From Transactional to Transformational Teaching | Inside Higher Ed

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Since it’s new year’s resolution time, why don’t we, in our role as teachers, commit ourselves to shifting from transactional to transformational teaching.

Normal teaching is transactional:  It is about content transmission, skills-building, and interpretation.

Nothing wrong with that.

But truly consequential teaching involves something more than the transmission of content and skills.  Its goal is transformation:  To produce self-directed, self-motivated learners who are:

  • Capable of critiquing and directing their own work
  • Open to criticism and alternate viewpoints
  • Have highly developed higher order thinking skills

Transformational teaching is, in short, about growth and not just cognitive growth.  Its aim is to spur students’ development across multiple dimensions:  mental, to be sure, but also social, affective, and ethical.  More than that, it seeks to exploit students’ curiosity and sense of wonder.

Transformational teaching, in short, is best understood as part of students’ developmental process.

As an instructor, your most important task is to guide, motivate, and assist your students as they mature intellectually, but also socially.  Others no doubt would strongly disagree, but I think our aim should be to help students become more sophisticated, cultured, refined, and urbane.

Regardless, students need to recognize:

  • The limitations of their current skills, knowledge, and perspectives.
  • That approaches that worked in high school no longer suffice in college or beyond.
  • The value of processing information – not simply memorization and regurgitation.

In other words, students themselves must recognize the need to grow, develop, and mature:

  • To move beyond binary thinking.
  • To find joy in the learning process rather than simply in earning a high grade.
  • To replace gut hunches and intuitions with more sophisticated perspectives and forms of analysis.

Transformational teaching involves inquiry, problem solving, and evidence-based argumentation.

How, then, do we as instructors remake our classrooms into spaces for transformation?

1. Create opportunities for students to think in sophisticated ways
Present your students with challenging problems.  Offer provocative alternative interpretations and viewpoints.   Ask them to defend or critique an argument or to play the devil’s advocate.  Or ask them to approach a topic from multiple perspectives.

2. Give your students meaningful assignments
Bring real life data and real-world problems into your classroom.  Create opportunities for students to undertake authentic research.  Ask them to evaluate a public policy issue or to take part in a policy debate.

3. Push your students to process the course material in deeper ways.
To identify bias and fallacies in logic and reasoning.  To consider counterarguments and offer alternate interpretations or explanations.  To formulate their own questions and accounts.

Among the words of the past year — alongside allyship, booster, burnout, insurrection, lockdown, vax, and woke — one that stood out was “meta,” thanks, in part, to Mark Zuckerberg.  I

Meta is a word with multiple meanings:

  • To be extremely self-aware or self-reflective, as in metacognition.
  • To offer a higher-level or abstract perspective, as in metadata or metaphysics.
  • To signify change or transformation, as in metabolism or metamorphosis.
  • To transcend everyday, material realities, as in metanatural.
  • To refer to virtual, immersive, computer-generated environments, as in Facebook’s metaverse.

In my opinion, we should want our students to become more meta – more self-conscious, reflective, and analytic, more capable of abstract thinking, and more open to change.  We can, mistakenly, treat this as a byproduct of growth and maturation, or we can see this process for what it actually is:  A development that requires mentoring, modeling, scaffolding, and support.

Over the past two centuries, the meaning of the word teacher has undergone a fundamental shift.  No longer simply instructors or pedagogues or schoolmasters, effective educators attend carefully and are highly responsive to their students’ needs, experiences, interests, and emotions. Successful teaching is also as much a matter of connecting, scaffolding, feedback, and appropriate interventions as it is about planning, organization, and delivery.   

To be effective in the classroom, rethink your role.  Be approachable.  Be perceptive.  Be responsive.  Be a learning architect or engineer.  Above all, be the mentor that you wish you had.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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