The Cohort Experience: General Education Faculty Reflect on Teaching Squares

By Mike Evans, Jordanne Christie, Clayton Rhodes, Robert Savelle, and Nathan Wilson

Recently, we General Education professors participated in the CAFE facilitated Teaching Squares. Typically, faculty from different program areas make up a teaching square; they take turns visiting one another’s classes over a short period. As Neil Haave (2018) explains, having instructors from different programs is key to the square’s success. “The views and perspective of those who teach different kinds of content can be very helpful in providing new perspectives on the content being taught,” he writes. However, we wondered what could be gained by tackling Teaching Squares as a General Education cohort. The significant thematic variability within the General Education curriculum coupled with contrasting teaching styles satisfies Haave’s point about observing those who teach dissimilar content with different deliveries. The fact, though, that we approach our respective topics within a larger General Education framework led us to ask questions that would best be answered in a square. For example, “given that General Education classes are made up students from various disciplines at various points in their programs of study, how can I ensure the material speaks to each learner?” Additionally, “how do I ensure that my course reflects the spirit of the broader General Education mandate?” Moreover, “does that particular activity or teaching method that works well in one General Education course mean it will work well in mine?”

As General Education faculty, we develop and deliver our courses (on behalf of all Schools and programs) with certain requirements in mind regardless of our subject. First, General Education is interdisciplinary; topics, practices, and knowledge are outside a student’s chief area of focus and the students themselves are from various programs. Second, General Education does not teach technical skills, but rather the more abstract traits of recognizing social complexities, appreciating the many ways to make meaning in this world, and navigating the intricacies of interpersonal interactions. Third, General Education cultivates cognition by strengthening a learner’s broader critical and creative thinking competences as well as their problem solving and decision-making capabilities. Therefore, General Education in concert with a student’s main program of study, better positions graduates to contribute positively to their communities and workplaces — students have received education in both the hard and soft skills needed to be successful in today’s world.

Although our experience was cut short by the sudden transition to remote learning, the five of us did have enough occasion to gather ideas on how our teaching approaches differ and yet support the reason-for-being of General Education. We share the following with the hope that you find some applicability to your own practice while also considering the value that comes from forming a future Square with your School or program colleagues.

Mike Evans:

What drew me most to participating in a General Education-focused teaching square was that all General Education faculty aim to instill similar transferable skills (some of which are listed above) that are not necessarily taught in their core program courses (though some are) and that help prepare students to be not just an adequate candidate for a job, but the ideal candidate, and to be engaged citizens of their local and global communities. I was excited to see how my colleagues do this. Unfortunately, I was only able to visit one of my colleagues’ classrooms prior to all courses moving online, but it was an illuminating and rich experience. What I loved most about Jordanne’s Social Innovation course was that both the individual lesson components as well as the course as a whole were problem-focused, in that students were required to identify social problems, collaboratively brainstorm ways they could be addressed, and develop practical solutions drawing on theory, models, and ongoing opportunities to practice. Sitting in on a lesson reminded me of Paulo Freire’s (1970) work in advocating the problem-posing model of education that was so central to my teacher training at OISE. For Freire, knowledge is not “deposited” by the teacher into the student’s mind. Rather, it is created via a discourse between the two. Such active problem-focused learning in turn helps students develop a critical lens through which they view the world and free themselves and others from oppressive structures and practices. I was happy to see clear elements of Freire’s approach in Jordanne’s class and it inspired me to return to and reflect on Freire’s ideas as they relate to my own teaching practice.

Jordanne Christie:

Similar to others, I have had the opportunity to participate in Teaching Squares in the past with educators outside of my own discipline, and now more recently, as a General Education cohort. When reflecting on my Teaching Squares experience, one quote that stands out for me is from Lee Shulman (1993) who proposes that “We must change the status of teaching from private to community property” (p. 6). According to Shulman, “Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved” (Shulman, 1999, p. 11). This notion of ‘teaching as community property’ resonates with me as it suggests that teaching should be made more visible and public. By making teaching public, there is a sense of community and belonging that can be fostered by open and constructive dialogue about teaching practice. To me, participating in Teaching Squares is a great example of making teaching community property as it provides you with the opportunity to make your own classroom practice public, and to learn from peers who are also opening up their classrooms as community property.

More specifically, participating in Teaching Squares as a General Education cohort, provided me with the opportunity to observe how my colleagues facilitate the classroom experience with a similar diverse student population and common breadth of learning outcomes. Although our subject matters ranged from interpersonal group dynamics, to climate change, and early human history, having a common thread of General Education provided a helpful lens to view the Teaching Squares experience. It was interesting to observe the variety of teaching styles and approaches, and to get a glimpse into the teaching practices of my colleagues as it allowed me to reflect on my own practice, and to gain new insights and practical strategies for my classroom. For two of my classroom visits, I attended with another member of the cohort, which also sparked engaging conversation and collaborative reflection on our experiences and a deeper understanding of our own practice and the aims of General Education. Overall, I feel that participating in Teaching Squares, whether you are in a discipline-specific cohort, or an interdisciplinary group, is a good step towards making teaching more public and encouraging open and ongoing dialogue about teaching practice.

Clayton Rhodes:

Teaching a General Education course is unique because the course subject and content is typically unique. However, the act of taking a unique subject and applying it to the development of a student’s communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities is a commonality between all members of the General Education faculty team. By participating in Teaching Squares for General Education faculty, I was able to verify some of my own course pedagogy but also consider new ways to build on my pedagogy.

For me, some of my best improvements on my own teaching has come out of casual hallway, office, or post-meeting conversations with my colleagues. However, being able to see and participate in my colleagues’ application of the teaching practices discussed in our conversations brought about a new level of understanding. While our General Education content may be unique, there was a great deal of value in seeing how other General Education faculty linked communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving into their courses.
I am very thankful and appreciative for the opportunity to see my fellow General Education faculty teammates in action.

Robert Savelle:

The nature of General Education courses, with their diverse academic content and student composition, makes them both stimulating and challenging for the instructor and learner alike. As unique breadth-focused courses, professors are able to shape the content and learning environment to their own academic and pedagogical strengths. As electives, students from different programs and years of study are able to choose courses that speak to their personal interest, or best suit their timetable. At the same time, with various academic backgrounds and student learning styles, it can be difficult to provide suitable teaching styles that engage students while providing course-relevant content and context.

Participating in teaching squares with a focus solely on general education classes provided an opportunity to observe how colleagues met the challenges of their classes. While the content of the courses differed considerably from one another and my own, it was clear from these observations that the classes themselves had similar varied student composition, providing comparable classroom opportunities and challenges. Having the chance to see the pedagogical styles of my colleagues gave me a chance to reflect on how my own style may be received by student learners in my classes. In addition, noting how each professor approached classroom activities was quite valuable. In some cases, while I was familiar with a particular activity, the ways in which it was managed in another course gave me ideas on how it could be tweaked to suit my own style effectively for use in future classes. On other occasions, I was part of classes engaging in entirely new activities with which I was not familiar, providing me with practical models for use when planning future lessons.

I have participated in teaching squares several times in the past, and while those experiences were overall valuable, the nature of some observed classes was so entirely different from my own that its value was limited to simply enjoying the lesson and the instructor’s rapport with the students. For this past occasion, each lesson delivered valuable insights into pedagogy that have already been applied to my own practices. I hope to continue this exercise in future semesters.

Nathan Wilson:

“Invitational teaching practices” was the phrase that kept coming to mind when observing my colleagues’ classes. Now, what “invites” students to learn is a question we all struggle with. Carol Ann Tomlinson in her 2002 essay answers that “in general, students have at least five needs that teachers can address to make learning irresistible: affirmation, contribution, purpose, power, and challenge.” How those things work themselves out in practice, Tomlinson concedes, varies depending on a host of factors. However, taking part in a General Education-oriented Teaching Squares provided occasions to see how my colleagues satisfied those five needs in their own practice. Take contribution as an example. The potential of contribution to further learning is especially key in a General Education classroom composed of students from various programs. A question like “what stood out as particularly important?” following a given activity is open-ended and subjective enough to invite a range of contributions from students without making anyone feel pressured that there is only one right response, especially when you give people a chance to first talk things out in a small group. I witnessed my colleagues checking in with those student conversations as they unfolded. Upon reconvening as a larger group, the professor could refer to what they had overheard: “So-and-so also noted…” or “So-and-so made a good point…” This affirmation allowed students to feel their contribution was valued without necessarily putting them on the spot. Moreover, deftly facilitated, the collective conversation became more purposeful — for example, in more precisely identifying themes from the observations made. Approaching Teaching Squares as a faculty cohort helped me reconsider and reflect upon how we invite students to learn and how effectively this is modeled by way of our General Education curriculum at Durham College.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Herder and Herder.
Haave, N. (2018, July 31). Teaching squares bring cross-disciplinary perspectives. Faculty Focus.
Shulman, L. S. (1993). Teaching as community property: Putting an end to pedagogical solitude. Change, 25(6), 6-7.
Shulman, L.S. (1999). Taking Learning Seriously. Change, 31(4), 10-17.
Tomlinson, C.A. (2002). Invitations to learn. Educational Leadership, 60(1), 6-10.