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We are all students, and we are all teachers

This past week I did a session for Northern College at their Faculty Development Conference reflecting on some of the key themes and opportunities for higher education, as we collectively navigate through this “Year of the Pandemic”.

There were faculty and staff joining from across northern Ontario, and a lively discussion following my talk. One thing that stood out for me was how, regardless of how large or small, rural or urban, our institutions – all of us in higher education are grappling with the same big questions, big issues, big challenges, and big opportunities for transformation, redress, growth and change.

Here are the “Top 10” standout themes from Wednesday’s conversation:

  1. Leading inclusion and action through “two pandemics”: COVID-19, as well as the more destructive, corrosive and longstanding pandemic of racism, particularly Anti-Indigenous and Anti-Black Racism, and other forms of violence and exclusion
  2. Navigating institutional sustainability in the face of enrolment challenges
  3. Mastering online and digital technology tools and applications to support online teaching, and preparing students for meaningful engagement in online learning
  4. Digital inclusion and student access to technology and WiFi/bandwidth
  5. Fostering connectedness and community in this time of physical distancing and remote working and teaching
  6. Assuring student and employee health and safety, especially those who are engaging in face-to-face, lab-based learning on our campuses
  7. Supporting student (and employee) mental health and wellness
  8. Fostering closer connections with industry and employers to enrich opportunities for Work-Integrated Learning and graduate employment
  9. Balancing work with child care, elder care, and other competing priorities and responsibilities
  10. Finding our way into a new reality for PSE, one which can offer students choice and “hyflex” learning opportunities across a range of face-to-face, online, and hybrid credentials and micro-credentials…all pretty unimaginable just six months ago!

As we prepare for a fall semester in which so much is uncertain, and in which our students are placing so much hope and trust in us, the axiom that “we are all students, and we are all teachers” has never been more real. We are on an extraordinary learning journey together. It’s not going to perfect, it will certainly be messy at times, and the occasions when we get things absolutely right will be worth celebrating.

Start your first class with a question … and a promise

As in any group of diverse individuals, learners come with varying identities, histories, levels of motivation, prior knowledge and experiences, as well as different wants, needs and openness to change. This means that teaching is inherently as much about process as it is content. By that I mean holding a dual focus on how people learn, participate and engage (process), as well as the substantive knowledge, skills and information required to meet your course’s learning outcomes (content).

In fact, I suggest that the process may be even more important than the content, given the rapidly changing landscape of professional practice across virtually all disciplines. The proliferation of knowledge in any given field is so vast and accelerating that the skills of curating, critiquing and assessing knowledge, and bridging knowledge to application, are the most important capabilities students can master. In other words, students most need to learn how to learn. 

It is tempting to approach teaching from a content mastery perspective versus from a “deep learning” perspective. Resist the temptation! By all means, prepare lesson plans, lecture notes and course reading lists. But create a space in the lesson plan for students’ own self-discovery, peer-to-peer collaboration, applied/experiential learning and exploration. Include as many questions as answers in your lecture notes. And approach your students as equal partners in the learning process: you have expertise and professional or scientific knowledge in your field of study, and they are experts in their own lives, including their hopes and dreams for the future.

Whether I am teaching in a face-to-face or an online classroom, I like to start the first class of every semester with a question and a promise.

Here’s the question: “What are you curious about? You’ve enrolled in this class on [insert course title]. What would you most like to learn more about?”

This sets up the expectation that each student has a voice in their own learning, and that they are at the centre of the work we will do together. It also reminds students that the course is more than just another grade or credit towards their diploma. They will actually get to learn about things that interest, excite and inspire them!

And here’s my promise: “My cornerstone commitment to you is my intention for this class to be among the top tier of courses that you have ever taken. I am committed to supporting your success in an outstanding learning experience – so I am eager to hear your feedback as we go, to help me deliver on this promise to you.”

While this may seem a tad grandiose, the promise simply reflects what every student yearns for in their deepest human heart: an opportunity for transformation, discovery and inspiration. I signal from the very start that I want only the best for the class, that I genuinely care, and that we are in this journey together. By modeling my own highest standards, I set an implicit example and expectation that they will bring their “A” game as well.

In short, I think the most important advice for a new professor is orienting ourselves to supporting students’ learning, versus delivering content. That shift changes everything, including ourselves.

 

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