Transformative learning is a process of learning that is far more impacting than traditional learning strategies.  It is an important part of the creative process in that it takes problematic frames of reference (that is our own personal assumptions or expectations) and make them more inclusive comprehendible, relatable, and emotionally able to change (Mezirow, 1991). Transformative learning can be broken down into two domains which help the learner work autonomously toward his, or her, goal of knowledge acquisition. These two domains are instrumental and communicative. Although the two domains are different in method, the outcome is the same in that knowledge is gained, and the student better understands content, methods, and procedures.


Instrumental learning is a style of learning where the student controls or manipulates the environment in an effort to reach a better understanding of the content being studied.  Although foundational in knowledge development at the elementary, middle school, and secondary levels of education, instrumental learning can be employed by adults also in an effort to gain better understanding of materials and curriculum. Via instrumental learning, the student uses books, article, problem solving tasks, and even note taking strategies. The result is gained knowledge through assumed, or rational, means.

The instrumental learning method can be best described as a process whereby we read (take in information) and then recall what we read at a later time (test day). We take in information, hold it for a while, and then recall it (hopefully) when prompted. Through this process, we learn math, English, history, science, and even video game strategies.

For example, the student reads their English curriculum in an effort to understand what the author has to say about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The student then memorizes what is read in hopes of remembering the material when they take a test that covers Shakespeare’s tragedy. The student never deviates from what was originally learned. The student does not question the material they are given, nor do they question the manner it was delivered. Instrumental learning is learning in its most basic form.


Where instrumental is the straight forward (matter of fact) avenue of the two domains, communicative learning is the more advanced form of learning. The individual learns about the material being covered through communication from an “expert” via lecture, audio, and video sources. When utilizing this domain, a person must take into consideration the assumptions, intentions and qualifications of the person communicating the information (Mezirow, 1991).

For example, if a person wearing a hat made of foil comes running up to my house, bangs on my door, and nervously tells me that aliens have landed down the street and I need to RUN, I will evaluate the situation, shut the door in his face, and call the police on the trespasser. I’ve evaluated what was being communicated to me, and I’ve taken the appearance and my own knowledge of extra-terrestrials into consideration, and come to the conclusion that the man on my doorstep is a possible mental institution escapee.

Now, using the same scenario, let us say the man at the door was not wearing a foil hat, but instead a police officer. Again, he informs me that aliens have landed just down the street, and I need to evacuate my home. My knowledge of extra-terrestrials leads me to believe they do not exist, but when I take into consideration that the person in front of me is a trained law enforcement officer, I will have to assume that something of grave importance is taking place down the street, and I need to get to safety.

In both instances, I looked to the validity of the person communicating the information and then I took into consideration the information itself. Unlike instrumental learning, I have to consider what is being communicated to me on the spot and come to a conclusion on the importance and validity of how and by whom the information is being given. I cannot simply read it, stop and contemplate what I just read, then read it again for clarity which is how we proceed with instrumental learning.


As we look at both domains, how they work, and what they bring to the table with reference to creativity and learning, it is important that we do not lose focus of the main concept of why they exist. Instrumental learning and communicative learning exist to enhance knowledge transfer and facilitate effective teaching (Abela, 2009). Both have their purpose, and both can be beneficial to the student.

With reference to instrumental learning, we learn from what is in front of us, that is to say, what we are able to see and control. Everything from what we read in a textbook, to the problems on an assignment worksheet, is at our fingertips. We control how much we take in, how much we consider, and even how much we remember. Instrumental learning is crucial to building a firm foundation upon which all learning is based, while communicative learning allows the student to take what they have already learned and then expand on those key concepts…i.e. I’ve read what the book has to say (Instrumental) now let me discern what the lecturer has to say (communicative).


Thanks to Mezirow (1991) and the concept of transformative learning, the creative learner can take these founding concepts and ideas that were taught during the utilization of the instrumental learning domain, and gain even more knowledge on various subject matter by introducing a communicative learning strategy.   In doing this, the student becomes wiser, and more knowledgeable as they continually work to improve the familiarity of the subjects. When true transformative learning takes place, the student begins the process of becoming an expert on various topics.


Abela, J. (2009). Adult Learning Theories and Medical Education: A Review. Malta Medical Journal, 21(Q1), 11-18.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mitchell Collin Fairchild

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