Transformative Experiences / Transformative Learning – what is it and how can we measure it?

image 2As part of a research project I have been delving into the world of transformative learning experiences in cultural institutions. So what is this concept and how can we measure it – both as a general concept and how it relates to an organisation’s strategic aims and content areas? This is the first in a series of posts around this topic, so watch this space.

Transformative Learning (TL)

TL is a theory originally introduced by Jack Mezirow in 1978, who was researching women returning to either postsecondary study or the workforce after an extended absence. Mezirow defined TL as “The process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience in order to guide future action” (1996, p.162). Patricia Cranton, an academic who has published widely in this field, defines TL as:

… the process by which people examine problematic frames of reference to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective and emotionally able to change. It can be provoked by a single event – a disorienting dilemma – or it can take place gradually and cumulative over time. … We need to engage in a conversation with others in order to better consider alternative perspectives and determine their validity” (Cranton, 2016, p.27,29).

And this:

There seems to be no doubt that transformative learning is voluntary. People may not always deliberately set out to critically question their beliefs and values; many times transformative learning is prompted by an outside event… (2016, p.6).

(transformative) Learning in museums

Constructivist learning is a theory widely employed in cultural institutions as a way to explain and measure museum learning (Hein, 1998, Kelly, 2011). The TL literature cited above supports the ideas around museum learning as a voluntary, social, active, immediate or long-term and a learner-centred process, based on an individual’s prior knowledge, interests and motivations.

Hein (1998) explained that constructivist exhibitions enhanced learning through enabling visitors to both validate and also re-think their own interpretations of a subject by allowing them to consider other interpretations, perspectives and ideas about a topic. Museum learning experiences provided under a constructivist framework would encourage learners to use both their hands and their minds to experiment with the world and reach their own conclusions, through choosing what they want to attend to (Kelly, 2011), and to (sometimes) take future action (Simon, 2017). Some specific examples of TL in museums can be found on my next blog post.

How to measure TL in museums / cultural institutions?

image 1

Visitors @Exploratorium, SF

Packer’s research with visitors to a range of institutions found that “Approximately 40% of visitors to the museum and interpretive centre made comments which indicated that their experience had been transformative to some extent” (2004, p.171). And “… there is considerable evidence … of deeper reflection, attitudinal challenge and personal change. Even those who come with no intention to learn are often drawn into an engaging and transformative learning experience by the fascinating, multi-sensory, effortless nature of the experience.” (p.180).

My next post looks at some examples of transformative learning from studies I have conducted in the past.

Where now?

I will be working with staff from the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House) to develop a set of indicators that demonstrate TL. We will be starting with their aim to offer a place for visitors “… that creates a sense of connection, welcome and enthusiasm”, with a vision to “… engage Australians in the importance of getting involved”. MoAD defines a transformative experience as (emphasis added):

One that will empower our visitors through an experience that is fun and/or meaningful where they can learn about democracy and the power of their voice within it.

MoAD’s Learning Team have developed a vision and set of guiding principles which we will be referencing as we start our journey of defining and measuring transformational learning – we’ll keep you posted!


Some online resources

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