The Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) Nov 27-29, 2013

I was perusing the Teaching Commons website early in the Fall 2013 term when I came across the Instructional Skills Workshop. Even though I have mixed feelings about workshops as a genre (my critique of workshops is analogous to Edward Tufte's critique of powerpoint - there is a "cognitive style of workshops" that, if you get too much of it, can be numbing and painful), I signed up. Maybe it's Bruce Lee's influence, but I am an advocate of taking ideas from wherever they exist, and evaluating them to see whether they are useful in a different context. As a result, I often shelve my critiques and try something out, and can often get something interesting out of it.

In the case of the Instructional Skills Worshop (ISW), though, I got a great deal. I have been teaching in some or other capacity since being a teenage peer tutor and summer camp counsellor, so I have experience. I also read a lot about education (my favourites being of course Paulo Freire and more recently Alfie Kohn) so I have some familiarity with educational theory. I have also had fantastic teachers that I have tried to imitate, so I've had good examples. I think I'm a pretty good teacher, but I'd like to be really good, so I'm always trying to figure out how to get better.

How did the ISW help? In a couple of ways. The ISW is based on what they call the BOPPPS model. BOPPPS stands for Bridge-In, Objective, Pre-Assessment, Participatory Learning Activity, Post-Assessment, and Summary. This is the "workshoppy" part of the workshop, presented in a handy acronym. But even within this, there were ideas that were very useful for me. Having a learning objective for each lesson, for example, was something I hadn't thought of. I thought of learning objectives for a course, but mapping that on to lessons was done mostly by intuition instead of explicitly. Thinking of learning objectives in terms of what I want students to be able to do after the lesson, was another useful idea. If students know something new, they can probably do something new. So thinking about it in terms of what we want them to do can be a good focus for a lesson. Thinking about lessons as activities was another useful idea. Instead of thinking of a lesson as a digestible bit of content to present to students, think of a lesson as an activity for students to do - an interesting focus can come out of it. And thinking of doing assessment within the lesson, as opposed to waiting for tests and assignments, was again novel for me. I think that trying to think about all my lessons in this way will be fruitful.

The less "workshoppy" component to the ISW was even more valuable. With the other three great peers who were in the workshop and the facilitator Mandy Frake-Mistak, who was also excellent, we each taught a mini-lesson (10 minutes long) per day, using this BOPPPS model, and spent 40 minutes debriefing our lesson with feedback from our peers. So we got to practice three times and get feedback three times, with a day in between each to reflect and prepare for the next. This was a rare and very valuable opportunity for me. The things I want to work on for myself, besides the "learning objectives" thinking, have to do with one of my strengths (I'm pretty good on my feet) which I can sometimes turn into a weakness (by not doing sufficient preparation to make for a smoother experience for students). Taking the time to prepare good visuals (according to Edward Tufte and Michael Alley's principles, for example) as well as activities, will help me do better work.

In summary, I would recommend the ISW for anyone, really. Even if you are very good and well acquainted with whatever workshoppy fads are out there, the chance to practice your teaching with peers in this 3-day organized way will still be a huge benefit. If you haven't had much organized feedback on your teaching or had a chance to think about how you teach, this is a great and forgiving environment to do it in. It's a nice resource to have on campus, that there is someone trained to facilitate this. If you're a cynic about workshops, suspend your disbelief and give it a try!