Transformative experiences in science education (#AAPTsm13, #PERC2013)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 23, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the better talks at AAPT/PERC last week was one by Kevin Pugh of the University of Northern Colorado (Psychology dept).   Kevin discussed the psychology of a phenomenon that we are probably all implicitly familiar with as instructors, but wouldn’t generally consider to be the topic of scholarly work:  Under what conditions does learning generate a sea-change in the mind of our students?  When are they “transformed” through their course?  I can certainly remember courses which affected the way that I think about things, or how I live my life.  Kevin actually studies this, and had some very pithy take-home messages from this broad-reaching topic.

Abstract:  John Dewey argued that the curriculum should be a guide and not a substitute for having our own journey with the content. I agree and believe the purpose of science education should be to transform the way we see and experience the world, an outcome I refer to as a transformative experience. In this talk, I explain the nature of transformative experiences and present a model of fostering transformative experiences in science. This model has roots in Dewey’s theory of aesthetic experience and was refined through design-based research. Instructional principles central to the model include: (1) artistically selecting and crafting content, (2) scaffolding re-seeing, and (3) modeling transformative experiences.

 Dr. Pugh points out that, if we are to be transformed by an experience, we have to surrender to it.   For example, he hates watching movies with his teenage daughters, because they are always commenting on it.  If you’re always commenting on a movie, you’re being pulled out of it, and can’t surrender to it.  So, he feels that we don’t have more transformative science experiences because we (or our students) aren’t as deeply involved as they would need to be.  They haven’t surrendered to the experience.

Why haven’t they surrendered?  Consider the multiple barriers for a student to become deeply enthralled.  What would their peers think?  Do they want to be seen as a nerd, or a teacher’s pet, by being “too” into the course?  And there is also the looming specter of evaluation.  They will be graded on their understanding, so many students focus on the assessments, rather than becoming deeply involved in the content.  However, said Dr. Pugh, we can teach students so that they are more likely to have transformative experiences.

1.  Frame content as ideas.

Be artistic in crafting your material, so that the content is framed as possible ways to see the world, rather than information to be memorized.

  • Select content worth teaching.   What are the core ideas of your discipline ; those with broad explanatory power?  What are the core ideas that will lead to new insights?  Not all core ideas are that compelling.  Which will evoke some emotional reaction, such as excitement, dissonance, and anticipation, and be relevant to everyday life.
  • Use compelling metaphors.  This is a way to transform a concept into a possibility.
  • Use idea-based anticipation.   Anticipate  for students what is coming, or what their new perception will be.  Dr. Pugh recalls a lecturer teaching about optics, who promised his students;  “You’ll see a rainbow like you’ve never seen before.” This anticipation generates excitement and wonder.
  • Emphasize the experiential value.  Often a course is framed as useful for the major, or career.  Frame instead that the course has value for understanding everyday experiences.  Teachers often put this “everyday experience” too much into the background, instead of the foreground.  For example, teachers might lecture about optics with rainbows as one application (I myself have done this!) instead of framing the topic as a rainbow made possible by physics.

2.  Scaffold Re-Seeing

Help students to see things in a new way!

  • Identify re-seeing opportunities.  We see the world through the lens of physics, but students won’t make those connections if we don’t help them.
  • Use experientially-anchored instruction.  Have students identify and share experiences related to the content.   In one case, he then compiled case studies for the students to investigate, from those shared experiences.    Music, sunlight, sunsets, these are all good common experiences that can serve as the starting-point for instruction.
  • Real-world updates.  Continually use real-world updates in your class, connecting the material to the real world, or to breaking news.

3.   Model transformative experiences.

As instructors we can create and shape the culture of the class.   Show students cool pictures you’ve taken related to the content.  “Look at this, isn’t this cool?”  Students can get caught up in our enthusiasm, if we show what it means to live the content.


Kevin Pugh is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Northern Colorado.  His work focuses on investigating transformative experience — experiences where students actively use curricular concepts to see and experience the world in a personally meaningful, new way. The primary goal of this work is to better address why school learning often fails to make a difference in students’ everyday, out-of-school experience. Related to this work are investigations of infuences on transformative experience, methods of teaching for transformative experience, and the relationship between transformative experience and enduring understanding in the context of science education. Research on motivation, transfer of learning, and Dewey’s theory of aesthetic experience are important in?uences on his work.


Holly Walter Kerby July 23, 2013 at 11:07 pm

Thanks for bringing this work to the attention of us readers. I think about transformational experiences all the time but have never read what comes of studying the phenomenon or events. I appreciated the reference of being taken out of the moment of a TV show by a comment from someone who is standing outside the experience, but I was surprised that the power of a TV show (even a bad one) to pull us into a potentially transformative experience wasn’t acknowledged. There is nothing like a story to get us on the bus and in the next town before we realized we bought a ticket.

Stephanie Chasteen July 24, 2013 at 3:52 am

Good point, Holly. I wonder if his research has investigated the use of narrative?

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