As I start my new job at Red River College Polytechnical, I’ve been learning a lot about Indigenization, colonialism, and reconciliation and what they mean for teaching. I haven’t had to dig this deeply into Indigenization before and I’m learning a lot.
I’m always looking for patterns. Maybe that’s my math background. As I was reading about Indigenization, I saw an interesting connection between Indigenous ways of learning and the Western ideas of transmission vs constructivist models of teaching.
I like to think that recognizing this connection is an example of “two-eyed seeing” that Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall describes like this:
learn to see from your one eye with the best or the strengths in the Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing… and learn to see from your other eye with the best or the strengths in the mainstream (Western or Eurocentric) knowledges and ways of knowing… but most importantly, learn to see with both these eyes together, for the benefit of all
Two-Eyed Seeing adamantly, respectfully, and passionately asks that we bring together our different ways of knowing to motivate people, Indigenous and non-indigenous alike, to use all our understandings so we can leave the world a better place and not compromise the opportunities for our youth (in the sense of Seven Generations) through our own inaction.
Here’s the connection that’s becoming clearer for me as I compare my new Indigenous seeing with my much longer experiences with Western models of learning.
Most teaching in #HigherEd follows the transmission model: an expert stands at the front of the classroom and talks (and talks and talks and talks.) They fill the students heads with knowledge (the “students-as-empty-vessels” mindset.) While I fully advocate for short mini-lectures where instructors can model expert-like habits of thinking or share their unique experiences, we know teaching strategies based on the constructivist model of learning are more effective. That’s where the course instructor provides content, structure, and active learning opportunities for each student to construct their own knowledge, integrating new concepts and skills into their existing knowledge. We know this approach is even more effective when students work with others, helping each other build their understanding. That’s the social constructivist model.
Now consider the Indigenous approach to teaching and learning. Here’s Red River College Polytechnical Elder-in-Residence Paul Guimond, Little Eagle Bone, teaching his class. Everyone sits in a circle with no “front” for the expert. He asks questions and invites students to engage and contribute to their own understanding and the understanding of their peers. That sounds just like the constructivist model!
Next, here’s Chief Donny Morris of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation describing Indigenous children:
From when you can walk, you’re taught certain little things like how to fish for little minnows or birds, to hunt them. You’re already at that stage when you’re on our own to learn those things. So when you’re a teenager or an adult, automatically that thing is already instilled in you, to hunt, to fish, to gather.
To me and my novice understanding, that sounds like Indigenous ways of learning are continually leading students into Vigotsky’s “zone of proximal development”, that area of learning a student cannot complete alone but can accomplish when they have the guidance and support of a teacher or peer with a higher skill set [Wikipedia].
I’ll be honest…
I’ll be honest: before working my way through “4 Seasons of Reconciliation” and “Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers“, I was worried that I’d have to, like, choose between Western and Indigenous models of learning, and that respecting and advocating for Indigenization of the curriculum would mean tossing aside everything I know about how people learn. I see now that that mindset — that there has to be a winner — is a colonial way of thinking. So I’m happy and relieved that the right thing to do is follow the best practices of both approaches, especially when they have so much in common.
It’s still new to me, though, and I know my understanding will continue to grow and evolve (I hope I don’t read this post in 5 years and cringe 😅). I keep learning.
One of the key features of the Foundations series is that the distance from the examples we examine in the sessions and what the participants can actually use in their courses is as short as possible. That is, there is only “near transfer” from an anatomy example to an anatomy course, rather than “far transfer” from a physics example to a nursing course. In collaboration with the local champion in the discipline, we worked to provide meaningful examples wherever possible.
Let’s look in depth at the sessions in the series with many discipline-specific examples.
Session 1: How People Learn
This foundational session sets the stage for all the others in the series. Participants read Chapter 1 of How People Learn. The session revolves around a card-sorting activity where participants work in groups of 2 or 3 to match three key findings with three implications for teaching and three descriptions of classroom environments.
No matter how much you carefully backwards-design your course and lessons, students are unlikely to learn if they don’t feel welcome and safe. Session 2 revolves around a “jigsaw activity”. That’s when participants first go into “focus groups” to learn about a specific element in a collection, and then into “task groups” to share their new-found expertise with others from other groups:
In my jigsaw, the participants consider 6 different students in a typical class. I work with my colleague to tailor the collection to students they’ll encounter in their Department, School, or Faculty.
In their task groups, they answer these three questions:
What advice would give your new colleague to
assure the student they’re welcome to contribute to the class
build on the student’s diverse knowledge, strengths, and experiences
What not to do.
They break into focus groups, then task groups. Then we all come back together and I get them to record their best advice about each student on a big chart. We all step back and look at the big picture.
I’ve run this session many times and the same magic happens every time: the same advice shows up for each student like, don’t call them out to represent others and provide structure so everyone knows what to expect and what’s expected of them. Once again, effective teaching is inclusive teaching!
Session 3: Learning Outcomes
Sessions 3, 4, and 5 lead the participants through a backward design approach to their courses. Course instructors aren’t always enthusiastic about learning outcomes, so it’s important that if they do see them – oh, and they will! – the learning outcomes need to be relevant.
I remind everyone about topic- and course-level learning outcomes:
Then we see examples of learning outcomes, tailored to the discipline of the participants:
This is an example of an element of Foundations that requires very little extra work from me – I have “holes” in my master slides that my colleague fills in for me.
Session 4: Assessment for Learning
I make a point of highlight this is assessment FOR learning, not assessment OF learning, to spark the discussion of formative, not only summative, assessment.
While there’s potential for showing assessments connected to the discipline-specific learning outcomes, I take a more foundational approach. First I share this excellent advice from Ken Bail (2004): Students need safe yet challenging opportunities to try, fail, get feedback, and try again, all before facing a summative assessment. This makes our discussions of formative feedback more meaningful.
In the next part of the session, we explore fixed and growth mindset and honestly, it’s very easy for this discussion to last for the rest of our time. It’s not uncommon for workshop participants to suggest their students should have this discussion, too.
I usually wrap up the session with a quick discussion of rubrics. The next time I facilitate this workshop, I’ll be sure to include links and references to Robert Talbert’s excellent blog post, Steps toward excellence: Making sure you assess the right things. He outlines how rubrics provide you, and your students, with a “line-of-sight path” from learning outcomes to assessment tasks to students’ grades to formative feedback.
Second, this is me “walking the walk” when it comes to advocating for evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning. This also helps the participants (especially in STEM fields) get familiar with the evidence they can cite in their annual reviews, teaching statements, and job applications.
Finally, and equally importantly, we interpret the Freeman results with active learning in small, collaborative groups. In-person, I hand a copy of this slide to each group of 3 or 4 (and more recently, I’ve done this in online workshops using breakout rooms and a shared set of Google slides.)
What’s important is that the participants experience active, collaborative, small group work and witness some of the choreography needed to support it.
For the rest of the session we explore active learning strategies that help students practice the learning outcomes, especially strategies that are more frequently used in their disciplines like peer instruction with clickers, case studies, demonstrations with predictions, and group discussions.
Session 6: Chosen by the participants
The co-facilitator and I remind participants through the series that in the sixth and final session, we’ll dig deeper into something covered earlier or explore another topic that’s valuable to them. Sometimes we look at course syllabi. Often, though, we talk in detail about peer instruction. That’s the powerful and evidence-based active learning strategy where
the instructor poses a conceptually-challenging question
each student thinks about the question submit their answer using a physical or virtual “clicker”
students discuss the question and their answers in small groups
students may vote a second time, depending on the nature of the question
the instructor leads a class-wide discussion where students share their thinking
the instructor models expert-like thinking and confirms why the right answers are right and the wrong answers are wrong
In this session, participants have an opportunity to draft and share some peer instruction questions, after seeing examples in their discipline. It’s vitally important they see familiar concepts so that they recognize conceptually-challenging concepts, identify common misconceptions, and can make the near transfer to their own course in the same discipline.
To be honest, customizing my generic workshop resources to each discipline is quite simple. It’s a great opportunity to work closely with the co-facilitator before each session. And, in my experience, the session participants are visibly relieved to see examples from their discipline. The examples spark conversations between colleagues about what they teach and how they teach it, strengthening the teaching-focused cohort in that Department, School, or Faculty.
I’ve hinted here what some sessions look like, with flipped learning and active learning. The next post will have more details about the format of the sessions. Spoiler: it’s all about modelling.
It’s a familiar story to anyone who works in a Center for Teaching and Learning. There’s a topic that course instructors want to know about like, say, learning outcomes. (Note: I use “course instructor” for the person doing the teaching, whatever their rank or appointment.) CTL staff plan a workshop, promote it through all the usual university channels, book a room, maybe even arrange for catering. The workshop facilitator designs an interactive workshop and prepares the resources. When the day comes, they excitedly arrive at the room early, get the presentation set up, arrange the furniture, set out the whiteboards, dry erase markers, clickers, handouts…
(If you can’t tell, I’m writing about my own workshops. And you know what’s coming next, right?)
With the workshop about to begin, they throw open the doors, and jump back out of the way of…no one. Well, except for those two engaged course instructors who attend every workshop, frequently drop into the CTL to chat, and honestly, could probably be facilitating the workshop, themselves.
What went wrong?
The “you can lead a horse to water…” explanation is too simple. Plus, it blames the audience for not coming. After years – yes, years – of facilitating low-attendance workshops, being one of those few participants, and connecting with course instructors, Department Heads, Directors, and Deans, here are some of the reasons why I think course instructors are choosing not to attend:
Generic content: Maybe you’ve witnessed this: the facilitator gives an example of a learning outcome from a History course and the physicist in the room rolls their eyes. And vice versa. For the next workshop, the CTL facilitator anticipates there will be participants from different Departments and Faculties and prepares examples that are sufficiently generic that no one feels excluded, ignored, or unserved. In finding examples that are not meaningless to someone, the examples can be meaningless to everyone. Course instructors come to workshops looking for value, which often means something they can easily adapt and integrate into their own courses. Just as with our students, “far transfer” from generic concepts into the context of their discipline and course is difficult.
Time and place: workshops are often scheduled for a time, and especially place, that’s convenient for the CTL facilitators. If a course instructor isn’t sure if they’re going to attend the workshop, the added inconvenience of having to walk all the way across campus could be what convinces them to skip the workshop.
Who cares: For course instructors, recognition of effort in their annual review, tenure and promotion file, or job applications is important. One more bullet in their CV, “● attended CTL workshop on learning outcomes,” doesn’t draw much attention.
This comes down to value: busy course instructors carefully allocate their time and energy. They spend those resources where the investment pays off.
Key features of Foundations
Here’s the idea behind Foundations: I collaborate with a “local champion” to facilitate a series of six, 90-minute workshops to a cohort of educators from a specific Unit – the Department, School, or Faculty where the discipline lives.
These are features of the series to make it as valuable as possible and to reduce reasons for people not coming:
The topics give people what they’re expecting, a foundation in teaching and learning:
How People Learn: Key findings about how people learn and how instructors can use those findings in the design and delivery of their sessions.
Creating Supportive, Inclusive Learning Environments: Students will not succeed if they don’t feel welcomed and safe. Creating and maintaining that classroom environment requires thoughtful, deliberate, and on-going attention.
Learning Outcomes: The first step to designing and teaching a concept, a lesson, or an entire course is determining the learning outcomes: what must a student be able to do to demonstrate they understand?
Assessment for Learning: It’s one thing to teach a lesson; it’s another thing entirely whether or not students learned it. We’ll explore formative assessments.
Instructional Strategies: There are times when a short lecture is the right tool to share your expertise and model expert-like habits of thinking. The evidence is clear, though, that more of your students will achieve higher levels of success in classes with effective, active learning.
The topic for the last session will be chosen by the cohort. This session could be specific to teaching in the Unit (e.g. group work, small and large classrooms, assessment, active learning, technology etc.) or being a successful educator (education research, teaching philosophies, etc.)
The content is discipline-specific because I work with the local champion to include learning outcomes, assessments, activities, habits of thinking, expert-like skills, demonstrations/artifacts, common misconceptions and difficulties, relevant educational research, and more that are specific to the discipline. This makes the support and resources immediately relevant to the participants. I’ll share more about the “local champion” in the post about process and give examples of tailoring the content to the discipline in the post on the workshop content.
The local champion also give me, and the series, credibility with their colleagues. This isn’t someone from the CTL parachuting in to tell them how to teach. Instead, it’s one of them working with the CTL to provide professional development and to ensure the content stays relevant.
The 6 sessions run every 2 weeks so the entire series occurs during one academic term (when course instructors have a mostly predictable schedule) while giving people enough time to prepare between sessions. The sessions occur at a time that works for the participants (sometimes a Unit has a half day set aside each week for unit meetings, for example) and in a location that’s convenient for them (the local conference room or a classroom in their building, for example.)
The cohort remains when series is over, creating a learning community led by the local champion that’s immediately available in the hallway, in the mailroom, or before and after a meeting to share teaching and learning challenges and successes.
The series is supported by a shell in the LMS that remains open after the series ends, so that all materials are available to the participants. I typically share everything under a Creative Commons CC-BY license which forces me to find copyright free resources.
The CTL provides any documentation, recognition, or acknowledgement the participants need to describe this professional development. Each participants lets me what will be most useful to them.
In Part 2, I’ll give examples of customizing the content to specific units.