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Transformative Learning

Although ideas surrounding transformative learning within formal academic settings have traditionally been associated with Jack Mezirow’s theory from the 1970s [1], the idea of learning that leads to life and vocational transformation has been a hallmark of theological education for millennia. In the Christian faith, for example, we encounter Paul’s use of the Greek concept of transformation (metamorphao) to convey this transformative learning process and goal in the lives of adult believers (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). Thus, in the eyes of both ancient and contemporary theorists, transformative learning is envisioned as a kind of learning that does more than simply extend the learner’s understanding into new informational domains. Transformative learning is connected rather with dramatic changes in self-understanding and worldview which mark a new trajectory in the way in which learners live their lives. 

So, how might designers craft learning experiences that facilitate life and ministry transformation in the lives of learners? James Smith suggests that an answer to this question can be found in the everyday practices and habits of life which cultivate our affections. Smith argues that it is our affections which ultimately impact what it is that we love, which in turn drives our behavior and our worship [2]. With these thoughts in mind, Horizon encourages designers to think in terms of holistic learning goals which focus on engaging the minds, hearts, and spirits of learners in regular habits which hold promise for desired life, work, and ministry transformation.  

Re-Forming Habits

Habits of the Mind – Unfortunately, our familiarity with cognitive learning goals often reinforces certain inherent problems with how designers approach course development. The temptation is to simply focus on identifying content that learners need to accomplish specific learning objectives. However, what is more significant to long-term learning is how learning designs may influence a learner’s ways of thinking. It is habits of the mind that offer the promise of helping learners meet unanticipated challenges they will face in the changing world in which they live, work, and minister. Contemporary research suggests a variety of these habits that hold potential to impact learners in transformative ways:

How might your learning activities cultivate one or more of these ways of thinking? Or, how might your learning design put your learners on a trajectory of learning that could enable them to grow in their abilities to analyze, evaluate, or even generate new knowledge? [3]

Habits of the Heart – Mark Schwehn has argued convincingly that contemporary academic models for higher learning in the West have comprehensively adopted the German research ideals of Max Weber, which confine education to the rational mind [4]. In so doing, we have abandoned our attention to the affective domain in learning, defining our educational goals simply in terms that can be scientifically measured. Unfortunately, our complete focus on the cognitive domain (even in theological education) has moved us away from what had been a foundational element in education before the 1900’s, namely, moral or character education. In theological education, we must ask whether our learning designs chiefly promote the acquisition of various bodies of knowledge rather than cultivating learning processes that form or re-form our learners’ love of God and their commitment to accomplishing his mission in the world. 

How might you create space in your learning design for cultivating habits of the heart that lead to life and ministry transformation? Take a look at the linked affective taxonomy adapted from Krathwohl, Bloom and Masia [5]. Consider how your design might move your learners from a willingness to receive (or listen to) the affective values you hope to instill, to actually internalizing these priorities within their own value systems. How you might make use of these ideas in building affective learning goals for your course? 

Habits of the Hands – Today, higher education uses the term competency to communicate a variety of ideas. However, at its core, the term competency refers to abilities or traits that enable one to perform certain expected roles and responsibilities. One example of competencies comes from a 2016 international study on leadership in which a top-ten set of competencies was organized into five overarching leadership themes. As you think about the intended competencies that are expected of your learners by the end of their programs, are there ways in which your learning activities might provide opportunities to practice these broader outcomes in your course? Take a look at the linked behavioral taxonomy adapted from Dave [6]. How might your learning design help learners move from one behavioral level to another such that they could eventually habitualize or master certain behavioral skills? 


[1] Mezirow, J. (1975). Education for perspective transformation: Women’s re-entry programs in community colleges. New York: Centre for Adult Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.

[2] Smith, J. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).

[3] Lorin W. Anderson and David R. Krathwohl, A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (New York: Longman, 2001).

[4] Schwehn, M. Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[5] David R. Krathwohl, Benjamin S. Bloom, and Bertram B. Masia, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook II: Affective Domain. (New York: David McKay Co., Inc., 1973).

[6] Ravindra H. Dave, “Psychomotor Levels” in Developing and Writing Behavioural Objectives, ed. Robert J. Armstrong (Tucson: Educational Innovators Press, 1975).