Liberating our thinking as instructors

In my first career as a social worker, I trained and sought to practice within a pretty clear set of principles. My profession has a code of ethics, our education is based in principles such ‘person in environment,’ and I also had a primary practice modality that I sought to be faithful to. While these principles are challenging to meet in some situations, they gave me a guide for my practice. When I started teaching in universities and realized that I wouldn’t have a similar map for this work, I felt really lost – how was I meant to balance my many competing goals in this context? What were my responsibilities to learners, in the broad sense? Which principles were meant to underlay my decision-making when conflict arose?

University teaching is unlike most professions in that its front-line workers tend to have little training in this practice, many see ourselves as researchers first and instructors second, and our approaches to this work vary widely. And like many professions, we are busy, stressed and often burned-out and many of us face precarity in our employment. While I was lucky to be able to take skills training myself before starting and have been able to take advantage of some excellent courses at Trent’s CTL, I’ve often felt I was missing the big picture. I therefore jumped at the chance to participate in the Online Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship (#OLDFF) in hopes of building up my ‘map.’

OLDFF didn’t disappoint. Through weekly discussions, groups of nerdy instructors from across the province challenged, laughed at and interrogated what we know about teaching. We had some discussions about our own vulnerability and humanity which were wonderfully validating and cathartic after a very tough couple of years teaching during a pandemic.

The Liberating Structures used by the facilitators were excellent for this purpose, and particularly the following thought exercise, which I’ve been using constantly since: asking How would I design this badly? More specifically, thisTRIZ exercise has participants make a list of “all you can do to make sure that you achieve the worst result imaginable with respect to your top strategy or objective,” then identify the things you currently do that resembles anything on that list, and finally to confront the disconnects.

The session started with laughter as we came up with the worst teaching dictums imaginable: ‘make learners feel unwelcome!’; ‘ensure that students know they’re the least important people in the room!’; ‘don’t let anyone participate or collaborate – this is a passive, consumption-based transfer of knowledge, only!’ and ‘make this as stressful and frustrating as possible!’ But then reality hit; we were all struck by how some of the student experience does seem to reflect these bad principles, despite no one meaning it to.

I’ve been using this technique to gain insight about lots of things since, including my approach to research and even (gulp) my parenting. For example, in regards to my teaching practice: I know that assessments are (arguably) inherently stressful and also a ‘necessary’ part of university, but causing high levels of stress is certainly not one of my pedagogical goals. I was pushed to ask: do the assessment methods I design actually reflect my aim that they not be unnecessarily stressful? And my answers gave me a path to improving my assessments for the following term.

The OLDFF group I was in particularly grappled with the goal of academic ‘rigor’ in our work, and this exercise helped us immensely to disrupt the common idea that academic rigor and student support are mutually exclusive or even at opposing poles. We found that many of our approaches that seemed unsupportive to students were grounded in an effort to uphold academic rigor, and that actually there are ways to work towards both goals at once. The sessions liberated us to think differently, examine our assumptions and ask some tough questions about how we could practice differently.  I finished the Fellowship with the feeling that the ‘big picture’ I had been missing was starting to fill in.

EM Knudsen

Dept Social Work

Trent University

Photo by Tasha Lyn on Unsplash

Leave a Reply