Learning from each other

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Since the very beginning of my career, I have been lucky be surrounded by creative and seasoned experts on English language, literature, culture and didactics, willing to share their wisdom with me (as long as I knew (how) to ask), and observing my colleagues’ teaching and examination (and being observed) when possible, borrowing teaching materials and picking brains has formed a significant part of my professional development. In a hectic work life these helping hands and pickable brains (or “critical friends” (Handal, 2006)) have for the most part been informal and undocumented, but crucial and everlasting nonetheless.

The prime example of such informal learning for me is perhaps consistent collaboration and co-teaching. I have learnt and still am learning a lot from sharing courses with colleagues, which has been the norm for me since the start of my career. This always involves planning courses together, often involves discussing teaching, assignments, evaluations and assessment, and sometimes involves co-teaching classes together. This can be, as Monson and Kenyon (2018) discuss in their chapter “Co-teaching: Risks and rewards”, considered norm-violating and thus “risky”. However, I have rarely considered this to be a risky business. Through classes where my colleagues and I have played to each other’s strengths, and used our own dialogue as a tool, I have experienced how “co-teaching can pull students into an alternative understanding of learning as dialogic, lifelong, and joyful practice” (Monson & Kenyon, 2018, pp. 45-46). Co-teaching has so far served as a way of sharing ideas and gaining insight into different teaching practices. It has also offered a chance to share enthusiasm and love of the subject with my colleagues, and to display this more explicitly to our students.

Knowledge-exchange and observation of practices when co-supervising students on their BA and MA projects – both with colleagues who are more and less experienced supervisors than myself – have also resulted in changed practices for me. Perhaps most importantly, my peers have inspired me to change my feedback practices more generally towards dialogue and clear expectations, and away from (too) detailed/monologic instruction. This, I think, will contribute to a greater level of agency in my students, allowing more room for expressing their perspectives in their own voice, within the boundaries of the assignment they have been given (Kvithyld & Aasen, 2011). A more open feedback dialogue may also contribute towards letting students develop and cultivate their own “revision competence” (Kvithyld & Aasen, 2011).

A few notable experiences from the more formal arenas for knowledge and experience sharing have also made me appreciate the value of these settings. Some of the ideas shared at a “coffee morning” initiated by the co-ordinator for our in-service courses made me reconsider my midterm evaluation practices considerably, moving away from the more static and individually written feedback forms, to a more dynamic classroom discussion. My colleagues gave me both the inspiration and the courage to deviate from my usual course of action, which was less a result of professional decision-making and more of a lack of conscious reflection. I had found some safety in the usual course of action, and I recognise Hammerness and colleagues’ description of such “attempts to ‘unlearn’ the efficient set of routines” as “difficult and emotionally painful”, where “teachers may initially become less efficient than previously, as they let go of techniques that have been comfortable and well practiced for them” (Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, Bransford, Berliner, Cochran-Smith, McDonald, & Zeichner, 2005, p. 363). The change ultimately resulted in an evaluation process that proved more meaningful and motivating than I had experienced before, both to me and to the students.

Find two examples of midterm evaluation processes that show this development here.

More recently, one of the attendees at a forum for master’s thesis supervisors across different fields at my university gave me the insight and inspiration needed to re-introduce and redevelop my use of model texts when teaching academic writing. These smaller communities of practice offer “images of the possible” (Hammerness et al., 2005, p. 386), useful both as guidance and as inspiration. They also provide important opportunities for “outside” perspectives (outside of the closest circle of colleagues), which can be important for developing a professional discourse around teaching practices (Handal, 2006, p. 246).

A prominent voice in a teaching community of practice is of course also the students. I agree with Baine (2004) that while it can be challenging in more ways than one, teachers in higher education should aspire to learn “about these particular students at this particular time and their particular sets of aspirations, confusions, misconceptions and ignorance” (p. 174). Drawing on my experiences from outside the academic context, such as volunteering as an adviser for international couples navigating Norway’s complicated immigration policies, has helped me become a more open and perceptible communicator, allowing me to better connect with individual students. The families I met taught me new ways of taking in others’ perspectives, particularly across languages and cultures, which is in many ways at the core of teaching.

–> 5. Work in progress

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