Transformational learning revisited

Theo Dawson
8 min readNov 15, 2018


I received the following inquiry earlier today, and after responding to its author, decided it would be worth sharing.

“I’ve just come across ‘vertical development’ through a Colleague who went on a course with [Company name]. I’ve been looking into it more and it seems far more valuable than mere skills-based learning. Your post [about transformational learning] has made me think twice though.” –Jean

Jean sent me an article about a vertical development course in which the authors claim that vertical development (transformative) is different from horizontal development (boring old mundane learning) because it involves undergoing a transformation. Transformation is accomplished by unlocking things inside of us, and is likely to trigger fear, loss, and vulnerability. This transformation, which is very personal (sacred?), cannot be detected by others—at least, not until months or years have passed.

The article brought up three important questions for me.

  1. What does vertical development mean? Where does the idea that there are two kinds of learning—vertical and horizontal come from?
  2. What are the origins of the particular notion of vertical development espoused in the article sent by Jean?
  3. When did lack of evidence become a bragging point?

Vertical Development

Vertical development does not have an agreed-upon meaning. In this particular case it appears to involve ego development and the idea that vertical development is the sexy transformative opposite of horizontal development, which is barely worth mentioning. This way of thinking about learning and development is what developmentalists call a “downward assimilation” — a misunderstanding that takes a complex idea and simplifies it in a way that changes its meaning. The original idea came from Jean Piaget—Time Magazine’s pick for most important psychologist of the 20th century.

In Piaget’s model, the so-called horizontal bit (assimilation) was essential for the vertical bit (accommodation), and the process of learning & development involved a constant dance between the two. (This, too, is an oversimplified explanation, but it’s closer to the original idea.) Piaget would never have suggested that one of these processes was better than the other or could be accomplished independently of the other. And the only transformations he was interested in involved the ways in which ideas resulting from accommodation were different from the ideas they were built upon.

Mezirow, “vertical” development, & ego psychology

Mezirow is the father of transformational learning theory. He distinguished between two types of learning. He called the first, instrumental learning. This could loosely be described as learning about facts or “learning to do.” He held that this kind of learning can be validated through empirical evidence or informed consensus. He called the second type of learning communicative. This type of learning involves critical reflection and involves meaning making in the ethical domain. For Mezirow, the meaning of critical reflection in this context is different from the meaning in the case of instrumental learning. In the case of communicative learning, critical reflection includes a critique of presuppositions. Communicative learning can only be validated through critical (and provisional) informed consensus. (Note that informed consensus plays a role in instrumental learning as well.)

So, one of the implications is that we can measure the truth value of some instrumental knowledge, but we can never measure the truth value of communicative knowledge. Please note that Mezirow did not claim that “It’s all good.” He was not a radical relativist. On the contrary, he, like Habermas and Freire, proposed processes for validating truths in the ethical domain. Also note that Mezirow is not claiming that transformations cannot be measured. What can’t be measured is the truth value of a claim.

Mezirow’s perspective on learning, along with the perspectives of other critical theorists, including Habermas and Freire, have informed the development of VCoL+7. However, unlike Mezirow, we have given critical reflection (including the critique of presuppositions) a key role in all learning.

Mezirow’s conception of transformation comes directly from Piagetian theory. Like Kohlberg, Armon, Kitchener & King, and Fischer, he proposed levels of development beyond Piaget’s formal operations, governed by the same developmental mechanisms involved in learning in childhood and adolescence. Transformational learning refers to the type of change in thinking that is associated with the movement from one developmental level or stage to another. In Piaget’s theory, this type of change can take place at both micro (everyday learning), and macro (stage change) levels. Piaget called learning that involved transformation (qualitative changes in one’s way of thinking) accommodation. Assimilation was the name he gave to learning that involves fitting new knowledge into an existing way of thinking (Piaget). Again, this is an extreme oversimplification. Mezirow borrowed part of Piaget’s process, accommodation, and renamed it transformation. In doing so, he seemed to ignore much of the nuance of Piagetian theory, including the following: (1) In Piagetian theory all learning involves transformation, and (2) accumulative and transformative processes are interdependent.

Loss of nuance and outright distortions of Piagetian theory and even Mezirow’s theory are abundant in the adult development space. They include (1) common conceptions of vertical and horizontal development, (2) the idea that so-called vertical development is primarily about ego development, and the (3) idea that transformational learning cannot be measured.

Conceptions of vertical and horizontal development

In Piagetian theory, accommodation (qualitative change) and assimilation (accumulative change) are interdependent processes, not two kinds of learning. In adult learning circles, this idea has been distorted. Qualitative change has become vertical development and accumulative change has become horizontal development. These are viewed as different kinds of learning, and vertical is considered better. This re-conception is not only a misunderstanding of Piagetian theory, it is a misunderstanding of Mezirow’s misunderstanding of Piagetian theory.

Vertical development equals ego development

Like the authors of the article Jean sent me, many practitioners in the adult development space appear to think that cognitive development equals ego development. This is weird, because developmental science has focused on just about every domain of knowledge and experience. Self-understanding and ego development are in the mix, but represent only a small percentage of the research.

Interestingly, in the adult learning space, it is often claimed that ego development is not cognitive. This, too is strange, considering the extensive use of concepts from cognitive developmental theory. The claim may stem from a tendency to conflate developmental theory and ego psychology, assuming that similar terminology employed in the two research traditions—such as the term development—equals similar meanings. (The word development means quite different things in these two traditions.) In the applied adult development community, concepts from ego psychology are often tacked on to ideas from cognitive science as though there is this kind of shared meaning. This is apparent in the article Jean sent me, which mushes together developmental ideas from Mezirow’s theory and ego psychology. For example, the idea that there are things locked inside of us that need to be surfaced comes directly from ego psychology. In fact, the article described more of a group therapy session than a learning experience per-se, but that’s another issue.

One of the biggest misunderstandings that have emerged from this mushing together of different research traditions is the idea that people can be moved from one developmental stage to another during a weekend engaged in transformational learning. My colleagues and I have been measuring development for 21 years and have never seen a case of such a magical event. Learning and development is slow. In fact, trying to speed it up can slow it down even more. The best way to build understanding, insight, and skill is with processes like micro-VCoLing that honor the way the brain is designed to learn. Adults don’t move from one developmental level to the next just because their ideas have been challenged, they need to build a knowledge network that can support the concepts and skills of the next level. They move to the next level because they are ready. The point of educational efforts should be helping them to get ready.

Transformational learning cannot be measured

In the article Jean sent me, the authors claim that transformative learning can’t be measured. I’ve heard this before. I suspect that this claim may stem from a misunderstanding of Mezirow’s assertion that truth claims made through communicative learning cannot be measured. But it could be that this is just an awfully convenient way to avoid having to provide evidence for the efficacy of an educational offering.

There are even test developers who claim that their tests are so advanced that they are immune from validation. Guess where they got that idea…

Of course, all a claim that transformation can’t be measured really means is that there isn’t a shred of evidence that it’s occurred. At best, program developers may have exit surveys showing that their course made people feel transformed. But making people feel transformed isn’t much more than a carnival trick—a manipulative application of human psychology that’s been around for a very long time. This is bad enough, but it isn’t the only thing going on here. The authors of the article Jean sent me are also leveraging positive attribution bias by telling people that positive changes in their behavior downstream will be the result of attending their workshop. This is a nonsensical and entirely unsupportable claim.

In sum

Now you know why my colleagues and I try to avoid the term, “vertical development.” Its common meaning does not fit with our perspective on learning and development.

I guess the big message here is “buyer beware.” Complex psychological theories are difficult to translate into educational offerings. They often lose a great deal in the translation, leading to unsupportable claims and sometimes even dangerous practices—like so-called educational experiences that are actually group therapy sessions offered by unlicensed practitioners. If it sounds too good to be true, up your diligence. If there is no evidence behind claims, don’t expect results. If it sounds like therapy, check credentials.

I was unable to answer the third question posed at the beginning of this article. I don’t know when lack of evidence became a bragging point. It may have been at around the same time that alternate facts came on the scene, but it seems more likely that the two ideas have a shared evolutionary history. They represent the kind of “It’s all good,” radical relativism that became a meme in the 1980s. (Meme in the original sense of the term.) Ironically, the work of scholars like Mezirow, Habermas, and Freire, none of whom were radical relativists and all of whom emphasized high-quality communication and thought, is often used to justify forms of radical relativism and the sloppy thinking that comes with them. Argh.

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Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.