Teaching Squares: Observe and reflect on teaching and learning

By Carol Berenson, Educational Development Consultant, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

Why would I want to do this?

As postsecondary instructors, we typically experience teaching as something that takes place exclusively behind closed doors and in front of our students.  Although our classrooms can be sites for rewarding and meaningful interactions, they can also be isolating from a teaching and learning perspective.  Parker Palmer (2007) calls this closed-door scenario the ‘privatization of teaching’ and notes that it creates an environment of isolation for many instructors. This environment inhibits the potential for the rich dialogue and learning that can arise in conversations about teaching and learning with colleagues (Roxa & Martensson, 2009).  This privatization of teaching also contributes to the devaluing of teaching more broadly in university contexts, where research is often situated as the privileged academic activity.  Shulman (1993) argues that teaching needs to be treated more like research – as public, community property – in order for it to be seen as credible scholarly activity. Peer observation of teaching programs interrupts isolation as individuals open their teaching doors to their colleagues, generating discussions about teaching and learning. Coming together to watch, analyze, critically discuss, review, and reflect on teaching also makes the complex and rigorous work of teaching and learning visible and communally relevant.

What makes Teaching Squares unique?

In spite of the benefits of making teaching a more public affair, inviting colleagues into our classrooms to watch us in action can be an intimidating prospect.  Somehow the experience of teaching in front of hundreds of students (who will ultimately give us feedback) can pale in comparison to having a peer attend our class in order to provide us with feedback on our teaching.  This is where the Teaching Squares approach comes in.  Originally created by Anne Wessely from St. Louis Community College, variations on Teaching Squares are widely implemented throughout universities and colleges in North

America and the UK.  Teaching Squares initiatives are designed to enhance teaching and learning and to build community through a process of reciprocal peer observation, self-reflection, and group discussion.  Conventional peer observation teaching development programs emphasize the giving and receiving of critical, evaluative feedback among colleagues.  In contrast, Teaching Squares approaches involve reflecting on what can be learned about one’s own teaching by observing colleagues. Beginning with the work of Stephen Brookfield (1998), critical reflection has come to be recognized as an important tool for enhancing teaching practice.  In keeping with Brookfield, the Teaching Squares emphasis is on self-evaluation and reflection rather than on evaluating others.

How exactly does it work?

Although Teaching Squares Programs can vary, a typical format involves four instructors who agree to visit each other’s classes once over the course of a semester, and then meet to discuss what they have learned from their observations. This format entails approximately 8 hours of an individual’s time (not including an optional debrief meeting following each observation which can add an additional 1.5 hours). The time commitment and process are as follows (adapted from North Virginia Community College CETL, 2015; Stonehill College CTL, 2008): e

1.       Initial square gathering   Meet colleagues, review the program (philosophy and logistics), set goals/expectations, and establish an observation schedule (1.5 hours)
2.       Prepare for observations   Share and review course outlines and/or pertinent information to provide context for the observation, think about an observation focus, and select observation note-taking materials (approximately 20 minutes for each observation — 1 hour)
3.       Classroom Visits   Attend the agreed-upon class and take observational notes (approximately 1 hour for each observation — 3 hours)
4.       Optional Debrief Meeting   A brief opportunity for the observee to reflect on their teaching and for the observer to share preliminary observations (approximately 30 minutes for each observation — 1.5 hours)
5.       Reflections   Write thoughts about your observations following each class visit and in preparation for the final meeting (approximately 30 minutes for each observation — 1.5 hours)
6.       Wrap up square share meeting   Share with colleagues what you have learned about your own teaching from watching them in action, and make a plan for implementing changes accordingly (1 hour)

Does it work?

I have been fortunate to collaborate with Rajeev Nair and Prat Gupta from the Faculty of Science on a Teaching Triangles (a variation on the squares model) pilot program for graduate students. The six teaching assistants involved in the program each visited the classrooms/labs of their colleagues to observe what was going on, and then individually wrote reflective pieces 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 and to have them evaluate the program.

A key theme from the evaluations was the value that the participants placed on the reflective process itself.  Although the 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.  They repeatedly cited the importance of having the time (and directive) to reflect on their own teaching. Here’s a sample of their comments:

The self-reflection process really allowed me to identify my strengths and weaknesses.  Without the observation of others, identifying what I feel I do well or things I could adopt into my practice would be difficult.  I know my teaching style a lot better after this program. 

I have rarely reflected or had the chance to reflect on my own teaching.  Taking the time to reflect has helped me to identify my strengths. 

I also partnered with Chris Holdsworth, a faculty member from the Faculty of Arts, to initiate a teaching square with his colleagues. The program evaluations were positive, and once again, the reflective aspects of the Teaching Squares experience stood out.  Quantitative evaluation data indicated that, following the program, participants were better equipped to: reflect on and/or talk about their teaching practice, identify their strengths as teachers, implement new strategies in their teaching, and identify aspects of their teaching to further develop.

The Teaching Squares method represents a striking departure from more conventional approaches that embrace observing with an eye toward evaluating and providing feedback. This shift can be challenging to both appreciate and enact, particularly within the context of a postsecondary environment, where critique and evaluation are frequently on the agenda.  My experience in working with faculty and graduate students in Teaching Squares initiatives suggests that a nonjudgmental environment is optimal for creating the conditions in which genuine teaching, rich and revealing discussions, and significant growth and learning can take place.

Now what?

The following resources are available to help you participate in a Teaching Square:

Welcome to a powerful opportunity to make teaching public and to learn from your colleagues at the University of Calgary!

References

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Northern Virginia Community College, The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) (2015).  Teaching Squares. Retrieved from http://www.nvcc.edu/cetl/_files/CETL-Teaching-Squares-Program-Manual-Spring-2015.pdf

Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roxa, T. & Martensson, K. (2009). Teaching and learning regimes from within. In C. Kreber (Ed.), The university and its disciplines: Teaching and learning within and beyond disciplinary boundaries. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 209-218.

Shulman, L.S. (1993). Teaching as community property: Putting an end to pedagogical solitude. Change, November/December, 25, 6-7.

Stonehill College, Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) (2008). Teaching Squares: Participant Handbook. Retrieved from http://stonehill-website.s3.amazonaws.com/files/resources/participant-handbook-08-09.pdf

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