Transformational Teaching

Recently our Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Chris Phillips, organised a leadership forum session on transformational teaching. As we move inexorably towards a free-market in student education, our offering in learning and teaching will increasingly determine how successful we are at student recruitment. It’s clear from that workshop that we need to move from transactional teaching towards transformational teaching.

Transactional teaching concerns the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. An example would be an ‘old fashioned’ lecture. Students are expected to assimilate and analyse the new knowledge themselves. Transformational teaching on the other hand, concerns inquiry, critical thinking and higher order learning and communication skills. When we speak to potential employers, they tell us that they value both the ability to solve problems together with excellent communication skills. Hence the transformational approach would appear to offer our graduates a much better skill-set for the future.

I remember being seated amongst linear rows of fellow students during my undergraduate days and being subjected to transactional teaching – the lecturer would typically drone on about matters that, at the time, seemed not particularly related to the printed syllabus. And there were no learning objectives by the way.  I was however lucky enough to have weekly one-to-one tutorials with my personal tutor – a much more effective means of teaching, but I suspect no more to all intents and purposes due to the burgeoning numbers of students that are now in the higher education system. Don’t get me wrong – I welcome an inclusive education system rather than one set up for the elite – but we need to ask whether traditional teaching methods are still fit for purpose.

One of the most inspirational moments in my life was the opportunity to attend a short course at a US University. I was in a class of about 80, but what was most significant about the course was its interactive nature. Firstly, the lecture theatre was not organised in linear rows but had an ‘amphitheatre’ format. This served the dual purpose of creating a more convivial learning environment, but also, importantly, ensured that everyone could see each other. The lecturer stood in the middle of the amphitheatre, and after a few minutes’ by way of brief introduction (using a chalk-board – no powerpoint!), proceeded to grill the audience (apparently) randomly with searching questions – but no-one escaped being challenged! Again, the amphitheatre format allowed her/him to engage directly eye-to-eye, which would have been impossible in a conventional linear format, and the rest of the audience could watch the proceedings and feel directly involved.

As we begin to build at Science Central or indeed on the main campus, I think we need to consider what the next innovative step in teaching and learning is likely to be. Whether it is for example a variant on ‘flip teaching’ or the Moore method, we need to ensure that we have the correct infrastructure in place. This will likely not be a linear lecture format, nor perhaps will it be an amphitheatre. Given the rapid developments in IT, perhaps it will be centred around social space – a group of leather sofas with teaching material on tablets (or whatever will replace them in 3 years’ time). Or perhaps we need space that can be easily reconfigured between a conventional raked auditorium to flat open-plan configuration. Please share your thoughts as we start the plan the first University building at Science Central.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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2 Responses to Transformational Teaching

  1. Nick Cook says:

    Steve, I am quite supportive of much of what you say here but there is something about the notion of inexorable external forces and our transformation that sits uneasy …

    … especially when re-reading your post in the week that Tony Benn died. Because, regardless of anyone’s politics, I think Benn may have had something useful to say about transformation when it came to his assessment of the organisation he devoted his life to. I paraphrase but, essentially, he said that the Labour Party changed from aspiring to change the world to suit the people to wanting to change the people to suit the world. We don’t have to be idealists of any political persuasion to see that a truly ambitious transformation would be to change the world as opposed to changing ourselves to compete in the world as we currently perceive it. This should not be taken as a charter for complacency.

    As the only critical-mass, Russell Group university in a region of low HE participation, a very real and, surely, proud transformation would be to use our weight for prolonged and serious engagement to raise aspiration locally and generate our own demand and at the same time transform the region we live in …

    • stevehomans says:

      Hi Nick,

      Can’t argue with that! I guess I would respond by suggesting that perhaps the best way to transform the region (and beyond) is to train the next generation of graduates suitably skilled for the workplace, and to work with external stakeholders to create more jobs in the region. That’s what we’re trying to do at Science Central of course (amongst other things). I would certainly sign up to prolonged and sustained engagement, but would preface this by suggesting that we must be careful to engage on the basis of acitivities in which can demonstrate excellence.

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