Dreaded Question

Oh my gosh… the dreaded question… HOW DO YOU CREATE THIS KIND OF CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT, CHRISTINE? I think that students in higher education ask me this question because things are going well, so I do take it as a compliment. On the other hand, the course is not over yet and “this classroom environment” can radically change if we start getting too focussed on the outcome of GRADES or achievement. That’s when my “learning environment” erodes and likely to result in poor course evaluations because there is a clear incongruence to what I have designed and intended in my courses versus what the university designed and intended with final marks, transcripts, and ranking.

I will also admit, I don’t like this question. WHY? I don’t have an answer. I don’t have any explicit strategies that help me to implement or create a class that is collegial, community minded, and cohesive. Part of that involves the students and their willingness to participate. Why I hate answering this question is because I AM LEARNING. I am playing around to figure out what works and doesn’t work. I try to be explicit with my intentions but sometimes I forget some details, sometimes I don’t follow through on some of my intentions, and sometimes things just don’t work. I get fearful of that. I’ll own that because I do not intend on not landing the dismount perfectly, but learning involves trying, making mistakes, and recognizing my mistakes and doing something about it.

When I entered into higher education, I was guided by my curiosity of BC’s New Curriculum and it’s intentions. I taught in BC public schools for 16 years and left it due to misalignment in pedagogy and purpose. I pursued a doctoral degree in leadership and served as a school trustee for two terms. I believed that K-12 schools could have been different. Something had to change. During my doctoral studies, I feel privileged to have worked on BC’s New Curriculum on the Math K-9 Curriculum Development Team and I am wholehearted about what this curriculum intends and hope for. I love the ideas of competency based learning, personalized learning, ongoing formative assessment, First Peoples Principles of Learning, and Indigenous Education in every course and every grade. I wanted to try out some of these ideas in higher education as a sessional.

Ever since teaching in higher education in three different institutions in teacher education and leadership, I have designed my courses around three principles or core beliefs:

    • I am focused on learning, not grading. This is a pedagogical shift for me in my 25-year career in education. Learning is ongoing and continuous. My job is to support, guide, and woo students to engage in learning to take agency and ownership of their own learning. Students can take or leave what I say. Everything we do in class leads up to the summative (or demonstration of learning). Nothing is final until its final (aka. the end of the course).
    • “Sense-making is not a solo affair.” I love that quote that came from one of my leadership books by Spillane, et al. From the constructivist point of view, learning is constructed and co-constructed with others. I love that learning can be dialogical, cooperative, and collaborative. I love saying, “sharing is caring” because there is no cheating when we are sense-making.
    • I think that I like this approach to learning because this is what I do as a learner. I learn experientially. Learning by doing. I also like Kolb’s experiential learning style theory (1974) where you start with a concrete experience, take a moment to reflect, reconceptualize with a new idea or approach, engage in active experimentation, then you’re back at the beginning of the cycle. I love reflection, I love action, and I love revising and trying again.

This may or may not be what students experience in other higher education course, but this framework is what BC’s New Curriculum hopes and looks for. I fantasize that I would be in a secondary math class again and have the joy and opportunity to try this framework with Grade 8-12 students. It would be super fun and I know that it works because I had many of these ideas and pedagogical approaches when I left teaching in public schools. What I love about implementing this framework in addition to delving into First Peoples Principles of Learning and Indigenous Education is, “there is no back row in this classroom.” That’s a quote from one of my online classes. This feedback tells me that this approach is not just a face-to-face phenomenon. This year, I am driven to learn more about culture in mathematics, decolonizing education, and unpacking my biases. I think in the end, I am guided by my own learning and my willingness to try and experiment. I am open to student input and I am steering my practice to be student-centred and student-led. And finally, I cannot get too engulfed or persuaded by the summative. The final grade is the demonstration of learning and if we did our job well, students should be able to achieve an “A” if we focus on their learning and progress.


  1. Love how you brought everything full circle. I’ve not met many who have designed their course with such conversation, inclusion and interactivity. Learning is a process and when we stop and really think what this means, it’s mind-boggling. It places assessment at its core, weaving it intricately between the fibers of time. In this light assessment is motivating and inspiring. Ownership becomes automatic.
    Thank YOU for being a learner and risk-taker. We need more of that out there.

  2. Thank you Janet for reading my blog, but also for your comment and feedback. Much appreciated. There is no end to this learning process and THAT took me some time to realize and learn. My own learning process for self is the design I’m creating for others. Will it work for everyone? No, probably not. But, what I do appreciate is providing different opportunities that extend beyond the lecture and final exam or paper. All the best to you… and happy teaching and learning. 🙂

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