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Let Them Struggle: The Sweat Equity of Transformational Teaching

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Close-up shot of a boy in an orange shirt

I struggle and sweat with every new lesson I design. I mull. I chew. I let ideas bake and open the oven prematurely to look in on how it's going. I bite my nails. I roll my eyes in anticipation. It's not comfortable. But that's what it's like to preflect on my practice rather than merely reflect on my practice.

Reflection is something I do quietly, after the fact, nodding my head and thinking back on whether or not my lesson worked to the best of its ability. Preflection is far more dynamic and keeps my deodorant company in business. And what I decide from it, what results as I reflect in the moment, can help improve my practice -- and my own learning -- in a more transformational way.

So that got me thinking: if I'm the one sweating over the success of a new lesson, and with every drop of sweat, I learn more and more not only about my learners, but about the content itself, maybe I shouldn't be the one designing the lesson?

The Value in Teaching How to Teach

According to the ASCD publication, Transformational Teaching in the Information Age: Making Why and How we Teach Relevant to Students, we need to go beyond "What do we teach?" and "How do we assess it?" Instead, we need to focus on such questions as "How do learners learn?" and "How should we teach?" In other words, we need to be transparent in the basic question: "What is teaching?"

Transformational teaching is about recognizing how humans learn, how reflection and preflection aid in learning, and how metacognition embeds learning. But if we do all those things as teachers, and thus have a deeper-level skill set or base of content area knowledge, then should we not be relinquishing the teaching to those who are the most green to learning those skills and content?

In other words, we need to teach the students to be teachers.

Let the students do the mulling, the lesson design, the sweating. As Todd Finley says in his post about Transformational Teaching, let the students encounter "productive struggle" and that will "lead to the holy grail of transformational teaching: epiphany."

PBL and Transformational Teaching

So what does that look like in the classroom? Well, as a PBL activist, I'm always seeking ways for students to role play in the classroom. I always try to get students to learn for the sake of an audience that isn't me. Which brings me to a PBL unit I developed years ago: Teach the Teacher.

Teach the Teacher focuses on the goal of casting students as the teacher in the room. They are tasked to select a skill to communicate to their classmates, and assess their own success in communicating that skill. It can be a skill that is related to your content area or it can be one in which the student has some level of expertise. Both have legitimacy, but a slightly different focus. For instance, you may assign a student to teach a lesson in using figurative language or defining a perimeter.

You could also open it up and allow a student to teach the class about something in which they have a passion: skateboarding or making California rolls.

In this short PBL unit, students must do the following:

  • Set learning objectives for their students.
  • Study multiple intelligences to learn about different kinds of learners.
  • Design a traditional lesson plan.
  • Develop a visual and/or kinesthetic activity to accompany their lesson.
  • Present a short (5-10 min.) lesson on a skill or piece of information.
  • Assess their class using an inquiry-based survey of their own design.
  • Reflect on their own practice as a teacher.

Having them do a short Teach the Teacher unit supports our goal of transference. It's vital that we assist students in communicating their passions, not simply in understanding the three Rs -- reading, writing and arithmetic. The skills that we impart as educators should transfer to any passion, not just those reflected in textbooks:

  • We need students to learn to communicate, not just learn to memorize.
  • We need students to learn to reflect on their successes, on their failures, and on their own process of learning.
  • We need students to transform their own practice of being students.
  • We need students to sweat.

When it comes to lesson and unit planning, what are your preflections? Please share in the comments section below. 

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vilsrip's picture

Great post! Thanks a lot for detailing the effects of student teaching.

Have you heard of Jean-Pol Martin? This professor of French didactics developed his "Learning by Teaching" model from the 1980s onward. There is a Wikipedia article on it:

As Jean-Pol Martin taught in Germany, most of his articles are in German. The German title of his didactic model is "Lernen durch Lehren (LdL)". There is a whole website devoted to it: - and recently there have been two MOOCs on it, e.g.

I've been using "LdL" myself for several years, and I am convinced that, for most classes, it is an ideal way of getting students to speak a lot more, think about lesson contents a lot more, and gain more self-confidence and get to know their peers better, too.

emathteacher's picture
Teaching Mathematics, curating the afternoon Mathematics-Club and active in Historical and Didactical research

A great article, even if I think that no teacher or tutor ever should "go beyond 'What do we teach?' and 'How do we assess it?'", since these two questions are among those that shape the "active transformational teacher" as such... Wouldn't You agree?

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

Hey emathteacher!
Oooo, you've got me thinking early today! But I am going to push back and say that "How do we teach (not just assess)" is also vital. It's about communication and implementation. We, as teachers, must go beyond content and into skill development as well. We also, when we take a look at what makes a great teacher, go beyond our own content knowledge to developing our ways to communicate that content.

Thanks for getting the brain going early this morning, and thanks for commenting!


Jennifer's picture

Thank you so much for posting this! In my math class, I've found that the Standards for Mathematical Practice opened an avenue for me to step back and allow my students to take a more central role in their own learning, but I haven't been able to slacken the reins as easily in my ELA classroom. Your "Teach the Teacher" unit is a fantastic one that demonstrates how I can easily allow the students to take more control over their learning in ELA! I hope you don't mind if I steal your idea!


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