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5 ways in which service learning can impact transformational learning

By March 20, 2020No Comments

Service-learning, by its very nature, helps students apply the theory of what they have learnt in the classroom to the outside world. This is done by identifying community needs, partnering with community-based organisations, and acting on these needs, as part of the school curriculum. Service-learning as part of an integrated curriculum is recognized as coursework where students participate in through serving the community and gaining an understanding of the course material[1]. Through service-learning students are able to have new experiences that will ultimately change how they learn, view the world and view the people around them. This change is at the heart of transformational learning.

What is transformational learning and why is it important?

Transformative learning theory was first introduced by Jack Mezirow [2]. Transformative learning is defined as learning that utilizes disorienting dilemmas to challenge students’ thinking. Students are encouraged to use critical thinking and questioning to consider if their underlying assumptions and beliefs about the world are accurate[3].

In simple terms, transformational learning is based on the principle that personal experience plays an essential role in the learning process. It suggests that a learner’s interpretation of the experience creates meaning, which leads to a change in the behavior, mindset and beliefs. When transformational learning occurs, a learner may undergo a “paradigm shift” that directly impacts future experiences[4].

An essential part of transformative learning theory is critical reflection. By critically reflecting on their experiences, students are able to transform their perspectives. Students are only able to create meaningful structures if they have the opportunity to reflect on their learning experience. This process of reflection allows them to become more self-aware and understand themselves on a deeper level[5]. As a result, transformative learning enables students to better understand the information more effectively and get more out of the learning experience, as well as fostering empathy and social engagement.

The 4 stages of transformational learning

Transformational learning is broken down into four specific stages that form part of a continuous cycle of learning. These stages include[6]:

  1. Experience: Experience is our blueprint for everything and is the motivation of our learning and belief patterns. Experience stems from our environment and interactions with others where learning, such as knowledge, skills, attitudes and insights occurs.
  2. Assumptions: From experience we form, receive and construct assumptions that become our values and beliefs. They are the lens in which we view the world.
  3. Challenge perspectives: New experiences, both cognitive and affective, combined with reflection, may lead us to challenge our deeply held assumptions and consider a new perspective.
  4. Transformative learning: Adopting and acting upon a new perspective, we view ourselves and others through a more encompassing lens. Transformative learning becomes a new experience which leads to opportunities for it to occur again.
transformational learning

Applications of transformative learning

Transformative learning incorporates problem-solving and deductive reasoning techniques and engages social and emotional intelligence, with the hopes of creating a learning environment that is focused on[7]:

  • Learning centered around authentic tasks that are of interest to the learners
  • Creating students who are engaged in exploration and inquiry
  • Connecting learning to the world beyond the walls of the classroom
  • Engaging students in complex tasks and higher-order thinking skills, such as analyzing, synthesizing, designing, manipulating and evaluating information
  • Creating an environment where learning is student-driven with teachers and other outside experts, all assisting/coaching in the learning process
  • Allowing students to have opportunities for social discourse

Service-learning pedagogy as a facilitator of transformational learning

Service-learning is a pedagogy that facilitates the process of transformational learning. Experiential learning principles are key to service learning, in which students are engaged in community partnerships that allow them to have learning experiences outside of the classroom as part of their course work. Through these experiences, students are exposed to diversity, collaboration and communicating with different people and are exposed to different perspectives, new cultures, and environments. This shapes the way in which students learn, connecting theory and practice allows them to step outside of their comfort zone and experience something unfamiliar. It challenges students and their learning experience. This directly impacts student’s ability to think critically and to problem-solve. Service-learning impacts transformational learning by:

  1. Providing students with a way to experience new learning opportunities
  2. Allows students to connect with others, have conversations and ask questions
  3. Provides students with opportunities to self-reflect on what they have learnt and question their perceptions
  4. Helps to enhance student communication and interaction skills, facilitates teamwork and fosters citizenship as well as an understanding of others, real-world issues and differences
  5. Encourages critical thinking, problem-solving skills and decision making while developing kindness, empathy and caring dispositions.

Service-learning has the ability to impact transformational learning positively within the school environment and community. Through the experiences facilitated by service-learning projects, students are able to gain a better understanding of the world around them, how they fit into it as well as gain a new perspective on why people and things are the way they are. This helps to create empathic students, who have an open view on society and who can look at problems critically and provide informed solutions to help solve them. To be the change we wish to see in the world.

[1] Domegan, C., & Bringle, R. G. (2010). Charting social marketing’s implications for service

learning. Journal for Nonprofit Public Sector Marketing, 22

[2] Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[3] “Transformative Learning Theory (Mezirow),” in Learning Theories, September 30, 2017,

[4] Pappas, C. The Transformative Learning Theory: What eLearning Professionals Should Know, August 19, 2016,

[5] Pappas, C. The Transformative Learning Theory: What eLearning Professionals Should Know, August 19, 2016,

[6] Nerstrom, N, (2014). “An Emerging Model for Transformative Learning,” Adult Education Research


[7] Hamlin, M. (2015). Technology in transformative learning environments. In C. Halupa (Ed.),

Transformative curriculum design in health sciences education (pp. 126-140). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Tara Barton

Tara brings passion and a deep understanding of service learning, rooted in years of experience, to her training. Her training builds bridges from theory to implementation while generously sharing her resources and knowledge to ensure our success. Tara works with the whole school (administration, teachers, students, and SL leaders) to build a sustainable program that is embedded in the curriculum and tied to the mission. She energized a faculty on a Friday afternoon, no easy feat, leaving them with a desire to learn more about SL and to become more involved. I cannot recommend Tara highly enough.

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