Shaping society by teaching

Image Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

Last week I attended the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) summer meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.  It was several days full of educational research, best practices and new ideas for teaching physics – which I could go on and on about (but don’t worry – I won’t).  I do want to share something that stuck with me from one of the plenary talks.  Edward Prather, who teaches very large (1500+ students) interactive astronomy classes, was talking about how he can affect students’ lives through his astronomy course.

At the beginning of his talk he asked the audience how satisfied we are with society.  The choices (which we responded to with flash cards) were:

A. completely happy

B. fairly satisfied, but some things could be better

C. very unhappy – things need to change

D. suicide watch

Star-Forming Region LH 95 in the Large Magellanic Cloud

I imagine you can guess how the audience responded – I don’t think there was a single A in the room.  He reminded us that as educators, we have the opportunity to profoundly effect the lives of our students.  Edward is in the lucky position to teach Astronomy, a topic that almost everyone is interested in (as a result, he gets over 1000 students in one course!)  There is something about seeing pictures of the universe that really make you examine the life you lead.  But regardless of the field you teach in – you have the ability to shape the lives of hundreds of students each year! Teaching them to think for themselves, examine the facts, and push boundaries will results in well-rounded, intelligent citizens – the kind of people we want running our cities, financial institutions, hospitals and raising the next generation.

I can’t do his inspiring talk justice, but I left feeling empowered and it reminded me of why I wanted to teach in the first place.  And I hope this post prompts you to think about what, beyond the curriculum, you are teaching your students.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Resiliency in the Classroom – Martin Smith

For some reason the other day I was thinking about an old friend from my undergraduate days who once said to me, “I really don’t think I’m smart enough to do well in school.”  As a result of this memory, I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon what it means to be resilient in the classroom.  For The Power of Resilience authors Brooks and Goldstein, resilience is the ability to adapt under different situations with a positive mindset(1).  To simplify their model, they suggest resilience occurs when we can each identify negative mindsets in our life, set goals to change a negative mindset and replace the negative mindset with a positive one in order to meet our goals.  But how does this translate into the classroom?  What does it mean to be a resilient student?
If we apply this to students, they are constantly adapting to new learning environments such as new classes as they progress through their studies towards the end of their degree.  Therefore, to me, a resilient student must be someone who can readily adapt to new unfamiliar topics and set goals to understand them. If, for example, a math student thinks, “I am bad at statistics…” how will this mindset influence their ability to succeed in the classroom when they have to take a new statistics class? If you were to compare this against a similar student that enters the class with a positive outlook I think most people would agree that the math student with the negative mindset is more likely to quit when faced with adversity because they believe they are bad at statistics. On the other hand, the student with a positive outlook will be more likely to succeed.  It makes me wonder exactly how common this type of negative mindset really is.  Hopefully if we are privy to them, situations where negative mindsets have taken hold will become obvious and we can help students find positive mindsets to achieve their goals.
I’m happy to say my friend has gone on to successfully defend her MSc and is now doing well in medical school.  Apparently, she found her resilience!
(1) Brooks, R. and Goldstein, S. The Power of Resilience: achieving balance, confidence and personal strength in your life. (2004) McGraw-Hill, USA.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

The 360 Degrees Feedback- a way to excel in your Career- Samar Mohamed

In a previous CTE blog titled Musings on feedback, Gina Passante presented some thoughts about different kinds of feedback such as the feedback she provides to grad students, the feedback she receives on her research presentations and the feedback that students provide to instructors in the course evaluations. All these feedback formats are useful but they are all one directional and may lead to misinterpretation and defensiveness even with critisizm meant to be constructive .
Gina’s blog posting reminded me of a session that I enjoyed during the 2011 University of Waterloo Staff Conference. The title of the session was “Excel in your Career” and was facilitated by Liz Koblyk (Centre for Career Action) . During this session Liz talked about four main keys to excel in our careers which are: Emotional Intelligence, Feedback, Connectedness and Accountability.
While talking about feedback, Liz suggested that we better acquire feedback outside of the performance appraisal process and from a range of people. Liz proposed some interesting ideas that would make the feedback process among peers more fruitful, and she suggested that we:

  • Request feedback often.
  • Ask carefully about what to “start –stop –continue” doing.
  • Thank without defending.
  • Act on feedback.
  • Ask about our progress regarding the provided feedback [1].

Liz also highlighted some challenges for the feedback process such as:

  • If the work is good; there is no need for feedback.
  • Feedback may hurt and improvement may be tough to accomplish.

Liz talked briefly about an interesting method that merges both the recommendations of getting feedback and a solution to it’s challenges, which is the 3600 feedback method.

What is 360 degrees feedback?

The 360 degrees feedback method is a multi-rater technique that is used to gather and process anonymous feedback on individuals from different stakeholders such as peers, supervisors, other supervisors, partners, clients, and one’s self; and then feeding back the results to the recipients [1]. Typically, 3600 reviews are conducted by Human Resources departments for upper level staff, but anyone can conduct their own version of a 3600 feedback.

What are the stages of the 360 degrees feedback?

A typical 360 degrees process that would focus on self awareness and development involves different stages or questions to be answered:

1-   What is the purpose of the feedback process?
The two main reasons of performing this kind of feedback process are employee development and performance evaluation. In this blog my main focus is on employees’ development.

2-   What is the suggested tool to perform the feedback?
A typical tool consists of questionnaires that are filled out by different stakeholders (raters). For the purpose of this blog, I would point out that there are some free 360 degrees tools that are available online.

3-   Who are the stakeholders (raters)?
Typically the feedback recipient chooses approximately ten raters who are mainly: manager, other manager, self, subordinates, peers, partners, internal clients and external customers.

4-   Questionnaire distribution
I suggest that one inspects the available online tools and selects the tool that best fits one’s needs. He/she would send out the link of this questionnaire to the raters and assure them that the questionnaire is voluntarily and anonymous.

5-   Thanking the raters for their feedback.

What are the advantages of the 360 degrees feedback [1]:

1-   It can build more effective work relationships, increase one’s opportunity to evolve, reveal and resolve conflicts and show respect for raters’  opinions. This will function to  build better teams and detect barriers to success.
2-   The 3600 feedback data will be resonably valid since it comes from diverse sources.
3-   The recipient’s self awareness will increase by identifying and addressing one’s weaknesses and highlighting strengths that one can build upon. This is an important step in the career development process.
4-   The use of the 3600 feedback method allows peers/co-workers to praise or criticise their colleagues anonymously.

I really liked the idea of 3600 feedback and intend to adopt it in order to progress in my career. I also encourage people to learn more about the process and to try it out.


1-   Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”, Hyperion; ISBN: 1401301304 ,2007

2-   Alma M. McCarthy and Thomas N. Garavan, “Understanding 3600 feedback”, Journal of European Industrial Training, 2001, pages 5-32.

Conflict – Veronica Brown


“What was the most significant learning you have experienced or witnessed in your lifetime?”

That was a question posed yesterday by Ashlee Cunsolo Willox and Dale Lackeyram during their presentation at the Teaching & Learning Innovations conference at the University of Guelph. In pairs, we chatted away about some significant learning we had experienced and, as teachers, what we had witnessed. Then, we had a large group discussion about these experiences.

Before I continue, you are probably wondering what that question has to do with conflict. I wondered that, too, as their presentation was entitled, “You’re Stuck with Them: Now What? Managing and Maintaining Conflict in Group Settings”.

After participants shared some of the learning they had experienced or witnessed, Ashlee and Dale drew our attention to the role conflict had played in these experiences. The level had varied; some were intense, emotional events while others’ conflict was intrapersonal as they questioned themselves, their convictions, and their perception. conflict birds image

I really enjoyed their presentation, which then focused on the value of conflict and its role in group work. For me, the most important take-away was a reminder of how conflict can be a powerful catalyst for change. I witnessed its transformative power a few weeks ago at the Teaching Excellence Academy (TEA), a four-day workshop in which participants re-design a single course. At the TEA, participants spent four days wrestling with themselves. What did they really want their students to get from this course? Why were they teaching it a certain way? How would they address external variables over which they had little control? Why had they come to the TEA and what were they trying to accomplish? It is an intense period of reflection.

Conflict, of course, also has as much potential to destroy as to transform. How, then, do we support our students as they deal with the conflict associated with their learning? In our professional lives, how do we support our colleagues as they face new challenges? How do we support ourselves? These are questions that I am wrestling with at the moment.

I was grateful to be reminded that conflict, rather than something to be avoided, can be productive and meaningful.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Peter Jensen: Igniting the Third Factor — Shirley Hall

When I was asked yesterday to write something for today’s blog, thoughts rushed through my mind, the first being ” Oh my gosh, what will I write about? The second – it needs to be something, profound – worldly even. The third thought was – yikes!  I can’t do it, and I have no time. Then, fear set in.All these thoughts raced by in a few seconds as I was checking my email between sessions of the OHD Staff Conference yesterday. It simultaneously occurred to me that I could simply write about my experience of attending the conference. Great! I was in a hurry to get back and hear the next speaker. But why?  Why was I in such a hurry

Well, I wanted to hear the second speaker simply because the first speaker had been so inspiring. I love learning, love listening to people speak and share about their passions. For an hour I was able to be the student with Peter Jensen, my teacher.  What inspired me about Peter Jensen’s talk? So much, and there is not enough space for many details here, so I encourage you to find out a bit more. Talk to someone who attended his talk. Or read his book, Igniting the Third Factor. (I won’t spoil it for those of you who did not have the chance to hear his lecture – I will let you find out for yourself what that “third factor” is).  In brief, he described “Igniters” as those who take on the fulfilling mandate of making others better.

What I found memorable is the way in which Peter spoke, his approach.  He spoke of people, events, life. I could relate to the stories he shared, how people felt, and therefore, I was engaged.  He spoke of the importance of getting to know yourself, becoming self- aware, to take time to learn about your limiting beliefs, (our “blocks”) and to learn to exercise self-control.  Then, take conscious action to manage yourself, understand your impact on others – (to borrow one of his many quotes “Manage yourself so others won’t have to. – John Wooden).

As he spoke, the distance between where I sat and where he stood on the stage began to shrink.  His talk became comfortable. Like sharing stories over coffee. He spoke of himself, (we got to know him as a person, just recovering from cancer) of famous people, events and situations, in a profoundly moving and meaningful way. He shared the emotional journey of how to work through adversity, and embrace it. Make it your best teacher. He spoke about how people felt (himself included) when faced with challenges. I can identify with that. I do not know what it is like to be an Olympic athlete, preparing for the Olympic Games, but I do know what it FEELS like when I think I have failed in some way, (usually  to meet my own expectations of myself).  I could relate to and identify with the feelings of those athletes, and therein was the connection, once again. The one common denominator was the shared human experience.

I will take the ideas that Peter spoke about and do my best to apply them to my life; in the classroom, with co-workers, family and friends. Peter‘s talk has inspired me to imagine more, play more, dream more. I am going to my best to “become an agent of conscious choice” around my own personal development. I hope in some small way I might inspire others to do the same.

As Peter showed us… in the end, all you have left is the person – Doug Leigh.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

“If You Know — Teach!” — Mark Morton

After Christmas, my wife and I took our kids (ages 13 and 15) for a week-long trip to New York City. We went to a few of the usual tourist attractions (like the Statue of Liberty) but we also tried to visit some sites that were off the beaten track, including Harlem. Like many people, my impression of Harlem was shaped in the 1970s Continue reading “If You Know — Teach!” — Mark Morton

The Process of Metamorphosis: From Our Little University Dream to Reality – Michael Chan, CTE Co-op Student

There is nothing more fundamental in the progress of life than the people you care about. Originally, my plan for the future was to study hard in school, get my degree, probably go on to get a masters, work for a company for 4-5 years, and then start my own business. A typical plan previous generations followed which has worked out pretty well for them. Continue reading The Process of Metamorphosis: From Our Little University Dream to Reality – Michael Chan, CTE Co-op Student