Embracing Transformative Teaching for Online Instruction

Kelly Nelson-Danley
Kelly Nelson-Danley
Assistant elementary school principal; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction
Young boy pointing to a globe during a Zoom class.

Online instruction has been a key element in the world of education this year. Covid-19 has impacted our ability to teach and learn as we previously did. As teachers navigate online instruction, it is important that they continue to implement best practices in teaching. Transformative teaching is a great way to help students build on the knowledge they already have while forming new understandings of the world around them.

What is Transformative Teaching?

Transformative learning (and teaching) is a relatively new view of the learning process coined in the early 70s by Jack Mezirow. It was originally termed “constructivism”, referring to how learners interpret their experiences thus making meaning out of new information. Transformative learning focuses primarily on adult and young adult learning and the idea that learners can change their thinking based on new information. Mezirow’s theory claimed that students had important learning and teaching opportunities that connected with their past experiences. He found that reflection and review of these experiences could lead to a change, or transformation, of their understanding (WGU, 2020).

In the theory of transformative learning, Mezirow found that adult learning requires taking things we learned and believed as a child and letting new information, coupled with reflection, transform our thinking into what we believe and understand presently. Mezirow’s theory says that there are two basic focuses in transformative learning: instrumental learning and communicative learning. Instrumental refers to task-oriented problem solving and communicative learning refers to how people communicate their wants, needs, and feelings. Both of these focuses are important in transformative learning as students need to be able to focus on various types of their understanding and be able to form new perspectives that are logical and meaningful to them.

By understanding the theory of transformative learning, educators can become transformational teachers. Transformational teachers create educational environments where teaching is both an art and a science, meaning that students are exposed to important subject matter in a way that taps into their emotions and previous experiences. In this role, teachers are the “transmitters” of educational knowledge while the students receive, reflect upon, and store this new knowledge. By providing students with critical thinking opportunities and hands-on experiences, teachers are allowing students to to construct new meaning and perspectives.

So, what does transformative teaching look like?  The following are suggestions for what may take place in a transformative classroom (Finley, 2015).

  • Students are presented with real world problems and are given ample opportunities to ask questions.
  • Facilitator designs questions that inspire students to think critically about the problems they are presented with. Students should be asked to analyze, synthesize, create, empathize, interpret, refer to prior knowledge, explain their thinking, and determine what they can further learn on the topic.
  • Students should be allowed to participate in learning groups and to collaborate with peers.
  • Teachers should model, guide, challenge, and support students in their transformational learning journey.
  • Students should have choice in how they demonstrate mastery.

What are the Benefits of Transformative Teaching?

Like any solid, research-based instructional teaching strategy, transformational teaching is beneficial to students in many ways. Firstly, it engages students by presenting them with subject matter they can relate to while challenging them to stretch their thinking. Transformative teaching also empowers students to take control of their learning by giving them opportunities to collaborate with their peers to solve problems. It also promotes reflection as students learn to apply prior knowledge to new situations and draw on their experiences and the experiences of their peers to develop solutions and create new understandings. This is a skill students can carry with them throughout their educational journey and in real life circumstances outside of school.

By allowing students to engage in transformational learning experiences, teachers show that they care about the backgrounds and interests of their students. Instead of focusing only on the subject at hand, teachers can model how to get involved with the curriculum and apply it to their own personal experiences and interests. This means taking a social-emotional interest in student development. During this time of Covid-19, it is especially important to show students that you care about their educational and emotional wellbeing.

Using Transformative Teaching for Online Instruction

From an online instructional perspective, teachers can easily apply transformative teaching strategies to virtual classrooms. For example, teachers can present real world problems to students using examples from today’s world and giving them time to ask questions via Zoom, chat, or email. Teachers should be ready to present students with questions that stretch their thinking in an online platform. This can be done using Google Slides, Google Classroom, or other online platforms. Students can also participate in small groups via Zoom Breakout Groups or collaborate on online presentations. Teachers can provide feedback through online platforms and support them virtually by checking in with them daily and posing guiding questions as students take in new information.

In planning transformative lessons, teachers should include choice regarding how they show mastery. Providing students with choice increases students’ excitement about subject matter. By providing students with an opportunity to create, teachers are allowing students to engage with the curriculum in a personal way. These types of choices allow more meaningful learning to occur. For example, teachers may create a choice board where students can choose how they will demonstrate their understanding of the content. Some choices might include, but are not limited to:

  • Create a digital presentation of what you’ve learned about the topic.
  • Create a song, rap, or poem that addresses the content of the topic.
  • Write a summary of the problem you were presented with, how you worked through it, and how you arrived at your solution.
  • Pretend you are the teacher. Record a video of yourself teaching this topic to someone else.

It is important for educators to remember that students need quality, differentiated instruction online, as well as in the classroom. Transformative teaching is one of those strategies that can provide students with opportunities to use what they already know and transform it into something new.

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