What is Transformational Teaching, and How Do I Do It?

by Debie Lohe, Director, CTTL

Here in the Reinert Center, we talk a lot about teaching that transforms – that is, teaching that changes people, altering fundamentally the way learners understand themselves and others, the way they engage in and contribute to their larger world.

But transformation is a tall order (especially for those of you moving swiftly through an accelerated summer session, hoping for just a smattering of content “mastery” between now and ten minutes from now!).  The word transformation can sometimes feel like an empty signifier, like one of those clichés people trot out to make the work they do seem larger and more significant than it really is.  Clichés aside, though, we really are committed to teaching that transforms, teaching that changes both the learner and the teacher.  But it isn’t always clear how to get there.  How does one move from aspiring to transformation to achieving it?

For some emerging answers, you might have a look at George M. Slavich and Philip G. Zimbardo’s review article, “Transformational Teaching: Theoretical Underpinnings, Basic Principles, and Core Methods,” if you have any of that elusive “down time” this summer.

Published in Educational Psychology Review, Slavin and Zimbardo’s article considers the relationship between several teaching methodologies used by numerous faculty across the country – specifically, interactive and collaborative learning strategies – and “transformational teaching,” which they define as “the expressed or unexpressed goal to increase students’ mastery of key course concepts while transforming their learning-related attitudes, values, beliefs, and skills” (original emphasis).  Firmly committed to Rosebrough and Leverett’s view that “education should be more about inspiration than information,” Slavich and Zimbardo bring together theory and practice in this article, reviewing various strategies and theories in an effort to help faculty identify what the core methods of “transformational teaching” are.

They begin with a review of what they call “contemporary approaches to classroom learning and instruction” in higher education.  While some of these concepts have been around for a while – active learning, student-centered teaching methods, collaborative, experiential, and problem-based learning – they haven’t always been studied alongside one another, with their similarities and differences in full view.  In bringing them together, Slavich and Zimbardo link the theories that drive these approaches with the concept of transformational teaching.  Though the article is a bit long, the authors provide a succinct overview of the key theories that drive transformational teaching—social cognitive theory, transformative learning theory, intentional change theory, and theories of transformational leadership.  As they make clear, a transformational teacher is one who not only achieves transformation in her students, but who also models a willingness to be transformed by learning herself.

After summarizing these guiding theories, Slavich and Zimbardo explore, in a bit more detail, what they call the six core methods of transformational teaching:

  1. Establishing a shared vision for a course.
  2. Providing modeling and mastery experiences.
  3. Intellectually challenging and encouraging students.
  4. Personalizing attention and feedback.
  5. Creating experiential lessons.
  6. Promoting preflection and reflection.

If you’re someone who tends to chuck out your inspirational teaching moves right around mid-term, when all of the not-yet-covered informational content is bearing down on you, you might enjoy Slavich and Zimbardo’s primer.  I bet you’ll be reminded of some things you already do to move students toward transformation, and you may even be inspired to try a few others.

Of course, if you do read the article, and want to talk about ways to make these methods meaningful for your own teaching context, you can always come see us in the Center.  We’re here all summer!

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