Instructional Identities and Information Literacy

ACRL announces the publication of Instructional Identities and Information Literacy, edited by Amanda Nichols Hess, a three-volume set that uses transformative learning theory to examine how we think about and can develop our teaching, programs, institutions, and student learning and experiences.

Learn more about Instructional Identities and Information Literacy in this excerpt from the preface by the editor, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

In the last several years, academic librarians have examined and discussed their identities as educators in research-driven ways.[1] In much of this scholarship, the authors have acknowledged that experience, intentional practices, and reflection influence how—and, indeed, whether—academic librarians consider themselves to be educators.[2] Moreover, academic librarians take on the role of learner in this developmental process, during which they may learn about teaching and learning, their discipline, and themselves. In my own research and personal reflection, I have sought to explore connections between the idea of teaching identities—and especially teaching identity development—and transformative learning theory.[3] As the nature of academic librarianship continues to change, I am confident that this particular approach to adult learning can help us to conceptualize how instruction librarians’ perspectives about their educational work and senses of self may evolve as well.

Academic librarians at colleges, universities, and technical schools engage in teaching and instruction. Many librarians enter these roles with limited experience or education, sometimes figuring out how to engage students in learning from their own observations, trial-and-error, or professional learning opportunities. As academic librarians’ instructional responsibilities grow, shift, emerge, or change, we need to find more consistent, evidence-based ways for us to develop sound pedagogical practices and hone our instructional identities.

Transformative Learning Theory, Defined

Jack Mezirow established transformative learning theory as a way to understand adult learning and development. We can use this approach to consider how individuals reconcile the roles and views prescribed to them by social or cultural structures with how they see themselves and their place in their world. Mezirow asserted that adults seek to understand and make meaning of their experiences, but when they are unable to do so in satisfactory ways, they may rely on traditional, often un-evaluated ideas, authority figures’ perspectives, or projection or rationalization to make sense of the world.[4] Transformative learning, then, is a process of individuation: it centers on establishing one’s own identity based on biographical, cultural, and social situations, and it orients how one sees the world in these environments.

Mezirow was influenced by Jürgen Habermas’s theories about learning domains and communication and Paulo Freire’s work on conscientization as he crafted this theoretical approach.[5] His way of thinking about adult learning involves

  • considering how we see the world, and how we present our perspectives to the world;
  • exploring the internal cognitive structures that make up our perspectives and assumptions; and
  • engaging in intentional reflection and discourse to establish more authentic, individual identities—or what Mezirow called perspective transformation.[6]

How We See and Present Our Perspectives to the World

Mezirow asserted that we see the world through our frames of reference, which are “the structure of assumptions and expectations through which we filter sense impressions.”[7] Adults’ thoughts, feelings, and actions are shaped by these frames, and these constructs are built by how we interpret our experiences. Frames of reference are also informed by external worldviews—for instance, the cultural, social, economic, and political environments in which we live.

In turn, frames of reference are made up of habits of mind and points of view. Habits of mindare the sets of assumptions that we have and use to interpret our experiences.[8] Habits of mind may center on social customs or societal norms; morals, ethics, and decision-making; individual self-concept, personality, or emotional responses; personal tastes, attitudes, and judgments; and individual religious, spiritual, or world views. Our points of view, then, are how we convey our beliefs, attitudes, and experiences to the world around us. Mezirow asserted that we all have sets of expectations, attitudes, and feelings that construct our points of view.[9] These predispositions influence how we see cause-effect relationships, make assumptions about what another person will be like, predict how events will unfold, and how we should be as individuals.[10] When we fail to or choose not to engage in personal reflection, our seemingly automatic actions come from these points of view.

How We Transform

Mezirow argued that if adults can intentionally reshape their perspectives, they can redefine their habits of mind. These changes will then impact our frames of reference, which in turn shift our external points of view. Mezirow considered these holistic, overarching cognitive developments to be components of perspective transformation. He asserted that two types of activities can lead us to self-examine our perspectives and worldviews:

  • Critical reflection, either of an issue from an “objective” perspective or of our own assumptions.[11]
  • Critical discourse, which is structured interaction that happens between individuals who seek to understand each other. In order for these interactions to truly be critical discourse, adults need to seek understanding and agreement with others about ideas or issues.[12]

What Sparks Transformation?

Perspective transformation can happen in different ways. Mezirow noted that epochal life events, such as marriage, divorce, becoming a parent, new employment, retirement, or the deaths of loved ones, may initiate an individual’s transformative process.[13] Also, though, transformation may occur as an incremental process, in which life experiences build and force an adult learner to critically reflect on his or her perceptions or beliefs. Both kinds of events force adults to consider their roles, their reality, and their desired outcomes.

Phases of Perspective Transformation

Mezirow identified ten transformative phases or stages that learners work through as their perspectives shift. Those phases are:

  1. Experiencing a disorienting dilemma
  2. Engaging in self-examination
  3. Critically assessing one’s roles
  4. Recognizing that others experience similar issues
  5. Exploring options for behavior or action
  6. Developing a plan of action
  7. Acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills
  8. Trying on new roles and integration of feedback into practices/actions
  9. Developing competence and confidence in new roles/relationships
  10. Reintegrating into society with a changed perspective[14]

While these phases are listed in sequence, they do not necessarily represent a linear progression. The process of transforming perspectives involves regression, failure, compromise, and stalling out. For example, an adult who critically reflects on a meaning, perspective, or frame of reference may find that, after making progress, they fall back into old ways of thinking or even abandons transformative learning for a time.[15] Perspective transformation, then, can be a lengthy and ongoing process.

Transformative Learning as A Living Theory

Transformative learning theory has developed over time—both through Mezirow’s own work and the work of others.[16] In fact, researchers have critiqued facets of Mezirow’s original explication of perspective transformation in a number of ways. M. Carolyn Clark and Arthur L. Wilson, as well as Sharan Merriam, specifically challenged what they considered to be Mezirow’s overemphasis on rationality in transformation.[17] Similarly, other researchers identified affective dimensions involved in transformative learning that Mezirow seemed not to consider.[18] Still others have asserted that Mezirow failed to consider issues of critical theory and power in developing his learning approach.[19] And at the broadest level of criticism, Michael Newman questioned whether transformative learning really constituted a theory at all or if it simply addressed good teaching practices.[20] These divergent and occasionally dissenting perspectives offer adult educators the opportunity to identify where transformative learning theory may fail to address learning issues in their realities.

Researchers have developed a more fully formed understanding of perspective transformation in response to these critiques. For example, critical theory, culture, and the affective environment are more explicitly part of transformative learning theory: Mezirow asserted that perspective transformation sought to liberate individuals from unexamined power structures and that culture and the affective environment were essential to perspective transformation because both “critical reflection and . . . discourse are manifestations of the culture.”[21] Others examined transformative learning in light of the scholarship and criticism and found that a holistic view could represent the different facets of adults’ learning experiences.[22] These researchers asserted that transformative learning theory presented both a rational way of conceptualizing adults’ learning and an affective entry point to understand the creative, intuitive, and emotional processes these adults work through as they shift their habits of mind and frames of reference. In these books, we use this broader and more all-encompassing view of transformative learning to think about how our mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors might change around our work as information literacy instructors.


  1. See, for example, Elena S. Azadbakht, “The Many Faces of Instruction: An Exploration of Academic Librarians’ Teaching Personas,” Communications in Information Literacy 15, no. 1 (2021): 57–74; Andrea Baer, “Academic Librarians’ Development as Teachers: A Survey on Changes in Pedagogical Roles, Approaches, and Perspectives,” Journal of Information Literacy 15, no. 1 (2021); Lauren Hays and Bethani Studebaker, “Academic Instruction Librarians’ Teacher Identity Development through Participation in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 13, no. 2 (2019); Maoria J. Kirker, “‘Am I a Teacher Because I Teach?’: A Qualitative Study of Librarians’ Perceptions of Their Role as Teachers,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 22, no. 2 (2022): 335–54; Amanda Nichols Hess, Transforming Academic Library Instruction: Shifting Teaching Practices to Reflect Changed Perspectives (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
  2. See, for example, Alison Hicks and Annemaree Lloyd, “Relegating Expertise: The Outward and Inward Positioning of Librarians in Information Literacy Education,” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science (2021): 09610006211020104; Rachael A. Lewitzky, “Educating, Learning, and Growing: A Review of the Teaching Role in Academic Librarianship,” College & Undergraduate Libraries 27, no. 1 (2020): 32–40; Amanda Nichols Hess, “Academic Librarians’ Teaching Identities and Work Experiences: Exploring Relationships to Support Perspective Transformation in Information Literacy Instruction,” Journal of Library Administration 60, no. 4 (2020): 331–53; Amanda Nichols Hess, “Instructional Modalities and Perspective Transformation: How Academic Librarians’ Experiences in Face-to-Face, Blended/Hybrid, and Online Instruction Influence Their Teaching Identities,” Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning 13, no. 4 (2019): 353–68; Amanda Nichols Hess, “Instructional Experience and Teaching Identities: How Academic Librarians’ Years of Experience in Instruction Impact Their Perceptions of Themselves as Educators,” Communications in Information Literacy 14, no. 2 (2020): 153–80; Scott Walter, “Librarians as Teachers: A Qualitative Inquiry into Professional Identity,” College & Research Libraries 69, no. 1 (2008): 51–71.
  3. Nichols Hess, “Academic Librarians’ Teaching Identities”; Nichols Hess, “Instructional Experience”; Nichols Hess, “Instructional Modalities”; Nichols Hess, Transforming Academic Library Instruction.
  4. Jack Mezirow, “Learning to Think Like an Adult,” in Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress, ed. Jack Mezirow and Associates (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 3–33.
  5. Jurgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. J. J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), original work published 1968; Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. M. R. Ramos (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), original work published 1968.
  6. Jack Mezirow, “Perspective Transformation,” Adult Education Quarterly 28, no.2 (1978): 100–10.
  7. Mezirow, “Learning to Think,” 16.
  8. Ibid., 17.
  9. Ibid., 18.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Jack Mezirow, “On Critical Reflection,” Adult Education Quarterly 48, no. 3 (1998): 185–98; Mezirow, “Learning to Think.”
  12. Jack Mezirow, “A Critical Theory of Adult Learning and Education,” Adult Education Quarterly 32, no. 1 (1981): 3–24.
  13. Mezirow, “Perspective Transformation.”
  14. Mezirow, “A Critical Theory”; Jack Mezirow, “Understanding Transformation Theory,” Adult Education Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1994): 222–32; Mezirow, “Learning to Think.”
  15. Mezirow, “A Critical Theory.”
  16. See, for instance, Mezirow, “Perspective Transformation”; Mezirow, “A Critical Theory”; Mezirow, “Understanding Transformation Theory”; Mezirow, “Learning to Think”; Patricia Cranton, Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994); Patricia Cranton and Merv Roy, “When the Bottom Falls Out of the Bucket: Toward a Holistic Perspective on Transformative Learning,” Journal of Transformative Education 1, no. 2 (2003): 86–98; John M. Dirkx, “Nurturing Soul in Adult Learning,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 74 (1997): 79–88; John M. Dirkx, “Images, Transformative Learning and the Work of the Soul,” Adult Learning 12, no. 3 (2001): 15–16; John M. Dirkx, “The Power of Feeling: Emotion, Imagination, and the Construction of Meaning in Adult Learning,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 89 (2001): 63–72; John M. Dirkx, “Engaging Emotions in Adult Learning: A Jungian Perspective on Emotion and Transformative Learning,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 109 (2006): 15–26; Valerie Grabove, “The Many Facets of Transformative Learning Theory and Practice,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 74 (1994): 89–96; Edward W. Taylor, “Building upon the Theoretical Debate: A Critical Review of the Empirical Studies of Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory,” Adult Education Quarterly 48, no. 1 (1997): 34–59; Edward W. Taylor, The Theory and Practice of Transformative Learning: A Critical Review (Columbus, OH: Center on Education and Training for Employment, 1997); Edward W. Taylor, “Transformative Learning Theory,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 119 (2008): 5–15; Edward W. Taylor and Patricia Cranton, Handbook of Transformative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice (San Francisco: Wiley, 2012).
  17. M. Carolyn Clark and Arthur L Wilson, “Context and Rationality in Mezirow’s Theory of Transformational Learning,” Adult Education Quarterly 41, no. (1991), 75–91; Sharan B. Merriam, “The Role of Cognitive Development in Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory,” Adult Education Quarterly 55, no. 1 (2004): 60–68.
  18. Jessica Arends, “The Role of Rationality in Transformative Education,” Journal of Transformative Education 12, no. 4 (2014): 356–67; Dirkx, “Nurturing Soul”; Dirkx, “Images, Transformative Learning”; Dirkx, “The Power of Feeling”; Dirkx, “Engaging Emotions”; Mark C. Tennant, “Perspective Transformation and Adult Development,” Adult Education Quarterly 44, no. 1 (1993): 34–42.
  19. Susan Collard and Michael Law, “The Limits of Perspective Transformation: A Critique of Mezirow’s Theory,” Adult Education Quarterly 39, no. 2 (1991): 99–107; Phyllis M. Cunningham, “From Freire to Feminism: The North American Experience with Critical Pedagogy,” Adult Education Quarterly 42, no. 3 (1992): 180–91; Mechthild Hart, “Critical Theory and Beyond: Further Perspectives on Emancipatory Education,” Adult Education Quarterly 40, no. 3 (1990): 125–38; Tom Inglis, “Empowerment and Emancipation,” Adult Education Quarterly 48, no. 1 (1997): 3–17; Bruce Pietrykowski, “Knowledge and Power in Adult Education: Beyond Freire and Habermas,” Adult Education Quarterly 46, no. 2 (1996): 82–97.
  20. Michael Newman, “Calling Transformative Learning into Question: Some Mutinous Thoughts,” Adult Education Quarterly 62, no. 1 (2012), 36–55; Michael Newman, “Transformative Learning: Mutinous Thoughts Revisited,” Adult Education Quarterly 64, no. 4 (2014): 345–55.
  21. Mezirow, “A Critical Theory,” 191.
  22. Taylor, “Building upon”; Grabove, “The Many Facets”; Cranton and Roy, “When the Bottom Falls Out.”