An Integral Look at a Conference in Transformative Learning

January 2013 / Notes from the Field

Eric Reynolds

The 10th International Conference on Transformative Learning entitled A Future for Earth: Re-imagining Learning for a Transforming World was held on November 1st thru 4th in San Francisco, California. There were over 150 presenters teaching a smorgasbord of daily transformative offerings. The majority of the presenters were also participants in the conference, making for a diverse and committed learning community of scholars and practitioners from around the globe.

The Conference Program begins with the following offered in the Welcome section by Melisa Schwartz, the Vice-President of Academic Affairs for Meridian University, the hosting institution for this year’s conference.  “The Conference aspires to be an inquiry – a living model of what we seek to study, promote, and celebrate”. This entity, this collective being called Conference, was initially visioned with questions like “How can we create a conference process that enables the Conference itself to be an embodiment of wise, transformative learning praxis? Can the Conference evoke shifts in participants’ perspectives on transformative learning?”. These were asked in the context of the overarching question, “What is the role of Transformative Learning in creating a just and sustainable future?”

The Proceedings

The conference opened with a Thursday evening plenary session in the context of an evolving schedule in response to hurricane Sandy and the resulting travel delays. It also served to highlight the plenary discussion introduced by Robert Horne, project synthesizer for the Vision 2050 project, a massive research project funded by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which aimed to identify various benchmarks in industry, education, ecological sustainability, etc. over the next years and decades to be able to reasonably expect a stable future as a global species by 2050 (WBCSD, 2010). The context for the overarching question of sustainability was now set; on to the transformative learning.

From the call for proposals the papers were to be presented as part of a world in which “we must collaboratively re-imagine how we engage individuals, institutions, and societies in learning new capacities and habits of being” to turn short and long term calamity into potential energy for systemic transformation. It called for group presentations and experiential and otherwise creative interactive sessions, and this was certainly the case in my experience. It also called for an interdisciplinary offering that addressed domains “which include but are not limited to: education, business, psychotherapy, spiritual practice, social action and civil society, the arts, healthcare, governance and law”.  Proposals should also “be explicit in… [describing] both the domain and systems level in which [they] situate [the] work”.

Friday and Saturday’s schedules were packed, to say the least, with three participatory plenaries bookmarking and dividing five one hour blocks of presentations, with an average of 10 offerings per hour. Sunday, the conference ended with two more blocks of sessions and a two hour plenary.

So from the individual perspective, one had to parse one’s energy and interests over three and a half days and choose from over 120 sessions to fill 10 one-hour time slots. Then there were the seven two-hour plenary sessions, not to mention the inevitable conversation groups between sessions, at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and beyond.

Transformative Learning

Transformative learning is a theory of adult education founded largely by Jack Mezirow, Emeritus Professor of Adult Education at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. He was also a founder of the initial conference in 1998.

Transformative learning, at the most fundamental level, occurs when a person’s frame of reference changes (Mezirow 1997). Frame of reference refers to the “acquired… coherent body of experience—associations, concepts, values, feelings, conditioned responses—that define [an adult’s] life world. [They] are the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences. They selectively shape and delimit expectations, perceptions, cognition, and feelings” (5). This sort of learning creates a fundamental shift in the way an individual experiences reality.

Transformative learning is distinguished from other forms of learning, a difference elucidated in and based upon Mezirow’s (1981) contemplation of Habermas’ distinction of learning as being either instrumental or communicative. We find that learning of the instrumental type is meant to “manipulate or control the environment or other people to enhance efficacy in improving performance” (Mezirow 1997, 6), while the purpose of the communicative type is “to understand the meaning of what is being communicated” (Mezirow 2002, 6).

In another treatment, Mezirow (1996) adds the following, taken from the abstract of a paper entitled Contemporary Paradigms of Learning,

Transformational Theory grounds its claims pertaining to learning in the distinction between instrumental and communicative learning, particularly the roles of critical reflection and discourse in human communication, and in the transformative potential of our interpretive frames of reference.

Discourse is defined as “a dialogue devoted to assessing reasons presented in support of competing interpretations, by critically examining evidence, arguments, and alternative points of view. In other words, the more ways there are of looking at a situation and the better those different points of view are shared, the better chance we have of updating our collective understanding of what is going on (Mezirow 1997).

This is reminiscent of Beck and Cowan (1996) in Spiral Dynamics when they address the concept of a meme, which is “like an intellectual virus, [reproducing] itself through concepts like dress styles, language trends, popular cultural norms, architectural designs, art forms, religious expressions, social movements, economic models, and moral statements of how living should be done” (31). This “pyscho-cultural DNA… contains behavioral instructions that are passed from one generation to the next, social artifacts, and value-laden symbols that glue together social systems” (31). When both are in agreement, these don’t change easily. But when they do, they change everything.

Both instrumental and communicative forms of learning are part of this information exchange and are building blocks for transformative learning. The distinction from transformative learning is that both forms must be supplemented by critical contemplation and synthesis of new ideas to result in transformative learning. Though it would seem, and this must be explored, that communicative learning is a mode which specifically fosters transformative learning, especially in group settings.


In the above quotes, Mezirow (1996) is referring to literal dialogue, both internally and between people. However, he is also addressing a deeper reality, such that “The Transformation Theory of adult learning is based upon an emancipatory paradigm, and constitutes a dialectical synthesis of objectivist and interpretive paradigms”. This might be better unpacked as expressed by Per Linell (2003) from a lecture entitled What is dialogism?: Aspects and elements of a dialogical approach to language, communication and cognition.

Dialogues take place not only in interpersonal dialogue (situated interaction) but also at the level of sociocultural practices, communities, institutions, etc. (praxis). In Bühler´s terms (1934), signs are defined both in a Zeigfeld (situated, referential field) and a Symbolfeld (network of linguistic meanings). (p. 3-4)

This would seem to imply that what we do and how we do it literally says a lot about who we are. Dialogism addresses this as

an epistemological framework for sociocultural (human) phenomena: semiosis, cognition, communication, discourse, consciousness, i.e. for the social, cultural and human(istic) sciences (and arts) (“meaning and mind, not matter”), not primarily for the natural sciences (but cf. the practices of doing natural sciences). (4)

Many mystical traditions are clear on the power of the spoken word. Modern traditions of interfacing with the inner lives of humans are clear on this as well, at least from the perspective of more established fields such as psychotherapy, burgeoning mind technologies like neurolinguistic programming, and more new age practices like reciting affirmations. The ultimate point is that speaking is an act that carries more weight than simply the conveyance of a few bits of information. It is, rather, a constructive act which serves not just to transfer a fixed reality from mind to mind, but to co-create and evolve this shared construct.

Dialogism would of course hardly deny that we communicate ideas and thoughts. However, the traditional conception shows no recognition of the dialogical idea that meaning is, at least partly, communicatively constructed (rather than simply cognitively constructed prior to communicative processes); language contributes to assigning meaning to what is said in situated interaction, to achieving sense-making.  (Linell, 2003, 6)

An Integral Len

I made a short reference to Spiral Dynamics above, and I’d like to revisit memes a little more closely within the context of Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory. Ken Wilber’s AQAL theory is a meta-theoretical framework that is meant to address all lines and all quadrants, as well as all stages, states, and types of things, in this case specifically the layers of self that make up personal and collective frames of reference. Spiral Dynamics addresses specific stages of human development and maps them to MEME’s, which are color coded meme groups that denote specific general stages of development.  I do not delineate either here, though there is ample information in the Integral Leadership Review Archives and beyond.

These stages have correlating attributes in AQAL simultaneously in the individual and the collective, inner and outer realms. These can include a variety of stages and most individuals tend to average across multiple MEME’s with many beliefs, habits, and ways of being that are in seeming conflict with one another. Moreover, MEME’s are living systems which correlate to thought structures spawned during “each major societal upheaval”. Each also develops its own views of the rules that should govern social systems, who should make decisions regarding what, the forces that drive the evolutionary surge toward complexity, and why different people are passing through different levels of development at the same time. (Beck and Cowan, 1996, p. 49)

These structures mix and match and smash together in waves of varying coherence, and synthesize and collide within the individual, within communities, and across the planet in words and actions, midnight eating habits and bombing patterns.

Fractal Stage Transitions

We’ve already started down the rabbit hole, so please permit me one more divergence before beginning to tie things back together. Here I would like to refer to Sara Nora Ross and a 2008 paper published in World Futures, entitled Fractal Transition Steps to Fractal Stages: The Dynamics of Evolution II. She presents a model of fractal stage transition.

Stage transition refers to moving into a new order of hierarchical complexity within a given system. The generic pattern of transition steps that transpires between each order of hierarchical complexity is identical, by definition [fractal] it is a recurring, self-similar pattern” (366). Moreover, a transition must also hold to the axiom that “a task at any order of complexity is formed by coordinating at least two actions of the preceding order in non-arbitrary ways” (362).

She does not present specific, empirically based transitioned steps, though her model can be easily mapped to any such system. She delineates them generally as numbers 1-8 referring to (1) thesis, (2) antithesis, (3) relativism, (4-7) smash, and 8 (synthesis). These are consistent in theme, if not specific focus, to models presented  by Beck and Cowan and Mezirow, to name but two. Her model has 12 specific stages. “The stages and transition steps account for all the tasks performed by a system at any scale” (Ross, 371).

So for a stage transition to occur, which would be a clear indicator of transformative learning having also happened, according to these models various ways of knowing and being must be analyzed and synthesized in a non-arbitrary fashion, which gives one the ability to order previous understanding, behaviour, and tasks in a more complex way. Within each of these stages, which are comprised of tasks and are subtasks “constituting transition steps [which] may serve as further stimuli (e.g., new information) in the process and seem to be prerequisites before the overall tasks can be accomplished. The subtasks themselves may or may not be comprised of further subtasks…” (Ross 370).

Important to note here is that seeming chaotic, “lower level” noise is often a necessary process, rather than a byproduct, of phase transition. It is the feedback, information gleaned from prototyping a stream of “new ideas” at every level of existence. Consider this with reminders from both Chaos Theory in general, and Beck and Cowan (1996) specifically, that phase transitions seem to happen instantaneously after a chaotic buildup, and “MEME’s have the capacity to leap up an evolutionary Spiral virtually overnight” (50).

Is There A Method to the Madness?

So it is my belief that there is a reasoning behind the overabundant offering at this conference, the hurried pace, and for that matter, the as yet somewhat divergent and long winded nature of this article. One of the presentations was on the World Café technology, which is a process that allows a group to have a conversation around a topic, starting in smaller groups, and then with speakers from each iterating the main take aways from the session, with each reiteration of the whole process yielding a symbiotic, emergent understanding and deepening by the group.

The intent of the designers was that the Conference embody the transformative process, while also addressing social justice and sustainability in a complex and rapidly complexifying world. The cross section of attendees, all of whom had committed time, resources, and a significant portion of their lives to this inquiry, by the nature of their own personal inquiries assured that this focus was not lost.

And the speed and abundance of the offering, pulsing from small group experiences to larger plenary processing, seemed to be the perfect disorienting dilemma to set a large group of seasoned transformative types a little off balance. And the process, likely by design and certainly in form, became a larger scale, fractal representation of the conversation process presented as the World Café.

A whole lot has been said so far, without talking much about the content of the conference. The reasons for this on one side are practical. With so many contributions, the conference proceedings are historically and will certainly again be a self-contained tome of current transformative learning theory and practice from advanced practioners, scholars, administrators, etc. with at least 20 different countries represented, as well as a large portion from over the US.

I’ve also not attempted to map the offering through an integral perspective, though it is my own intuitive feeling that much of the AQAL model was addressed in theory and in practice by the diverse offerings. Those present were learners and teachers –from those working with the most underprivileged – to administrators and members of some of the most prestigious universities, organizations and institutions from around the globe.

This was, in my estimation, an assembly of what Beck and Cowan (1996) refer to as meme changers, meme wizards, and spiral wizards. It is a group of people committed to practices, academic or otherwise, which have brought themselves to greater understanding and mastery of themselves and their life conditions, and are called and able to heal that in others. We come together under the common heading of transformative learning to find a universal language and model with which to communicate and spread this understanding that we’ve embodied and experienced, if not completely articulated, of transformation as a process of opening up to what is emerging from what we are.

Without having done a specific analysis, I feel it safe to say there were practitioners working directly in and within the range of the Spiral, from top to bottom and inside and out. One certainly cannot claim that “everything” was covered, but there was material addressing most MEME perspectives, as well as specific stages, states, lines, and types of development.


I am reminded, and was throughout the conference, also of the metaphor of the Imaginal cells of a butterfly, presented by Stefen Linquist (2010) and sociological terms by Phillip Slater (2008). Here is a group of people trained in opening up, accepting, synthesizing, and ultimately spreading a life perspective greater than their current one. We are all people who, in some way, in one line or the other, have mastered the magic and wizardry of transformation.

By coming together with that open mind, as the whole spiral at once, and allowing a bit of mixing with the unknown to occur, these perspectives become mutually widened and all embracing, leading to the complexification, and thus the inherent creative potential, which mixing with the unknown can afford. After four short days these cells then dispersed back into the world culture, continuing at a greater order of hierarchical complexity with the exact same process, taking learning from around the globe and spreading it back around the globe.

I’ll leave you with some final thoughts from Beck and Cowan (1996), and the implications of this conference and such processes, as our minds and economies begin to open up to the emerging paradigm. “Instead of beginning only as passive hardware without content (Locke’s tabula rasa or blank slate view), it turns out the normal human brain comes with potential ‘software’-like systems to be turned on – latent upgrades!” (51). “It is within our potential, then, as human beings to possess the potential to awaken an unlimited number of MEMEs and allow them to coexist within our conceptual libraries” (52).

And a suggestion from Robert Horne (2011), who was commissioned by a think tank of CEO’s representing some seven trillion dollars in annual earnings to synthesize the data of one of the planet’s most massive research projects into sustainability. His advice is simple. To save the planet, listen to everyone.


Beck, D., & Cohen, C. (1996). Spiral dynamics: Mastering  values, leadership, and change. Bodmin, Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing.

Horne, R. H. (2011). To save the planet, listen to everyone. New Scientist, 212, 2843. Retrieved from

Linquist, S. (Ed.). (2010). Philosohpy of evolutionary biology, Volume 1. From the series The international library of essays on evolutionary thought. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate.

Linell, P. (2003).  What is dialogism? Aspects and elements of a dialogical approach to language, communication and cognition. From a Lecture first presented at Växjö University, October 2000. Retrieved from

Mezirow, J. (1981). A Critical Theory of Adult Learning and Education. Adult Education Quarterly, 32, 3-24. doi: 10.1177/074171368103200101

Mezirow, J. (1996). Contemporary Paradigms of Learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 46, 3, 158-172. doi: 10.1177/074171369604600303

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74, 5–12. doi: 10.1002/ace.7401.

Ross, S. N. (2008). Fractal transition steps to fractal stages: The dynamics of evolution,II. World Futures, 64, 361-374. doi: 10.1080/02604020802301196

Slater, P. E. (2009). The chrysalis effect: the metamorphosis of global culture. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). (2010). Vision 2050: The new agenda for business. Retrieved from


 About the Author

Eric Reynolds received his MA in Transformative Leadership from the California Institute of Integral Studies and is currently researching the concept of Next Stage organizations for his PhD in Organizational Leadership and Transformation (OLT) at Saybrook University. He is a transdisciplinary scholar with deep fondness for all knowledge, a deeply passionate bridge for the many silos of human knowing, being, doing and relating.,  LinkedInFaceBook