Blog 12

Teaching wheels – my new training wheels


Franz Newland, Lassonde

I may have had quite a few years in industry, and may be able to delude myself that I know lots about my technical discipline, but I am undeniably new to teaching. I am inspired by this new world I have stepped into, and excited by the liberty I am afforded, but the responsibility of doing my best for the ninety faces in front of me (well.. perhaps the large subset of ninety faces who are still afloat on their sea of mid-terms and assignments) does weigh heavily. Having not been a student in a University classroom in … many years … and realizing the wealth of tools and concepts, of learning outcomes and Blooming taxonomies, that have advanced higher education in the interim, I know when I owe it to myself and my students to take my own learning journey further.

My department really has made me feel at home, but maybe the teaching commons has already become my cottage – a place to take time to reflect (I am too new a Canadian, perhaps, to have one in real life, but have already had the virtues of such places extolled to me by many past colleagues and neighbours). I was pointed towards the instructional skills workshop (ISW) right from day one at York, which allowed me to simulate my new teaching practice in a safe environment, from which to experiment and explore new approaches – to practice, in fact. The workshop concept itself modelled the type of classroom I would want for my students, where new ideas and theories get put into use and played with – where we may all “fail early” and not worry about it, but learn from it – and where we can grow from each other’s ideas.

As a result, when the opportunity to participate in the new “teaching wheels” program cropped up, the positive glow from ISW was still fresh enough to carry me through doubts about how I would be able to support such an activity. What was fascinating in ISW and intrigued me about the teaching wheels was the possibility to observe teaching from right across York’s course offerings, to let me focus on how very unfamiliar material is delivered – but also to think about how much synergy there is in such diversity of courses. I am intrigued by liminal spaces between disciplines, and this activity was going to stretch all the way between psychology, writing, personal management, health studies and engineering.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of the teaching wheels program, it is based on the teaching squares concept used in a number of higher education establishments. The original concept was developed by Anne Wessley from the department of accounting at the St. Louis Community College. In her handbook detailing the concept, she notes that participants “assume the dual roles of the observer and the observed, teacher and student”, and “simultaneously experience and thus share the opportunities and risks of inviting others” into our classrooms, with the objective of stealing as many good ideas from each other as possible. In the original format, four faculty members from across a campus each attend a class given by the other participants. At York, the teaching commons facilitates the process. Our facilitator inspired us to participate, helped us connect, provided questions we might want to use to reflect upon in each other’s’ classes, and gave us free lunches in the process.

As a novice at thievery, I was perhaps expecting to pilfer some useful hints or tips whilst enjoying some great colleagues deliver inspiring classes. Instead, I found myself ransacking whole concepts, thought processes and ideas, and altering my own thinking about teaching in the process. The minimum commitment nominally expected from the teaching wheels program is to attend two other classes and to have colleagues attend your class, although there is benefit even from a single reciprocal classroom visit. In my cohort, the timetables fortunately allowed me to visit the classrooms of four colleagues, across a large diversity of teaching spaces and class sizes. Directly after each class, we made time to discuss what we had seen, learn more about how certain elements had been developed or where they would go next, etc. The classes themselves were inspiring, but the discussions were always at least as valuable, and were truly a two-way exchange of the shared experience.

So what did I learn from the classes I sat in on? For someone like me early in this new journey, there were many points, that I could not do service to here. I do want to capture four though – one from each class:

  • the importance of storytelling in education. Not just in how we talk about the material we present, but also the visual story we can tell through the design of our slides or the artifacts we bring into class, and the ways we can relate theory to tangible things and events
  • the many ways we can structure our delivery to help students navigate the material – through simple visual cues or colours, common highlights of new material for the day etc.
  • the power of managing the energy in the classroom – how significant a change can be made to a deflated class by the teacher raising the energy level, and how a calming activity can refocus students remarkably quickly
  • making space for interaction with students – through getting feedback on cards from the students who may be too shy to open up in front of their peers, to offering some office hour time in a less formal setting such as one of the campus coffee shops, instead of the formality of my office, to help break down some of those invisible barriers

I learned as much from the comments on my own classes (something which was not required of the activity, but which my circle naturally wanted to hear). It was invaluable to hear from colleagues what worked, and what student reactions were to things that happened. These discussions also led to a number of suggestions for things that might be interesting to try – things I have made use of since this experience. These reflections may perhaps not be remarkable for many of you, but I believe everyone in my circle came out of it enriched in some way.

I realize there are many opportunities for feedback in the classroom, from informal student questionnaires and questions to more formal departmental and collegial lesson observations and student surveys. Having relative strangers share a class, with no motivation beyond helping each other become better teachers, is an opportunity that I think differs from these others. And I say relative stranger – because after the experience, just as after the ISW, I count my wheel participants as colleagues. Unlike the colleagues in my department who I meet more regularly, and who help in very many ways, I know I may not see my wheel colleagues again soon… but I also know they are there to help.

So what next? This is one set of training wheels I am in no rush to take off. Once I have absorbed this round’s lessons, I’ll gladly sign up for another teaching wheels program, ready to unabashedly steal the next great ideas. I’d love to get someone to turn this into an app though … I hesitate to suggest “tinder meets education”? … where I can maybe pick a couple of classes every semester from anywhere on campus where I might see some new, innovative approach, or where someone is looking for ideas, even from me, on how to present some challenging material. In exchange, I know I’ll be returning the invitation, to have someone who cares more than two “Kahoots” about teaching in my classroom, warts and all – and just maybe they’ll learn something from me too!

For further details regarding the Teaching Wheels activity, do contact Barbara Kerr  – in the teaching commons



Wessley, Anne. Teaching Squares: Handbook for Participants. St Louis, MO: St. Louis Community College, 2002.

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