Date of Award

Spring 5-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Studies and Research

Committee Chair

John Rachal

Committee Chair Department

Educational Studies and Research

Committee Member 2

Willie Pierce

Committee Member 2 Department

Educational Studies and Research

Committee Member 3

Linda Harper

Committee Member 3 Department

Educational Studies and Research

Committee Member 4

Thomas O'Brien

Committee Member 4 Department

Educational Studies and Research

Committee Member 5

Lorraine Cavaliere


The case of Einstein’s discovery of the relativity theory, explored with grounded theory methodology, illustrates a type of self-directed learning characterized by personal and non-personal, or technical, transformative learning, the result of which is iconic original, breakthrough learning. This dissertation explores three aspects of adult learning which are novel in adult education.

First, this study of breakthrough process, for which there is only one apparent precedent in adult education, considers how an individual goes about a self-directed learning project that revolutionizes a field. In this regard, the concept of original learning, as opposed to transmitted learning, presents itself as a valid element of adult learning and adult education. Next, the results argue for an expanded view of transformative learning: that it is not limited to adulthood, or to personal or socio-cultural domains, or to absolute designations of either completed transformative or non-transformative learning.

Finally, considering the patterns in Einstein’s breakthrough journey in light of other models of breakthrough yields a broadly common process of breakthrough via challenge formation, navigating new territory, persevering through a long ordeal, and finally an actualization process of validation and integration. This common pattern can be found in the other model of self-directed breakthrough learning (Cavaliere’s example of the Wright brothers’ invention of flight); in Mezirow’s model of personal or socio-cultural transformative learning; in Campbell’s archetype of the hero’s journey in literature, film, and other forms of myth and story (elaborating Aristotle’s three-part structure for plot dynamics), and also in a neurobiological model of exceptional creativity based on classic creativity theory and contemporary scientific research.

This grounded theory of independent breakthrough learning integrates these concepts. The result is a model of a meaningful question (passionate curiosity in a personally meaningful context) meeting transformative attention (critical reflection and a multi-dimensional process of deep interaction with the question), resulting in a breakthrough learning posture that can yield results on a continuum from creatively discovered answers in the existing base of human knowledge, to incremental contributions to that knowledge base, to profoundly transformative changes in perspective and capability in a field of human endeavor.