Teaching Square Investigates Instruction in Courses with Diverse Learner Profiles

By Rachel Friedman, Angela George, Miao Li, and Devika Vijayan, the School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures & Cultures, University of Calgary

What can you learn by sitting in a class whose language of instruction you don’t understand? This past winter semester, we embarked on a Teaching Square project to find out. As faculty members of the School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures & Cultures (SLLLC) at the University of Calgary, we each teach courses in languages other than English: Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish.

Our Teaching Squares project allows us to observe one another’s teaching and, through this observation, to engage in a process of self-reflection about our own teaching. As the Taylor Institute’s helpful guide explains, Teaching Squares are not meant to be venues for critiquing and evaluating colleagues’ teaching, but rather opportunities for self-reflection. The idea of the Teaching Square is rooted in the principles of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Our Teaching Square’s theme was inspired by a commonality in the classes we teach. All of us teach courses in which some students have learned the language of instruction as a foreign or second language, while other students are so-called ‘heritage learners,’ meaning they have familial or cultural connections to the language. Research has shown that heritage learners have different language learning profiles than second-language learners, and teaching a class to both groups of students simultaneously can be challenging due to their different needs and interests. Additionally, heritage learners often sound fluent, which can potentially intimidate classmates and create imbalances in participation.

One of the major benefits of our Teaching Square experience was that it gave us the opportunity to observe our colleagues’ teaching outside of our own language programs. Often, not knowing the language of instruction helped us focus on class sessions’ non-language-based elements. For example, we paid attention to the ways in which heritage learners interacted with one another and with second-language learners, seeking to understand the style and frequency with which each group participated in class discussion. We also thought actively about how our colleagues created classroom atmospheres that drew all students into discussion.

Each observation in our colleagues’ classes has led to our self-reflections and initiatives in making changes to our own teaching.  We gained renewed appreciation for the significance of ‘simple’ ways that instructors can make small changes to promote inclusive learning. These ‘simple ways’ included things such as where the instructor stands and the ways in which students are grouped. Second-language learners tended to speak more in target languages when instructors were close by, while the instructors’ proximity did not affect heritage learners’ speech in the same way. In regards to grouping students, we noticed that sometimes it was beneficial to group heritage students with non-heritage students in order to make use of different students’ strengths, while at other times, this ‘mixed’ grouping negatively affected learning, because second language learners often spoke less (and more slowly) than heritage speakers. Different groups can proceed at different speeds based on members’ shared learning profiles, and an instructor can choose to assign different tasks to heritage learner groups than second language learner groups, promoting differentiated learning.

We also observed that being a heritage learner was not the only determinant of a student’s level of engagement and participation. We hypothesized that other factors included level of interest in the course material, level of preparation, and what we termed ‘culture of learning.’ We used this term to refer to a student’s background in lecture-based classes versus discussion-based classes, for example.

All in all, the Teaching Square was a valuable opportunity to engage in discussion about our teaching. Following observation of one another’s classes, we had conversations that helped us think through ways to improve our own teaching. We opened up the conversation to colleagues by presenting some of our findings and observations in a forum in the SLLLC. We hope to continue these conversations in the future.All University of Calgary teaching staff are eligible to apply to the Teaching Square program, which is part of the Taylor Institute’s Seeding SoTL Initiative. Interested staff can form groups of four and apply via the application form on the Taylor Institute’s site. The Teaching Square process involves an initial meeting to plan class observations, followed by one observation of each member’s class, optional debriefing meetings after each classroom visit, and a final meeting that can be used to reflect on the Teaching Square experience and plan a way to “pay it forward” (that is, to share learnings with others). For more information, please visit the Taylor Institute’s page on Seeding SoTL.

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