Review of Transformative Learning and Identity by Knud Illeris

Here it is… the review I wrote for the Writing for Academic Practice unit. The main part of the assignment was a reflective and critical commentary on the selected journal and the choices made in constructing the review; this was just an appendix.


KnudTransformative learning and identity by Knud Illeris, Routledge, 2013, 157pp., £24.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0415838917

Transformative learning is any process that results in a change in one’s identity; who we experience ourselves being, and how we want to be experienced by others. Aimed at teachers and/or researchers in the field of adult learning and education, Illeris’ latest book is the culmination of ten years’ focused engagement with what he describes as ‘the most advanced’ of four basic types of learning proposed in his earlier work. Building primarily on the work of Mezirow and Erikson on transformative learning and identity respectively, this text aims to consolidate and extend contemporary understandings of ‘learning as change’.

The book is organised in three sections, each beginning with a brief outline of the chapters that follow. In the first section Illeris explains what transformative learning is, and how it can be understood, opening in Chapter 2 with an explanation of how the concept has developed since its launch by Mezirow in 1978. Educators and developers will find the section on transformative learning in practice presents a useful summary of the core elements required for transformations to take place, with examples of the types of learning and teaching activities that may be appropriate. Chapter 3 presents an abridged history of psychology in the context of change-oriented learning, situating the work of Freud, Piaget, Vygotsky, Rogers and Freire on a timeline leading to contemporary thinkers such as Illeris and Mark Tennant, whose work is recommended to the reader as a companion text. Chapter 4 outlines the different ways in which the self may be developed in the context of societal changes, and Part 1 concludes with Illeris’ own definition of transformative learning as implying change in the identity of the learner.

Those already cognisant of the concept of transformative learning may decide to skip to Part 2, which presents a detailed examination of the concept of identity and its place as the ‘home’ of transformative learning. In this section Illeris again turns to historical analysis, exploring the development of the interrelationships between the individual, the social and the societal from Erikson’s seminal works through to the present day. The role of emotion in learning is a continuous theme throughout the book, and the section on Erikson’s own life story serves as a reminder of the highly personal nature of this field of study. Given this introduction, it is difficult for the reader to interpret the following chapters without reference to their own life narrative, and many will find this process enlightening; perhaps therapeutic. Chapters 7 and 8 make connections between the psychological and sociological approaches to identity (academic developers will be interested to note the links to Wenger’s work on identity and communities of practice), finishing with a note on recent developments in social media and their extensive consequences for the conditions of identity development. While those who use social media will have already made these connections it is worth mentioning this particular elephant in the room, although in doing so Illeris seems to realise he runs the risk of the text becoming dated. The middle section concludes by extending historical perspectives on identity into Illeris’ own structural model.

The third and final section comprise six further chapters that relate the concepts and models from Parts 1 and 2 to the practical matters of learning and personal development, including an exploration of the possibilities of transformation at the various stages of life and in formal schooling and work, regressive and collective transformations, identity defence, and a comparison of the approaches to personality and competence development. While it is clear that the latter section is both pertinent and carefully considered, readers may be disheartened by the somewhat fatalistic note on which Chapter 13 ends. The concept of competency is deconstructed to a point where it holds little meaning, and perhaps rightly so, but if there is a more positive conclusion implied in Illeris’ argument it could do with being made explicit, and the section lacks reference to earlier work in this area (e.g. Dreyfus 1980).

In the final chapter Illeris reprises his favoured chronological mode of explanation, combining a precis of social history with a summary of synchronous developments in the dominant thinking on identity and learning. This parallel presentation not only succeeds in summarising the various connections between transformative learning and identity, but also in superimposing scholarly developments with societal change.

In Transformative Learning and Identity, Illeris does not claim to have produced a practical guide for teachers, but to have given an historically-informed insight into how the most rewarding learning processes take place in today’s fluid world. Early-career academics – and others born into Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’ – may find its professional relevance extends into the personal realm. The succinct history of psychology and theories of identity in the first two sections alone, particularly in the absence of a thorough grounding in these fields of study, would justify a place for this book on the shelves of those who work in adult and teacher education.


Dreyfus, S. E, & Dreyfus, H, L. (1980). A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition. Operations Research Centre, University of California Berkeley.

Lindsay Jordan
Centre for Learning & Teaching in Art & Design, University of the Arts London, UK
© 2014, Lindsay Jordan

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