A changing mindset sees new possibilities

image shows a class in the Curtis Lecture hall

York University Educational Developer Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier considers her dual role as a professor and educational developer, what she has learned and how she is implementing that learning to enrich her teaching practice. What has been key to her learning is the understanding that what goes around can come around, and she notes that the courage to embrace change always leads to new possibilities. She offers this reflection to Innovatus.

Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier
Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier

In 2012, I changed career gears from being a professor to embracing the role of educational developer. With a background in second language acquisition, I had some knowledge about the nature of learning and felt if not completely prepared at least very excited about this turn in my academic career. Before long, colleagues came to me to write learning outcomes, implement active learning strategies, or discuss the features of experiential education and blended learning. The irony is that I could only rely on my past teaching experience to make the theory relatable to faculty.

Then last fall, I was offered a contractually-limited appointment and the opportunity to implement the pedagogical knowledge I had accumulated over the past five years was tremendous. So was the pressure I felt to reinvent myself in the classroom! I had been successful in the past, but I readily admit that my teaching style had been fairly traditional. This time, I knew that I had to hold myself accountable to the teaching and learning principles that I value most, namely, that knowledge is co-constructed and that indeed our students come to the classroom with valuable insights and diverse experiences that shape how they understand the world. As such, my starting point could no longer be the conventional lecture.

What I realize now is that I didn’t have to change my teaching persona nor radically transform how I teach. What is very different, though, is what I actually do in response to my understanding of what learning is all about. I made small but significant changes in how I structure class time. Before each meeting with students, I spend a great deal of time developing activities designed to scaffold student learning and after class, I synthesize the knowledge produced by students with textbook information. Then, the following meeting starts with a short(ish) Power Point about that synthesis. I have also aligned my assessment tools with classroom practices by implementing, for example, collaborative tests in which students are asked to answer questions twice: once on their own, and then in small groups. I use immediate feedback assessment cards to enable students to find the answer to a question upon answering it, hence making assessment a collaborative learning activity in addition to a measure of individual performance.

Staying focused on my goals and making every teaching decision accordingly was the most difficult part of this career shift. One particular moment captures this challenge for me. We were in mid-November and my weekly prep was by now on a semi-automatic pilot. But after almost a two-week pause from teaching, due to a fall break and a teaching schedule condensed over two days, I finished prepping for class and reviewed what I had done only to start all over again, designing learning activities instead of a full set of lecture notes. For some reason, the gap in my teaching schedule had broken my new pattern and I was back to prepping and had I not reset my frame of mind, teaching like I did in the good old days.

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually, the confidence will follow.” – Actress and author Carrie Fisher

Other than this incident, things have run rather smoothly. In class, students are active and engaged, and most of them show up. I was a bit more nervous about implementing student-centred activities in my larger class, but it has been buzzing with conversations despite a space that’s a little too tight for group work. Yes, my 60 students manage just fine and I know now that size really doesn’t matter. They were a bit surprised in the beginning, but the types of activities I ask them to do quickly became predictable and comfortable. I was reassured to read in their weekly journal that, by and large, they enjoy this mode of learning and find it useful. I simply love it and would not go back to the conventional lecture despite the temptation to revert to my default mode when I am not making purposeful teaching decisions.

Before I close, allow me a digression. Recently, Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia, passed away, reminding us of the remarkable woman she had been. Now, when I return to my work as an educational developer at York University next summer, I will use her words, albeit in a different context, to convey what I think is most crucial about classroom engagement. Often, faculty members tell me they really, really appreciate the idea, but believe student-centred teaching would not work for their discipline, or for their number of students, or for our student population which expects and actually prefers passive learning, or that it is for the tutorial, or for… some other reason. Enriched by this year’s experience and downfall, I will be able to tell them with great conviction: “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually, the confidence will follow.”