You may have noticed some radio silence over on my Twitter account last week. That’s because I’ve been conferencing! This week, BCcampus put on a four-day conference, Festival of Learning: Celebrating Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. The conference was an opportunity for university professors, K-12 teachers, administrators, and facilitators to collaborate and learn from each other on the latest innovations in teaching and learning. Though I only attended two out of the four days, I wanted to recap and reflect on my experiences. I was also able to follow the conference on Twitter (#FoL16), and as I did with the CHA, I created an archive, which is available here.
PhDs Without Pedagogy
One of academia’s dirty little secrets is that very few professors have any training in pedagogy or even basic teaching techniques. The assumption is generally that once you do your comprehensive exams, you’re an expert, and that’s all you really need. But anyone who has spent any time in a classroom — especially if they are sessional instructors dependent upon good student evaluations — knows that this is no preparation at all. Teaching well is just as much an art as it is a science – and like many arts, is best pursued with at least some formal training.
Like many history phds, I had no training in education before I started teaching. Most of what I’ve learned since then, I’ve picked up on my own by reading journal articles and blogs on pedagogy. So when I found out about this conference, and that my sister-in-law was attending, I jumped at the opportunity!
Applying Inquiry-Based Learning in Your Classroom
Professors and people in teaching and learning like to throw around the term “critical thinking” all the time. It appears in countless teaching philosophies, teaching dossiers, and department websites. This is especially true in History departments, since once of the supposed goals of these departments is to teach critical thinking skills. But as Cathy Griffin, from the Learning and Teaching Centre at BCIT, pointed out, very few people know what critical thinking involves. I loved that she started with posting quotes about the definition of “critical thinking,” and pointed out what I’ve long thought: that they are usually meaningless statements.
Aggregating these statements, she points out that they all require a specific approach to answering questions. This approach involves reflective thinking about the question based on the gathering of relevant information and the consideration of perspective, with the goal of arriving at a reasoned judgement. When you think about it, that is at the heart of what historians do.
Inquiry-based learning is a method for teaching critical thinking skills in a classroom. Inquiry-based learning is a great way to teach students critical thinking. While often called “problem-based learning,” inquiry-based learning is based on dilemmas rather than problems. Problems are often simple questions with specific answers that can be discovered through an examination of the facts. Dilemmas, on the other hand, are complex questions where there are no right or wrong answers. After gathering information, this information is carefully considered, before an informed, reasoned decision is made.
One great way to implement this in a classroom is to have a “U-shaped debate.” This exercise teaches students to think about their thinking. Griffin used the question of “Should mobile devices be allowed in the classroom?” as an example. Once students have made up their minds, they need to place themselves along a U-shaped continuum. One side is strongly for, the other side is strongly against, while the middle is for others with more varied views. Then ask students to explain how and why they made their decision. You can also take this to the next level by asking students to argue a viewpoint that is completely opposite to their own.
Finally, after discussion, students who changed their mind should move to a new position. Each student should then explain why they did or did not change their position on the continuum.
I can think of so many great ways to implement this into an introductory Canadian history classes. One of the more obvious ones would be to discuss Louis Riel’s role in history. I can’t wait to try this out in my next class.
Indigenous Teaching and Learning: Using a Principled Approach to Weave New Ways of Learning Across Classrooms
Expert Tip: Principled approach just means an approach to a problem based on a set of guiding principles.
This panel featured discussions around the work to Indigenize curriculums at Vancouver Island University (VIU), and it was conducted as a learning circle.
Elder-in-Residence Gary Manson started off by talking about the importance of protocol, of acknowledging place, and to be thoughtful and considerate of each other while acknowledging our history. He talked about how he became involved with the Office of Aboriginal Education at VIU, particularly through a canoe trip he took with some faculty and administrators. While the group experienced quite a few problems initially, bumping oars and so on, things eventually smoothed out as the group got to know each other. Soon, they were working more or less harmoniously. I thought this was a beautiful metaphor not only for ongoing attempts at Indigenizing teaching and learning, but also for the larger process of reconciliation.
Expert Tip: Indigenization is a relatively new concept and one that can be tricky to define. The leaflet for the panel used the following quote to define it:
Indigenization is the process whereby the institution begins to adjust to the presence of our knowledge, our knowledge systems and structures and our truth tests. Indigenization in my mind is about creating a site within the university for the exploration of our own ideas first for ourselves and then for all of humanity. It is the site in my mind, of enormous complexity and potential. It can also be a site of considerable tension and promise. (D. Newhouse, personal communication, SFU-UBC Indigenous Graduate Student Symposium, Vancouver B.C., March 7, 2015.)
Manson also encouraged us to explore tensions and problem spots as we Indigenize teaching and learning. So many professors are worried about offending anyone that they are reluctant to implement changes in their classrooms. But Manson reminded us that it’s ok to mess up, that no one is expecting us to be perfect. Indigenization is a long journey, and each of us is at a different stage along the road.
Other presenters included Sylvia Scow, Aboriginal Projects Coordinator and Elder Support, Sharon Hobenshield, Director of Aboriginal Education, Marilyn Funk, Professor from the Faculty of Science and Technology, and Deborah Torkko, Professor from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Each talked about their own experiences with the Indigenization process at VIU. We then broke into small groups to discuss two questions (“Where are you in your journey about indigenous teaching and learning? What tensions and possibilities exist for you?”), before reconvening and sharing our thoughts.
While I didn’t write down exactly who said what, here are some of the most important points to come out of our conversation
- Stories are central to the Indigenization process, not trivial.
- Team-based learning models are great for Indigenization, because they create a sense of community, foster open learning, disrupt hierarchies in the classroom, and provide students with opportunities to be responsible and accountable to themselves.
- We need to include more Indigenous authors and writers in the classroom. We shouldn’t be afraid to do this if we are not Indigenous for fear of offending. All you need to do is teach with respect and be open about how your experiences have shaped your perspective. These instances are great opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to learn from each other, bridge gaps, and provide opportunities for reciprocity.
- We need to rethink our learning spaces, de-centre our classrooms.
- It’s important to understand our own personal ancestry and where we come from. And we need to talk about this in our classrooms and discussions.
- Indigenization and Reconciliation are not destinations or checklists. Instead, they are long journeys.
- Technology presents great opportunities for Indigenization. Professors could play recorded greetings from the Elders. Online classes could provide opportunities to collaborate with communities.
- Not everyone will share your enthusiasm, and that’s ok! There is no point in waiting for others, just follow your own path.
Manson closed out the conversation by giving his thoughts. He asked us to consider what it would be like to lose our cultures and our languages, and the kind of damage that this does to communities. He invited us to find Indigenous heroes for young people to look up to, to think about Indigenous history and to know our own history. We need to encourage Indigenous youth, not patronize them. Instead, we should give all students the gift of kindness. And he reminded us that we are already doing the work of Indigenization. We only need to be the best that we can be; as Manson noted, you can’t fix everything.
This was a great panel overall. It was wonderful to listen to stories from other people about how they are trying to Indigenize their classrooms. But I think the two things that were the most meaningful for me was the image of the canoe trip, and Gary Manson’s words of encouragement.
Metacognitive Teaching Strategies for Student Success: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
This final panel was presented by conference organizer, Liesel Knaack (@lieselknaack), Director of the Centre for Innovation and Excellent in Learning at VIU. Knaack was a super engaging speaker! She started off by talking about how she “plunked” her way through school – figuring patterns out rather than actually learning. She encouraged us to think about how we learned to learn. I was a bit of a dork, and I bought a book at a book fair called, 101 Ways to Get Straight As. That thing was my bible until graduate school. And I’m seriously thinking of having my mother send it to me from Montreal.
This “learning how to learn” is essentially the definition of metacognition. Students with good metacognitive skills can
- Know the limits of their own memory for a task and elicit help where required
- Do frequent self-assessments of their knowledge to ensure they can figure out how well they are learning something
- Self-monitor frequently and use a variety of strategies to learn
- Undertake careful rehearsal of a skill in order to gain confidence and competence
- Plan effectively at many levels and see the big picture of learning
A central component of metacognition is recognizing the difference between various approaches to learning (apparently the “learning styles” thing has been debunked. Why am I just learning this now?). Most students initially operate at a surface level of learning, which is essentially memorization and reproducibility. The next level is strategic, which is where students organize and manage their learning, pay attention to requirements, and strive to do well. The final level is deep learning, where students strive to understand, relate, and analyse. And this is where we want students to end up eventually.
While it’s not really feasible for most of us to do an entire course on metacognition, Knaack encouraged us to find ways to fit discussions into our classes. There are three main steps to teaching metacognition that can be covered over the course of the semester. Fist, we need to teach students that the ability to learn is a transferable skill. Second, we need to teach students how to plan their learning and set goals. Finally, we need to give students opportunities to practice.
Because, as she argued, it’s our responsibility to teach students how to learn. We can’t assume that they are getting out of high school with this information. Some might argue that this will come at the expense of content, but professors need to think about how to get information to stick, so that three or four years down the road, students remember what they learned. We also need to think about the objectives of our discipline, since memorization is not learning.
Knaack suggested integrating a number of small assignments into a course, worth only a few marks. She also offered us a great handout with some of these activities. I’ll link to the page where you can download that handout here. The one assignment that stood out the most for me was the “wrapper.” This is essentially an extra mini-assignment tacked on to courses, readings, essays, or exams. Students are asked to consider how they completed their assignments. (though my husband tells me that some online high school courses in BC use these already!) For example, how did you study for this exam? How well do you think you’ve completed this assignment? This sounds like a great strategy that I’m eager to implement in my own classes.
So those were the parts of the conference that stood out the most for me! I was also going to share my presentation, but the blog post would have been ridiculously long, so I’ll save that for next week.
One other point I wanted to mention, since I don’t think most professors in BC are aware of this, is that the BC government is phasing out grades for students. There is a wave of students coming who, rather than being graded on their performance, will advance upon the successful completion of a particular task. I can only imagine what will happen once these students reach university. Either way, big changes are coming!
Did you attend this year’s Festival of Learning Conference, or a in a previous year? Did you receive any kind of pedagogical training as part of your Ph.D? Any stories of success or failures you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!