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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Transformational teachers don't react. They anticipate and prepare. Lee Shulman, as reported by Marge Scherer, suggests that expert teachers demonstrate the following, despite enormous challenges:

Cognitive understanding of how students learn; emotional preparation to relate to many students whose varied needs are not always evident; content knowledge from which to draw different ways to present a concept; and, finally, the ability to make teaching decisions quickly and act on them.

So how do they do that? Let's break it down.

1. Transformational Teachers Create Constructivist Experiences

Instructors tend to use one of two instructional orientations:

  1. Transmission: Where "the teacher's role is to prepare and transmit information to learners" and "the learners' role is to receive, store, and act upon this information."
  2. Transformational: Where students' active engagement in developing knowledge and skills, critical thinking, higher order skills, and communication are facilitated by the instructor.

It is difficult to accomplish transformational teaching without understanding and implementing constructivist pedagogy -- facilitating hands-on experiences -- where students construct meaning through active learning. However, the checklist below suggests some tactics:

What Does Transformational Teaching Look Like?

  1. Have students ask questions and solve real-world problems.
  2. Questions should require students to:
    • Analyze
    • Synthesize
    • Create
    • Empathize
    • Interpret
    • Reference background knowledge
    • Defend alternative perspectives
    • Determine what they know and don't know
  3. Organize students into learning groups.
  4. Make learning segments manageable through modeling and mastery.
  5. Guide, facilitate, challenge, and support.
  6. Let learning transform you.

Constructivist teachers focus on enriching students' perspective on the content by facilitating rich experiences. These themes appear in a survey conducted by Grant Wiggins, in which high school students were asked to complete this phrase: "I learn best when the teacher . . ." One participant wrote the following:

. . . is hands on and doesn't just talk at me. They need to be interested in what they're teaching and encourage class discussions. Not only does this encourage us to use what we learned, it also helps us see the information in a different way.

2. Transformational Instructors Teach Like Scientists, Artists, and Essayists

Transformational teachers know that artful teaching without science lacks efficacy, and scientific teaching without aesthetics lacks vision. Says child psychologist Dr. David Elkind, "The art comes from the teacher's personality, experience, and talents. The science comes from knowledge of child development and the structure of the curriculum." The art and science of teaching work in harmony. Writes Richard Bankert, an eighth grade science teacher, "The best teachers are artists who know the science of teaching."

In contrast to immature teachers who fill a 90-minute class with activities (and ignore targeted objectives), a transformational teacher treats those 90 minutes like a carefully crafted persuasive essay -- with a clear purpose and unique sense of style, a memorable beginning and end, a logical sequence, important content, nimble transitions, and contagious passion. These characteristics persuade students to believe that learning the content and skills really matters.

3. Transformational Teachers Model Symphonic Thinking

To be effective in advancing human potential, teachers need to manifest what Daniel Pink calls "symphonic thinking" -- critically appraising and synthesizing new ideas. Someone with symphony thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • Understand the logical connections between ideas.
  • Identify, construct, and evaluate arguments.
  • Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning.
  • Combine different ideas to form a new concept.
  • Identify the relevance and importance of ideas.
  • Reflect on the justification of one's own beliefs and values.

Such thinking is necessary in order for students to thrive in the new economy, according to Pink. It's also necessary for teachers to model.

4. Transformational Teachers Facilitate Productive Struggle

It's hard not to rescue kids when they beg for help. But that altruistic instinct can get in the way of learning. In a Wired Magazine piece, "Telling You the Answer Isn't the Answer," Rhett Allain explains why letting students engage in productive struggle is the unpopular and necessary approach to instruction:

What if a person was having trouble doing a pull up for exercise? Instead of giving them some other exercise, I could help them by doing the pull up for that person. Right? No, that wouldn’t actually be useful. However, if I push on the person's feet a little bit, they can still struggle and still exercise.

Warning: allowing productive struggle to occur will consume more class time. However, when the learning process is frictionless, retention is less likely. Struggle actually saves re-teaching time in the long run and is the best way for new dendrites to grow.

Allowing productive struggle to occur, using artistic and scientific instruction, modeling symphonic thinking, and encouraging students to lean into constructivist problem solving can lead to the holy grail of transformational teaching: epiphany. We hope you'll tell us about your transformational teaching in the comment area below.

(And speaking of epiphanies, please join Edutopia for a series on making 2014-2015 your #BestYearEver.)

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Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia
Facilitator

Hi Todd,
Great article. Thank you for sharing. I'm going to distribute this amongst my networks. One of the things that I think is really important - and is often overlooked - is the motivational value of real world problems - and technology allows our students an audience that has never been bigger!

elisabethzorn's picture

Hi Todd,

Thank you for sharing this information. I especially enjoyed reading the fourth point of your article. All too often our students are just looking for the one right answer which doesn't exist. We need to challenge and encourage them to not be afraid of the initial struggle with the material--that it will truly benefit the students in the long run. Critical thinking skills are essential for the new jobs to which this generation of learners will be applying. I'm looking forward to sharing this information with my colleagues when the school year convenes in a few weeks. Thanks again!

Aidan Bryant's picture
Aidan Bryant
Student teacher from Sydney

Fantastic points made Todd, well summarized but also eloquently put; I love the quotes you've got. Will be sharing through my network.

Cheers.

KayLynn Govoni's picture

Thanks for validating my practice of "productive struggle". I always use the statement "ask 3 before you ask me" which encourages students to use communication skills and choose thier resources wisely. most 6th graders just want the answer the easy way. I will also respond to a question " gee, I don't know. how can we find that out?" The CASH CAB format is a great ice breaker for opening up class participation and allowing students to save face when they don't know an answer. They just phone a friend, or do a street shout out to get the information they need.

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