Transformative Learning in #STEM: a literature review

questacon3Following from my previous post looking at further work in Transformative Learning, I have been reading some research that specifically relates to TL in STEM, which follows on neatly from previous literature, also reported on here. Three studies I found useful are summarised below.

In this context, a useful definition of a transformative experience was defined as “… a learning episode in which a student acts on the subject matter by using it in everyday experience to more fully perceive some aspect of the world and finds meaning in doing so” (Pugh, 2011, p.111).

STUDY 1: Pugh, et al, 2010. Motivation, Learning, and Transformative Experience: A Study of Deep Engagement in Science

This study, with high school biology students, researched TL in terms of how it relates to deep-level learning, with the premise that there is little evidence that TL happens outside of the classroom. It also looked at an interesting idea around how students saw themselves in relation to their ‘science identity’. Previous research cited (Roeser, et al, 2006; Roeser and Peck, 2009) found that identity plays a key role in science learning and motivation, and if the subject is perceived as relevant to their identity, particularly their science identity, students are more likely to have a TL experience. These findings are also echoed in the museum learning literature (see, for example Kelly, 2010; 2013).

The authors define a transformative experience as:

“… those experiences in which students actively use science concepts to see and experience their everyday world in meaningful, new ways” (p.2), in a way that “… yields value and an expanded perception” (p.4), and that involves “… a meaningful integration of science content into everyday experience, they are likely beneficial to successfully overcoming misconceptions and for facilitating transfer among conceptual ideas.” (p.2).

TL occurs at the interaction of “acquisition of conceptual understanding” coupled with “participation in a science discourse community” (p.2-3), with deep engagement being “critical for addressing conceptual learning in science” (p.3). This engagement is intense, emotional, behavioural, affective and cognitive, with “A realistic goal for educators may be to focus on developing engagement so that it becomes more transformative over time” (p.5).

What did they find?

  • TL is a desired goal in education but is hard to measure empirically
  • Transformative experiences could be seen as a “… continuum ranging from in-class engagement to active out-of-school engagement” (p.17)
  • Students that identified with science and who were motivated to achieve mastery of the subject were “… more likely to engage in higher levels of transformative experience” (p.19)
  • “… as students apply the concepts they learn in the classroom to their everyday lives by engaging in transformative experiences, they become more fluid and agile in thinking about these conceptions” (p.20)
  • One key outcome is the idea of seeing TL / transformative experiences as a continuum of engagement, with the critical role of science educators, in particular, inspiring and encouraging a TL experience in how they engage students with the content

STUDY 2: Girod, et al, 2010. Teaching and learning science for transformative, aesthetic experience

This paper argues that although science learning is traditionally based on conceptual change via resolving discrepancies, there is also the need to consider the importance of “art, beauty and aesthetics” (p.802). These authors draw heavily on Dewey’s philosophies around the importance of aesthetics in TL and how applicable these are to contemporary science education and learning. They argue that:

“Key outcomes for teaching and learning from the transformative, aesthetic perspective include seeing the world differently, desiring to live and act differently in the world, seeing oneself differently as a result of new learning, as well as conceptual understanding of powerful content” (p.805).

These are all outcomes that easily translate to a museum / science centre experience, as previous work on TL at the Museum of Australian Democracy identified (see this post for more).

Girod, et al’s research compared two types of teaching styles – one with the goal of transformative / aesthetic learning and the other using a more ‘traditional’ cognitive / rational frameworks as below:

instruction styles table

What did they find?

  • “Students learning for transformative, aesthetic experiences reported higher levels of interest in science and experienced greater increases in efficacy beliefs about themselves as science learners” (p.819)
  • Those in the TL / aesthetics group were more inclined to see the world differently, continue to investigate the world using ideas learned in class, and retained conceptual learning over a longer time-frame

The authors did report that while the research has limitations and further research is needed, the study does offer evidence to “… consider refocusing science education goals not only around cognitive, rational outcomes like problem-solving and conceptual understanding but to also include teaching and learning for transformative, aesthetic experience” (p.820, emphasis added).

STUDY 3: Pugh, et al, 2017. Profiles of Transformative Engagement: Identification, Description, and Relation to Learning and Instruction.

This paper addresses the question “Do science students engage with school content in their everyday out-of-school lives?”, and if so, what does that look like? The authors state that a “… positive relationship has been found between transformative experiences and levels of science learning” (p.7), identifying three essential characteristics of a transformative experience (p.5-6):

  • Motivated use – the application of school content in out-of-school contexts where application is not required
  • Expansion of perception – the process of successively seeing deeper layers of meaning as a result of using school content as a lens for viewing of ‘re-seeing’
  • Experiential value – the enrichment of everyday experience; specifically, the value attached in using science to see the world differently

It was surmised that the way students are instructed is critical to laying the foundations for a transformative experience. The instructional model used in this study was Teaching for Transformative Experiences in Science (TTES), which offers a useful way of thinking about how science-based programs could be developed in out-of-school contexts, being based on:

  1. Framing content as ideas
  2. Use of scaffolding and re-seeing
  3. Modelling transformative experiences

This study with sixth-grade earth science students in the US explored students’ transformative experiences under two different teaching conditions – one using the TTES and the other using conventional methods.

What did they find?

  • Instruction based on the TTES model (above) resulted in higher transformative engagement with science, and deeper learning
  • These students were also more likely to report seeking out opportunities to to learn more about a science-related topic both in-school and out-of-school
  • Students need some kind of scaffolding when applying content to everyday experiences and in seeing the world differently

Final thoughts

Taken together, these three studies reveal that encouraging a positive science identity (“I am a science-person”), coupled with addressing aesthetic experiences, and instruction based on an inquiry-based framework offer ways to think further about how to effectively engage students with science-based concepts, particularly in out-of-school contexts, like Questacon.




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