Transformational learning

Jul 22, 2019

Transformational learning

Jul 22, 2019

“Transformational—the class gave me tools to transform intent to application, especially in areas where I've been unsure how best to be effective.”

I am still aglow with my “new eyes” that can see so much more clearer with a naturalist lens.

- California Naturalist Course Participant Feedback


Two people stand on a grassland prairie under a big blue sky, looking toward the horizon with binoculars.
I regularly hear from California Naturalists who describe their course learning experience in terms of being transformative. While each description is different, there are certain elements that each share. Not only did the participant gain new knowledge, that knowledge challenged or changed their perspective or worldview and typically resulted in various forms of behavior change. To me, this is one of the most unique features of the UC California Naturalist program.

Defining transformative learning and identifying elements that contribute to it is complex. There are formal educational theories (developed by Jack Mezirow1 and others) and popular usage of the term transformational experiences. Central to most of these definitions are learning experiences that challenge our existing beliefs, perspectives, and behaviors and force us to reshape our understanding of the world. Clearly, this type of learning doesn't occur often and isn't something that a program can guarantee. However, I believe it is something that all California Naturalist instructors recognize and actively work toward.

While there is no single recipe for creating transformative learning experiences, there are some recognized elements - some within our control and others not. Four that I think hold the most promise are challenging field experiences, discrepant events, reflection through journaling, and capstone projects. Challenging field experiences take us out of our comfort zone, help us break old habits, and allow us to recognize new capabilities. Discrepant events challenge our existing beliefs by producing outcomes that are unexpected. Reflection gives us time to process, synthesize, and ultimately communicate what we've learned. Finally, capstone projects reinforce our ability to combine new knowledge and beliefs into action.

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Facilitating the exchange of ideas and practices related to transformative learning will be the focus of our annual in-person California Naturalist Instructor Meeting on August 16 at Camp Ocean Pines. This meeting is followed by a weekend at the Regional Rendezvous natural history extravaganza.

We look forward to hearing your own stories, experiences and practices that have resulted in seeing and walking through the world with “new eyes.” California Naturalist is in the process of collecting stories around the state of transformative learning experiences that were catalyzed by participation in a CalNat course. Click on this link to share your story with our naturalist community.


1 For more info on transformative learning theory see Mezirow, J. (1997). "Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice." New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74, 5–12. Or this comprehensive overview.

By Gregory Ira
Author - Director, UC California Naturalist Statewide Program