Tuesday, 18 September 2018

incorporating social media and back-channel communication

I am beginning to be less and less concerned with online learning. Before I used to consider it to be inferior to what was happening face-to-face. But now, I think it is just a different mode of the educational medium. As Brookfield suggests in this 11th chapter, the F2F classes rarely live up to the billing or potential. Classroom teaching can be executed well or poorly. Online teaching is the same. But I do wonder if the best online learning experience can be favourably compared to the best F2F learning environment? Perhaps the issue is that it is so context dependent being affected by the skills and inclinations of the teacher, the student cohort, and discipline being studied.

Regardless, Brookfield, similar to Bowen, suggests that we make use of whatever educational tools are at our disposal if they make sense in terms of facilitating student learning. For Brookfield, social media and back-channel communication is a teaching tool that can facilitate democratization of the classroom by enabling quieter students to provide input toward the educational environment. In addition, it provides a conduit to instructors for the lens of students’ voices when critically reflecting on our teaching. The advantage here is that it can happen in real time as we are teaching. Critical to its success in conveying students’ voices is that students be permitted to log in with an anonymous name/handle/identifier. I am not sure how I feel about that. I tire of the social irresponsibility that happens with anonymous posting to blogs and online articles. I think we need to take personal responsibility for our expressed thoughts. I understand that Brookfield is making the case that anonymity is crucial for enabling students to feel safe in voicing their concerns or confusion but I have witnessed so many examples of online conversations descending to ad hominem. On the other hand, the classroom environment may have sufficient social constraints that students will regulate themselves. There will be those who want to learn rather than read vulgarity or needless harassment of other students or the instructor. Brookfield does assert that it is necessary to lay the ground rules for using social media as a back-channel to the instructor for questions/issues. Some of the examples he cites I have seen used well in instructional workshops: TodaysMeet, Twitter, PollEverywhere, among others. I wonder if my own LMS, Moodle has anything similar? The Forum module in Moodle is simply too slow/cumbersome to act as a back-channel. Are there other social media equivalents in Moodle?

Brookfield also makes the case that social media is good for the lens of our colleagues. We can allow our colleagues access to our online record or to even observe the social media feeds to get a taste of our teaching without the necessity of being physically in our classrooms.

I do wonder, however, if these teaching strategies and educational technology tools are as significant for my smaller classes? I think they could work well in my first-yr biology courses for which student enrolment is typically between 70-90 students. But in my more senior courses, the enrolment smaller: 30-50 in 2nd yr and 10-20 for 3rd and 4th year. Maybe in the 2nd year, but I don’t think it makes sense in my smaller enrolment courses at the 3rd and 4th yr. Also, using social media assumes that my classroom does not have many moments in which I am circulating among students as they work and discuss a problem. I can see social media use working very well when I am lecturing - it still happens often enough - but not when students are working in their groups. I get around to them when they have a confusion that needs clarification.

Bottom line, I think, is that social media can be a useful teaching and learning tool but that it requires judicious use that is context-dependent. I like Jose Bowen’s suggestion - ask the students what they want/need to support their own learning. Many of my students have indicated that they do not particularly like learning online. But I wonder if what they are really saying is that they do not like the work of learning - online teaching, done well,  typically requires reading and deep processing. Or I wonder if what they are indicating is that they view their online world as their personal world and they desire to keep it separate from their more formal learning world?

Not sure…


Tuesday, 28 August 2018

learning from theory

I like using theory as part of my critical reflections. I seem to be doing already what Brookfield describes as scholarly personal narrative (SPN) in his tenth chapter of Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. But what I need to do to make it more critical is too actively search and incorporate/respond to theory that contrasts with my own understanding of my personal experience. Currently, I tend to use theory to justify my own understanding of events. Instead, Brookfield advocates to intentionally include alternative theories that help to problematize our own interpretation of our experiences. Doesn't mean that the alternatives will be correct and I will be wrong. Rather, what it does is help me critically assess my experiences and this is the point of being critically reflective. Being reflective is not useful if it simply continues to corroborate our own thinking. We need to use the literature to articulate what we understand but also to examine our experience from other points of view or other understandings of the world. This must be done courageously with an unflinching eye on what is truly happening in our classrooms.

Theory, for Brookfield, is not simply complicated and difficult text. Instead, it is simply another lens to consider our teaching and learning. For people without a critically reflective learning community, the literature can be used in their place. But also, in the context of a faculty learning community, it can help ensure that the community does not simply become mutually reinforcing of hegemony and status quo. Alternatively, it can help to nudge community members into new ways of understanding of what is occurring in our classrooms, with our students, and with ourselves in that particular teaching and learning context.

Scholarly personal narratives embed theory into the personal experience. This is what I have been trying to do with my blog: I reflect on an experience in the light of a particular paper or book I have read. The theory and the experience are woven together in an attempt to understand the experience and learn from it. We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience - to paraphrase Dewey.

Brookfield's discussion of repressive tolerance is something that I have not heard of before but have certainly observed and experienced in retrospect. By giving equal voice to all opinions and ideas, the marginalized and radical remain at the periphery. As an educator, we need to give students a voice, but we do need to rebalance the voices so that the marginal finds space to be at the centre. By tolerating all voices equally, the marginalized remains at the margins simply because their voice gets drowned out by the hegemonic and voices of the status quo. As instructors, we do have a responsibility to bring what we understand to be true to the centre: The majority voice is not always the correct voice. Repressive tolerance is found on news talk shows where journalists bring in contrasting voices to try to produce a balanced discussion even if the alternative view is ridiculous and unfounded.

Where in my classes do I inadvertently practice repressive tolerance?

Something else that Brookfield raises in this chapter is an idea that I have understood for some time. By virtue of being raised in Western Civilization, I am effectively racist and sexist. My upbringing in this culture has embedded in my thinking racist ideas and sexist views of my place in society - examples of hegemonic thinking. All I can do is be constantly vigilant and exercise inclusive thinking with action.


Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Learning from theory. In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 2nd ed, (pp. 171-187). San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand.

Marcuse, H. (1969). Repressive Tolerance. In R. P. Wolff, B. J. Moore, & H. Marcuse (Eds.), A Critique of Pure Tolerance (pp. 95–137). Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

using personal experience

In his 9th chapter of Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Brookfield argues that our personal experience as learners can inform our own teaching praxis. The most significant influences on how we teach are those that we experienced as students. Our favourite teachers we want to emulate, our worst teachers we ensure that we never teach in like manner. He provides a number of examples that are readily available to us as learning experiences. Brookfield notes how interesting it is that graduate students who are working as TAs do not apply their own learning experiences in their graduate courses to their TAing of their undergraduate seminars and labs. What we appreciate as students we should consider implementing in our own teaching. The same can be applied to teaching development workshops and conference sessions we attend. In addition to learning content and theory, we can also reflect on how the workshop leader or session presenter is communicating their topic to you as a learner. Are they sharing something of themselves first before they ask that you share something of yourself with the class or with a nearby stranger? In addition, do they explain the rationale for using a particular activity rather than simply speaking their thinking? What is the connection to what they are presenting to what they are asking you to do? Do you do this with your own students? This is an example that Brookfield has experienced at workshops and conferences. The point he is making is to document the situation: Where and when did the experience occur? How did it make you feel? Why do you think you had that response? How can this impact your own teaching? What might your students be experiencing in a similar situation in your own classes?

Finally, a very powerful personal experience that can inform our own teaching is to learn a new skill. This reminds us of what it is like for disciplinary novices to learn our own field of expertise. Brookfield’s analysis is that teachers who have had to struggle to master the material they are teaching typically make the best teachers of that material or skill because they have had to articulate a strategy for learning it themselves. People who have found something easy to learn and master typically do not understand, cannot empathize with others for whom the skills and concepts are difficult to grasp. This gives them insight into their students' feelings and struggles and perhaps an ability to help bridge the novice-expert gap. But, as we age and become more familiar with the material, we can become distanced from what it was like to initially confront the course material. Somehow, we need to occasionally remake our courses, remake ourselves as teachers to bring us closer to where our students are when they first enter our class, enter our course and begin to engage with our material.

As a result of instructor familiarity with the material and thus distancing from novices, peers can become valuable resources for struggling students. I may be the expert in my subject area, but I may be less able to convey ideas about how to master the material. Students who have struggled but persevered may be good mediators of instruction between the teacher (the expert) and struggling student (the novice). This is a good rationale for implementing team-based learning which depends on collaborative teamwork. Brookfield suggests that we need to remember to not always cater to students' preferred modes of learning. We do need to stretch their learning abilities. But the converse is also true - if I am always challenging students with an unfamiliar way of learning (flipping the classroom) students may become fatigued with always being required to be an independent learner.

So is there anything I can do with my own implementation of TBL in my own courses? I could take aspects of TBL and implement them at different times during the term or during a class meeting. I think what many of my students have indicated on my end of term student evaluations of teaching for the last few years is that using TBL all of the time is simply too taxing - they need an educational rest while still participating in the course. This is certainly true for more junior courses. For the most part, students have the stamina and learning ability when they reach their 4th year of undergraduate studies. Even then, I do break up the active learning in our 4th-year capstone course with two or three videos throughout the term - a relatively passive learning experience but one that could be considered to be an educational resting point. I think I need to do more of this in my more junior courses.


Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Using personal experience. In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 2nd ed, p 153-170. San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. pp xvi, 286.

Weimer, M. (2017, February 22). When the teacher becomes the student. The Teaching Professor Blog

Weimer, M. (2017, January 25). The benefits of peer learning. The Teaching Professor Blog.

Weimer, M. (2006). The lens of experience: Wisdom of practice. In Enhancing scholarly work on teaching and learning: Professional literature that makes a difference (pp. 53–90). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

team-teaching as critical reflection

In chapter 8 Brookfield advocates for team-teaching as an incredibly insightful way to develop the critically reflective lens on our teaching. In his experience, team-teaching permits that ability to model critical dialogue between colleagues that share the same class. His sense of team-teaching is the same as mine. Team-teaching is not when a course is carved up between two colleagues but rather it is when two colleagues are present at the same time in the same class and engage with each other and with students as the course unfolds. Thus when one is in leadership mode (instructing students) the other(s) are able to monitor the interaction between students, the teachers and how both are responding to the learning that is happening. Often, Brookfield notes, when we are in the sage mode, we may be so focused on being clear and articulate in our explanations and justifications that we have difficulty seeing how students are responding, or when we do, we can become distracted from the necessary telling or facilitating that is happening. Co-teachers are able to watch for this. In addition, and more importantly, co-teachers are able to provide an alternate set of eyes to interpret how class activities unfold. Of course, they are not entirely unbiased - they are also part of the instructional team - but they will be able to affirm or realign our perspective of what occurred in the class. And this is particularly useful for avoiding the imposter syndrome that can happen when a class meeting does not go quite as well as had been planned. Affirming our perception and providing alternative interpretations are invaluable for understanding how teaching and learning are going and can provide insight into how to improve students' educational experience.

For Brookfield, what is even more powerful from team-teaching is the ability to model critical conversation for students. Co-teachers are able to discuss in front of the class their different perspectives on an issue and model for students how a critical examination of an issue does not have at its heart the desire to convert someone else to one’s own point of view, but rather to try and really get at the heart of an issue to try and distill some truth out of the different perspectives. This is the dialectical method and can be helpful in developing students from a dualistic understanding of knowledge and learning to one that is more multiplistic and relativistic and perhaps even come to a sense of commitment to a particular perspective without it becoming entrenched. Some of this section reminds me of the Perry Scheme of intellectual development in the language it uses.

For this to occur, colleagues need to cultivate trust among themselves and be sufficiently courageous to be vulnerable about their own mistakes, misperceptions and how they themselves are captive to hegemonic thinking. I like this way of being. It is where I feel most comfortable and alive. But not always, definitely not always. I think this is why my senior biology capstone course is so successful. I tend to be more transparent about myself and with my students than I am in my other courses. First-year biology is not so bad because I am sufficiently comfortable with the material that I welcome negotiating new things that students find in their own reading and sometimes research. In the past, my second-year courses (molecular cell biology and biochemistry) have been among my strongest. But over the last few years, I have become increasingly insecure as a result of implementing team-based learning in those classes. I am not sufficiently confident with the teaching strategy to allow myself to be vulnerable and transparent with my students. I am still trying to navigate what is appropriate to expect from students on reading quizzes (the two-stage readiness assurance tests) and how challenging to make the in-class applications of students' learning. I am still trying to figure this out. I think it works in the biology capstone because I have been unknowingly using some form of team-based learning since the 1990s. It works well in first-year biology because there is becoming available a wealth of resources to support this sort of teaching - I am finding good applications amongst the textbook resources. For molecular cell biology, I have developed what I think are outstanding experimental problems based on published papers but I wonder with the changes to our first-year biology curriculum (less emphasis on cell biology) if these are a little beyond what students can manage when they are trying to first master the content?

Anyways…. ! That was a big digression from this chapter.

Bottom line - team teaching can be an incredibly powerful way of incorporating the lens of our colleagues' perspectives in our quest to be critically reflective teachers.


Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Team-teaching as critical reflection. In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 2nd ed, p 135-152. San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. pp xvi, 286.

Haave, N. C. (2017). Using history and philosophy as the capstone to a biology major. Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching, 43(1), 3–11.

Monday, 16 July 2018

learning from colleagues’ perceptions

Chapter 7 provides some very useful techniques for when faculty learning communities gather and I will need to regularly consult it when I set up my FLC. The reflective conversation techniques range from rather simple for FLCs that are just starting to those that have developed a relationship among themselves with trust. The critical reflection conversation techniques are designed to enable participants to uncover the assumptions of power and hegemony and to initiate a conversation without judgement on those sharing their own experiences. What Brookfield correctly identifies is that all too often faculty conversations typically degenerate into complaints about our students and administration. Students “these days” don’t know how to read, focus, work, (insert your own student stereotype here). Or we often accuse our administration that they don’t understand the demands of teaching or are expecting too much from our service and research to properly attend to our teaching. There are many additional stereotypes that faculty raise when discussing teaching. The critical reflection techniques among colleagues that Brookfield reviews in this chapter are designed to consider our assumptions and what the alternative perspective might be for a given situation or experience.

The simpler ones start with each colleagues completing a particular sentence such as “I know teaching happens when…” or “ I feel like I have not lived up to my teaching potential when…” And out of these responses, a conversation develops. The more complicated techniques involve rules and roles that different colleagues play. The one I like is where one is the storyteller and explains their experience, with another playing umpire who ensures comments are nonjudgemental with the remainder being detectives who ask questions to clarify the situation and offer alternative perspectives. Only once all perspectives are considered and the situation well understood are colleagues invited by the umpire to offer solutions.

These techniques are designed to ensure that critical reflection occurs between identifying the issue and offering solutions. Brookfield’s experience suggests that faculty tend to jump from identifying the issue to providing solutions without the intervening reflection phase. This feels like how my in-class discussions of course material unfold. I have students solve a problem and then I tend to immediately jump to explaining the solution rather than letting them explain and justify their answers to each other. I have had some success in having student teams justify their choices to each other, but I tend to get too uptight during this phase of the TBL apps. I wonder if it is because I myself do not feel comfortable with the ambiguous phase of students figuring things out for themselves? I am a problem solver - I want to solve their problem for them! But of course, this is not how learning works...

But back to the learning from colleague’s perspectives, I know that jumping from problem to solution often happens when I engage in teaching discussions with my colleagues.

So, a faculty learning community is what I think I have in mind when considering creating a venue for faculty to come and talk about their teaching. This is such a great idea. I hope I can implement it both at Augustana and on the North Campus. And I think I just have to be courageous to try it without completely knowing what I am doing. But this chapter has given me a foothold - I now have some ideas of how to start.

I am intrigued…


Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Learning from colleagues’ perceptions. In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 2nd ed, p 115-134. San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. pp xvi, 286.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

seeing ourselves through students’ eyes

Some very useful suggestions in chapter six for assessing how students are perceiving and coping in our classes. Brookfield advocates for doing this at the end of each week or even during class using a back channel via social media.  Using something like TodaysMeet students are able to anonymously post their questions or concerns and the instructor is able to check the commentary every quarter hour or so. He suggests that many online technologies can do this - he is not adverse to students using their smartphones to do this. I suspect that a Twitter feed or PollEverywhere could accomplish something similar to TodaysMeet. He advocates for the use of social media because it makes students’ positions and thinking public and transparent enabling introverts and students for whom English is a second language to have another venue for their voice such that it is not only public speaking that is available to them. Finally, he continually advocates throughout this book (at least for these first six chapters) the importance of democratizing the classroom. This is the basis for his other two points: social media as a back channel prevents the few students from monopolizing the classroom. I like that - give other avenues for students’ voices. Brookfield admits that there is a risk in giving students anonymous voices - it can enable crass, profane comments and risks bullying of other students and the instructor. But his experience suggests that other students will actually patrol the potential vitriol and has the benefit that the bullies or even the monopolizers may realize that their voice is not the majority opinion or viewpoint.

Clickers are also discussed. Note that he indicates that it is the discussion that debriefs the question that is most critical and useful to this technique. I still have not mastered this post-PRS question approach. I find that I am too concerned with ensuring that students understand the rationale behind the correct answer rather than having students discuss what they think. In addition, I find that students are willing to discuss the question in their teams but are reluctant to discuss their team’s thinking with the rest of the class. On the other hand, there is very robust intra-team discussion of the TBL apps (Plickers - my version of a PRS) so maybe that is sufficient.

Other suggestions made in this chapter I have heard mentioned before in other venues such as the muddiest point and the one-minute paper. The learning audit is a new one for me and is interesting. It consists of three questions:

  • What do I know now that I didn’t know this time last week?
  • What can I do now that I couldn’t do this time last week?
  • What could I teach others to know or do that I couldn’t teach them last week?

Clearly, this is something that is done on a weekly basis and helps to make explicit to students themselves that learning is occurring incrementally/developmentally. Brookfield likes to use this to circumvent students’ feeling that they are not learning anything. Sometimes they just don’t realize that the little victories are summing up to something significant.

But the student feedback system that Brookfield likes the most and strongly advocates is the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ). He has mentioned this a couple of times in previous chapters and I have been both interested in learning about it but have had some trepidation about what it entails and what it may solicit from students. For whatever reason collecting feedback during the course makes me uncomfortable. I think it is because solicited feedback requires a response from the instructor and I am not confident that I can respond in a way that students will appreciate. There are some things that students want (e.g. more passive learning) that I know is not in their best interests and am unwilling to acquiesce to these demands. But what Brookfield suggests is that receiving this kind of feedback allows instructors to again explain their rationale for a particular teaching strategy and why it is in their best interests to persist. Also, CIQs over a few weeks can give an instructor a forewarning about brewing revolts to a teaching strategy and thus gives instructors a heads-up to prepare a response. I guess I am not confident that I can provide a sufficiently robust response to quell a student revolt. But on the other hand, if I don’t give students a venue to voice their concerns it can boil over into distrust and disrespect of the instructor and result in class resistance to learning and worse yet appeals to administration - which has happened to me before.

However, despite my misgivings, the CIQ list of questions is quite benign and I can see how it can foster a classroom climate of communication between students and instructor. These are the questions:

  • At what moment in class, this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  • At what moment in class, this week were you most distanced from what was happening?
  • What action that anyone (student or teacher) took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about the class this week surprised you the most? (This could be about students' own reactions to what went on, something that someone did, or anything else that occurs.)

Brookfield has students write this anonymously on a paper form and has student volunteers gather them up to ensure anonymity. For large classes (>50) he has student volunteers summarize/consolidate the summaries into the top 10 comments that he then reads (e.g. 5 students each read 10 CIQs and provides their top 2 consolidated comments). For smaller classes, Brookfield simply looks at them all himself.

I like these questions. Our LMS (Moodle) has the capability to run anonymous surveys, so I think this would be a good way to collect these. Brookfield administers these CIQs during the last 5 minutes of the last class of each week. And then he changes what he can, what is reasonable, what is pedagogically sound. For the other comments, he uses those as an opportunity to again reiterate the rationale for why he teaches the way he does and how it promotes students' learning.

I can do this.


Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Seeing ourselves through students’ eyes. In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 2nd ed, p 97-113. San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. pp xvi, 286.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

clarifying the benefits of critical reflection

Brookfield explains in chapter five the reasons for being critically reflective. And they are many. It helps prevent burnout and boredom because examining our teaching through the four lenses (peers, students, theory, personal experience) helps us to see the variety and diversity in our classrooms that underlies the lessons and activities that we re-use year after year. The content and exercises may be the same but the different sets of students’ experiences and backgrounds breathe new life into our teaching - if we are open to viewing through the lens of students’ eyes. What this requires is constant anonymous feedback from students in what Brookfield calls a CIQ - critical incident questionnaire - which he explains in a later chapter. This enables teachers to see what is received and what is misunderstood in their teaching.

Critical reflection also helps teachers to avoid self-flagellation. One of the things that Brookfield pointed out in an earlier chapter is that the impact and influence of teachers is limited. Sometimes learning happens despite our best intentions: learning can still happen when we seriously mismanage a situation or concept. What is important, thinks Brookfield, is that teachers be honest with their students about why they are using a particular teaching strategy or assignment and why the sequence of content makes sense. This is something I have read elsewhere - that teaching and learning are enhanced when we make explicit our reasons for teaching what, why, and how we do. Brookfield makes the case that being transparent this way inculcates student trust in the teacher and this is crucial to the teacher-student relationship. If students do not trust the teacher, they will not attempt the activity or deeply consider the material. They have to believe that the table the instructor has set is worth ingesting and digesting. This requires trust in the teacher’s ability to curate both the content and available teaching strategies. One of the issues that I think students were distrustful of me in 2nd-year cell biology this past year is that they could not believe the amount I was expecting them to learn. Yet, this is what students have always learned in cell biology. This year I actually winnowed the content from previous years. I think students just have such a difficult time understanding that learning this material takes such time, focus and effort. This was true of cell biology when I was an undergrad and it is still true.

What else did Brookfield provide as a rationale for being critically reflective? Being critically reflective helps us justify our actions, our instructional choices. How we teach is based on theory, experience, and student learning. As noted above, critical reflection enables us to make informed instructional decisions.


Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Clarifying the benefits of critical reflection. In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 2nd ed, p 79-95. San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. pp xvi, 286.