Teaching – Teaching and Learning in EOAS

I taught my final practicum lesson for CATL in EOSC 516: Teaching and learning in Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences. This is a graduate-level course is very similar to the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) that is offered at UBC through the Centre for Teaching, Learning & Technology (CTLT) and at other institutions around the world. Unlike the ISW, which is completed within three days, this course is stretched out over 6 weeks. Each week alternates between theme sessions in which the facilitators guide learners through key concepts in teaching and learning, and “mini-lesson cycles”, where each of the learners give a 10 minute mini-lesson on a topic of their choice. There are only 10 students in the course, 1 instructor, and 2 TAs (including myself), creating a unique learning environment in which learners are more comfortable to take risks and challenge themselves as instructors.

I facilitated an hour-long session called “Facilitating Discussions”. The motivation for this session is that instructors, especially new ones, are often intimidated by the thought of using a discussion in their classroom. They might worry that they will try and start a discussion and no one will participate, or that there will be one or a few dominating students that derail the discussion to focus on their own agenda. In this session, learners participate in discussions about discussions that are structured using two different techniques: snowball and debate.

Before starting the main part of the session (the discussions themselves) I asked the learners to reflect on how they’ve seen discussions used in classrooms settings and how they felt during those discussions. They had most commonly experienced the traditional form of discussions where the instructor poses a questions, tells the class to “discuss”, and asks another question when the conversation is exhausted. This is what I had expected, and was why I had planned more unique discussions for them to participate in.

The first discussion technique I used was a snowball discussion. Learners start out thinking on their own about a question, which in this case was “Think about a classroom discussion you’ve experienced. What happened during the discussion and what did the instructor do?”. After learners reflect on this for a minute or so, they pair up with someone and discuss a slightly more complex question (How do you feel about discussions in the classroom?). Next, each pair pairs up with another pair to become a group of 4, and discusses another, slightly more complex question (relating to the strategies used to run an effective discussion, and the challenges that may arise during a discussion). Finally, we returned to the entire class and I asked questions that related to and elaborated on what they had discussed so far, namely the benefits and challenges of using a snowball discussion. Personally, I like this discussion technique because by gradually building up the size of groups it makes the discussion come more naturally, and makes it easy to scaffold the discussion from easier to more complex questions. It is also good for learners that aren’t comfortable speaking in front of the entire class. Most learners will feel comfortable talking to one other person, or a group of 3 other people.

The second discussion technique was a debate, with the two sides being discussion is always good in a classroom, and discussion is never good in a classroom. Before the session started, I had given each learner a coloured piece of paper, intentionally ensuring that people that often worked together were each given a different colour of paper. When the debate started, I let them know that the colour of paper they received represented what team they were on for the debate. Each team was given 5 minutes to plan their argument, following which they each had 4 minutes to argue for their view. That was followed by time to plan the rebuttal, and 2 minutes each to present their final arguments. After the debate, I asked the entire group to discuss the benefits and challenges of using a debate as a discussion structuring technique, similar to how I had led the final large group discussion in the snowball activity, and recorded it on the board. In this way we had the benefits and challenges of the two different techniques used written side-by-side on the board, making it easier for learners to compare the two. I think that a debate is a useful discussion structuring technique for specific situations. The topic being discussed should have two clear sides, and the class size needs to be relatively small, since the debate needs to be moderated and everyone should have a chance to speak. It’s probably a technique that would be better for later in the course when students are more familiar with each other. A challenge with debate is that it could put students that are more introverted in an uncomfortable situation. A way around this that I’ve seen is to give each person on one side of the debate a different coloured sheet of paper, and the same set of colours to the other team (i.e., one person on each team will have the same colour paper). Instead of having an open debate where anyone can speak, the facilitator chooses a colour and that pair has to debate one aspect of the group’s argument. This ensures that the quieter members of the team get a chance to speak.

I didn’t use a feedback form specific to my session because we ask learners for general feedback on the entire session, and I thought a second feedback form would be time consuming and redundant. For the feedback, I asked learners to answer three questions: What helped you learn?, What hindered your learning?, and What was your “shining star” from the session? The debate came up a lot in the feedback. It seems like most people enjoyed it, giving comments such as “helped solidify ideas and concepts”, “liked the debate part, really helped learning”, “debate = motivation”, and “the debate was fun and useful!”. One person felt that it was “painful”, which I’m assuming is because they were uncomfortable trying to push their opinion on the other team. This was an important reminder that debates don’t work well for all learners. The snowball discussion was also mentioned a couple of times in the feedback, with comments such as “helped my learning – I shared a lot more with the group than with the open class” and “helped learning – group pairing after thinking ourselves”.

In terms of my own teaching, my role in this session was to facilitate, so the style was quite different from the practicum lessons that I have given in the past. I think that the breadth of ideas the learners came up with during the session is evidence that I was able to efficiently facilitate and draw out their thoughts and ideas. The list of benefits and challenges of each technique that they generated included all those that I would have identified myself, and some I hadn’t thought of. I think that taking on the role of a facilitator rather than a teacher always presents different challenges but that I am becoming more comfortable with it and continuing to grow as a facilitator and an instructor.

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