Transformative Career Development Learning

Profound change in personal perspective, inclusive of the cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling) and behavioural (doing) dimensions of experience, are central to the adult learning theory of transformative learning (Mezirow, 2000). Transformative learning may occur in response to a disorienting dilemma, a crisis, or a series of critical moments that press an individual to change and adapt.  Studying for a degree, for example, quite frequently visits dilemmas, crises, and critical moments on students.  Such challenges are addressed by career development practitioners who are working in educational contexts.  Career Development Learning (CDL), whether it occurs within career counselling or career education, can be a vehicle for reflective learning that is transformative: that is, transformative career development learning (TCDL) (McIlveen, 2012).

CDL Answers Questions

CDL aims to facilitate students answering ostensibly straight-forward questions, such as:

“Why am I studying? Why am I studying for this major and degree? How can I make the most of my studies for personal achievement and work? What do I have to learn in order to achieve my goals? How can I determine the best study pathway for my career goals? How can I use what I have learned for success in the workforce?”

These questions are routine for career development practitioners who support students in universities and colleges. Academic practitioners, however, may not necessarily find the questions routine or even relevant to the day-to-day teaching of their specialist disciplines. An academic may well ask: “Don’t these students know why they are here?” Unfortunately, students’ decisions about their careers and choice of qualifications are not always perfectly resolved.  Thus, these questions  posed by students go to the heart of the matter when it comes to being a student: Authentic engagement in learning. And, this when CDL is really valuable.

CDL as a Reflexive Mirror

CDL may be metaphorically conceived of as a two-way mirror (McIlveen et al., 2011), as shown in the figure below. On the left-hand side of the figure is the student who is embedded in layers of career influences that range from the intrapersonal to the broader social and economic. On the right-hand side is the world-of-work, which is equivalently layered and complex. In the middle, is a two-way mirror that represents CDL.


CDL enables the student to reflect on his/her self with respect to career competencies and learning objectives. From another perspective, the student may look through the looking-glass—a lens of career competencies and learning objectives—to see the world-of-work. Both perspectives create meaning oriented toward self and the world-of-work, and it is through this meaning making process that disciplinary studies are made meaningful to the student, perhaps by answering the questions given above (e.g., “Why am I studying?”).

Transformative CDL

There are parallel lines of theory between those that underpin CDL and established theories of adult learning, in particular transformative learning (Mezirow, 2000) and adult learning (Knowles et al., 2005). The word parallel is chosen quite deliberately; for it implies two lines in the same direction but never meeting. Thus, CDL and transformative learning aim to reach similar goals (i.e., profound personal change through learning); yet, the two disciplines are separate from one another.

What great potential goes untapped because of this separation? Despite the parallels between CDL and theories of adult learning, there is scant research and scholarship into the integration of the two disciplinary traditions via the notion of TCDL as a reflexive pedagogy for higher education.

ACCELL’s research into TCDL demonstrates its value for personal capacity-building and employability.


Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier.

Mezirow, J. (Ed.). (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McIlveen, P., Brooks, S., Lichtenberg, A., Smith, M., Torjul, P., & Tyler, J. (2011). Career development learning frameworks for work-integrated learning. In S. Billett & A. Henderson (Eds.), Developing learning professionals: Integrating experiences in university and practice settings (pp. 149-165). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

This blog article is an extract from:

McIlveen, P. (2012). Transformative career development learning: Building capacity for self determination. In P. A. Danaher, L. De George-Walker, R. Henderson, K. J. Matthews, W. Midgley, K. Noble, M. A. Tyler & C. H. Arden (Eds.), Constructing capacities: Building capabilities through learning and engagement (pp. 144-159). Newcastle on Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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