Reflections on reflections: Piloting a Teaching Triangles program for graduate students

I have recently been fortunate to collaborate with Rajeev Nair and Prat Gupta from the Faculty of Science on a Teaching Triangles pilot program for graduate students entitled PARTS (Peer Assistance and Reflections on Teaching Science). Based on the work of Anne Wessely from St. Louis Community College, Teaching Triangles (or ‘Squares’ in some settings) are grounded in a desire to enhance teaching through peer observation and self-reflection. The six teaching assistants involved in our pilot program each visited the classrooms/labs of their colleagues to observe what was going on, and then individually wrote a reflective piece about what they had learned about their own teaching from watching their peers. We came together for a wrap-up gathering to share participants’ reflections on their learning and to have them evaluate the program.

There is considerable literature supporting the importance of critical reflection in the ongoing development of teaching (see Brookfield, 1995 for a classic example) and it was interesting for me to witness the depth and richness of the participants’ reflections, both individually, and as a group. A key theme that unfolded in the discussion was the importance of student learning in terms of how the participants understood their own teaching. They variously positioned themselves as guides, helpers, question-askers, clarification-seekers, group facilitators, feedback-providers, and supportive resource people – all for the benefit of student learning. Reflections on how different students learn differently and on their own experiences of learning also informed the discussion. Interestingly, the noteworthy teaching methods they observed in others, practiced themselves, and reflected upon as a group, were less about being experts and more about encouraging and supporting students to take ownership for their own learning. Although they were encouraged to observe others with an eye toward their own teaching practices, the discussion of student learning was front and centre in their reflective practice.

The other theme that stands out for me was the value the participants placed on the reflective process itself. Although the Teaching Triangles program is premised on the usefulness of reflection in teaching development, we didn’t emphasize this to the participants ahead of time because we wanted to see what they would take away as mattering (or not) in their final evaluations of the program. As a key takeaway from the program they repeatedly cited the importance of having the time (and directive) to reflect on their own teaching. Reflection provided; insight into strengths, a vehicle for ongoing improvement, a route to creative problem-solving, and a way to learn from each other.

My biggest take-away from this pilot program was a reinforcement of the power of peer observation and self-reflection as a method for teaching development. The alternative, a more conventional model that takes an evaluative approach involving observation with an eye toward giving feedback, is often embraced in the academy. I’m struck that this tendency towards critique and feedback makes sense in a postsecondary environment where critical assessment is frequently on the agenda – both for students and faculty. However, the observation/self-reflection mode proved to be safe, nonjudgmental, and highly effective for generating insight and growth. I’m excited to support the further development of similar programs involving peer observation and self-reflection across our campus in the future.

Brookfield, Stephen D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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