Category: leadership

Anatomy of a 400-seat Active Learning Classroom

(This is adapted from a poster I presented at the 2018 Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) Conference, Université de Sherbrooke, June 20-22, 2018.)

(Photo courtesy of Ashlyne O’Neil. Thanks @ashlyneivy!)

Designing a Large, Active Classroom

As class size increases, instructors face an increasingly difficult challenge. There is clear evidence that more students are more successful in classes with active learning.[1] Yet the work required to facilitate active learning – logistics, providing feedback, supporting and interacting with individual students – increases with class size. And despite the importance of the design of learning spaces,[2] large classrooms often impede student-student and student-instructor interactions.

At UBC’s Okanagan campus, I was invited to advise the architects and campus planners on the design a new 400-seat classroom.

Design Principle:
Eliminate everything that hinders
student-student collaboration and
student-instructor interaction.

My poster uses a giant 6-page “book” (you can see it drooping slightly in the center of the poster in the picture above) to highlight different features and characteristics of the design:

Student flow: Main entrances to the classroom are at the middle of the room. Students flow in and downhill toward the front. Sitting at the back takes deliberate effort. Students can discretely enter and exit without disrupting the class or the instructor.
Main entrances to the classroom are at the middle of the room. Students flow in and downhill toward the front. Sitting at the back takes deliberate effort. Students can discretely enter and exit without disrupting the class or the instructor.
Accessible seating: Fully 20% of seating – roughly 90 locations – are accessible to students using wheelchairs. They can sit in groups with their peers at prime locations, instead of being isolated or confined to designated seats.
Fully 20% of seating – roughly 90 locations – are accessible to students using wheelchairs. They can sit in groups with their peers at prime locations, instead of being isolated or confined to designated seats.
Network of aisles: A network of aisles throughout the classroom allows instructors and teaching assistants to get face-to-face or within arm’s reach of every student. Wireless presentation system allows instructors to teach from any location and project any student’s device.
A network of aisles throughout the classroom allows instructors and teaching assistants to get face-to-face or within arm’s reach of every student. Wireless presentation system allows instructors to teach from any location and project any student’s device.
Group work with whiteboards: Students on narrower front desks swivel around to work with their peers on wider desks. With 150 whiteboards scattered throughout the room, groups can be collaborating within seconds of their instructor saying, “Grab a whiteboard and…”
Students on narrower front desks swivel around to work with their peers on wider desks. With 150 whiteboards scattered throughout the room, groups can be collaborating within seconds of their instructor saying, Grab a whiteboard and…
Lighting: Separate front, middle, back lights create smaller classrooms for 250 and 100 students.
Separate front, middle, back lights create smaller classrooms for 250 and 100 students.
Prep room: Prep room is accessible from outside the classroom so instructors can prepare before and after class. Includes sink, glassware drying rack, storage cabinets, lockable flammable solvent cabinet, fume hood, chemical resistant countertops, first aid kit, demo cart.
Prep room is accessible from outside the classroom so instructors can prepare before and after class. Includes sink, glassware drying rack, storage cabinets, lockable flammable solvent cabinet, fume hood, chemical resistant countertops, first aid kit, demo cart.

Design Features Promote Collaboration and Interaction

Design Features Promote Collaboration and Interaction

  • The classroom is gently tiered so students farther back can see the front. There are 2 desks on each tier. The front desk is wide enough to hold a notebook and laptop. The rear desk is nearly twice as wide, allowing the front student to swivel around and work with their peers in the rear desk.
  • Swivel chairs on wheels allow students to easily move and work with others around them.
  • The front desk on each tier has a modesty screen. There are deliberately NOT modesty screens on the rear desks, allowing students on the front desk to swivel around to the rear desk without smashing their knees or having to sit awkwardly.
  • There are power outlets for every student under the desktop, leaving the work surface unbroken and smooth for notebooks, laptops, and whiteboards.
  • When the instructor or teaching assistant stands in the aisle in front of the front desk, they can speak face-to-face with the 1st row of students, and are within arm’s reach of the 2nd row. From the aisle on the back of this set of four rows of desks, the instructor or teaching assistant is face-to-face with students in the 4th row and within arm’s reach of the 3rd row.

Optimizing Visibility of the Screen

A slightly curved screen at the front of the classroom is large enough to display two standard inputs. A third projector can display a single image across the screen. The screen is about 7 or 8 feet above the floor, so the instructor at the front does not cast a shadow on the screen or look directly into the projectors (housed in a 2nd floor projection room at the back of the classroom.) The size and curvature of the screen ensure all but the very front-left and front-right seats have views of the screen within UBC’s guidelines.

Does the Design Enhance Learning?

We are studying the impact of the design by comparing data collected before and after course instructors teach their courses in the 400-seat classroom, including

  • distributions of final grades and grades on in-class activities like peer instruction (“clicker”) questions and group work sheet
  • drop, fail, withdrawal (DFW) rates
  • locations of the course instructor and teaching assistants at 2-minute intervals throughout the class period
  • what the instructor is doing (lecturing, writing, posing questions,…)  and what the students are doing (listening, discussing peer instruction questions, asking questions,…) using  the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS)3,4
COPUS captures what the instructor and what the students are doing during the class. There is a clear difference here between a traditional, lecture-based course and a course that uses active learning. (Graphic by CWSEI CC BY NC)

Acknowledgements

My thanks to Dora Anderson, Heather Berringer, Deborah Buszard, Rob Einarson, W. Stephen McNeil, Carol Phillips, Jodi Scott, and Todd Zimmerman for the opportunity to help design to this learning space.

Blueprint and visualizations by Moriyama & Teshima Architects. Used with permission.

References

1 Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111
2 Beichner, R., Saul, J., Abbott, D., Morse, J., Deardorff, D., Allain, R., … & Risley, J. (2007). The Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project, a peer reviewed chapter of Research-Based Reform of University Physics. College Park, MD: Am Assoc of Physics Teachers.
3 Stains, M., Harshman, J., Barker, M. K., Chasteen, S. V., Cole, R., DeChenne-Peters, S. E., … & Levis-Fitzgerald, M. (2018). Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities. Science, 359(6383), 1468-1470. doi.org/10.1126/science.aap8892
4 Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H., Gilbert, S. L., & Wieman, C. E. (2013). The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): a new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 618-627. doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-08-0154

September 6, 2017: the day I disappeared

Yesterday, September 6, 2017, was the first day of classes at UBC Okanagan. I’ve been Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning for just over a year so this is my first real experience with the beginning of the Fall term.

On top of the usual visitors looking for help with their courses, we adopted Canvas as our learning technology ecosystem in June so this is the first term with the new LMS. The Centre was buzzing. Four of the Centre staff plus 3 student workers were consulting with just as many course instructors. People were coming and going, jostling to get around and find chairs to sit in.

And I was sitting 10 feet away in my office, door wide open, doing…nothing? Well, not nothing but I wasn’t sitting out there with a course instructor, troubleshooting course design or learning technology issues. It felt really strange, like I was…unnecessary?

I spent last night trying to justify to myself that I do, in fact, have an important role to play. “…created welcoming space for consultation…”, “…ensured Centre consultants are trained and enabled…”, “…allocated time, resources, personnel to handle peak periods…” And more leadership/management phrases that popped into my head. Nothing was sticking.

This morning, it all became clear.

During my commute to work, I was listening to the latest episode of
Bonni Stachowiak’s terrific Teaching in Higher Ed podcast (highly recommended, btw!) Bonni recounted a time when her students were so engaged in an activity, she felt she’d “disappeared”. I’ve had that happen to me, too. At first, it felt really weird. And then the educator in me realized that’s exactly what I strive for: setting up the learning environment, creating a lesson, preparing the students to engage, and then handing over the class to them to engage, collaborate, and build their own knowledge while I did…nothing.

That’s what happened yesterday. I disappeared. It was awkward. And, I guess, awesome.

Managing@UBC

Over the last 6 months, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a really great management and leadership training program at UBC Okanagan. Organizational Development & Learning Manager Laurie Mills and ODL Specialist Lisa Frost organized, hosted, and facilitated a rich program that led us through four quadrants of leadership and management of people and tasks.

Leadership and management of people and tasks. (Source: Laurie Mills, UBC Okanagan)
Leadership and management of people and tasks. (Source: Laurie Mills and Lisa Frost, UBC Okanagan)

Now that the program is coming to an end, Laurie asks what stood in each quadrant.

People Leadership: inspiring, engaging, and influencing others

is about initiating and managing change by influencing without authority. Drew Bird talked about what motivates people to do good work:

What Do People Really Want? Does the leader have influence
to make this happen?
to be treated as an individual Green check Wikimedia Commons
to have a voice and contribute Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be valued for their talent Green check Wikimedia Commons
to have some control over their work Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be treated respectfully Green check Wikimedia Commons
to work towards a goal Green check Wikimedia Commons
to learn and grow Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be treated equitably Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be part of something that they value Green check Wikimedia Commons

Nic Tsangarakis reminded us of the power of thoughtful debate and active listening, with a goal of learning.

The more we talk, the more we find we have in common.
The more we talk, the more we find we have in common.

Task Leadership: establishing and pursuing vision and purpose

is about managing transition. Laurie reminds us, “when there’s change, there are losses.” And as William Bridges says in Managing transitions: Making the most of change (2009), transition starts with an ending and ends with a beginning.

Task Management: organizing and resourcing the job to be done

is about identifying and dealing with the many constraints on a task like cost, time, resources, risk, quality, scope. And that the project leader’s role changes and adapts.

DirectingParticipating_PeterNewbury_GlenSollars_CC-BY

From Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002), we read

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. And so the first dysfunction of a team is a failure on the part of the team members to understand and open up to one another. It is an absolutely critical part of building a team.

“Great teams do not hold back with one another. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without feat of reprisal.

“Teamwork begins by building trust and the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

People Management: coaching and developing staff to maximize performance

“Managing people,” Laurie says,”effectively means paying attention to what motivates individuals, how they want to be supported and recognized for their efforts. It also requires skillful communication to navigate and strengthen the interpersonal dynamics that impact engagement, teamwork, and productivity.” She also reminded us that when people are under-performing, it’s possible

  • people don’t know what to do
  • they don’t know how to do it
  • there’s something getting in the way

Laurie urged each of us to stretch out of our leadership and management comfort zone so I’m going to

practice how to let go of your need for order and control, and appreciate the benefits of improvisation. Allow the creativity of the people on your staff to emerge out of unstructured situations. (FIRO Business Leadership Report)

 

Things I’ve learned about leadership and management



Before I started this program (and this job), I had the feeling that leaders know how to do everything. That’s what you see on TV and in movies, where the plant manager goes and works on the assembly line, when the oil boss goes out and fixes the rig, when the general joins the SEAL team for a daring raid. Leadership and management, then is about delegating those tasks to others so you don’t have to do it yourself, giving you more time to, uh, lead?

I’m coming to the realization that’s not the kind of leadership I want to provide. Instead, I want to make strategic decisions, with input from my team, about where we’re headed, identify who has the skills, and then provide the resources and support for my colleagues to do their thing. They have the skills and expertise (and the motivation to learn) – they need an opportunity to demonstrate those skills and be recognized for their contributions.

Gee, this sounds a lot like the kind of educator I try to be. An educator who recognizes that students come to the classroom with knowledge, skills, and conceptions about how the world works. My job is to draw that out of them and create a safe, supportive, inclusive environment for them to use their strengths to learn my material in a way that’s meaningful and valuable to them. And to welcome them to contribute to the class and bring all of us further than I could go without them.


It’s okay to take time to think before acting or reacting.


Difficult conversations are difficult. The DEAR model (via Glen Sollars) helps you plan (and rehearse) the conversation:

Describe specifically what you want to see and hear
Explain the impacts, standards, rationale, and how it makes you feel (using “I” language)
Ask for their point of view, suggestions, options
Request what you’re seeking for the future, whether it’s compliance, cooperation, or commitment

The Ask stage is powerful. It gives the person a chance to provide more info, share their side of the story, explain themself, make suggestions,…before the leader makes the request. It stops the difficult conversation from being a lecture and replaces it with  thoughtful debate and active listening, with a goal of learning.

I’ve had a chance to use the DEAR approach and I have to say, it worked great. The most important part, I think, was the time I spent drafting the D, E, A, and R before the meeting. That forced me to clearly recall what led to the conversation, identify why “I” cared, find a question that didn’t simply confirm the answer I expected (that is, you can’t ask, “Why do you think it went wrong?” because their honest answer might be, “I don’t think anything is wrong” but they can’t say that without contradicting you! With help from Glen, I went with, “What are your thoughts about […]?”) I also had the time to come up with clear requests. When the conversation happened, I was prepared. I didn’t stumble through it. The person “cleared the air” about the incident. We’re not just back to where we were before the incident – things are stronger now because of this conversation.


A funny thing happened at one of the program’s events. Not funny-haha but funny-odd. And ironic, since the program is about leadership and the event was about inclusion, implicit bias, and recognizing privilege.

It was a workshop with my peers, not a meeting with a hierarchy and power structure. To get to know us, the facilitator asked each of us to say our name and what we do, and to share something we’re celebrating. Around the table we went, people sharing their celebrations at work, at home, wherever. I said I was celebrating the fact that we’d received enough proposals for the conference I’m organizing to put together a rich, full, 2-day program. Immediately, both the facilitator and one of my peers said, “Oh, is that conference on again this year? We usually submit something but we didn’t hear about. It’s too bad we didn’t know…” Professional-me made a mental note to check how we advertised the call for proposals and look for ways they could still participate. Personal-me was knocked back by this declaration of my failure (no imposter syndrome here or anything, nope, not at all…) As professional as I want to be, I shut down. I didn’t engage with the group like I normally would. I reacted poorly, I guess. Great, another failure.

Here’s my point: if you’re the leader and you ask your team to do something risky, like reveal something personal, you’d better be prepared to thank them for the contribution, to celebrate or empathize with them. If you criticize or judge, or permit others people to criticize or judge, you risk that person disengaging for the rest of the meeting, and potentially longer.

Gee, back to educator-me, again. If an instructor creates an inclusive classroom environment where every student feels they are welcome to contribute and a student finally feels so confident that they speak up, and then instructor immediately critiques or belittles them, well, you can be pretty sure that student won’t say anything for the rest of the class. Or the next. Trust is so fragile. It take so much work to build it and so little to break it. Huh, imagine that – there’s a whole paragraph about trust a few hundred words ago. Are you suggesting, Peter, that teaching and leadership have a lot in common…?


Teaching and leadership have a lot in common.


Self-assessments. We did a lot of them.

  • EQ-i2.0 emotional intelligence survey
  • Lumina Spark portrait (that’s the one with the colours…)
  • Strengths-Based Leadership (“StrengthsFinder”) survey
  • FIRO Business Leadership survey

As someone coming from a background in the hard sciences – astronomy, physics, and especially math – I was skeptical about the validity of these surveys and their results. I had to rely on the knowledge that people in the field trust these surveys, that the data are valid, and that the results are patterns based on a lot of data. It’s like I didn’t know the Theorem of Pythagoras but my mathematical colleagues tell me it’s valid to add a^2 and b^2 and compare it to c^2, and that there’s statistically significant evidence that a^2 + b^2 = c^2 in right-angle triangles. So, I’ll trust them and be pretty confident that since 25 + 144 = 169, a 5-12-13 triangle probably has a right angle.

I have the most confidence in the Lumina survey because despite my skepticism, my personalized report says,

You are known as someone who likes to work with facts and solid evidence. You would feel very uncomfortable if you were forced to make quick decisions, without the necessary due diligence and information gathering. You firmly believe in evidence-based thinking and will challenge people who thinking seems whimsical or without foundation [*cough* *cough* learning styles]

My report goes on to say,

You are probably appalled by some of your colleagues who use less systematic techniques and whom you may see as data immune.

You are highly aware of the destructive potential of conflict, and tend to bring out your innate send of diplomacy when you feel a dispute getting out of hand.

Though you tend not to resolve an issue in an outright confrontation, you often try to repair  relations from behind the scenes. Your desire for harmony may manifest itself sometimes as a willingness to say No, and this could lead to over-committing.

You don’t like people who do not take into account other people’s views. You find their communication style to be selfish and uncaring toward the team.

When you’re overextended, you shift from reliable to hesitant: you may hesitate on all further interactions and decisions if the possibility of meeting commitments is hindered.

So…yep, yes, uh-huh, yeah, nailed it, hey how did you get inside my head?

If you’ve done Lumina, you’re probably wondering about my colour. I’m blue, with some blue and more blue, and maybe a hint of greeny-blue. See for yourself:

My Lumina splash is blue with blue and some blue, putting me squarely in the observing, cautious, evidence-based, practical, reliable, down-to-Earth quadrant.
My Lumina splash is blue with blue and some blue, putting me squarely in the observing, cautious, evidence-based, practical, reliable, down-to-Earth quadrant.

There’s a lot more in the Lumina report and the other assessments’ reports. I’m continuing to dig through them, with both skepticism and recognition that there’s a lot there to help me.


Lastly, I learned know that none of this would have been possible with the incredible effort Laurie Mills and Lisa Frost, and the generosity and patience of my cohort. I am certainly much better prepared for the leadership role I find myself in. Thanks, all.


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