Open Classroom Week: De-mystifying the process and practice of teaching

Ken MacMIllan open classroom week
Teaching Academy member Ken MacMillan opened his history class as part of the University of Calgary’s Open Classroom Week.

By Robin Mueller

Imagine how you would respond if you were asked to shift your university classroom into the public domain—to “open” it by inviting a random group of visitors to be your students for a day.  This is exactly what a dozen fearless instructors did recently during Open Classroom Week at the University of Calgary: They welcomed colleagues from across campus to join their classes and observe their teaching practice.

You may be thinking: Fearless?  What’s the big deal?  Isn’t teaching already a public act?  Though it may seem so, a slight shift in perspective reveals how little of our teaching practice involves public interaction.  We spend most of our time as instructors thinking and planning in private – organizing content, creating outlines, designing lesson plans, and assessing student progress.  Even the “public” act of facilitating learning in a classroom is not really public.  The people who witness our teaching practices are limited to those who have demonstrated some intention of learning by registering in the course.  As such, we reap the benefit of power dynamics that allow us, as instructors, to ensure predictability and to maintain a firm handle on our teaching domain.  When we open our classrooms to public scrutiny our sense of control is lessened, and we open ourselves to an unfamiliar level of unpredictability and risk (Busch, 2009).

Despite having to shift into this uncomfortable territory, a group of University of Calgary instructors made their teaching public by opening their classrooms during the week of March 9, 2015.  This initiative, spearheaded by the U of C’s Teaching Academy (www.ucalgary.ca/teaching-academy) generated an emphatically positive response; the majority of the observation spots that were available for Open Classroom Week filled quickly, with ongoing requests to make more available.  It turns out that, by making our classrooms accessible to a handful of observers, we begin to de-mystify the act of teaching.  Most observers were grateful for the opportunity to see a variety of teaching approaches in action, to watch teachers who deal with similar classroom challenges, and to re-imagine themselves as learners in a contemporary post-secondary environment.  Assumptions about teaching and learning were challenged throughout the process, prompting deep learning and dialogue among observers and instructors alike.

Research indicates that the isolation experienced by instructors who engage in the relatively private act of teaching can hamper their learning and development (Lieberman & Mace, 2009).  Provided that a group of instructors are willing to take the risk of making their teaching public, an effort such as Open Classroom Week seems to be a relatively simple and safe option for reducing that isolation and beginning to build stronger communities of teaching expertise.  Additionally, it’s worth thinking about other strategies for demystifying higher education teaching.  Can we “open” classrooms virtually, in addition to the face-to-face component of Open Classroom Week?  The possibilities are robust…  and it’s clear that the outcomes are worth the risk.

Busch, K. V. (2009). The synergy of making teaching public. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at EMU, 1(1). Retrieved from http://commons.emich.edu/sotl/vol1/iss1/10

Lieberman, A., & Mace, D. P. (2009). Making practice public: Teacher learning in the 21st century. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1-2), 1-12. doi: 10.1177/0022487109347319

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