The difficulties of reflecting on “being not very good”

This is a guest post by Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University).

Last week Simon discussed the need to reflect on our teaching and learning, in particular also on what’s not working. This made me wonder, are we actually able to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses?

We all know how difficult self-reflection can be. I personally remember a management training during which I was asked to evaluate my own actions in a difficult situation of my own choice – and struggling to openly critique myself and reflect upon my behaviour.

I recently witnessed how some of my colleagues find it easy to talk about teaching and learning, whereas others seemed to be struggling.

Active learning is in Maastricht University’s DNA, with problem-based learning (PBL) being used across its programmes. But often PBL does not come natural to teaching staff; we are expected to take a backseat role and focus on process rather than on content.

Hence, good teaching staff training is essential. New staff are introduced to PBL and need to follow a more detailed teaching training trajectory after a year of teaching. Events such as my faculty’s annual Education Day also play a role in this, through the exchange of experience and best practices.

In the run up to this year’s Education Day I was asked to talk about a new teacher staff development programme, called Continuing Professional Development. This programme is aimed at stimulating further development of teaching staff and at further enhancing the university teaching community.

Since it is not yet fully clear what kind of activities staff can do in this context, I planned two exercises that should give me an insight into colleagues’ needs: a bingo and a generative interview.

The first exercise I have already discussed in more detail in a post published in November: a bingo. The bingo I used this time is pictured here.

I explained to my colleagues that the aim of this exercise was a) to experience how easy it is to discuss and share teaching and learning ideas and best practices and b) to come up with some first ideas concerning their own training needs. This is also why I asked everyone to make sure to at least complete the box on the bottom left. The exercise worked well – and this time I timed it well too. People found it easy to talk, also because of the variety of topics to be discussed.

The second exercise was one that I picked up during the recent Joint International Teaching and Learning Conference in Brighton. During the conference, Colin Brown (Northeastern University) hosted a workshop on teaching peer review in which he made use of generative interviews.

We worked together in groups of three: one interviewee, one interviewer and one observer. Interviewer and observer together try to find out the interviewee’s views on a certain topic and formulate these views for them, which helps to actually more clearly formulate those views. Roles rotated. This was an interesting exercise and I decided to try it during the Education Day. I explained to my colleagues that this exercise was meant to get a more detailed understanding of their teacher training needs.

While I participated in the Bingo, I decided to only observe my colleagues during this second exercise. Interestingly, where some immediately started talking (as I experienced myself during the conference workshop), others started to focus on details of procedure.

I noticed that those colleagues who I know to be very involved in teaching and learning, seemed to find it much easier to do this exercise. They sometimes ignored the procedure, but they did eventually end up filling in the main part of the form pictured here:

Colleagues less eagerly involved in teaching and learning were the ones who seemingly found it difficult to talk about themselves, their strengths and their weaknesses. Instead, they spend lots of time talking about the form and the procedures.

This shows that Simon’s call to speak out about our mistakes and our weaknesses may come quite natural to those of us who think about these issues on a daily basis (the readers of  the ALPS blog or my faculty’s own teaching and learning blog). But this seems quite different for those colleagues for whom teaching does not come naturally or is rather viewed as a thing they have to do (instead of something they like to do).

Staff training will hopefully get more teaching staff to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, but, as Simon writes, academia unfortunately encourage us instead “to big ourselves up, to represent a bold vision of progressive and successful practice.”

PS During both exercises I played music to create a good atmosphere on a day that temperature went well above 35 degrees. You can find the playlist here.

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