My visit to Tacoma, Washington for the International Transformative Learning Conference 2016

Written by Ed Cunliff, Ph.D., Professor, Adult and Higher Education


I discovered the International Transformative Learning Conference through their proceedings about twelve years ago and was as impressed with it then as I was during the recent gathering in Tacoma, WA. This biennial conference was held on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University, outside of central Tacoma. I was probably identifiable as a “tourist” by the expressions of awe for the trees – 60 feet and growing!

The biggest awe though was the people who made up the conference. This was my second time to attend and present with my colleague John Barthell, and the participants were as eclectic and varied as the topics and presentations. Participants ranged from business entrepreneurs to academics to therapists. They came from all parts of the US and many places around the world, and all with an interest and curiosity about transformative learning (TL). There were “experts” in the field, and those with minimal exposure and maximum curiosity.

One presenter, familiar to many on the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) campus, was John Dirkx from Michigan State University. John has been to UCO a couple of times and has great appreciation for what we do. He is one of the early scholars in the field of TL, and his interaction with Jack Mezirow in a 2006 published dialogue is representative of a lingering debate between those who see TL as essentially a cognitive process and those who understand it with more of an affective nature. Mezirow, in his early studies, identified a step-wise, very rational approach to transformative learning. Dirkx, who has a strong background in Jungian psychology, considers the emotional side to be involved in any individual or group paradigm shift. Another significant debate about TL amongst many scholars and practitioners: are there necessarily steps within the process of transformation or does it present in a more random fashion?

Transformative learning is often viewed as a significant social justice process, though this is not addressed by all proponents. One of the international presenters was Alessandra Romano, University of Naples Federico II, who led an intriguing discussion on “The Theatre of the Oppressed as an Imaginative Metaphor for TL.” This qualitative study reflected on the experience of students involved in an examination of constructed meanings and inequality from individual backgrounds. This type of personal – social reflection is similar to that of the well-known Brazilian adult educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s works and thinking on social change through the power of education were reflected in other presentations, such as “Learning Cities Interaction: Connecting Lifelong Learning through Transformative Action Research,” a session from Leodis Scott. Scott makes a connection between the idea of learning cities and collective transformation theory as a means of building positive social change for low-income communities.

The business perspective surfaced in one session titled “The Intersection of Business and Ethics” focusing in TL as a process to increase sensitivity to ethical issues. One of my enjoyable meetings outside of a session was with Angela Parker who is a co-founder of a company called Realized Worth. This group works with large corporations and helps them develop volunteer programs that allow staff to work in the community, what higher education refers to as Service Learning – a transformative opportunity for all.

There is also a very strong humanistic, self-reflective process nurtured in these conferences – Sessions on self-transformation using values-based tests, embodied learning and social transformation, and understanding vulnerability. Identity and spiritual beliefs, intersections with the environment, and creative movement were other sessions focusing more on personal growth. As part of one of the plenary sessions participants were asked to move non-verbally to a shared open space and to acknowledge each other through eye contact – something that may become a lost art as so many make eye contact only with their smart devices! A story was told about Mezirow avoiding these more experiential and emotive sessions until a colleague took him by the hand and led him into it. Supposedly he decided such moments weren’t so bad and he no longer ran from them.

The conference organization was a bit different than many, though there were also familiar elements of plenary and concurrent sessions. They also organized a large group–small group process in which issues identified by participants were discussed in interest groups and then reported out in the whole. This was an attempt to organize the impromptu conversations that are often so productive in conferences…and did still happen in Tacoma. I was able to touch bases with a couple of known colleagues like John Dirkx and Dan Glasinski (who has also visited us on our campus), and to meet some new ones such as Ian Corrie from the UK who spoke on “coaching for resilience” after a tragedy – brought to mind the work done by counselors in Oklahoma after one or our devastating tornadoes. I also had the opportunity to chat with Don Proby, a dispute negotiator, whose session made connections with TL and neuroscience, one of my personal interests at this point in time.

My notes, handouts, some print outs and scribbled ideas for further research and study are sitting on the porch – waiting for warmer weather and some more reflection time. It’s rewarding to consider what UCO faculty and staff have done with TL, and I find it healthy to remember that there is much more to explore In the theory and practice…we make the road by walking.




John M. Dirkx, Jack Mezirow and Patricia Cranton. (2006.)  Musings and Reflections on the Meaning, Context, and Process of Transformative Learning: A Dialogue between John M. Dirkx and Jack Mezirow. Journal of Transformative Education, 4, 2, pp 123-139.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences from the conference Ed. It is interesting to learn about different approaches to and aspects of TL outside UCO and helps to broaden our own perspective on what we are doing here. I agree with Lori that I felt like I was there with you. I especially like how they sought to make use of the more informal learning environments that naturally form at conferences!

  2. Ed, you made it possible to “feel” like I was learning with you and the other scholars in attendance. Thank you for the summary and a brief “peek” at some of the current work being done on TL.

  3. Great summary, Ed. The comments about the debate regarding approaches to TL — cognitive vs affective — are evocative. They point to the fact that, as with any conceptualization of theories meant to explain human phenomena, there are multiple interpretations out there. Embracing the diversity is what makes for such rich deliberations about TL!

Leave a Reply