Transformational Teaching and Physical Activity Engagement Among Adolescents : Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews

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Transformational Teaching and Physical Activity Engagement Among Adolescents

Beauchamp, Mark R.; Morton, Katie L.

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Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews 39(3):p 133-139, July 2011. | DOI: 10.1097/JES.0b013e31822153e7
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School-based physical education has been identified as a vital context to promote adolescent physical activity behavior and support students‘ cognitive, social, and emotional development (25). Positive experiences in physical education have the potential to influence adolescents to adopt healthy and active lifestyles (33), and greater exposure to effective physical education results in improved opportunities for students to develop motor and behavioral skills (25) and improve their subsequent health status as adults (23). Despite these benefits associated with effective physical education programs, recent reports suggest that the majority of North America‘s adolescents are not sufficiently active to meet international guidelines for healthy growth and development (1,17).

A promising approach that has recently been applied by our group to understand the effects, and enhance the effectiveness, of physical education teachers and those concerned with health promotion in school contexts (12,13,24) relates to transformational leadership theory (10,11). Conceptualized originally by Bass (10), the majority of research that has used this framework has centered on the effects of leadership behaviors in occupational settings (military, hospitals, unions, and business) and has consistently found that transformational leadership is associated with improved outcomes among those being led, including elevated self-efficacy beliefs (19), motivation (26), well-being (3), and performance (9). Transformational leaders motivate others to do more than what they originally thought possible. Such leaders do what is right rather than what is expedient (i.e., their behaviors transcend their own self-interests) and empower followers, giving them the confidence to achieve their goals (10). Our work in educational settings has focused on the effects of transformational teaching, as a conceptual extension of transformational leadership theory, by examining the relationships between physical education teachers' transformational behaviors and their students' subsequent cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses. As a rationale for the extension of transformational leadership theory to the teaching domain, we contend that both teaching and leadership are concerned with the processes of influencing others in a social context, whether students or employees/followers, to achieve some set of objectives (13); as such, effective leadership can be considered as being transposable and synonymous with effective teaching.

Transformational Teaching: What Is It?

Transformational teaching is conceptualized as involving the demonstration of behaviors that empower and inspire students, transcend teachers' own self-interests, and give students the confidence to achieve higher levels of functioning (13,24). In this article, we examine the integrative hypothesis that consistent displays of transformational teaching within school-based physical education will lead to improved student engagement in relation to physical activity behaviors, both within class time and also during out-of-school leisure time. We propose a conceptual model (Fig. 1) that articulates mediating mechanisms and also addresses potential boundary conditions, or moderators, of the teacher behavior-adolescent physical activity relationship. Finally, we draw from our own work and present a practical evidence-based framework for developing transformational teaching behaviors among school physical education teachers and discuss directions for future research to further test the tenets of this model.

A conceptual model of transformational teaching and adolescent engagement in physical activity behaviors.

According to Bass (10), transformational leadership theory represents a universal paradigm for understanding human behavior that transcends cultural boundaries and is applicable across diverse leadership contexts. Consistent with its origins in transformational leadership theory (10,11), transformational teaching is conceptualized as involving four dimensions that correspond to idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (13,24). Idealized influence takes place when teachers interact with students through the demonstration of values-based principles, foster trust and respect among students, and act as role models. Inspirational motivation takes place when teachers communicate high expectations to their students, display optimism, articulate a compelling vision of what is possible, and inspire students to achieve their goals. Intellectual stimulation involves engaging the rationality of students, encouraging them to see issues from multiple perspectives and question commonly held assumptions. Finally, individualized consideration occurs when teachers display empathy and understanding of students' unique personal and psychological needs.

Conceptually, transformational teaching not only shares some common ground with established models of teaching (and behavior change) but also substantively extends beyond these existing frameworks in other respects. For example, idealized influence incorporates aspects of effective role modeling, which is at the core of social learning theory (5). Indeed, the effects of teacher role modeling have been studied extensively within educational psychology (30). Similarly, the provision of individualized consideration is consistent with psychological need satisfaction, which is at the core of self-determination theory (16). Furthermore, communication of high outcome expectancies, a central tenet of inspirational motivation, has been studied widely in educational psychology (31) and stems from the early Pygmalion studies by Rosenthal and Jacobson (29). However, it also should be noted that aspects of transformational leadership offer unique conceptual extensions that only recently have been the sustained focus of inquiry, especially within school physical education settings. For example, these include the transmission of personal values (as reflected by idealized influence), the articulation of a compelling vision (as reflected by inspirational motivation), and the role of intellectual stimulation. Indeed, on this last point alone, while recognizing that the pursuit of physical activity during class time is an important goal (25), we contend that physical education also should involve stimulating students intellectually to consider how they can benefit from sustained engagement in physical activity in their leisure time (i.e., as a lifestyle choice). Based on our previous work, this aspect of intellectual stimulation often is neglected in physical education settings (see (24)).


At the core of transformational leadership theory is the differentiation of transformational from transactional behaviors (10,11). Transactional behaviors include providing rewards and recognition in exchange for successful task execution, providing feedback, and monitoring and correcting others' behaviors (11). Although recognizing that such transactional behaviors provide a foundation (or a minimum for) for successful leadership, they are insufficient to fully motivate and get the best out of others. Indeed, transformational leadership is theorized to augment, or build upon, the effects of these transactional behaviors in predicting human achievement (10). It is for this reason that our work has primarily focused on the effects of transformational (rather than transactional) teaching behaviors, as well as ways in which these behaviors can be developed through intervention. Interestingly, in our work (13) and that of others (15) the four dimensions of transformational teaching/leadership, although conceptually distinct, consistently have been found to be empirically interrelated and contribute toward a higher-order construct (transformational teaching). As one explanation for this, it has been suggested that the four behavioral dimensions mutually are reinforcing. Indeed, Barling and colleagues (8) have contended that when leaders make use of any one of these behaviors, it is likely that they also will make use of one or more of the other three behaviors.

Mediating Mechanisms

Transformational teaching and leadership behaviors are theorized to influence a host of intrapersonal psychological mediators (i.e., mechanisms) among those being taught or led, which in turn result in behavior change (11,8). These mechanisms include improved student/follower intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy/empowerment, and attitudes, and in occupational settings, consistent support has emerged for these conceptual links (3,9,19,26). From our own work in educational settings, it seems that when teachers make use of transformational behaviors, then students tend to respond with adaptive cognitions, emotions, and behaviors. For example, initial research using focus groups and follow-up interviews with adolescents revealed that in the context of school physical education, teachers' displays of transformational teaching (as reported by students) were associated with improved cognitive (i.e., beliefs and attitudes toward physical education, motivation toward physical education and physical activity more generally), affective (i.e., enjoyment of physical education, satisfaction with the teacher), and behavioral (in-class physical activity, leisure time physical activity) responses among adolescents (24). In a larger observational study, involving 2761 grades 8 to 10 adolescents, we (13) found that adolescent reports of positive affect and self-determined motivation toward physical education classes were predicted by adolescents' perceptions of their teachers' transformational behaviors. Of interest, this study made use of multilevel modeling procedures and found that, although the majority of variance, in both affect and motivation, was explained at the student level, significant class level effects also were observed. This suggests that teachers may be able to bring about improved student responses, both through their direct (one-to-one) interactions with students, as well as through the positive psychological climate that is created with the class as a whole (i.e., group effects).

In addition to these qualitative and observational investigations, we also have recently started to develop and test the effectiveness of interventions within the context of school physical education, guided by transformational leadership theory. In occupational settings, such interventions have been found to result in moderate to large effects in terms of improving employee attitudinal and behavioral outcomes (4). In our first attempt to apply this intervention framework to the education domain, we conducted a 5-month randomized controlled pilot trial, to test the efficacy of a transformational teaching intervention with physical education teachers and their students (12). The intervention in this study involved a 1-d workshop with teachers followed up with a booster session 2 months after the workshop. The booster session involved providing teachers with readings that were designed to reinforce the principles outlined in the workshop. The results of the study revealed several interesting findings. First, displays of transformational teaching were related prospectively to improvements in students' self-efficacy beliefs, intrinsic motivation, and intentions to exercise in their leisure time (0.25 < rs < 0.48). Second, after controlling for baseline levels of transformational teaching, 2 and 4 months after the workshop, teachers in the intervention condition were reported (by their students) to display higher levels of transformational teaching. Finally, the results also revealed that students of teachers in the intervention condition reported improved levels of self-determined motivation, self-efficacy, and intentions to be physically active in their leisure time than those in the control group at the first posttest; significant between-group differences in students' self-determined motivation remained at the second posttest measurement. It should be noted, however, that in each case, although we were able to derive statistically significant improvements in teaching behaviors and students' psychosocial functioning, the effects reported in this study would be considered small (eta2 < 0.05) and certainly smaller than reported elsewhere (4). We return to the issue of intervention later in the paper.

Nevertheless, taken together, the results of the above studies suggest that teachers' use of transformational behaviors not only are related to within-class (or within-school) cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses among adolescents but also may predict similar adaptive responses as they pertain to leisure-time physical activity involvement. Despite this preliminary evidence, however, we are acutely aware that further research is clearly required to establish the causal pathways between teachers' displays of transformational behaviors and students' subsequent cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses. That said, when our findings from education and adolescent health promotion settings are considered in concert with the extensive empirical evidence from other domains of human functioning that transformational leadership behaviors result in improved behavioral change among employees/followers (4,8), we contend that there is a sufficient basis to propose a conceptual model of transformational teaching to be tested in the context of adolescent physical activity promotion. Specifically, we hypothesize that consistent displays of transformational teaching by physical education teachers will result in improved engagement toward physical activity during class time by adolescents, as well as during out-of-school (i.e., leisure time) hours (Fig. 1). Furthermore, drawing from the tenets of transformational leadership theory, we hypothesize that these relationships will be mediated by a series of intrapersonal psychological mediators that themselves have been consistently found to predict physical activity behaviors. We discuss these pathways below.

Given that within-class cognitions and behaviors among students are proximal more to the teaching behaviors of interest than cognitions and behaviors that relate to out-of-school activities, we would expect stronger relationships between teaching behaviors to those within-class variables. However, in light of evidence that physical education experiences track through to out-of-school physical activity behaviors (21,23), transformational teaching behaviors exert influence beyond the classroom (24), and transformational leadership behaviors encourage task engagement and performance (4,8), it would seem plausible to hypothesize that leisure-time physical activity can be promoted through sustained transformational teaching interactions with adolescents.

With regard to behavioral engagement (i.e., physical activity), we recognize that schools typically have a fixed number of classes per week devoted to physical education, so it would be unreasonable (if not impossible) to expect that adolescents could increase the total amount of time spent during school hours devoted to physical activity in any given week. We would expect, however, that the level of effort expended in such classes can be improved by way of increased moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, and as such, students taught by those demonstrating transformational behaviors would exert greater total energy expenditure during classes than students taught through more laissez-faire or transactional approaches. Although on the one hand, one might expect out-of-school responses to be less influenced than those that occur within class time, given that adolescents have considerably more opportunities to engage in volitional physical activity outside school hours than they do within school time, we would expect that transformational teaching approaches may provide an invaluable stimulus to influence leisure-time behaviors (both in terms of frequency of bouts and total time engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on a weekly basis).

In terms of which psychological mechanisms might mediate, and account for, these improved physical activity behaviors, we highlight three particularly salient clusters of variables and give due consideration to the contextual differences that exist between within-class and leisure time processes (Fig. 1). It has been suggested that one of the primary means through which transformational leadership exerts influence over others is by empowering them and giving them the confidence to achieve the tasks at hand (19). Through transformational leadership/teaching processes, leaders and teachers provide others with opportunities for personal mastery, act as effective role models, provide persuasive messages about what others can accomplish, and stimulate others to address problems through task-oriented approaches (11). In many respects, the behaviors characteristic of transformational leadership/teaching parallel the sources of self-efficacy outlined by Bandura (6). In fact, when teachers consistently interact with their students in these ways, we would not only expect adolescents‘ confidence to be bolstered with regard to within-class activities (i.e., task self-efficacy) but also expect teachers to foster improved confidence among students that they can self-regulate their own physical activity behaviors in their own time (i.e., self-regulatory efficacy). As Bandura (7) notes, the issue is not whether people believe they can complete a given activity occasionally but rather whether they have the confidence to carry out the activity on a regular basis. Of particular relevance to the current discussion, is the fact that both task self-efficacy and self-regulatory efficacy have been found to be the important predictors of physical activity behaviors (22,28). Within our conceptual model, we would expect task self-efficacy to act as a salient mediator of the transformational teaching-within-class behavior relationship, and self-regulatory efficacy would mediate the relations between teaching and leisure time physical activity behaviors displayed by adolescents.

The second cluster of variables that we highlight corresponds to self-determined forms of motivational regulation (16). Self-determined motivation occurs when a person engages in an activity because the activity is meaningful personally to them (identified regulation), closely tied to their sense of identity (integrated regulation), or simply for the pure pleasure and enjoyment they receive from performing the activity (intrinsic motivation). Intrinsic motivation represents the most autonomous or self-determined form of motivation; however, all three of these types of motivational regulation would be considered relatively self-determined in nature and contrast with more extrinsic or amotivated forms of regulation (16). Within the health psychology literature, self-determined motivation consistently has been found to be an important predictor of adolescent physical activity patterns (21). From a conceptual perspective, Sheldon and colleagues (32) contended that when people lead through transformational behaviors, they appeal to followers' values and provide opportunities for them to feel autonomous. In our own work, we have provided support for this contention, insofar as transformational teaching behaviors have been found to predict self-determined motivation toward physical education class activities (13). In light of this evidence, we draw from Vallerand's (34) hierarchical model that suggests that motivational regulations can vary across different contexts and contend that transformational teaching behaviors displayed by physical education teachers will predict self-determined motivation toward physical education classes and leisure time physical activity pursuits.

The third family of intrapersonal mediators embedded within our model corresponds to attitudinal constructs. From the perspective of the theory of planned behavior (2), attitudes have been conceptualized as including both instrumental and affective components. Instrumental attitudes involve an evaluation of the expected use of performing a given behavior (i.e., useful vs useless). Affective attitudes, on the other hand, correspond to the forecasted emotive/feeling states associated with the expected performance of that behavior (i.e., unenjoyable vs enjoyable). In our own work, when adolescents perceive their teachers to make use of transformational behaviors, they subsequently have been found to report improved attitudes, in very general terms, toward physical education (24). This research also directly aligns with work conducted in occupational settings, whereby employees report finding increased meaning in their work, when they are overseen by transformational leaders (3). Taken together, these findings would suggest that transformational teaching behaviors, especially through the provision of intellectual stimulation, would be expected to bring about improved instrumental attitudes regarding the utility of physical education classes (i.e., useful vs useless). We also would expect transformational teaching to be associated with improved affective attitudes among adolescents. In our own work, transformational teaching has been found to be associated with improved indicators of positive affect toward physical education classes (13) and, in workplace settings, consistently has been found to be related to improved employee job satisfaction (18). Recent research from the field of behavioral medicine suggests that affective attitudes, in particular, may have noteworthy predictive effects in relation to physical activity behaviors (27).

In our model, we also recognize that each of the psychological variables that are positioned as intrapersonal mediators also may generalize from one context to another (i.e., within-class physical education to leisure time physical activity, and vice versa). It is for this reason that bidirectional arrows exist between the proximal and distal "boxes" of intrapersonal mediators in Figure 1. We certainly are not the first to have suggested as much, and indeed, this position is consistent with the tenets of self-efficacy theory (6), self-determination theory (16,32), and the theory of planned behavior (2), each of which conceptualize the three clusters of mediators within our model. For example, if a teenager is particularly self-determined in his motivation toward specific tasks within physical education class, it is likely that these motivational regulations will generalize to similar behaviors performed outside the school environment (16,34). These represent important pathways to be tested within future research.

Boundary Conditions (Moderators)

In addition to the intrapersonal mediators highlighted above, it is likely that aspects of the school and home environment will moderate the relations between transformational teaching and adolescents' activity-related responses. Examination of boundary conditions that might moderate the effects of transformational teaching behaviors has not been the primary focus of our work to date; however, we expect this to be a fruitful area of future inquiry. As one example, we would expect that the amount of contact time that teachers are able to spend with their students would be a particularly salient moderator. Specifically, if teachers are provided with frequent opportunities to interact with their students and connect with their students through displays of transformational teaching, we would expect the likelihood of improved responses among adolescents to be maximized. If, on the other hand, highly transformational teachers have very limited opportunities to interact with students (e.g., if they only teach a given class once per week), the opportunities for those teachers to make a difference become rather curtailed. Another likely moderator includes the consistency with which the above transformational behaviors are imparted among their students. As the old adage goes, "trust takes considerable time to develop and mere seconds to destroy." Indeed, if teachers are inconsistent in the way in which they interact with their students, and interchange their use, for example, of highly considerate behaviors with inconsiderate ones, even if only on an occasional basis, this likely will undermine the potential efficacy of any positive interactions with students.

Although we would expect both contact time and behavioral consistency displayed by teachers to affect students' cognitive and behavioral responses both within class time and during leisure time, it also is likely that if students are confronted with a series of substantial constraints outside the school setting, these would be expected to buffer the extent to which transformational teaching can result in adaptive responses at home. For example, if adolescents live in impoverished or unsafe neighborhoods with limited opportunities to engage in physical activity, any improved confidence, motivation, or attitudes toward physical activity established during school may be curtailed in their transference to leisure time pursuits, simple because of a lack of availability of such resources away from the school setting. In a similar regard, if cultural norms are established in the home environment that it is less than desirable for adolescents to be physically active, this may hold in check any potential transference effects that may come from transformational teaching in schools. As one example, research has found that young women and girls from some ethnic minority groups are particularly reluctant to be physically active because of home/religious mandates that they refrain from such pursuits (14). Although we would expect that transformational teaching strategies, especially through displays of idealized influence and individualized consideration, might serve to break down such barriers, we also recognize that contrary familial influences might lessen the impact of adaptive teaching approaches as they transfer to the home.

Transformational Teaching Training for (Physical Education) Teachers

In workplace settings, transformational leadership consistently has been shown to be malleable and, as such, improved through intervention. Barling and his colleagues (9) published the first study to demonstrate this and, with a cohort of bankers, found that those in the intervention condition were not only reported to display improvements in transformational behaviors but also reported improved performance (as assessed by sales), and their subordinates also reported improved organizational commitment. Subsequent intervention studies have been conducted in a wide range of occupational settings (4), and in our own work, we have sought to draw from the tenets of transformational leadership theory to enhance teaching behaviors, with a view to subsequently facilitating improved engagement among their students.

In our work with teachers, we have drawn from the conceptual framework for delivering transformational leadership interventions by Kelloway and Barling (20). The model by Kelloway and Barling emphasizes four elements that first include providing leaders with an overview of the principles of transformational leadership, including the four behavioral dimensions that collectively contribute to this higher-order construct (element 1). Second, leaders are provided with a demonstration of what those behaviors look like in practice, using real-world examples (element 2). Third, leaders are provided with opportunities to practice those behaviors (element 3) and, thereafter, are provided with feedback on those behavioral strategies (element 4). Elements 3 and 4, if carried out well, will likely be iterative whereby feedback is used to refine those strategies, and those refined strategies are then subjected to additional feedback. Based on our own recent work, we also provide an extension of this framework (Fig. 2). The one extension to this model corresponds to the addition of a fifth component (see element 5, Fig. 2) that revolves around including strategies designed to support teachers' abilities to self-regulate their sustained use of transformational principles after the initial intervention has ended.

Conceptual framework for developing transformational teaching behaviors adapted from information in Kelloway and Barling (20).

In our recent feasibility trial with teachers, the intervention was delivered within a workshop format (conducted as part of in-service training), that was framed around the four elements highlighted above (12). Although the intervention resulted in significant improvements in teachers' behaviors and adolescents' sociocognitive responses, the effects were certainly not as pronounced as those reported elsewhere (4). With this in mind, we also noted from the process evaluation interviews that were conducted as part of that trial that there is considerable scope to improve the structure of the intervention. In particular, although teachers reported the strong relevance and use of the intervention, they also highlighted the need for us to include strategies (e.g., follow-up support, self-regulatory considerations) to maximize their use of these transformational behaviors after the workshop had finished. With this in mind, we propose, in Figure 2, a slightly refined intervention framework to the one originally outlined by Kelloway and Barling (20) and one that gives considered thought to maximizing teachers'Z self-regulation of transformational strategies after the initial intervention/contact has been made with teachers. This consideration now is strongly embedded within our current intervention-based research.


Within the field of applied psychology, transformational leadership theory represents the most studied paradigm for understanding the effects of leadership behaviors (8). Although research using this framework within the fields of adolescent physical activity and health promotion is at a relatively early stage, the fact that both transformational leadership and teaching behaviors have been found to predict adaptive cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses among others (employees and students) suggests that this model might be useful particularly for guiding physical activity interventions. Research is required to test this model and, in particular, to fully ascertain the extent to which both within-class and leisure-time physical activity behaviors can be enhanced via transformational teaching approaches. Furthermore, although our initial field-based experimental research directly aligns with work done in organization settings by embedding the interventions within workshops, we anticipate that there is considerable scope to train teachers to make use of transformational behaviors through other intervention modalities (e.g., through teacher training institutions, multi-media programs). These represent exciting research possibilities.

The first author was supported by a Scholar Award from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (award number CI-SCH-01870(07-1)).


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transformational leadership theory; physical education; physical activity; social cognition,; adolescents

©2011 The American College of Sports Medicine