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Focus On Basics

Volume 2, Issue D ::: December 1998

NCSALL's Research Findings: Transformational Learning in Adulthood

by Kathryn Portnow, Nancy Popp, Maria Broderick, Eleanor Drago-Severson, and Robert Kegan
The Transformational Learning Project (TLP) is one of many research projects under the umbrella of NCSALL. Our particular focus is on the process of transformational learning in adulthood. In this paper we describe our project and its goals, then provide a brief introduction to the theoretical framework on which our work is based.

Project Focus

The TLP makes a distinction between informational and transformational learning. In our view, informational learning is learning that primarily focuses on the acquisition of more skills and an increased fund of knowledge, with what a person knows. We define transformational learning as learning that not only increases knowledge, but more importantly, leads to deep and pervasive shifts in the learner's perspective and understanding. A quick example of this distinction, drawn from the cognitive realm, involves the difference between concrete and abstract thinking. If one is bound by concrete thinking in the study of, let us say, history, then further learning might involve the mastery of more historical facts, events, characters, and outcomes; but further learning might also involve the development of a capacity to think abstractly so that one can ask more general, thematic questions about the facts, or consider the perspectives and biases of those who wrote the historical account creating the "facts." Both kinds of learning are expansive and valuable, one within a pre-existing frame of mind, and the other reconstructing the very frame. The first we call informational learning; the second we call transformational.

In our view, transformational learning relates to the expansion or enhanced complexity in the very way people understand the world and their experiences. It focuses on changes in how people know. We link adult growth and competence in one's role as parent, worker, or learner to transformational change, not informational change.

As a group of developmental psychologists interested in adult development, we hold the notion that most adults in mainstream American culture are "in over their heads" (Kegan, 1994) when it comes to meeting the demands of modern life, e.g., balancing and prioritizing the multiple tasks, expectations, and roles associated with being an adult. Furthermore, we believe that the pervasive shifts that occur in transformational learning help adult students to more fully and broadly integrate in their lives the basic facts and skills gathered via informational learning. In this way, what students learn may be more transferable, generalizable, and flexible within and across the roles of adulthood.

From our research on adult basic education learners' internal experience of change within their educational programs, we hope to learn more about and gain a better understanding of how the processes of transformation actually occur. Our hope is to deepen knowledge about how to best promote and support the process of learning, transformation, and role competency in adults by bringing our theoretical perspective to this research on adult basic education. Our developmental framework is relatively new (Kegan, 1982) and, as such, it has not been widely applied to different populations. Consequently, we are hoping to learn how our theoretical framework applies to and may be informed by an adult literacy population, comprised of minority populations and non-native speakers of English. At the broadest level we seek to support all adults in enhancing their capacities for managing the complexities of work and life.

Our project explores transformational learning in three adult roles worker, parent, and formal learner in three distinct settings: an adult diploma program at Polaroid Corporation of Waltham, Massachusetts, run by the Continuing Education Institute (CEI) of Watertown, Massachusetts; the Cambridge Even Start Family Literacy Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) in Charlestown, Massachusetts. We selected these sites for our research because each has a long-standing history of excellence and a very student-centered philosophy. Of the four data collection sessions we plan at Polaroid, we completed the first in April, 1998, and the second in September, 1998. Of the three data collection sessions we plan at BHCC, we completed the first in October, 1998. And of the three data collection sessions we plan at the family literacy site, we also completed the first in October, 1998. We are interviewing approximately 15 to 20 students in each site, for a total of 54 students. We will return to Polaroid in February, 1999; to BHCC in December 1998; and to the family literacy site in March, 1999, to continue our data collection. We plan final data collection sessions at each site in June and July of 1999.

Process-Based Study

In each of the three research settings, we are talking individually with all learners to hear from them, in their own words, about what is most helpful and matters most to them in their learning. We also hope to hear about any experiences that the learners have had that felt pivotal to them in some way and led to a change in perspective, perhaps an "aha!" moment, if they can identify one. We wish to learn about the students' internal experiences of change to understand how to promote and support the process of transformation. Our project is a process-based study: we are interested in the processes of the students' learning, more than in the content of what they learn. To this end we are following the students through the process of their experience in these three programs over a nine to 12 month period. We will be tracking their motivations for learning, their expectations for themselves and their teachers, their sense of themselves in their respective roles. Our purpose is to better understand what the actual processes of transformation look like, and what supports or enhances these kinds of transformations in adult literacy learners.

Ways of Understanding in Adulthood

Instrumental Way of Understanding

  • Defined by one's self-interest, concrete needs, purposes, plans and wants
  • Characterized by dualistic thinking, concerns with concrete consequences:
    "Will I get caught/punished? How can I get the things I want? Will I lose my job?"
  • Others are seen as either obstacles or pathways to getting one's own concrete needs met.
  • Reliance on rules. Not capable of abstract thought.
  • The Golden Rule = "I'll do to you what you do to me."

Socializing Way of Understanding

  • Self defined by opinions and expectations of others.
  • Feels empathy; feels responsible for others' feelings; holds others responsible for own feelings.
  • Concerned with abstract psychological consequences: "Am I still a good person? Do you still like/love/value me? Do I still belong?"
  • Intolerant of ambiguity. Reliance on external authority.
  • Capable of abstract thinking, thinking about thinking.
  • Criticism experienced as destructive to the self.
  • The Golden Rule = "I should do for you what I hope and need and expect you should do for me."

Self-Authoring Way of Understanding

  • Self defined by its own internal authority.
  • Can hold contradictory feelings simultaneously.
  • Concerned with consequences for personal integrity and meeting one's own standards: "Am I competent? Am I living/working/loving up to my full potential?
  • Am I upholding my own values and standards?" Integrates others' perspectives, including criticism and other perspectives according to own internally generated standards and values.
  • Reliance on own authority. The Golden Rule = "Doing for each other supports each of us in meeting our own self-defined values, ideals, and goals and helps preserve the social order."

- Popp & Portnow (1998)

To gather this information, we use a variety of interviews and data collection tools in one-on-one meetings with each participant. In one interview we ask our participants specifically about their prior and current learning experiences; in another, we explore how participants make sense of themselves and the world. In yet another interview, we ask participants to create maps or pictures of how they sees themselves in the specific role of the setting. We also present a problem-solving dilemma relevant to their role. We conduct these interviews with each learner at the beginning and end of the program, and a subset of these interviews in the middle of the program. We are also holding periodic focus groups and classroom observations to learn more about the cohorts' collective experience in the program. In addition, we are interviewing the teachers to compare their expectations and practices with the learners' key experiences. We take the position that the learners and teachers are experts on their own experience and have much to teach us about what works best.

Each program is organized around a strong cohort model: the same group of student go through the program together. Program directors have told us that the cohort experience seems to encourage student retention. For those students who do drop out, we will conduct follow-up interviews with them to the extent that it is possible. Students are compensated for the time they spend being interviewed with us. We believe that this is a respectful way to thank the students for their time and help, and that such recognition may encourage students to remain in the project.

Basic Principles

Our project on transformational learning in adulthood is based on research conducted over the last 20 years that has taught us that clear links exist between children's and adult's development (Basseches, 1984; Belenky et al., 1986; Commons, 1984; Daloz, 1986; Kegan, 1982, 1994; Kohlberg, 1984; Piaget, 1952; Selman, 1980; Weathersby, 1976). Two basic principles from this research will orient the reader to our developmental view of adulthood.

The first principle is that development is a lifelong process. The same processes that underlie children's development continue throughout adulthood. Adults' minds continue to grow and become more complex. The research shows that development is gradual and that it varies within and across individuals. We can all see in our observations of children that development is a slow and evolving process. The same is true of adult development. While some theorists (Erikson, 1963; Gould, 1978; Levinson, et al., 1978; Neugarten, 1968; Sheehey, 1976) define development in terms of age and life phase, e.g. adolescence, adulthood, middle age, old age, the processes of development we look at have been shown to be independent of both age and phase (Beukema, 1990; Broderick, 1996; Goodman, 1983; Guido, 1994; Kegan, 1982, 1994; Popp, 1993; Portnow, 1996; Sonnenshein, 1990; Stein, 1991). Developmental transformations can take years to occur, and every person moves at a different and unique pace.

Learner's Understanding of Education

Instrumental Way of Understanding

  • "What's in it for me?"
  • Knowledge is a kind of "possession," an accumulation of skills, facts and actions which yield solutions; a means to an end. -You "get it" and then you "have it."
  • Knowledge is right or wrong.
  • Knowledge comes from external authority which tells you the right skills, facts, and rules you need to produce the results to get what you want.
  • Knowledge helps one meet one's own concrete needs and goals, and obtain instrumental outcomes
  • Education is to get X.

Socializing Way of Understanding

  • "What do you think I should know?"
  • Knowledge is general information which one should know for the required social roles and to meet expectations of teachers/authorities. Knowledge is equated with objective truth.
  • Knowledge comes from higher authorities and experts who hand down truth and understanding. Authorities and experts are the source of the legitimate knowledge and informed opinions.
  • Knowledge helps one to meet cultural and social expectations, gain acceptance, and entry into social roles and feel a sense of belonging.
  • Education is to be X.

Self-authoring Way of Understanding

  • "What do I want to know; what is important to me to keep learning and growing?"
  • Knowledge is understood as a construction, truth, a matter of context. Bodies of knowledge and theories are seen as models for interpreting, and analyzing experience.
  • Knowledge comes from one's interpretation and evaluation of standards, values, perceptions, deductions, and predictions. Knowledge comes from a self-generated curiosity and sense of responsibility for one's own learning.
  • Knowledge helps to enrich one's life, to achieve a greater competence according to one's own standards, to deepen one's understanding of self and world; to participate in the improvement of society.
  • Education is to become X.

(Adapted from R. Weathersby, A Synthesis of Research and Theory on Adult Development: Its Implications for Adult Learning and Postsecondary Education, 1976. pp. 88-89)

The second principle is that development is more than the accumulation of new information and skills; rather it is a qualitative change in the very ways that adults know and make sense of their world. It is, again, a kind of learning that leads to deep and pervasive shifts in one's perspective and understanding of oneself, one's relationships and one's goals. As stated earlier, we link adult growth to transformational change, not informational change.

Ways of Understanding in Adulthood

In our research, we use as an organizing framework the three developmental levels that are most common in adulthood. These levels represent three broadly different ways of understanding and interpreting one's experience. These three developmental levels, like each of those in childhood, are sequential and qualitatively distinct from each other. Each has its own logic, while building on and integrating each previous level. We refer to these as the Instrumental Way of Understanding; the Socializing Way of Understanding; and the Self-Authoring Way of Understanding (Kegan, 1982, 1994, Kegan & Lahey, in preparation). These levels are described in the box below.

A given way of understanding may influence one's experience of oneself, others, and events. It may frame how one defines and understands one's many adult roles. In our research, we are concerned with how these ways of understanding affect the ways in which adults think about themselves as workers, parents and learners. For example, one's way of understanding shapes what one sees as one's responsibilities as a student and how one thinks about what makes a good student. It frames one's conceptions of what knowledge is. One's way of understanding frames one's motives and goals for learning, fashioning what one wants from one's education and what one expects from oneself and one's teachers.

While there are many differences in the ways that individuals using different ways of understanding construct their expectations, goals, and motives for learning, there is also a great deal of regularity in the ways people using the same way of understanding experience these things. Below is a table which describes how different developmental ways of understanding may impact one's view of education. This table suggests how these ways of understanding might affect a person's definition of knowledge, understanding of the source of knowledge, and sense of the goals and purpose of education.

Linking Theory and Practice

We believe that the demands on adults often outpace their current level of development. In modern American culture, as educators, as fellow adults, we all have expectations about what adults should be able to do and how they should be able to do it. Often these expectations go unexamined and are beyond what an individual adult has the capacity to do. The usefulness of our developmental framework lies in the insight it provides into the kinds of expectations held for adults and how the adult might be meeting or not meeting those expectations. In collaboration with the National Institute for Literacy's Equipped for the Future initiative (see box), we have created the Developmental Skills Matrices to give a clearer picture of how one might use our developmental framework in a very practical way to help clarify our expectations and our students' capacities. The following excerpt from one of the skill matrices describes how specific skills in a particular context in this case, the skills recommended for working together effectively might be understood and enacted by someone in each of the three ways of understanding described above.

Equipped for the Future and the Transformational Learning Project

For the last two years, the Transformational Learning Project team has been working collaboratively with the National Institute for Literacy's Equipped for the Future initiative. The purpose of our collaboration is to integrate our developmental perspective with EFF's new customer-driven framework for adult literacy and lifelong learning.

Equipped for the Future (EFF) is a collaborative, standards-based system reform initiative. The goal of EFF is to focus the literacy system on producing results that matter to our students, our communities, and our funders. To achieve this goal, EFF has worked with partners in 17 states across the country to develop a set of Adult Performance Standards that "define what adults need to know and be able to do in order to carry out their roles as parents and family members, citizens and community members, and workers" (EFF: A New Framework for Adult Learning, Field Development Institute Manual, February, 1998, p.3). These standards are based on adults' self-defined learning needs as parents, workers, and citizens.

The TLP and EFF share a common interest in conceptualizing adult literacy as something bigger than the acquisition of basic skills. Both are working to reframe adult literacy and lifelong learning to focus on adult competence, broadly conceived. While the TLP's three research settings are not EFF partner sites, our teams maintain an ongoing, mutually informative collaboration in which we explore the theoretical, conceptual, and research interests of both projects. The TLP also participates in EFF's working sessions and field institutes.

A specific contribution of the TLP team to EFF's efforts in developing an assessment framework for the new Standards of Adult Performance is the creation of the Developmental Skill Matrices. These matrices show the different ways in which the same skills may be understood, performed, or enacted, very differently at each of the developmental levels of adulthood. The matrices will provide a map for literacy educators and administrators that helps them understand the ways in which their students make sense of things. Using it, they can design programs and learning situations that engage students and help them achieve their goals by taking into account the students' struggles and more effectively building on students' real strengths. In addition, TLP and EFF hope to join forces to offer a Teacher Training Institute in the summer, 2000, that integrates what has been learned from both projects.

For more info on EFF contact: Sondra Stein, EFF Project Director, NIFL, 800 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC, 20006.

One question adult literacy practitioners have asked us is how to work with students who may be at different levels of literacy skills. In response, we first wonder whether these learners are not just different in their skill level but are, in fact, bound by different ways of understanding as suggested by the above matrix. In our view, one way to work with adult learners of varying levels is to think about how we, as educators, can create learning environments that appropriately support and challenge adults who may have different ways of understanding. We know that optimal learning environments do several critical things (Daloz, 1986; Drago-Severson, 1996; Kegan, 1982, 1994; Kegan & Lahey, in preparation). First, optimal learning environments offer a good mix of support and challenge. Support is defined as joining, affirming or acknowledging where a person is, how s/he thinks or feels. We define challenge as gently challenging how a person feels and thinks with the hope of raising questions, pushing the limits of one's current ways of thinking and exposing the learner to new perspectives.

Second, optimal learning environments consider and take into account the match between the expectations of the program and the readiness of the learner. In our view, learning is enhanced when there is a good match between the learner's way of understanding and the implicit developmental demands of the curriculum. Here we are speaking about paying attention to what way of understanding the curriculum requires of the learner. We know, for example, that if a program's expectations aim too high, a learner may feel demoralized or overwhelmed and retreat. Conversely, if a program's expectations are aimed too low, then a student may become bored and disengaged. Thus, knowledge of both a student's way of understanding and the implicit developmental demands of the program may help educators to support and challenge students even more effectively (Daloz, 1986; Kegan, 1982, 1994; Kegan & Lahey, in preparation).

Ongoing Thoughts

As we progress through this research, we are already hearing from the students and their teachers that they have experienced meaningful changes in the ways that they think and feel about themselves as a result of being in their respective programs. Students are telling us that they are already feeling more confident about sharing their opinions, and speaking up for themselves. Some students have told us that they feel that their classes are helping them to do their jobs better and to become better people. In the fall of 2000, at the end of our project, we hope to present a rich portrait of the different kinds of changes the students have experienced in their participation in these educational programs. From these portraits will hopefully emerge a clearer map which highlights and illuminates the complexities of the processes of transformation. With this knowledge, we, as educators, might even more effectively support the growth of adults as life-long learners through the 21st century.

Developmental Perspectives on Working Together
(Popp, 1998)





Perspectives on Working Together

Everybody doing their job and doing it the right way

Forming an identity as a group with a common, mutal goal that everyone is in agreement with

A complex network of people of differing values, opinions, experience and perspective joining together for a common purpose

Decision-Making Skills

Decisions and issues have a right and wrong aspect with no in-between; there is a right way and a wrong way to do things

Decision needs group consensus or agreement, and it is necessary to arrive at one agreed upon group decision

Decisions have many possible paths; coming to them is an exploration of many options; there is not necessarily one "best" decision, but many possible decision, each with pros and cons

Interpersonal Skills

Cooperates by arguing or persuading others to agree to the right thing to do and the right way to do it; "right" being dictated by the rules

Cooperates by trying to build agreement; minimize conflict, disagreement and differences

Cooperates by ensuring that everyone's voice is heard, regardless of opinion; celebrates differences, makes room for all perspectives, works toward fair and workable compromises

Life-Long Learning Skills

Open to learning new facts, new concrete ways of doing things if it furthers concrete self-interests

Open to learning new ways of thinking and acting if it fits group ideology or already held beliefs, or if it furthers sense of belonging to the group

Open to engaging with new perspectives, challenging own assumptions, broadening own vision with new ideas and input

Communication Skills

Communicates by stating rules, opinions, concrete goals, facts; not concerned with theories, philosophies or others' feelings except as they impact on getting the job done

Communicates feelings, concern and sense of responsibility for others' feelings and experience; makes sure everyone understands and agrees with each other

Communicates feelings, ideas, philosophy in attempt to express own view within larger group, to explain and understand differences, similarities, and complexities of everyone's perspective



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About the Authors

Ellie Drago-Severson, Ed.D. is a lecturer in education, research associate, and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. In addition to her work with the Transformational Learning Project of NCSALL, Drago-Severson also teaches, writes, and consults to teachers and other school leaders on issues of supporting transformational professional development.

Maria Broderick, Ed.D. is lecturer on education and research associate at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she explores the relationship between personal development and professional competence.

Robert Kegan, Ph.D. is Professor of Education in the field of adult learning and professional development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  He is the Principal Investigator of the NCSALL project on Transformational Learning.  He is the author of In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life,
published by Harvard University Press.

Nancy Popp, Ed.D. is a postdoctoral fellow and research associate with the Transformational Learning Project of NCSALL at the Harvard Graduate School ofEducation. She also works as a Developmental Consultant to individuals and groups in awide array of professions bringing a transformational-developmental perspective to their work with adults.

Kathryn Portnow, Ed.D. is a postdoctoral fellow and research associate on the Transformational Learning Project of NCSALL at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is an Instructor in Human Development at the Wheelock College Center for Parenting Studies where she helps parent educators integrate theories of adult development into their work. Kathryn's additional research interests focus on cognitive and emotional self-confidence in adulthood. 

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL