When most students think about learning, they think in terms of facts retained that can then be recalled and articulated on exams. Transformative learning and critical thinking are two theories of learning that go beyond that, toward the idea that the goal of learning is a deep understanding of an issue or discipline. Both have as their main goal a process which results in what is called perspective transformation, or changing the way in which students think, not just what they can remember.

Transformative Learning Dimensions

Transformative learning aims to change the psychological, belief and behavioral thinking habits of students. To have undergone the transformation in your thinking, you would have changes in how you understand, first and foremost, yourself, or more specifically, your cognitive process. This is sometimes referred to as metacognition, or in critical thinking terms, thinking about thinking. You would also experience a rethinking of your belief systems as you take more perspectives into account, and finally, you would make lifestyle changes based on your learning.

Expanding Consciousness

Because transformative learning involves becoming more self-aware and more cognizant of your thinking processes, proponents of the theory argue that it results in an expansion of consciousness. Self-improvement is one of the intended results, as not only is your worldview affected, but you develop new ideas about self-limitations, or your capacity to learn and then act based on that learning. As a metacognitive process, it is related to psychology in that you should be able to consciously access and interpret your unconscious thoughts, which would lead to your being able to critically and rationally analyze your thinking for problems such as bias, agenda, lack of logic and preconceptions.

Critical Thinking

According to The Critical Thinking Community website, critical thinking has two major components: creating skills for processing information to generate a belief system based on that information, and acquiring skills and habits to change and guide your behavior. Like transformative learning, it stresses not rote memory and retention of facts, or "the mere acquisition and retention of information alone." Rather, both theories of learning emphasize a deep understanding of the knowledge and skills that you gain, with the end being your continual use of them, or your internalization of them. You cannot learn to play the piano merely by practicing scales; you need to understand music theory, practice actual songs -- useful skills -- and then use your internalization of skills and knowledge to compose music.


African American man dressing in bedroom

Transformative learning and critical thinking are both considered self-guided. They can be taught, or at least the skills that lead to transformation in thought processes can be, but more importantly, they must be practiced. In some respects, proponents of both theories may find themselves moving from educational to psychological theory, as they recommend self-discipline in thinking, using the practices of deep thinking to arrive at rational, objective, fair-minded conclusions. Both theories have as a goal the production of students who "attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically."

The Bottom Line

To say that you have undergone transformative learning is to say that you have experienced what theorists call "a deep, structural shift in basic premises of thought, feelings and actions." Unlike the traditional understanding of learning as being the ability to reproduce a set of learned actions when faced with a known situation, both transformative learning and critical thinking are intended to produce understanding. In other words, you would be able to face an unexpected situation and reason your way through it, even when its parameters and variables are such that you had never encountered them before, because you would be able to use all your knowledge to figure out similarities to known situations.