Transformation: What exactly does it mean?

Transformation has, rather like innovation, become a popular way of describing of change, perhaps especially in public services. There are several books with ‘transforming teacher education’ somewhere in the title and many more articles and papers. In public discourse, transformation, as a description of change, often seeks to invoke a sense of powerful and irreversible progress but, I would argue, not always in ways that also justify the radical sense of the transformative process. In my own use of transformation and transformative, I make three critical distinctions.

First, I distinguish between transformation and reform as qualitatively different kinds of change. Reform, as Williams (1973) pointed out, has at least two emphases. The first is the restoration of an ideal state – to ‘re-form’ lost conditions on the basis of cultural and/or political nostalgia. The second is that it is a kind of change imposed from outside or ‘above’ on the basis of a perceived superior rationality or ethos; historically, as Williams points out, these value-rationalities were religious whereas they became more explicitly political throughout the twentieth century. Transformation, however, I understand as change initiated from within individuals and organisations that is inherently unpredictable in outcome and leads to a profound change in both underlying abstract values as well as the concrete details of practices. Changes in these values and practices will have a dialectical relation to culture and politics but there is a profound difference in the locus of agency and the need for change. I therefore distinguish between exogenous (reform) and endogenous (transformative) change with transformative change in practices and institutions necessarily drawing momentum from participant agency.

Second, within current uses of transformation in relation to organisations and society more generally, I distinguish between, on the one hand, transformation as a kind of radical change where new kinds of practices emerge as a result of participants’/citizens’ agentic interrogation of existing values/rationalities and, on the other, transformation as a change in appearance – or even perhaps direction of travel – but informed by existing values and commitments. I understand the latter meaning of transformation – which I am speculating may well be the dominant understanding in our field today – as one both informed by a mathematical logic and requiring mathematical logic to be operationalised and measured. This meaning for transformation is sometime claimed by those working within a ‘learning sciences’ perspective, specifically as defined by the OECD (2002). With reference to educational and social justice, the latter meaning of transformation plays into broadly neo-liberal equality and ‘social mobility’ discourses. The former meaning of transformation – and the one which I deploy in my work – instead takes an equity perspective and accepts the challenge of an assets-based, culturally-sustaining approach in education (and teacher education, in particular) to broader questions of political economy.

Thirdly, my use of the concept of transformation is explicitly informed by cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and the importance of the concept of the ‘object’ of activity. For Leont’ev (1978), the object of activity was its ‘object-motive’, which he explained as follows:

The main thing which distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference in their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a predetermined direction. According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of the activity is its true motive (Leont’ev, 1978, p. 62)

The object of an activity is both what engages/attracts and motivates the participation of individuals in a collective activity (such as helping to prepare teachers). By initially perceiving a new, potentially shared (or shareable) idea and the reasons for pursuing it – and then by collectively working on it – the object is both fashioned and potentially changed through the volitional participation of individuals from within the activity system. Working on the object involves encountering and negotiating contradictions, conflicts, double-binds and multiple antagonisms – personally experienced, affective, but also structural constraints within social systems (including at the level of society) that need to be overcome and broken away from for new forms of the activity to emerge (see my 2015 book with Jane McNicholl for a longer explanation). Analysing these contradictions and negotiating new forms of collective activity might lead to reconfiguration of social practices through a continual re-working of the object of the activity. That is why learning, change and development, from an activity-theoretical perspective, is sometimes described as the transformation of the object of activity; it is a dialectical process that involves new ideas and new ways of organizing the work by those who do the work. Transformation, in CHAT terms, therefore, involves both cultural-historical analysis and future-oriented desires to produce new organisational arrangements and divisions of labour and to create a new social world of, in terms of my interests, teacher education. A critically important part of a transformative process is to understand it as changing the object of activity – not only what is being worked on but why and for whose interests

So, in the same way that innovation isn’t only about capitalising new products in a market and also isn’t only about uses of technology, transformation has another – and I would say – more precise meaning in theorising change and theorising change in education, in particular. First, it describes change processes that take place within social systems or formal organisations and that require the need-for-change and the work-on-change to be driven by the momentum of participants’ agency rather than only by – or primarily by – external political energy. Second, transformation involves a shift in underlying values and rationalities as well as concrete labour practices on the understanding that these are in a dialectical relation. Transformation is not driven by a mathematical logic of measurement within existing conditions but seeks to change the conditions themselves. And thirdly, transformative change is motivated by a desire not only to do things differently but to have a different object for the activity, to consider not only the how question but the why and for whose interest questions also.


This post is based on a contribution to a paper I’m writing with Mariana Souto-Manning and Jamy Stillman. We’ll be presenting it at AERA this week.



Leont’ev, A.N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Hillsdale, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

OECD (2002). Understanding the Brain – Towards a New Learning Science. Paris: OECD.

Williams, R. (1976). Keywords. A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Croom Helm.

2 thoughts

  1. Thank for this post Viv. Incredibly useful and timely for a paper I am working on with my colleagues here at BNU. The distinction between endogenous and exogenous transformation a good argument. Cheers and enjoy the craziness of AERA.

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