Circling the square: A semi-structured teaching dialogue that develops collegial connection

By Cari Din, Faculty of Kinesiology; Meghan McDonough, Director of Relationships and Exercise Lab; Sarah Kenny, Dance and Kinesiology, Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre (SIPRC); and Megan McKinlay, Faculty of Kinesiology (University of Calgary)

Turning our teaching square into a circle of voices was not the impossible task gestured at by this post’s title. In fact, linking our four voices and pedagogical default settings was a conversation that developed our pedagogy and gave rise to a sense of authentic and sustaining collegiality.

The diversity of contexts each of us observed and reflected on produced a rich mix of notes and comments. One of us taught as a guest with specific expertise, another lectured in a large stadium-theatre with dodgy acoustics, and another led a small class with no computers, yoga mats, music and near-constant peer interaction. Our fourth member was teaching a small senior option with a focus on small and large group discussions.

The most influential technologies used by one member were tactile and embodied, while another used PowerPoint speech bubbles that quizzed students and invited them to prepare for an upcoming assignment as her technology-of-strong-effect. Another member of our circle used video to tell a story that words could not tell, and her own genuine smile to positively impact learning in a large first-year class.

Our debriefing was as vital as our observing. We often reflect in isolation on what we can do better to enable learning. Having three supportive colleagues see our teaching with fresh eyes brings needed perspective to the work. Our dinner conversation danced between pedagogical notes and collegial curiosities, with grants and research interests naturally braided into the conversation. This was the moment when I felt we were “circling the square” metaphorically and relationally.

“I can’t wait to share” was the simple invitation that our organizing member used to informally describe our debrief meeting. The unpacking of our classroom visits was focused on answering the question, What did watching you do to influence my teaching? This debrief looked like small notebooks being pulled out of bags and propped on the table between plates and cutlery so we could describe to each member what we noticed about their work.

We noticed many details and themes in each other’s teaching. For example, the ability to ‘hold the space’ while lecturing – walking around the room, standing in different parts of it; the use of voice; the use of physical activity in a standard lecture; relating student comments and lecture content to the semester-long context; storytelling to distinguish between and illustrate concepts that clearly resonated with the students; using a timer when breaking out into discussions; and setting the tone for learning through intentional lighting, sound and arrangement of students.

We met one final time to catch up with one member who was sick the night of our formal debrief. At this coffee talk, we synthesized some key takeaways after sifting through our lists of things we liked in the others’ teaching. The overlap and opportunity to link our specific disciplines to learning across our faculty was pointed out at this meeting. We also agreed that it had been motivating and refreshing to visit each other’s learning spaces three quarters of the way through the winter term. We noticed that our circle had become a group to go to with the challenges we faced. A practical discussion of expectations, norms and best practices filled the majority of this meeting – we have taken another step as pedagogical peers.

What will come includes building upon the practical and supportive collegiality of our circled-square. We were initially inspired by the spirit of a square, where instructors come to each other’s classes to observe and reflect on their own instruction. The spirit of non-judgement and self-reflection captured in Carol Berenson’s (2017) Teaching Squares Guide created a foundation for inviting trusted colleagues’ critiques as we move forward in our individual practices to enable learning. Collegiality is the legacy of our teaching square.  Conversation became the undercurrent and surface of our circle.


Berenson, C. (2017). Teaching squares: Observe & reflect on teaching & learning. Calgary, AB: Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.

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