Cognitive maturity and transformational learning

“…mature cognitive development is foundational to engaging in critical reflection and rational discourse necessary for transformational learning” (Merriam, 2004, p. 65).

I was initially drawn to this quote because one of my main goals as an educator is indeed to help students engage in “critical reflection and rational discourse”. But as an educator working with adult students, I often assume that I don’t have to worry too much about my students’ developmental stage not being “mature”. While I would agree that mature cognitive development is necessary to engage in critical reflection, I would actually object to the implication here that adult learners (or indeed, a student at any age!) should not just be assumed to be “mature” in their cognitive development in the absence of evidence to the contrary. I would also disagree with the claim (and therefore agree with Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007; p137) that conscious critical reflection is actually necessary for transformational learning, as students and people in general can certainly change their perspective on a given topic without necessarily being themselves aware of that change.

As a result of reflecting on this quote, and my reaction to it, I realized that in my teaching I do assume my students are all cognitively mature. That is, I assume they are all already capable of critical reflection and rational discourse, even if they haven’t necessarily practiced those skills much.

I initially found myself stuck on the ‘mature’ comment of this quote, but moved past that to see the implied link between critical reflection and transformational learning. I’m not necessarily convinced that students need to be aware that they are changing in order to undergo a transformation change. I would argue instead that a lack of awareness of the change might even make it more likely for a student’s attitudes to change, as it wouldn’t necessarily require them to work through self-doubt or a recognition/perception of being “wrong”. However, it does seem likely that that level of self-awareness would increase the likelihood of them accepting such a change more permanently. It seems possible that the more resistant to change the are at the outset, the more resistant they’ll be to ‘relapse’ out of their newfound realizations if they understand the reasons their opinions or thought processes are changing. That in turn made me take note of the idea that I could try to incorporate more self-reflection into my classroom to help students realize that they were changing.

Much of the material I teach is evidence-based, and at the introductory level in biology there is little doubt about whether the concepts we’re introducing describe reality well. However, introductory students are often unaware of the amount of information we don’t know. I would like to try to introduce this idea in introductory classes, but without having the students come away with the impression that we don’t know anything at all! After reflecting on this quote and assuming that adult learners in particular have the cognitive maturity to handle it, I plan to incorporate more explicitly in my lessons the specifics about the work that led to the conclusions we’ve come to draw. I believe it is important for students to understand why we claim to know what we do, and to get into the habit of not automatically taking information at face value.


Merriam, S. B. (2004). The role of cognitive development in Mezirow’s transformational learning theory. Adult Education Quarterly, 55(1), 60-68.

Merriam, S. B., Cafarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.


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