April 19, 2016

Innovative new facility at University of Calgary reimagines what it means to teach and learn

Taylor Institute helps instructors build their teaching and learning expertise, and share that knowledge with each other

When it was first announced in 2013 that a state-of-the art teaching and learning facility would be built on the University of Calgary campus, words like "innovative," "groundbreaking," and yes, “state-of-the-art” were used. But what does that actually look like?

It looks like a group of professors huddled around a table, tablets in hand, deeply engaged in conversation sharing thoughts and ideas on how students learn best.

It looks like a group of students participating in a thought-provoking discussion using instant messaging with their collective thoughts being projected onto a large screen.

It looks like learning spaces that are fully flexible: tables, chairs, screens, whiteboards and instructors’ stations that can be arranged in any configuration.

It looks like the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, which opened on Monday, April 18.

The atrium of the Taylor Institute is flooded with light from the large windows in the building’s spine, which runs east to west across the building.

The atrium of the Taylor Institute is flooded with light from the large windows.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Helping instructors build and share their teaching and learning expertise

Funded solely by a $40-million donation from The Taylor Family Foundation, the Taylor Institute helps instructors build their teaching and learning expertise, and share that knowledge with each other. That collaboration between colleagues across campus will review and help strengthen the quality of the university’s academic programs. It’s this type of collaboration and interaction that Nancy Chick, University Chair in Teaching and Learning, and academic director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, sees as being one of the most important roles that the Taylor Institute will play.

“Making teaching part of the conversation is critical, when you get instructors together to talk about teaching, those conversations are electric. They are so excited, they feed off each other. It’s this type of interaction that allows instructors to learn from each other, work together to solve problems, and gain confidence to try new things.”

It’s this interaction between instructors that Chick sees as being extremely beneficial for the student. “See them, that’s why we’re here,” she says as she motions to a group of students walking by the newly opened Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. "We are always learning how to teach better and understand and improve student learning.

The forum has retractable seating that allows it to convert from a public lecture space to a flat-floor learning space.

Retractable seating allows the forum to convert from lecture space to a flat-floor learning space.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Embrace technology, ask questions

In addition to facilitating the conversation between teachers, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning will also allow for instructors to reimagine what a classroom can look like and how student learning can occur.

“For years, when conversations around teaching and learning were first happening, there was an apprehension by some to embrace technology,” says Chick. “Something seems different now. I’m noticing a sea of laptops in classrooms and they (students) seem to be transcribing every word. What kind of learning is happening? Rather than just ignore it or make assumptions, I can stop and say, What is going on? I want to understand.”

Learning spaces at the Taylor Institute are designed to promote instructors and students working together to learn from each other, start conversations, and solve problems. The transparent design of the learning spaces allows others to observe teaching in action and brings teaching into the open.

“That’s what I’m looking forward to, the journal clubs, the reading circles, the writing groups, and how the energy and the excitement and the commitment to those groups will spill over into the conversation,” says Chick.

The Taylor Institute will also be home to the College of Discovery, Creativity and Innovation. Through the CDCI, undergraduate students will have opportunities to engage in interdisciplinary research and experiential learning

The spine supports a conference room over the east doors of the building.

The spine supports a conference room over the east doors of the building.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

‘Help me understand qualities that I can then share with others’ 

When the doors swung open on the Taylor Institute, one of those most looking forward to immersing themselves in the enriched teaching learning environment is Jess Nicol, doctoral student and research assistant, Department of English.

Nicol has recently been named to The Teaching Academy, a group of instructors who have received University of Calgary Teaching Awards and are committed to sharing their expertise with colleagues.

The Taylor Institute brings together people across campus to form a community for teaching and learning. It’s being a part of that larger community that allows for instructors such as Nicol to interact and engage. In the past, the opportunity might not have presented itself.

“If you have the resources on campus to teach people to be instructors, then there are going to be more people that will say, ‘I can actually do this’ or ‘Help me understand qualities that I can then share with others.’ The Taylor Institute is allowing people to enjoy the teaching process.”