Transforming Your Learning Capabilities

6 Pages Posted: 3 Jan 2008


Sir Christopher Ball offers a personal perspective on the possibilities opened up by transformational learning. Everyone understands what is meant by Incremental Learning (IL): learning the times tables, the kings and queens of England, foreign languages, or the structure of the solar system. Most of the national curriculum or university programmes exemplify IL - a process of learning about what you don't know by relating it to what you already do know. IL is gradual, logical and predictable. Transformational Learning (TL) is different. Obvious examples include learning to swim, falling in love, or the idea of evolution. TL is characteristically shocking, literally transforming our experience of the world - and of ourselves. TL occurs to us like a breakthrough into a new possibility for life. It opens our eyes to things we didn't know we didn't know. Of course, behind the gradual accumulation of detail which characterizes IL, there always lies a moment of TL - the excitement of discovering the possibility of multiplication, or the very concept of monarchy, or linguistic variety, or a heliocentric universe. TL is thrilling - and dangerous: Galileo's insistence that the earth goes round the sun nearly cost him his life. Learning to read is a paradigm example of TL. The moment when one grasps the "triangle of meaning" (symbol - sound - sense) is magical. The recognition of the equivalence between the sign "2", the sound /tu:/, and the idea of duality opens the door to a new world of literacy. (Incidentally, I think children find this easiest to do if they start with reading numbers, as in the example.) Once they have grasped this triangular relationship by means of TL, IL enables them to develop basic literacy into the advanced reading skills demanded by modern life and educational targets. I wonder why we don't make more of the distinction between these two kinds of learning - teach it to teachers and trainers, explain it to children and adult learners, research it in the universities? Successful learning requires both IL and TL. A knowledge-based curriculum of the sort designed to meet the needs of the 19th and 20th centuries can largely be acquired by IL. But the curriculum of the 21st century needs to give greater weight to skills and attitudes than its predecessors did, and TL is essential for the acquisition of good skills and attitudes.

Keywords: Transformational Learning, Incremental Learning

Suggested Citation

Ball, Christopher, Transforming Your Learning Capabilities. Training Journal, May 2007; Barbados Group Working Paper No. 07-04. Available at SSRN:

Christopher Ball (Contact Author)

Talent Foundation ( email )

19 Buckingham Street
London WC2N 6EF
United Kingdom

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