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See related articles.

Imagine: Envisioning the Virtual Association.” A roundtable for Greater Washington Society of Association Executives (GWSAE’s) Executive Update, moderated by
Jeff De Cagna, June 2000.

Reconceiving Associations for the 21st Century.” Jeff
De Cagna, GWSAE's Executive Update, January 2000.

Becoming a Good Ancestor: An Interview with John Perry Barlow.” Jeff De Cagna, GWSAE's Executive Update, October 1999.

An Interview with Chris Argyris.” Joel Kurtzman, Strategy & Business (Booz Allen Hamilton), First Quarter 1998.

Adult Learning: An Overview.” An article from Stephen Brookfield.

Surfacing your deepest assumptions. A framework developed by Robert Kegan of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

View a useful summary of transformative learning theory.

The Delicate Balance.” Jeff De Cagna, GWSAE's Executive Update Learning Matters column, November 2000.

Check out some of Jeff De Cagna’s favorite sites:

Special Libraries Association

Greater Washington Society of Association Executives

Fast Company magazine

New York Rangers official site


Three and a half years ago I left a job in the Washington, D.C. association community and returned to school to earn a master’s degree in education. I was always deeply interested in the process of learning itself, mostly because I had so many wonderful learning opportunities as I was growing up. I thought the opportunity to spend some time exploring the complexities of the learning phenomenon in a more formal setting would be an excellent experience.

I was not prepared for what actually happened to me during that year. The intensive learning experience I had in graduate school catalyzed a fundamental shift in the way I look at the world. The experience was a profoundly transformative one, and now I cannot see the world through the same lens I used before the fall of 1996. This transformation is certainly not complete—it continues as I grow my own understanding of learning—but it is nevertheless a gift given to me, one I cherish every day.

At this point, you’re probably saying, “Okay that’s nice, but I’m not creating a degree program. My learning setting is quite different. How does the idea of transformation apply to me?” Well, I have good news for you. I believe that those of us who design learning experiences can create the hothouse conditions under which learner transformation is possible. This design effort requires a commitment to certain beliefs and practices, and a willingness to experiment with new ideas. Before we examine the specifics of a design process, however, let’s consider what we mean by “transformation” and its importance in the New Economy.

Transformation and the New Economy

The idea of learning as a transformative process has been a thread of inquiry in adult learning for more than two decades. First introduced by Columbia University professor Jack Mezirow in the late 1970s, the theory argues that learners can change the way they make sense of the world around them through critical reflection on experience. Other leading thinkers in the field, including Stephen Brookfield, Patricia Cranton, and Robert Kegan, have also written about learning’s transformative power. In my work as an association learning professional, I use the following simple definition to explain the idea of transformative learning to colleagues and participants: it is the capacity of learning to change the way learners think about themselves, their work and their world.

Why is learner transformation something to which we should pay attention? Well, the best answer can be found in the rapidly changing landscape of the New Economy. Our organizations today constantly face new and unexpected challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities. Under these circumstances, the learning opportunities we create to develop people must do more than help them keep up with the world as they know it. These learning experiences must also introduce learners to new ways of thinking, so they may create new ways of acting. This important distinction from training is worth exploring briefly.

The goal of most training programs is to show participants a new way of “doing” things. Usually, that new way is the organization’s preferred or “sanctioned” approach which does not allow much room for interpretation on the part of the learner. The goal of such training, then, is to change the learner’s behavior in order to increase efficiency and/or effectiveness on the job. For straightforward learning needs, such as computer instruction, this approach presents little difficulty.

Unfortunately, most of our learning needs today are not in this category. The complex character of the New Economy makes it that much more important for learners to feel comfortable trying new and even experimental approaches to solving problems and creating value. In a time when our work frequently requires masterful improvisation, the effort to stimulate deep changes in the ways people act from the outside is unlikely to succeed. Instead, we must embrace the concept of transformative learning, and challenge our learners to reflect critically on work and challenge their basic assumptions, so that they may design their own new ways of acting more effectively.

Transformation By Design

The most important caveat to keep in mind is that none of us has the power to transform another by fiat. Even the richest, most elegantly designed learning experience cannot, by itself, effect the change in perspective we’re considering in this article. For transformation to be a possibility, our learners, facilitators of learning, the learning context and the learning environment must blend to create a space filled with the energy of change. To help you create such a space, let me offer five suggestions:

1. Begin and end with compelling questions

Most seminars are framed around “outcomes” or “objectives.” To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of these tools, primarily because they limit the scope of possible inquiry in learning. What happens if there is fertile learning territory to be explored just beyond the boundaries of the articulated outcomes? Sometimes brave learning facilitators will guide learners to that place only to be criticized for straying too far off the subject on the almighty “smile sheet” evaluation forms we use to measure success. Once chastened, our facilitators may choose to be brave no more.

As an alternative, I propose that we use big compelling questions as a starting point for creating learning experiences with transformative potential. Great questions open our minds to a wide variety of possibilities and, in conversation with learning colleagues, give us plenty of room to investigate new directions. Although some questions cry out to be answered, others defy easy response and invite us to reflect more deeply. This special quality of questions makes them ideally suited to spark a process of transformation.

Let me offer an example drawn from a learning experience that my organization will offer in March 2001. One of the central questions we will consider is, “What roles can information professionals play in supporting and encouraging innovation in their organizations?” This inquiry, along with the other “big questions” around which this experience is designed, will encourage our learners to take a fresh look at their work and, hopefully, move them toward a new way of thinking about the contributions they can make to their organizations.

I also recommend that even as we try to help learners find answers to the questions we pose, we continue to generate new and even more compelling questions to replace them. We should never allow our learners to think that because the seminar is over, the learning is over. As we sometimes say in the world of education, “There is much we don’t know that we don’t know.” Questions become our pathways for continuing inquiry into this “unknown” world, as well as possible routes to new perspectives on that world.

2. Balance support and challenge

The field of adult learning understands that adults need both physical comfort and psychological safety in their learning setting. Issues such as a comfortable chair, nearby bathrooms and an easy-to-read font size on PowerPoint slides can make an enormous difference in the quality and impact of the learning experience. Likewise, adult learners must be continuously invited into the experience and must be made to feel safe and not threatened by learning. This kind of support is critical to placing the learning experience on a firm foundation.

We do not spend enough time, however, looking for ways to challenge our learners to surface and examine their assumptions. An increased level of challenge in our learning experiences can dramatically grow their transformative power. On this point, some people say that we need to push our learners outside their normal comfort zones. In the spirit of balancing support and challenge, I prefer to think of it as challenging our learners to broaden the zones of inquiry in which they feel comfortable, with the support and guidance of learning facilitators and colleagues.

3. Integrate, integrate, integrate

One of the greatest shortcomings of most learning experiences is the failure of designers to fully integrate all of an experience’s elements—content, questions, context, environment and so forth—for maximum impact. A great example of this missed opportunity is the ubiquitous luncheon speaker. Do we normally take the time to share with the speaker the key themes that will be considered during the seminar or workshop? And if we do, do we then go back and link the speaker’s themes with other sessions? Finally, once the speaker delivers her remarks, do we ask our learning facilitators to advocate for or question that perspective with their learners in subsequent conversations? Generally speaking, the answer to all these questions is no, and that is an unfortunate reality.

Although orchestrating the learning experience in the way I describe requires more of our time, I believe that it is not only worthwhile to do it but also part of our responsibility to our learners. When we organize a seminar or workshop for our learning colleagues, they entrust us with their hopes for a powerful learning experience. If we believe in the importance of transformative learning for our learners, we cannot let them down.

4. Collaboration is critical

In the United States, we tend to focus on learning as primarily an individual activity, something that we do apart from others. (Indeed, we base public education on this premise.) Unfortunately, this is largely untrue. Most learning begins as an individual process of self-discovery, but it cannot last for very long in that form. The learning with the greatest and most enduring impact on us is shared and social, learning that involves teams, groups, or communities working together to solve problems, explore important questions or complete projects.

Even though the idea of transformative learning implies a shift in the perspective of individual learners, such shifts are unlikely to occur without collaboration. Reflection is a social process. It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to create spaces in which we can examine our own assumptions by ourselves. We need others’ points of view to help us co-create this reflective space. (This is why the coaching relationship is so powerful for so many people.) If we free learners and facilitators to collaborate with each other as equals in a learning process, then our experiences will be richer, more meaningful and of greater transformative value.

5. Don’t be afraid to experiment or inspire

Even as we help our learners become comfortable with improvisation in their work, so too must we embrace the chances we have to experiment in the way we create learning experiences. It is the desire to experiment that, more than anything else, leads to significant innovation, and learning is a field in which innovation is critical. Too often, our quest for an acceptable bottom-line result drives us to act timidly. We would not accept this from our learners, so how can we accept it from ourselves?

Equally important, we must take the opportunity to inspire our learners. We need to recognize the inescapable truth that we are learning beings, that learning is at the core of our existence and that it is as essential to our lives as breathing, sleeping, eating, and drinking. Why can’t our learning experiences inspire our learners to become more than they are, to become more than they ever imagined they could be? Why should we settle for something ordinary, when something extraordinary is within our grasp? If we’re going to create learning experiences with transformative potential, we must make inspiring our learners a higher priority.

Technology and Transformation

Before I close this article, let me say a word about the relationship between new learning technologies and the transformation process we’ve considered here. The “elearning” craze is sweeping the nation, and I am ready to see it go away. (I confess that part of my distaste comes from the term elearning itself, which to me is a contrivance designed to sell applications and consulting services.) I do not question the importance or value of using technology to provide learning opportunities. But I must suggest that we are vastly over-compensating for years of failure using traditional training approaches with the belief that we can shift nearly all learning to the World Wide Web. Moreover, we are focused on entirely the wrong thing when we look at how much we can save in training costs by using various learning technologies. What we really need to consider is the opportunity lost when offering a cost-effective learning experience instead of truly robust one.

When it comes to transformation and technology, I don’t believe the two ideas connect at this time. Although we are seeing marked improvement in the quality of the experiences offered by “distance” or “distributed” learning technologies, those experiences are still largely one-dimensional. Perhaps in the next decade we will encounter a technology that can provide the same combination of elements available to us during in-person learning experiences. I doubt it, but as a firm believer in the importance of innovation, I don’t totally discount the possibility. Still, for now, I would suggest to you that the transformative power of learning is likely to be unlocked only when learners gather in the same place to collaboratively create their learning space.

A Final Word

Robert Kegan was one of my professors in graduate school and the author of an adult development theory that is one of the field’s most challenging theories to understand. In class, when he would present this thinking to a lecture hall full of intelligent, yet perplexed graduate students, he would say, “Look, I’m not asking you to buy this. Just rent it for a while.” Well, the same holds true for the ideas presented in this article. I recognize that embracing learning as a transformative force is difficult, particularly if you are accustomed to designing learning experiences in a certain way that has been “successful” over time. Looking at learning through this lens requires us to think about our work in a new way. It demands that we take on new responsibilities, embrace experimentation, and even entertain the possibility of failure. For most of us, these are not easy things to do.

We must always try to keep in mind, however, that it is not just about us. As I argue above, our learners entrust us with a certain level of responsibility for their learning. In designing learning experiences on their behalf, we honor their trust by trying to connect them with the ideas, concepts, and capabilities they tell us they need. But, as educators, we must also honor that trust by linking them to the ideas, concepts, and capabilities “they don’t know that they don’t know.” In the fast-paced, complex New Economy, transformative learning is one of those remarkable ideas that can make a profound difference, not just for our individual learners, but also for our organizations, our communities and for our society as a whole. So, go ahead and rent it for a while. You might be surprised what you learn.

Jeff De Cagna, Ed.M. is “the learning guy” for the Special Libraries Association in Washington, DC, where he tries every day to practice what he preaches. He serves on a national council of association educators with the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and is a frequent speaker and author on questions of learning. He can be reached at



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