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Teaching Squares

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Teaching Squares," as the program is known, serves multiple good ends, costs almost nothing and has succeeded not only in building community across disciplines, but also in embedding serious, ongoing discussion of teaching into the campus culture.


The posting below looks at a unique approach to peer review of teaching. It is by James Rhem, executive editor and publisher of the National Teaching and Learning Forum (NT&LF) and is number 21 in a series of selected excerpts from the newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, MONTH, YEAR, Volume 13, Number 1, ? Copyright 1996-2004. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Learning by Doing

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Teaching Squares


------------------------------------- 930 words --------------------------------

James Rhem, Executive Editor


Egos-what would we do without them? They form the foundation stones of achievement and the mortar first to crumble at hints of criticism's bleaching rays. Or so it often seems. The trick with egos lies in finding ways to frame their interplay away from combat and toward something organically constructive. The matter of tending egos-encouraging their positive development-always comes into play when the matter of faculty peer evaluation comes up as it did at St. Louis Community College a few years back.

Anne Wessely, chair of the accounting department at the Meramec campus in Kirkwood, was leading a committee looking into peer evaluation. She recalls: "We were sitting around and we had the hedonists, the relationship builders, and the task-oriented people just as you usually do. The relationship builders were saying 'we just meet to get together,' and the task-oriented people were talking about peer evaluation and were thinking of a developing formal component for our evaluation system." As the discussion went on, problems with peer evaluation systems that had been tried elsewhere emerged, and out of confronting those evolved a non-judgmental, evaluative process that fosters serious reflection about teaching in general and in context. "Teaching Squares," as the program is known, serves multiple good ends, costs almost nothing and has succeeded not only in building community across disciplines, but also in embedding serious, ongoing discussion of teaching into the campus culture.

Swing Your Partner

Wessely, architect and hitching post (if not linchpin) of the process, delights in its simplicity and especially in its success. Seventy-five percent of those who participate in the program once elect to participate again. "Let's be honest," says Wessely, "when you hold a general afternoon meeting on 'good teaching,' people aren't very motivated. Teaching Squares is task-oriented from the start and there's no subtext stuff involved."

A small introductory booklet (posted as ancillary material at lists the "cornerstones" of the program as :

Reciprocity and Shared Responsibility, Appreciation, Self Referential Reflection, Mutual Respect,

and describes the program this way: "The Cornerstones of Teaching Squares are those critical attitudes and behaviors that, when exhibited by all participants, create a safe, mutually-supportive, energizing environment for sharing the joys and challenges of teaching." The program focuses on the fruits of observation and reflection, but "It is NOT an opportunity to improve a Square Partner's teaching." Well, not directly. The booklet continues: "By keeping our observations self-focused we avoid any hint of evaluation or judgment that could contribute to a climate of defensiveness and suspicion."

The Steps

Direct, concrete experience derived from focused observation keeps the program from veering toward a series of feel-good sessions. Everyone has done some (though not too much) work. Everyone has something specific and new (to them) to reflect on, and the structure of the process keeps the focus on the challenge of good teaching.

The process-which takes only seven weeks with an average of one hour per week spent by each participant-goes like this:

Week 1: Participants meet together for a kickoff organizational meeting where the four members of each square become acquainted. The squares have been previously assigned by a program administrator with an emphasis on cross-disciplinary visits in mind.

Weeks 2 - 4: Square participants arrange to visit each other's classes. Each makes three visits and each is visited three times. They record their observations for later reflection.

Week 5: In week five, participants reflect on what they've seen and thought about during their three visits (and three experiences in being visited).

Week 6: In week six, participants have their "Square Share," in which the four meet to share "personal, positive observations." Each Square has a chair who, when necessary, stirs the fire of discussion.

Week 7: Week seven projects the intimate experience of week six onto a wider stage as all participants meet together again and share their observations at a final party. (As everyone knows, cookies and white wine make a party in academe.)

Who Do You Leave With?

The visits can't hope to allow comprehensive evaluation since the disciplines and contexts vary so widely, but that's part of the point. Those being visited are encouraged to provide peer visitors with a copy of their syllabus, a comment on why students are taking that particular course, and a summary of the major teaching goals for the course, ranging from higher-order thinking to basic academic skills and so on. Some participants actually visit a partner's class more than once with his/her permission. Seeing the variety of contexts and challenges inevitably leads to fuller appreciation of the talent and commitment to good teaching already in place on campus at the same time that it inevitably spurs thoughts of how one's own teaching might be improved in one's own context.

"There are limits to what you can be in charge of," says Wessely. "You can't make magic happen, but you can put peers into a situation where magic might happen. Some participants bond strongly; others not. Many come back to repeat the experience; others go on their way."

Administration likes the program not only because it costs five dollars or less per person (for cookies and photocopying), but also because it costs so little in administrative time (15-20 hours to administer the program; 7-10 hours of involvement by each participant). They like it most, however, for the same reasons participants do: it builds morale and actually improves teaching on campus without anyone stepping on anyone else's toes.


Anne Wessely

Associate Professor

Accounting Department

St. Louis Community College

11333 Big Bend Blvd. Kirkwood, MO 63122

Telephone: (314) 984-7509