knowledge or skills would you need to respond differently next time? When and how might you cultivate those knowledge and skills?

Finally, what do you know or understand today that you didn’t then? How will this new knowledge change your teaching going forward?

As you look ahead to next term, let us know if we can help you take action based on these reflections.


Relevant Resources

Cranton, P. (2006). Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning. (2nd edition)

Mezirow, J., & Associates. (1990). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997 (74): 5–12.

Mezirow, J., & Associates. (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Roberts, N. (2006). Disorienting dilemmas: Their effects on learners, impact on performance, and implications for adult educators. In M. S. Plakhotnik & S. M. Nielsen (Eds.), Proceedings of the Fifth Annual College of Education Research Conference: Urban and International Education Section (pp. 100-105). Miami: Florida International University. Retrieved 12/4/17: