Transformational Teaching at the Upper Intermediate Level?;


Transformational Teaching at the Upper Intermediate Level?;

A Theoretical Exploration.

Danielle Dunsmore


EDUC 521

UBC Okanagan

Dr. Christopher Martin

July 2, 2014.


Transformational teaching is a model, which involves synergistically incorporating many effective learning principles, and methods of instruction, developed over the past 50 years (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.569). Included are the major contemporary approaches to learning; problem-based learning, student-centered learning, active learning, collaborative learning, and experiential learning, all of which share underlying complimentary components (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.569). Employing these approaches together has great potential for students to grow intellectually and personally, and I believe many educated teachers are already doing this with their students to some degree. The implementation of transformational teaching has the potential to help students transcend self-interest, feel inspired and motivated, and transform their attitude toward learning, and toward themselves (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.569).

In an effort to better understand the transformational teaching approach, the following paper is primarily a theoretical exploration. I will do the following: outline the fundamental characteristics of the approaches listed above, highlighting their interrelatedness; review the philosophical underpinnings of transformational teaching, as comprehensively laid out by Slavich & Zimbardo, (2012) (constructivism, social constructivism, transformative learning theory, social cognitive theory, transformational leadership, and intentional change theory); acknowledge some main critiques of transformational teaching; question the potential for personal mastery within transformational teaching; and finally, to make assertions throughout this paper, as to how the objectives of transformational teaching might be applied to the upper elementary level (it has primarily been associated with adult-education).

The overarching goal of transformational teaching is to help students acquire key course concepts, and master bodies of information in a manner which also “enhances students’ personal development” (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.569). Teachers serve as motivational leaders, intellectual coaches, and facilitators of a shared vision for coursework (Slavich, 2006, p. 576). Ultimately, transformational teaching is meant to inspire,… to “call ordinary students to embrace their own greatness” (Anding 2005, as cited in Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.576). As the transformational teaching model develops, perhaps its main aspects could be adapted appropriately for younger students. It may be a conceptual framework capable of uplifting the profession of public school teaching.

Methods of Instruction within Transformational Teaching

Ongoing advancements in classroom instruction have been generated through many formulations of values, principles, and methodology encompassed within the following learning approaches: active learning, student-centered learning, collaborative learning, experiential learning, and problem-based learning (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.571). I think it has become clear to many educators that there are similarities and overlapping compatibilities between these approaches, and once these are revealed, viewing them as a collective within a broader approach called transformative teaching, can be substantiated. In fact, the characteristics of these contemporary learning approaches lend well to their blending.

Active learning involves the notion that “students must read, write, discuss, and engage in problem-solving to maximize their potential for intellectual growth” (Bonwell & Eison; Meyers & Jones; Sviniviki & McKeachie, as cited in Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.569). Student-centered learning holds that instructors should tailor course content based on students’ abilities, interests, and learning styles (Brandes & Ginnis, 1986, as cited in Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.569). Collaborative Learning is based on the principle that learning occurs more effectively in groups because it

encourages students to restructure their own knowledge and

understanding of concepts, helps students recognize gaps in their understanding, promotes social modeling of effective problem-solving strategies, and teaches to synthesize, communicate and discuss ideas

in ways that advance conceptual understanding (O’Donnell, Cooper,

Smith et al., as cited in Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.571).

Problem-Based Learning builds on this, where instructors identify, and facilitate, the process of solving complex, multi-faceted problems, usually in groups (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.571). Within this approach teachers model, scaffold, and promote student responsibility for learning (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.571). Finally, experiential learning, which also tends to be done in groups, involves engaging students in experiential activities in or out of the classroom. Examples of this include experiments, conducting interviews, playing games or simulations, or keeping a reflective journal (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.571).

In my experience, at upper intermediate level, combining and overlapping these approaches in different ways is becoming common practice. It is not surprising to find out that they share similar theoretical foundations. In particular, they are all founded within the constructivist notion that

students generate knowledge and meaning best when they have experiences

that lead them to realize how new information conflicts with their prevailing understanding of a concept or idea….they must engage in activities or exercises that require them to reflect on their understanding and examine or explain their thinking (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.574).

In my view, it is possible, and beneficial, to incorporate the central aspects of all the approaches above in a powerful multi-faceted approach. Elementary versions of problem-based learning, for example, can include a collaborative learning component, as different groupings tackle given content and questioning, and work to create ideas for solutions. Then individual projects related to this can be taken in a direction of interest (with personalized goals that suit individual students), including an active component of the project’s criteria where experiential learning can also take place. Teachers act as facilitators bringing students in and out of larger group discussions, using modeling and scaffolding to support the process of attaining key concepts as the projects develop (Savery, 2006, p.11).

Further ways in which the approaches are related is that students are actively involved in the discovery process, so that imbedded within them is the idea that we “learn by doing” (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.575). Active learning and student-centered learning can be thought of at the top of the “approach hierarchy”, with experiential, collaborative, and problem-based learning “nested within these principles” (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.575). While active learning and student-centered learning are most clearly addressed in problem-based learning, they are also essential for collaborative and experiential learning (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.575). All the approaches aim to “increase students’ involvement in, and responsibility for, guiding and shaping the learning experience (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.575). Finally, within each of these approaches, there is the potential to transform students’ personal growth, including;

increasing students’ academic self-efficacy, improving student

self-regulation capacities, instilling in students self-directed learning

skills, enhancing students’ learning-related attitudes and values, or promoting students’ beliefs about their capability to acquire, synthesize, analyze, and use knowledge in a way that is meaningful for their lives (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.575).

In my opinion, these outcomes are what sets transformational teaching apart as a powerful undertaking, yet they are not a given. Rather, I believe, they depend on the learning environment created, including the level of rapport and trust developed with students, and the effect this has on the delivery of the combined approaches. Also, I think teachers themselves are more likely to achieve this environment if they themselves possess an inspired ‘disposition’, and the ability to consistently role model transformational style leadership. This argument will not be elaborated here, but is suggestive of the complexities and possibilities involved in the personal growth aspect of transformational teaching.

Philosophical Underpinnings of Transformational Teaching

The conceptual basis for transformational teaching incorporates several theoretical perspectives. As noted earlier, constructivist theory is an essential influence, as it has been long held that “learning occurs best when students are actively engaged in the discovery process” (Piaget, 1926, as cited in (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.577). Equally important, is the social constructivist notion that “educational exercises are more impactful when they involve social interaction” (Bruner & Haste, 2010; Vygotski 1978, 1986, as cited in Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.577). While these theoretical perspectives are primary to the approaches involved in transformational teaching, there are further theoretical foundations that, in my view, act to differentiate transformational teaching as an ideal. This involves combining the best ideas about student learning and instructional leadership by drawing on the following; social cognitive theory, transformative learning theory, intentional change theory, and transformational leadership (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.577-8). Each of these are reviewed below, and finally condensed into three transformational teaching principles as identified by Slavich & Zimbardo (2012) (p.581).

Social Cognitive Theory

Social Cognitive theory addresses some basic aspects of learning that apply to all instructional approaches, including transformational teaching (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.578). Social Cognitive Theory, in education, holds that students are agents who exert intentional influence over their functioning through their actions, and that this is largely determined by self-efficacy beliefs (defined as the degree to which they think their actions will bring success)(Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.578). Efficacy beliefs can have an enormous impact as they

effect human functioning by influencing the extent to which people are optimistic versus pessimistic, make resilient versus detrimental attributions for successes and failures, apply appropriate coping strategies for dealing with difficult situations, and persist in the face of challenge (Bandura, as cited in Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.578)

According to Bandura (1997) academic success for students is strongly determined by their own self-efficacy beliefs (as cited in Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.578). I would assert, from experience, that this is particularly true for upper intermediate students who are often caught up in their impressionable attempts to formulate their personal identities. Furthermore, a student’s success is also influenced by the beliefs of their teachers, peers, parents and the principal (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.578). In my view, at least at the elementary level, this is a reciprocal phenomenon, in that the student’s sense of self-efficacy is perceived by others and often uncritically reflected back to them, especially by peers. I believe it takes a clear sense of presence for adults to respect young students’ self-efficacy as it develops, and honour carefully the malleability of their self-efficacy beliefs. Improvement in self-efficacy can happen by constantly working to create experiences of success, and having those successes repeatedly acknowledged, in order to raise student confidence. However, student success is also influenced by the teacher’s own sense of instructional efficacy which can effect many things: their time management, persistence in the face of adversity, perceptions of how much control they have over student success, commitment to teaching, and their job satisfaction levels (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.578). While the self-efficacy of teachers is considered a modest influence on students (based on the lack of research available)(Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.578), I contend that teacher self-efficacy at the intermediate level has a key impact on the ability, and the motivation, to create the conditions for student experiences of success. Nevertheless, the central idea to be gained here is that student success “is determined by multiple sources, and….instructors must work to manage several sets of expectations”(Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.578).

In the realm of transformational teaching, the teachers who are able to manage these expectations will be more likely to increase student success academically as well as transform their “learning-related attitudes, values, beliefs, and skills (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.578). In my opinion, teachers can greatly benefit by developing their own sense of self-efficacy through repeatedly attending personal and professional development courses, learning structured self-reflection, and engaging in a consistent, determined effort to model what healthy self-efficacy looks like. In doing so, they can more easily promote student self-efficacy and enjoy the associated outcomes. This is not to assume that teaching practices are easily quantified, or that student achievement can ever be “solely attributed to…. the pedagogical strategies employed by teachers” (Skourdoumbis & Gale, 2013, p. 892).

Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative Learning Theory holds that adult learners improve their understanding by modifying their ‘frame of reference,’ which comprises their habits of mind and points of view (Mezirow, 1997, p. 5). Habits of mind are defined as “broad, abstract, orienting, habitual ways of thinking, feeling and acting influenced by assumptions that constitute a set of codes” (Mezirow, 1997, p.6). These codes may be cultural, economic, social, political, educational, or psychological and are expressed in a “specific point of view –the constellation of belief, value judgment, attitude, and feeling that shapes a particular interpretation” (Mezirow, 1997, p.6). Mezirow (2000) stated that students can learn in four ways; they can elaborate on existing frames of reference, learn new frames of reference, transform habits of mind, or transform points of view (as cited in Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.579). The role of the teacher is to serve as a “provocateur” who facilitates students to be more aware, and critical of, their assumptions (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.579). The theory proposes that this is achieved through engaging students in “learner-centered, participatory, and interactive experiences, that require group problem-solving, autonomous thinking, critical reflectivity, and discourse” (Mezirow, 1997, p.11).

Autonomous, socially responsible thinking is considered the ultimate educational goal of transformative learning (Mezirow, 1997, p.8). Autonomy in this context means the

understanding, skills, and disposition necessary to become critically reflective of one’s own assumptions and to engage effectively in discourse

to validate one’s beliefs through the experiences of others who share universal values…values such as truth, justice, and freedom….found to result in more beneficial action than their alternatives (Mezirow, 1997, p.9).

Mezirow (1997) believed that in order for these values to be acquired and for autonomous thinking to develop, there are processes of learning involved at each developmental stage, and certain educational interventions that need to take place (p.9). He outlines that children “commonly acquire a foundation of the specific learning required to think autonomously…..and in adulthood, the task is to strengthen and build on this foundation” (p.9) Included in these foundations are the (1)ability to recognize cause-effect relationships, (2) to use informal logic in making analogies and generalizations, (3) become aware of and control their own emotions, (4)become empathetic of others, (5)use imagination to construct narratives, (6) and think abstractly (Mezirow, 1997, p.9).

Perhaps the fact that transformative learning theory is largely recognized in the adult educational literature, reflects an underestimation of the level of sophistication that students’ are capable of at an earlier age. I would argue that educational interventions to promote autonomous, socially responsible thinking can start at the upper intermediate level through age appropriate activities, questioning skills training, and self-reflection exercises. Also, I believe younger students benefit from frequent discourse about the aforementioned moral ‘universal values’ as an integral part of problem-based learning.

Mezirow (1997) summated that “becoming critically reflective of one’s own assumptions is the key to transforming one’s taken-for-granted frame of reference, an indispensible dimension of learning for adapting to change” (p.9). In my experience, upper intermediate students are capable of understanding what an assumption is, how assumptions are developed, and how to question what ‘frame of references’ they may have formed (or be in the process of forming), in a self-reflective manner. While these may not be as complex or layered with life experience as adult collections of assumptions, I think it is this very point that makes for the practice of critically reflecting on assumptions, all the more valuable and more easily learned. If young students can gain the personal development of being able to question their assumptions, presumably this would set them on a positive course for the future. Furthermore, I think “adapting to change” is a crucial skill for the world that younger generations are now exposed to, compared with what the adults who are writing about this have ever had to endure, including Mezirow himself.

Intentional Change Theory

Intentional Change Theory is another perspective embedded within the transformational teaching model, and is drawn primarily from management literature (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.579). This theory articulates five steps or “discoveries” proposed to be required for “desirable, sustainable change in an individual’s behaviour, thoughts, feelings, or perceptions” (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.579). Slavich & Zimbardo, (2012), articulate these steps as follows. First, individuals must establish a personal vision for the future and an “ideal self” which is based on “developing an image of a desired future, fostering hope that one can achieve their goals, and identifying strengths upon which the personal vision can be realized”(p.579). Second, an identification of one’s “real self” (comprised of an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses) is compared to their ideal self, or “who they want to become” (p.579). Third, a customized learning plan must be devised establishing a personal set of standards that the individual needs to attain in order to “close the gap” between the ‘real’ and ‘ideal self’(p.579). Fourth, engaging activities are needed to allow “experimentation or practice with new behaviours, thoughts, feelings, or perceptions”(p.579). Lastly, close, personal relationships with people who can help to move through these steps toward realizing change must (ideally) be developed (p.560).

These steps can be used as a framework for understanding how transformational teaching can help improve students’ attitudes, values and beliefs (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p.580). I would suggest these steps can raise a great deal of awareness and self-reflection for students, even within the upper intermediate age grouping, and also help inform and develop individualized development plans for students. Compared to adults, I would offer that younger students have a much less inhibited expression of their “real” and “ideal self,” for example, this can be apparent in goal setting exercises. Also they enjoy role playing activities where they imagine and act out how a person (who had already attained the qualities of their “ideal self”) would respond in given scenarios.

Transformational Leadership Theory