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Teaching in Circles

teaching circleEarlier this week I listened in fascination and envy while three professors reported on their experience as an unlikely teaching circle. Teaching circles, here, are groups of three faculty from different departments who team up to observe each other outside the normal departmental observation schedules. This particular teaching circle sounded like a those old “walked into a bar” jokes: a volleyball coach, a ceramics artist, and a computer scientist walked into a classroom…

What could three professors from such different areas learn from each other? Turns out quite a lot. I’m so jealous. I want to be in a teaching circle!

Here are the three things that stood out to me in the context of my own teaching.

The pedagogical importance of team spirit

The best work happens when there’s teamwork. This is pretty obvious when you’re talking about a team sport, but apparently it’s also a powerful thing in an academic classroom. In the CS classroom, students are incredibly engaged in working together to solve the “puzzle” that the professor sets up for them, shouting out options and editing other people’s suggestions until finally the code works. They support each other and hold each other accountable for the group’s success. Boy do I ever want that dynamic in my classroom.

Part of being a team is dealing with public success and failure. If people are shouting out suggestions, some of them are bound to be wrong. But if the team is strong it seems that it will kind of take that in stride and correct itself. I wonder what it would look like to build this kind of trust during a one-shot instruction session. There must be a way.

One thing I’ll hang on to is the CS professor’s mantra that what is important is NOT the individual succeeding or failing, but that the group arrives at success. Perhaps just keeping my eye on that goal will help shift the classroom dynamics a bit.

Physical context matters

The coach and the artist were both jealous of the CS prof’s classroom context where students knew what was expected of them academically and even took notes. I’m in a similar context where my classroom doesn’t have the trappings of a room in which you take notes and concentrate hard. So I asked the faculty if they’d come up with any strategies to combat their non-academic-classroom-looking-contexts. They suggested being very up front and just saying “You’ll want to write this down.” So I’ll try that!

Making sure they know what matters

In their own ways, each of the faculty talked about having conversations with their students in which the main question was “Do you understand why this matters?” I love this. LOVE it. So much of the stuff I teach can look an awful lot like busy work. Discussions like this could function similarly to my “do you understand why citation styles look different” module and get students on board with the larger goals of information literacy.

So yeah, I really want to be in a teaching circle.

Published inTeaching and Learning


  1. Do you think it would work to have a circle that included both faculty and staff? It might not be as easy to non-intrusively observe the teaching that you do in one-on-one appointments or informal contexts, but I could learn a lot from a circle that included folks in the library, dean of students office, and other student support roles.

  2. It would certainly be different. I do quite a bit of classroom teaching (especially in fall term) but they’re not at consistent times each week, so scheduling could be tricky.

    One thing that really intrigues me is the difference between teaching the same group of students multiple times per week vs what I normally do, which is get a completely different set of students each time I teach. I’m really interested to know what someone from a course context would see and find interesting in a one-shot context, and what I would find useful to take back from a course context to my one-shot context.

  3. […] Given how late last fall the class was added to the class registration system, I was pleasantly surprised to have that many students. I’m enjoying taking advantage of the various backgrounds and interests of the students. We are meeting in a small computer classroom in our new, swank Education School, and are finishing up our first main topic, industry data (using primarily the Census). As we get deeper into the semester and expand into other topics, I look forward to doing less “tool training” in class and more discussion and analysis of case studies and business research questions. (The Pegasus Librarian just had an interesting post about teaching with some good questions to ask students to keep them thinking critically: […]

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