six balances in transformative education


A variety of tensions inevitably result during any process of change. Many teachers feel these tensions when implementing transformative educational approaches, because they are very different from traditional ways of teaching. It's the same situation, whether we're talking about education for democracy, education for sustainable development, student centred approaches, or whatever the case may be. Teachers must strive to find the right balance between extremes, in order to mediate these tensions and be as effective as possible in the classroom.

Balance 1: Explicit and Tacit

Much of the discussion in this Guidebook has been about tacit learning, and the role of contextual factors in students’ experiences. However, most curricula, and most educational resources are heavily focused on explicit teaching of content. This is true whether we are talking about democracy (teaching about democracy versus cultivating democratic citizens), or science (teaching about science rather than developing young scientists), or any other field of inquiry. In implementing transformative education, bear in mind the importance of creating a context for student experience which supports the things which are being talked about explicitly. Consider the following strategies:

  • For each lesson you teach, identify the main purpose, then ask yourself how you might give students an experience related to that purpose.
  • Begin analyzing the “hidden curriculum” in your classroom, by questioning “why” you do things the way you do, and what the impact might be on students.
  • Spend some time thinking about what you think should be the underlying purpose of education, then ask yourself, to accomplish that purpose, how would you best organize classroom life?
  • Spend some time reviewing the tables in the section on Democratic Context, and consider in your own classroom, what should be getting away from, and working towards.

Balance 2: Individual and Group

It is easy to think about a class as one clump, and to forget about students’ differences. It is a lot harder to keep in mind that each of the students is an individual, with their own backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses, and learning preferences. Meeting the needs of all of those individuals is a challenge. It’s impossible to meet every student’s needs one-by-one, there’s simply not enough time. Teachers instead need an approach that will meet most of the needs of students in the classroom, and is still adaptable and flexible enough to cater to the unique needs of individuals. Consider the following strategies:

  • Plan to meet diverse needs: Plan a variety of instructional strategies, reflecting a range of learning styles. Open-ended tasks also increase chances for diverse learning experiences. In addition, plan student tasks that will allow you to spend time circulating around the class and facilitating learning... this is impossible if the teacher is lecturing for the whole class.
  • Facilitate on multiple levels: Provide specific guidance and suggestions to individuals, small groups, and the whole class, as appropriate. If many students are making the same mistakes or have similar questions, it is sometimes worth interrupting everyone’s work to provide clarification.
  • Communicate in multiple ways: During class, present information in a variety of modalities: text, orally, in charts, act it out etc. This will help most learners, even if they have different ways of understanding things. Allowing students to pose questions or discuss amongst themselves is also very beneficial to most students.
  • Provide extra support: Providing extra support outside of class for students who really need it is always an option; however, we cannot do this with all students. Offering tutoring or review sessions periodically is a good strategy, since it allows the teacher to focus support on a small group of weaker students.
  • Ask for support: Some schools have had success with team teaching, by inviting additional teachers to come in and work with students if classes are too large.
  • Scaffold: Providing clear, concise guidance to students, and structuring their learning tasks (for example, breaking them down into steps) will dramatically increase the quality of work of the weakest learners. For complex tasks, give very clear parameters for what students need to accomplish, and how they should proceed.

Balance 3: Freedom and Structure

If learning tasks and the learning environment are too rigid, students’ development will be stifled. Students require freedom in order to reach their potential and develop their creativity and thinking skills. However, if the classroom is too free, the teacher will lose control of the lesson, and learning goals may not be accomplished. Ideally, the learning environment and learning tasks will be structured in a way which focuses and scaffolds students’ behaviour and thinking rather than limiting it. Consider the following strategies:

  • Open-ended tasks: Use open-ended questions and tasks where there can be a variety of outcomes. You can facilitate student success on these by providing clear guidelines around what is expected of students, what outcomes they should attain, time limits, guiding questions etc.
  • Break down complicated tasks: Teachers can help all learners, especially the weakest, by breaking complex tasks (such as writing essays, solving problems, and conducting experiments) down into steps or chunks, and providing students with guidelines for each chunk. This will scaffold the task to help ensure each student attains satisfactory outcomes. These steps should not be provided as a prescription, but rather, as general guidance to start from.
  • Classroom management: Students need an environment that is focused on learning, it should be quiet during individual work, and controlled during group work. The teacher must ensure that this is the case, but can do so in a caring manner.
  • Routines and procedures: Students like to know what to expect from their teachers, and they like to know what teachers expect from them. Developing routines for regular activities (such as passing out/collecting materials, lining up, or getting students’ attention) is an important way of increasing classroom focus and efficiency without restricting students unnecessarily.

Balance 4: Teaching and Learning

It is easy to confuse teaching goals with learning goals, but our emphasis must be on the latter. Avoid setting goals for yourself like “get through chapter x” or “finish the first half of topic y”. Many teachers make the mistake of rushing through material with students, which may allow them to finish their teaching tasks, without students really learning the material. Teachers can teach in a variety of ways, but the teaching is not successful if the students haven’t learned what they should have. Consider the following strategies:

  • Rather than planning lessons around what content you need to teach, plan instead around what learning objectives students need to fulfill, or around provocative questions which will interest students in the material
  • Decide what instructional strategies are appropriate for the learning goals, and the lesson content.
  • Assess learners regularly to ensure that they have learned what they should have. Small-scale formative assessment (like quizzes) should be conducted frequently.
  • Remember that texts (and other resources) are only a resource to support learning. They should not dictate everything that students do.
  • Help students to make connections with the material they are learning, since that will make learning easier and more relevant for them. Four types of connections are important: connections to prior knowledge; connections with other topic areas; connections to the outside world; and personal/emotional connections between students and the content.

Balance 5: Depth and Breadth

Many teachers would like to help their students learn content on a deeper level, but struggle with how to do this effectively in practice. The tough demands of the curriculum schedule make this even more challenging because teachers feel pressure to move quickly from one topic to the next. However, keep in mind that deeper learning is a kind of investment. If students learn something on a deep level, their foundation for subsequent learning will be stronger, and that later learning will be both quicker and easier. Consider the following strategies:

  • Begin lessons with big questions, problems, or critical issues which will be investigated. As learning proceeds, help students contextualize their learning in terms of these overarching questions. This gives students a mental framework which facilitates their deeper thinking.
  • Have students apply what they’ve learned in new contexts. We don’t want students’ learning to be confined to the examples and situations discussed in class. Challenging students to apply learning in new contexts will help them to become more flexible, adaptable, and creative.
  • Ask higher-level questions, and more of them. As you respond to students’ answers you can clarify their misconceptions and raise additional questions to challenge their thinking.

Balance 6: Old and New

Many teachers are excited about new teaching approaches, and are trying hard to implement them. However, it is important you don’t forget about the things that have worked well for them before. When you are trying new things, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many similarities between good teachers in the traditional sense, and good teachers in the context of transformative education.

Regardless of their pedagogical orientation or teaching style, effective teachers do the following things: manage student behavior; prepare well for classes; respond fairly and reasonably to students; communicate clearly and effectively; keep the classroom tidy and organized; maintain clear and accurate student records; demonstrate commitment to their work; keep classes interesting and engaging; care about students and their learning; reflect on their teaching; and strive for continual improvement. Consider the following strategies and approaches:

  • Make “good teaching” your goal, and spend time reflecting on what “good teaching” really means to you
  • Don’t think about transformative education and traditional teaching as a dichotomy, instead aim to integrate the two effectively to suit your local situation. Use the styles and strategies which are most effective in helping you accomplish the goals of the lesson
  • Think about the most effective teachers you know, and the most effective teachers you had as a child, and reflect on what made them so good
  • Learn as much as you can about new pedagogies, and reflect on how they fit into your idea of good teaching
  • Reflect on your lessons, and always strive to improve
  • Take every opportunity to observe other classes and learn from your peers

Matthew Hiebert 2013-12-08