Transformational vs. Incremental Teaching

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Michael Butler.

Recently I discussed two broad approaches to materials creation, which I termed episodic and systematic.

Today I would like to discuss two approaches to instruction, which I term Incremental and Transformation. We have heard the second discussed by Arkady and perhaps Jason on this blog.

It is my belief that programs that promise incremental learning should probably be judged differently than programs that promise transformational learning. The proofs that I suggest we should look for from these two approaches are broadly discussed below.

Incremental Programs Transformational Programs
1. The inputs are well defined. A schedule is offered to insure that all the inputs are introduced and practiced. The program is a product of the sum of all the parts. 1. The inputs are generally defined but aren’t important as ends in themselves. They are a means to a transformational end. The program is greater than the sum of its parts.
2. Grammar and vocabulary study in particular lend themselves to a steady, incremental style of learning. 2. Speaking instruction tends to be transformation. Many students ask to be transformed into good speakers.
3. The more detailed the curriculum the greater is the chance that the inputs will be taught on a set schedule, in a set order, and probably reviewed. What, after all, is the point of specifying all the inputs and then not using them to build a more complex program? 3. The inputs are not necessarily intended for review or even retention. They are designed to help students “break walls”, free up “old resources” and help serve hidden ends. The inputs are sometimes only specified to give students confidence in the program.
4. This process is designed to result in a steady accumulation of knowledge. This accumulation process however may proceed at different speeds under different conditions. 4. This process should result in sudden, dramatic gains that can astonish outsiders. The main reasons for progress however are often psychological. These processes are not fully understood.
5. Almost by definition, complete beginners start here. 5. Many of these students are frustrated or failed learners.
Key Success Factors: Key Success Factors:
1. How much is scheduled to be learned, at what intervals, and under what environmental conditions. 1. The psychological, attitudinal, and environmental forces that surround the learner.
Proof: Proof:
1. The standards of the program are clearly defined. Data is available internally to measure if the standards are being met (quality measurement). Outsiders can decide for themselves if the standards are significant. 1. Learners claims are not sufficient proof. Outside testing needs to establish that a transformation took place. However if 33% of all learners are transformed, should this be considered a success? How about 50%? 5 per cent?

Final notes:

For students who have endured years of incremental learning the transformational promise is tantalizing. After having spent years doing incremental learning who wouldn’t what to experience the catharsis of transformation?

The current ELT industry has a huge stake in slow incremental learning. Can transformational approaches that focus primarily on speaking be added to the mix? Do incremental learning systems sap motivation?

Teachers who teach beginners tend to be incremental in their approach. How can these teachers become more transformational?

Public schools are perhaps the most conservative incremental learning environments on the planet. Today transformation is often left to outsiders. Is this wise? Can Public schools start to kick-start the transformational process?

  • Rickinalbi

    I’m not clear on your basic distinction. Could you give some examples of what you mean by “incremental” and “transformational” teaching? Does this reduce to the difference between teaching knowledge (grammar, vocabulary, basic facts in math, basics in reading music) and skills (speaking fluently, composition, solving fact-based problems in math, playing an instrument)? Or is something more involved? In addition, does “transformational” teaching require the “learn to speak a language in 10 days” kind of transformation, or does “slow and steady” count, where language skills are gradually acquired and the student is slowly “transformed”? Can’t I (and perhaps shouldn’t I) integrate all of this into the same course? Thanks in advance.

    • ChinaMike

      I think a good start may be to divide things in this way. But it doesn’t really get at the distinction as I understand it.

      Teaching things in discrete steps (which I believe is incremental learning) is not exactly equivalent to teaching knowledge. When I teach someone the separate steps in a breast-stroke I am teaching both knowledge and a process (putting the knowledge together). I guess incremental learning would typically end in the accumulation of many little bits of “things” the product of which we refer to as learning. This process could be slow or it could be quick. Time is not so much a factor as is the process of stringing things together (like in a syllabus).

      Transformational learning might refer to a person who after learning all of these steps could still not swim until perhaps the fear of swimming was somehow removed. After removing this fear, the subject suddenly found himself somehow able to swim and attributed this ability not to any prior training but the removal of the blocking fear.

      The question I am left with is how much language learning is incremental in nature and how much is transformational? How do we measure a program that claims to be transformational? In the same way we measure a program that is essentially incremental?

      Do these both need to be a part of a single course (excellent question!)? As someone who is an avowed incrementalist, but finds himself giving transformational advice to students all the time I can’t really give you a clear answer.

      • Rickinalbi

        I’m wondering if this is not something of a false dichotomy. It strikes me that “incremental” learning is what we all do when we are learning a language. In other words, we learn some new vocabulary, we learn a little about a grammar concept, we practice it, and then we build on that. We can change the methodology however we like, but that new methodology simply creates different patterns of “increments.”

        Many students gradually develop the various language skills as they work their way through this incremental development, with some students advancing faster than others. Some students, despite their hard work, develop a “block” as to a certain skill. Maybe there is a gap in their knowledge that they need to fill, maybe there is something psychological, maybe there is something else. In the case of speaking skills, it may simply be an insufficient number of opportunities to meaningfully practice the new language. After all, one can’t teach conversation skills very easily in a classroom of 30 students. The transformation you are discussing occurs only after the gap is filled, the block is removed, or the speaking opportunities are provided. As a result of this additional work, the student moves relatively quickly to a skill level appropriate for the amount he or she has learned incrementally.

        To the extent we are filling a gap in the student’s knowledge, we are essentially reviewing what has been removed incrementally. To the extent we are removing a block, I don’t see how this is “teaching,” in the classical sense of the word, as the knowledge and skills have already been imparted. To the extent we are providing opportunities, that again strikes me as incremental, with each opportunity being an increment – albeit not nearly as well planned in what we cover as in a formal class presentation. As a result, I do not see how one can take a beginner and teach “transformationally,” since the beginner does not have enough of the new language to “transform.”

        Again, I may be misconstruing the distinction you are trying to make. I apologize in advance if that is the case.

        • ChinaMike

          Ricki, sorry for the late reply.

          I too wonder whether this is a false dichotomy. I agree from one perspective that all new learning is incremental in the sense that we always lay one level of learning on top of an old one. I believe evidence points to the fact that all learning is paired or associative. I think this means that all new learning is linked to preexisting knowledge. As a result, what is new must follow what is old, in incremental steps.

          But what we are talking about is essentially a theory of the mind and as there may be even more processes at work, processes that work to repattern or regroup existing associations. In fact, the mechanisms that make repatterning possible may be structurally quite different from the mechanisms that work to form new associations.

          So if this seems complex it is. And as much as I try to understand these things I’m guessing that we won’t get too far by debating what goes on in the mind.

          For me the terms (incremental and transformative) are not meant to represent a perfect picture of what goes on in the mind but rather serves to underline a distinction in how some programs are designed to succeed. Some are designed to transform; others are designed to “lay down” successive layers of knowledge. Others perhaps are designed to do both.

          My only main point in all of this is perhaps too simple (and too fraught with complexities). Since the goals of incremental instruction and transformative instruction are different maybe our ways of evaluating each should be different as well.

          • Rickinalbi

            @9f6eefa525fbfb00996cfcfff4f1bc64:disqus No
            problems on the timing. This is not a subject where instantaneous
            reactions are necessary.

            Like you, I believe that learning and skill development are incremental, based on associations with what we already know and can do. Beyond that, I don’t think my speculations on the workings of the brain will serve anyone any good. I don’t see see a reason to legitimize a potentially false dichotomy by creating
            different ways to evaluate “incremental” and “transformational” programs. Indeed, I see no reason to create
            different mechanisms even if the dichotomy is real. Regardless of the type of program, we can still take before-and-after
            measurements of students’ abilities, we can compare those
            measurements with the program’s promotional materials, and we can
            compare those measurements with measurements taken from studies of
            other programs. We may find that “transformational” and
            “incremental” programs have substantially different impacts on student
            achievement, but I don’t see how we can compare those impacts if we
            fail to use a standardized methodology.

          • ChinaMike

            Ricki,

            Here is my best mini-definition of transformational
            learning.

            Transformational learning activates a “hidden ability” of
            the mind (consider Krashen’s language acquisition device) through seemingly
            non-incremental means resulting in a relatively rapid transformation of single
            or multiple language skills (i.e. error correction, speaking speed, speaking
            accuracy, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, etc.)

            Since incremental learning is almost equivalent to the
            content of the lesson being taught the best way to test for incremental
            learning is to test for transfer using pre- and post tests. But to judge if the
            learning that occurred was significant we must ask other questions such as what
            the overall passing rate was for a group of people, what constitutes passing
            (where the success/failure line is drawn), and how much material was taught.
            Some people argue that the length of time something is remembered should also
            be taken into account.

            As a quick aside, I think with transformational learning one
            could observe a much lower percentage of students showing a change but still
            accept that the method is successful. In other words, if transformational
            learning exists, and this is my key point, the program might show significant change
            at a lower passing rate and still be deemed successful (e.g. success for
            incremental programs = 75% passing rate vs. success for transformational
            programs = 25% passing rate).

            Again, to underscore what I said earlier, we assume that
            what produces transformational learning is not the content under study. The
            content could be changed and the same ends could be achieved. The content is
            simply used as a means to achieve a larger end.

            Still, as you mentioned, both incremental and
            transformational learning should be judged using the same mechanism: by using
            pre- and post tests.

            But, it seems to me that one must be mindful of the very
            arbitrary nature of judging language-learning results. The judgments below are
            very subjective (especially at the margin).

            1.     What
            passing rate is normal for a certain kind of learning?

            2.     What
            passing rate is desirable for a certain kind of learning?

            3.     What
            constitutes significant learning results?

            In fact we don’t have any benchmarks in our field that I am
            aware of. We don’t know what the norm is for standard incremental learning. We
            also don’t know what the norm is for non-standard, “accelerated”, incremental
            learning. And for the present, partly thanks to your line of questioning, I still leave
            open the question of whether transformational learning does exist.

            What I am sure about is
            that among the students I meet there is a general hope and even expectation
            that transformational language learning methods exist.  

          • Rickinalbi

            Mike,

            This is an interesting exchange  — even if you and I are the only ones following it.

            1.  Isn’t this idea of “transformational” learning simply a form of remediation?  Or are you suggesting that we can “transform” someone who has not already been through a traditional/incremental approach?

            2.  I do not see why we need to focus on “passing rates” to measure success.   We can measure outcomes, in terms of raw achievement, and let the data speak for itself.  While we may not yet have norms for what to expect (I will take your word on that), we can certainly start taking measurements in order to establish those norms.

            3.  If your students have an expectation as to a transformational learning language method, then they are different from mine in this regard.  And if students come to me with the idea that they can go from false beginner to fluency in less than 2-3 years of constant work, then I gently try to disabuse them of that idea.   The exception is the student who walks into class with good abilities in at least 2 of the 4 basic skills (and preferably 3), and can focus on the area(s) where he or she is weak, i.e., needs remediation.   In addition, my experience is that this type of remedial student is relatively rare, as many of the potential candiates significantly overestimate their abilities in the areas where they believe they are strong.

          • Rickinalbi

            Mike,

            This is an interesting exchange  — even if you and I are the only ones following it.

            1.  Isn’t this idea of “transformational” learning simply a form of remediation?  Or are you suggesting that we can “transform” someone who has not already been through a traditional/incremental approach?

            2.  I do not see why we need to focus on “passing rates” to measure success.   We can measure outcomes, in terms of raw achievement, and let the data speak for itself.  While we may not yet have norms for what to expect (I will take your word on that), we can certainly start taking measurements in order to establish those norms.

            3.  If your students have an expectation as to a transformational learning language method, then they are different from mine in this regard.  And if students come to me with the idea that they can go from false beginner to fluency in less than 2-3 years of constant work, then I gently try to disabuse them of that idea.   The exception is the student who walks into class with good abilities in at least 2 of the 4 basic skills (and preferably 3), and can focus on the area(s) where he or she is weak, i.e., needs remediation.   In addition, my experience is that this type of remedial student is relatively rare, as many of the potential candiates significantly overestimate their abilities in the areas where they believe they are strong.

          • ChinaMike

            Ricki,

            Ha-ha, I hope Kirsten doesn’t mind that we use her board for a personal
            exchange. :)

            Point 1: You are correct. Transformational language learning
            programs, as I perceive them, must be based on the existence of prior learning.
            There must be “something” in there to reorganize or transform. However, I do
            sometimes wonder to what degree we can influence language learning by simply
            restructuring someone’s way of observing the world or, more accurately, teaching
            students how a language is uniquely used to experience and understand “things”
            in the world. This instruction could/can actually start at the very beginning
            of the learning process.

            Point 2: On the question of norms I haven’t done much
            research for many years so please don’t except my conclusions as definitive. At
            one point I was very interested how the notion of “quality” could be applied to
            language learning.

            I understand exactly what you mean in terms of letting the
            data speak for itself. In fact I am very sympathetic to that position but I also
            think it is very human to want to see data parsed into “meaningful categories”.
            And one of the most meaningful categories in formal learning* is the dreaded pass/fail.
            This line is used to pass students on to the next level (where they can learn
            more) or keep students at an existing level (where they can try again).

            I personally believe it is incumbent on a program to clearly
            define for itself what their line of pass/fail is (if only for their own internal
            purposes). ARMED WITH THIS DATA AND KNOWING WHAT WAS TAUGHT outsiders can decide
            one, if their standards are significant and demanding and two, to what degree
            they have succeeded at meeting their own standards.

            Point 3: I can see we live in different worlds. China is
            partly a place where a sizeable number of people are always looking for quick
            fixes. There is a strong belief in hidden, secret formulas that yield
            extraordinary results (one historical influence on this was Chinese medicine).
            Students here believe they have been subjected to years of education for testing
            and sorting purposes but that this experience is somehow at great variance with
            how things are learned in the “real” world. They know they have been filled
            with knowledge and they want to find a quick way to “release” and “activate”
            this knowledge. The best way there is to drive these students away is to tell
            them that they will need 2-3 years of work.

            I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how one can
            “speed up” the incremental learning process so that students can learn English
            while they are still in the vise of the existing educational system. Speed is
            the key variable for students learning English outside school in China. Perhaps
            as a result true or quasi- transformational approaches will attract interest
            here (witness the success of Crazy English).

             

             

            * I think one of the things
            that self-study on-line programs enjoy is the freedom to not define what
            pass/fail means. Many educators (and I use the term very loosely) believe this
            is something that students detest (I agree). But many also resist notions of
            pass/fail so they won’t have to introduce standards and all that this implies.
            Ironically I believe that trying to define pass/fail (or move on/retake class)
            is a good first step for schools to make in establishing notions of quality and
            accountability.
             

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