‘…a new self-understanding, a fresh sense of who you are and what you’re up to’ (Warren Ziegler, 1996)
The word transformation signals lofty aspirations and mystical qualities. ‘Transformative’ is frequently used to qualify practices like research, leadership, learning, practice, mediation, and change. However, through overuse and misuse the term is at risk of losing its impact and becoming as vacuous as other buzzwords like ‘empowerment’ and ‘participatory’.
As a term that is integral to the work we do during Edgewalkers creativity retreats, I thought it was time to take a closer look at ‘transformation’ and explore what it is an what it is not. Here are three observations I have made researching transformation as part of my doctoral work and as a practitioner of a ‘transformative’ practice at Edgewalkers and at Act Out (www.actout.com.au) for the last 10 years:
1. Transformation is permanent - when something is transformed it does not change back. The common metaphor of the butterfly that cannot return to being a caterpillar is a good example. Another common analogy is that of riding a bicycle. It can take some time but once a person ‘gets’ the balance right and rides the bicycle, they cannot go back to not knowing how to ride one. They can choose NOT to ride one, but they are able to if they choose to.
We operate and make meaning within a set of assumptions about our lives. We have certain values, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes that we have accepted as being true and on which we build our realities. If we become ‘critically’ aware of how these assumptions might be limiting the way we interpret our experience; how they might be disempowering us, our ‘reality’ can start to shatter. Once a person has become aware that what they believed, valued or thought was true is not true, or is no longer true, they cannot go back to seeing themselves in the same way. Once an individual can no longer accept the status quo of a situation or behaviour, something happens inside. Thinking changes form, attitudes change form, and perception of others changes form. Therefore, transformation is not simply ‘having a more informed, nuanced, sophisticated, or deeper understanding of something’; it is a ‘fundamental reordering’ of ‘paradigmatic assumptions’
2. Transformation is not prescriptive – transformation is not something that is prescribed by someone for someone else. Instead, in a transformative or generative approach finding out the possible solutions and actions to improve a struggle is part of the transformation. A practitioner does not (or at least is not supposed to) start out already knowing how she wants everyone to change and what direction he or she must take in order to improve a situation or overcome obstacles. This solution or possibility emerges through the process, out of the experiences and existing knowledge present in the participants, whose own struggle it is. In a transformative practice, it might be acknowledged that there is a desired outcome, for example, someone wants to be more creative, but the solution is not already known and a desired behaviour (i.e., buy a guitar, go to a painting/writing/dance/sculpture class, get up early, quit your job) has not already been prescribed.
In effect, this need to genuinely allow the participants to explore their problems can be a great source of tension for a practitioner because, generally, those who are paying to do 'transformative' work have ideas about the desired outcome. Therefore, we have to be aware that transformation cannot simply be an attempt to convince or impose a certain ‘better’ behaviour on participants. Transformation in this sense cannot be prescribed; this would rob it of the generative process necessary for the transformative action to emerge.
3. Transformation is personal – Some people may experience a sudden realisation, an ‘epiphanic event’ like a client who in the midst of a workshop suddenly saw that she was the ‘elephant in the room’; she was one of the people creating an obstacle to the organisation solving some communication issues that were getting in the way of other staff being able to express themselves. Up to that moment she had not ‘seen’ herself that way then suddenly that veil was lifted, her foundations shifted under her and she could no longer operate in the same way.
However, that event may also be the culmination of a cumulative and incremental process. So, it must be allowed to develop; it requires patience and time and cannot be imposed or controlled. While a practitioner might facilitate activities that guide a transformative process within a group context, transformation is a personal experience that occurs in a ‘place of silent mystery’ a place ‘where butterfly wings are grown within the shroud of the caterpillar’s concealment’
For some people transformation may involve a stage of conflict and possibly negotiation; a stage in which a person might be attempting to put into action the new rehearsed behaviour and encountering conflict from those that are threatened by it. 
Interfaith minister Stephanie Dowrick described transformation as an ability to alter the way we look at ourselves and one another so that we can undo the established perceptions and welcome new, more emphatic and compassionate ones. This is my paraphrase, but I liked the definition because it was about a self-practice. Ultimately, whether it is generated by the work that is carried out in a group through the collective learning or through a multitude of generative dialogues and rehearsals of the future desired, transformation is ultimately a self-practice.
Transformation, then, refers to what is possible when an individual is confronted with a sudden or cumulative cognitive/aesthetic realisation of the mismatch between what they assumed was true/possible and what they now see as true/possible. This event can generate a deep and critical reflection causing a reshuffling, re-visioning or restructuring of fundamental assumptions about life and society that leads to action.
If you are interested in reading more about transformation please see the resources below.
 Jack Mezirow, 2000.
 Stephen Brookfield, 2000
 Augusto Boal, 1995
 Stephen Brookfield, 2000
 Allan Kaplan, 2002.
 Richard Slaughter, 2004.