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Instructors in science pilot ‘teaching square’ model in classes

Four educators implement a classroom observation program for self-reflection
August 10, 2015
From left, Faculty of Science teaching square participants Farideh Jalilehvand, Leslie Reid, Mike Wieser and Isabelle Barrette-Ng. Photo by David Bininda, University of Calgary.

From left, Faculty of Science teaching square participants Farideh Jalilehvand, Leslie Reid, Mike Wieser and Isabelle Barrette-Ng. Photo by David Bininda, University of Calgary.

Teaching can sometimes feel like a solitary pursuit and the process of developing the skills to reflect on one’s teaching practice can be challenging. During the winter 2015 semester, four colleagues in the Faculty of Science came together to form a ‘teaching square,’ which involved reciprocal classroom observations followed by shared reflections.

The idea for piloting this program came from discussions between Leslie Reid, associate dean (teaching and learning), Faculty of Science and her colleagues in different departments — Isabelle Barrette-Ng, a senior instructor in biological sciences; Farideh Jalilehvand, an associate professor in chemistry; and Mike Wieser, an associate professor in physics and astronomy.

“We were all curious about what opportunities existed for peers to observe others teach, with the intention of gathering ideas,” says Reid. “This was not about critiquing each other’s teaching; we wanted to observe teaching in different contexts and then take what we had observed and apply aspects of it to our own practice.

“I was aware of teaching squares — a model used at other universities — so the four of us decided to form our own ‘square’ and observe each others’ classes,” adds Reid.

Self-reflection refreshes teaching and learning

Research in higher education has shown that reflective teaching has a positive impact on student learning. However, reflection can fail when instructors have insufficient knowledge on what to reflect on or how to change. A teaching square can help participants develop a practice of self-reflection and self-assessment.

“Before visiting each other’s classes, the four of us met to discuss what we’d like to gain from this experience,” explains Barrette-Ng. “Our individual goals varied but ultimately we were all looking for ways to refresh our teaching and practice self-reflection.”

Small time investment with big impact

In total, only 12 hours over the semester was required for the two rounds of reciprocal observations and three meetings.

“At our final meeting in April, the four of us discussed how small the amount of time was needed to have such a big impact on our individual teaching practices,” says Jalilehvand. “It was a powerful learning opportunity to observe each other and identify how and what we could incorporate from other’s teaching into our own practice.”

Wieser agrees. “We all felt we benefited greatly from our observations. Most importantly, we felt a sense of community within our group, despite being from different science disciplines.”

Observations inform new classroom strategies

At the July 2015 Western Conference on Science Education, Reid presented the workshop “Improving Science Teaching through Peer-Supported Reflective Practice.” She shared the group's experience of forming and implementing a teaching square as well as how it impacted their teaching practices and beliefs.

“The teaching square model is interesting because three people can observe the same class and come away with very different impressions,” says Reid. “When the participants are from different disciplines, you tend to not get hung up on content, but instead focus on teaching strategies and how what’s effective in someone else’s classroom can be transferred into your own teaching.”

Plans are underway to expand the teaching square program across the Faculty of Science this winter.