Teaching can be an isolating endeavour. Instructors often prep material on their own, go to class, teach, and then go back to their offices. What they do in class is almost like a hidden act shared only between themselves and their students. Especially at a research-intensive university, instructors don’t always have opportunities or make the time to chat with colleagues about what goes on in their classrooms. But such conversations have the potential for being valuable in that they can inform instructors’ choice of teaching strategies; they can inspire and motivate instructors to innovate in the classroom.
For one week last semester (November 20-24, 2017), eLATE (Enhancing Learning and Teaching in Engineering) held its first Teaching Week, an initiative that addressed the isolation by providing an opportunity for instructors in the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Science to “open” their classes for observation by their colleagues. Faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and senior PhD students could learn from peers and see first-hand the implementation of a variety of teaching strategies. Some 15 professors from Architecture, Chemical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Materials Engineering, Physics, and Urban Planning participated. Those wanting to observe had to register for logistics reasons, but other than that, the event was fairly informal—there were no articulated learning outcomes and instructors were not being evaluated by their peers! By fostering peer observation and discussion of teaching practices, eLATE’s Teaching Week sought to build a community of practice to enhance pedagogical excellence in the Faculty of Engineering. The initiative included “coffee and chat” and “happy hour” gatherings where colleagues could reflect on and discuss the classes they had observed during the week.
Dr. Maria Orjuela-Laverde, an Academic Associate at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services who works closely with the Faculty of Engineering and plays a key role in advancing eLATE talked with me about Teaching Week.
Carolyn: What motivated the eLATE team to hold an open-class teaching week?
Maria: In 2016, several instructors asked me how to implement certain teaching strategies, but despite my best descriptive efforts, they had trouble visualizing how these strategies would actually play out in the classroom. Seeing demonstrations of specific strategies seemed like a logical way for instructors to develop their understanding of new teaching strategies. I did some research and found that other universities, such as Harvard and Yale, have open classroom events. The eLATE team adapted existing open classroom models to McGill’s context.
Carolyn: You’ve told me it was a successful event. How do you know it was a success?
Maria: Well, there are several indicators of success:
- A larger-than-expected number of instructors was eager to open their classes for observation.
- A larger-than-expected number of colleagues registered to observe classes. In at least one class, seven observers attended.
- One professor told me that in the 21 years he’s been teaching at McGill, this was the first time he’d been invited to a colleague’s classroom, and he was delighted to have had the experience.
- Soon-to-graduate PhD students who are seeking faculty positions found the observation opportunity valuable as a means for stimulating reflection on their own teaching ability.
- Instructors said they wished the event could have extended over more than one week because scheduling conflicts with other commitments limited the number of classes they could observe.
We’re so pleased with participants’ reactions because Teaching Week is an example of how a culture of teaching has grown and continues to grow in the Faculty of Engineering. It’s the result of many years of working with the Faculty, and getting to know the people and their specific teaching interests. Opening classrooms for observation has been possible because of relationships built over time. Many years of eLATE activities have served to not only positively influence teaching practices but also to create a culture of teaching, where there is trust and openness. Teaching has actually become a topic instructors want to talk about.
Carolyn: Are there any plans to hold this event again?
Maria: Yes! Instructors have requested a repeat event. In fact, they’ve requested to have it every term so that they can observe those courses that are offered only once a year. We’re also thinking about holding a teaching week for graduate students, where they can open their tutorial sessions for observation, for example. Another idea we’re developing is an “online teaching week,” which would involve a platform where colleagues could view one another’s online activities, such as videos used in flipped classrooms. Instructors are eager to see how colleagues implement teaching strategies online.
Have you ever observed a colleague teach? What did you learn from the experience?