Transformational Teaching

Creating educationally and developmentally impactful learning experiences.

March 2, 2021

What is it that distinguishes a liberal arts education from vocational training? It’s not simply breadth of exposure -- to the arts, the humanities and the social and natural sciences. It’s that a liberal education is meant to be transformative.

The higher purpose of liberal education is to free its recipients to think in fresh and more analytical and informed ways, appreciate culture with sophisticated sensibilities, and bring historical, ethical, cross-cultural perspectives to current events.

The skills and knowledge a liberal education imparts include not only disciplinary methods and theoretical and conceptual frameworks, but something far greater: heightened powers of observation and communication, interpretive and research skills, and a capacity for critical self-reflection.

Does our curriculum do this? Perhaps. But if it does, this is not a product of intentionality in design.

Today’s dominant instructional design model, backward design, is certainly superior to the older topical coverage approach, in which faculty members made a list of the subjects to cover and assigned one topic to each class session. Done correctly, backward design produces courses that are much more coherent and focused than those in the past, with activities and assessments tightly aligned to the faculty member’s learning objectives.

But in practice, I fear, backward design too often results in cookie-cutter classes that fail to do what a higher education is supposed to accomplish: not simply to impart skills and knowledge or convey disciplinary expertise, but to transform its recipients.

I’m of the view that we want college graduates to:

  • Encounter alternatives to common-sense paradigms.
  • Acquire and apply higher-order analytic, interpretive, synthetic and evaluative skills.
  • Secure an understanding and appreciation of a broad range of perspectives, theoretical and methodological approaches, and forms of artistic and intellectual expression.
  • Pick up the cognitive and noncognitive tools that will help them learn throughout their adulthood.
  • Develop a capacity for critical self-reflection, including the metacognitive ability to monitor one’s own learning, biases and performance.

If any of those occur today, it’s largely a matter of serendipity.

Educational psychologists have coined a number of phrases to describe a college education’s higher purpose. Jack Mezirow wrote about “transformative learning,” L. Dee Fink about “significant learning experiences,” George Kuh about “high-impact” and “educationally purposeful” practices, and Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath about “deeper learning.”

What unites these catchphrases is the notion that higher education should offer much more than credit accumulation or mastery of core academic content or even learning how to think critically, solve complex problems, communicate effectively or work collaboratively.

Rather, it should produce complex, multifaceted understanding; advanced analytical, interpretative and evaluative capacities; an openness to diverse perspectives; logical and informed points of view; and the ability to think creatively and apply knowledge and skills to fresh contexts and problems.

In my view, every course, even lower-division gateway and introductory classes should include transformation, impact and deeper learning among its course objectives.

So, then, how can we design courses that are truly developmental and transformational?

Let me briefly describe several approaches that are already taking root. None are simple. One is extraordinarily controversial. All are demanding to implement. And all require instructors to think of themselves not just as teachers, but as learning architects or engineers.

1. Scaled undergraduate research

Of all the high-impact practices, undergraduate research has perhaps the largest impact on student motivation, engagement, student-faculty interaction and deep learning. Yet currently, access to mentored research is extremely limited. We need to deliver this experience at scale.

Let me suggest how to do that.

First, we must not conflate research with laboratory research. Serious research can take diverse forms, and if we want to scale research, we need to think beyond the laboratory. It might involve archival research, observational research, survey research or data analysis. The research experience might be individual or it might be collaborative.

Second, we must treat research as a multisemester endeavor, with the first semester an introduction to research methods, research design and research ethics, as well as data collection and data analysis.

Then, it's essential that students receive guidance in selecting a focused, delimited research question. Only then is an undergraduate prepared to undertake an actual research project.

Finally, provision must be made for students to publicly present their findings and receive constructive feedback.

At UT Austin, the key to scale lies in having multiple research streams each with its own pyramid of responsibility, with a lead professor assisted by postdocs, graduate students and peer mentors. But other approaches can also work, for example, having a faculty member assign particular tasks to various teams within a larger class.

2. Project-based learning

Without a doubt, the most meaningful educational experiences I have witnessed or taken part in fall under the label of project-based learning. In one instance, an Oberlin College psychology professor directed a team of students to create an app that uses gamification to draw out information from adolescents experiencing chronic pain.

At the University of Texas at Austin, I had the great good fortune to work with a team of students to design and develop interactive courseware. Together, the students created interactives, simulations and multimedia clips to greatly enhance the text and assessments I produced.

The most successful projects are authentic; the projects address a real-world challenge and are intended from the outset to be implemented. Work on the project is team-based, with every team member responsible for completing a particular set of tasks.

The projects represent a genuine partnership between a faculty and the students. The active engagement of the faculty member makes it clear that the project isn’t simply a class add-on, but is of genuine significance.

Project-based learning is about more than skills development or adding a line on a student résumé. At its best, it is transformative: it is the academic equivalent to an apprenticeship. It’s about participating in meaningful tasks and working in collaboration with others in a shared mission.

3. Networked learning

Networked learning uses digital technologies to create scaled learning communities, which share information, brainstorm, support one another’s learning, engage in discussion and solve problems. Rooted in connectivist learning theory, which argues that learning is maximized when multiple sources of knowledge and opinion interact, networked learning came to educators’ attention early in this century with the emergence of the first connectivist cMOOCs. Unlike the better-known instructor-led xMOOCs, cMOOCs created distributed learning communities and communities of practice and solver communities around a particular issue, challenge or problem.

As Stephen Downes has written, “At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.”

The pandemic and the racial justice protests offered many networked learning opportunities that would have benefited from broad-based participation and interchange. Faculty and students from diverse disciplines had a chance to share their distinctive expertise and perspective on the etiology and epidemiology of pandemics, cultural representations of pandemics in art and literature, historical responses to earlier pandemics, the sociology of the current pandemic, and many other related topics.

Somewhat similarly, the reckoning with race generated a huge (largely unmet) demand for historical and social science perspectives on systemic racism, racial inequalities and possible policy responses.

Common features of networked learning environments include discovery forums, where members of the community investigate a particular topic; collectively assembled and critically assessed information; and wikis, collaboratively written, edited and annotated online documents. This approach holds out the prospect of knowledge sharing and problem solving at significant scale.

4. Critical inquiry and social justice education

In 2003, University of Toronto professor Megan Boler coined the phrase “the pedagogy of discomfort” to describe an approach to teaching that seeks to critically engage with dominant cultural values. This approach attempts to harness students’ feelings of anger or guilt to prompt critical interrogation of existing beliefs, assumptions and ways of seeing.

The goal is to destabilize the system of differential privileges and arbitrary social hierarchies to which those values gave rise.

Courses on social justice and critical inquiry have generated firestorms of controversy and have received harsh criticism from those who reject the idea of an explicitly politicized curriculum and those who fear that such an approach fails to adequately acknowledge the power dynamics in the student-faculty relationship. The pedagogy of discomfort has also been disparaged for treating group experiences as homogeneous and failing to recognize the potential harm that such an approach can inflict upon students who have firsthand experience with discrimination and abuse.

However, variants of this approach are becoming much more widespread reflecting a growing demand for colleges and universities to facilitate difficult, and unduly delayed, conversations about race, racism, sexism and inequality.

For such courses to succeed, it is essential that instructors design these classes with an acute sensitivity to pedagogical ethics. Since these courses address politically charged and ideologically contested topics and often enroll students who are emotionally invested in a particular position or perspective, it is essential that instructors who embrace discomfort and dissonant ideas as pedagogical tools maintain a safe, inclusive classroom environment. It is vital to ensure that these courses be open to alternate points of view and that whenever students experience discomfort as trauma their emotional needs are immediately addressed.

In recent months, our society has encountered a series of what some pedagogues call “activating events” or “disorienting dilemmas” that should serve to prompt a critical assessment of existing assumptions and a shift in perspective and create opportunities for critical conversations and reflection.

Ignoring the opportunities for engagement and learning that history has thrust upon us is a grave mistake. Located both inside and apart from the larger society, college is the ideal place to address our time’s toughest questions.

I empathize with those disruptors who promote faster, cheaper paths into the workforce. After all, in our highly diverse society, we need more than one stairway to heaven. We also need multiple pathways to a successful adulthood.

But for those who choose the college route, let’s give them a truly transformational experience. Let them engage in mentored research, participate in the creation of meaningful projects, take part in a community of practice and reflect critically on received values.

We’re told again and again that the main reason that students go to college is to get a good job. But look closer at UCLA’s 2019 Higher Education Research Institute survey and you will see that while 84 percent went to college for workforce reasons, 75 percent said that they were seeking a general education and an appreciation of ideas, and 50 percent reported hoping to become a more cultured person.

I see no reason not to give students what they want: a leg up economically but also a truly transformative educational experience.

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

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