August 22, 2008

Transformational Teaching and Learning

By: in Articles, Teaching and Learning

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The relatively new pedagogical periodical Academy of Management Learning & Education has a regular feature I very much enjoy and wish was part of more of the discipline-based periodicals on teaching and learning. Noted teachers and scholars in the discipline are interviewed and asked questions about teaching, learning and education. Besides being well edited and good reading, the interviews permanently record the wisdom of faculty from whom others can learn much.

A recent issue contains an interview with Robert E. Quinn, a professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Michigan. Recently he has written three influential books on the “complexity and challenges of leading change.” (p. 487). His work is very relevant to what many teachers try to accomplish with students.

The interviewer asks him to define effective teaching; Quinn responds by describing an experience. He once taught on a campus with a classroom building designed so that one could see into the classrooms. He regularly observed classes there, asking himself what was happening. “All I had to do was look at the body language of the students. In a few classes, the students were on the edge of their seats, deeply involved. In the majority of the classes, the students were draped over their desks, only half awake. I am sure the instructors would tell us those slumped students were not serious about education. In the end, we usually blame the victim.” (p. 488)

Quinn doesn’t buy that the engaged students were somehow different. He thinks those students on the edge of their seats were having a different kind of experience, and he attributes that to the teacher. “To be an extraordinary teacher is to be a positive deviant. A positive deviant is a person with the potential to transform ordinary people and groups into extraordinary people and groups. That is what I think great teachers do. Great teachers call ordinary students to embrace their own greatness.” (p. 488)


He then proceeds to make another important point about teaching. He describes one of his early colleagues, someone he calls “teacher-centric.” This faculty member relied on his expertise and need to control every detail of the class. His syllabus outlined every aspect of the course from beginning to end. Each class session was carefully planned and scripted. “The course was a tightly run ship.” (p. 488)

Quinn compares this with how his classes operated. His courses were “highly ambiguous” experiences. Class sessions were unstructured. Quinn gave students work beyond their capabilities. They discussed their frustrations; he proposed alternative actions they might consider taking.

Interestingly, both classes were highly rated by students. How could that be? “The answer is that great teaching is not primarily about thinking, behavior or techniques. It is not about style. It is about something more basic. It is about our being state. It is about the expression of who we are.” (p. 488)

The interview contains much more, but one final thought for here about the need for change and the reason why teachers find it so disconcerting. Quinn argues that every person and every organization faces a continuing, core dilemma of deep change or death. It’s the old law of entropy. “The problem is that I do not want to make deep change. Making deep change means letting go of control. I can think of no more terrifying thing to do. So I design my life to be comfortable…. As leaders and teachers, we need to learn how to choose to make deep change; if we do, we become empowered and empowering to our students.” (p. 489)

Reference: Anding, J. M. (2005). An interview with Robert E. Quinn-Entering the fundamental state of leadership: Reflections on the path to transformational teaching. Academy of Management Education & Learning, 4 (4), 487-495.

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