Flipped Leadership

I’ve been in my new job for 5 months – Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Senior Advisor for Learning Initiatives at UBC Okanagan. Like everyone new to a campus, I’m learning how things work, who does what, where things are, and that will continue. What’s entirely new for me is being a leader and manager.

I’m participating in a great leadership and management training program. I’m learning a lot about different leadership styles. Our new university president, Santa Ono, describes himself as a “servant leader” and he’s been doing an amazing job making himself visible and available, responding to people, and using his position to recognize the success of the people around him, especially on Twitter as @ubcprez.

(Image freeiconspng.com, animation Peter Newbury)

(Image freeiconspng.com
animation Peter Newbury)

I’ve been developing a different approach. I certainly didn’t invent it but I like to think it comes from my uncommon trajectory of moving into leadership after an intense experiences teaching in an evidence-based, active, flipped classroom. Flipped learning is an approach to teaching that recognizes the incredible value of students working together to solve, analyze, explore, critique, invent,…and that time together in class is precious. In flipped learning, the instructor guides students through a set of tasks to be completed before class – learning background information, examining graphs/diagrams/artifacts/simulations that will be used in class, practicing techniques and skills on introductory problems, recognizing their own relevant strengths and experiences – all things students are entirely capable of doing successfully on their own. In class, the lesson can immediately dive into collaborative, conceptually-challenging discussions and other activities without wasting any time with the transfer from instructor to students of information available elsewhere.

Many of my colleagues are using this flipped learning approach in their first- and second-year undergraduate classes. I highlight “undergraduate” to emphasize the vast difference between the novice students and expert instructor. As hard as instructors try to create opportunities for their students to contribute, the flow of information and expertise is mostly in one direction. “Well, of course,” you’re thinking. “That’s what teaching is about.” And it describes the teaching I did before moving San Diego in 2012.

At UC San Diego, I had the privilege of teaching a course about teaching and learning to graduate students and postdocs. My first attempts followed the expert-teaches-novices approach. Over the 4 years I taught the course, I learned to recognize and then leverage the incredible knowledge, skills, and experience these graduate students and postdocs brought to our classroom. I learned to create opportunities for them to contribute their strengths to our learning community. They learned from each other. They learned from me. I learned from them. They brought skills, knowledge, and experiences to our classroom that I’d never heard of. A big part of “creating opportunities” was flipping the learning so the students had time before class to gather information and recognize their own expertise.

Here’s the thing: those graduate students and postdocs had knowledge that I needed, that we needed, and our class provided me with an way to draw it out of them.

That realization – they have knowledge that I need – is the foundation of my nascent model of flipped leadership. Let me give you a couple of examples so I can help myself remember what happened:

Designing a 400-Seat Classroom

There’s a new building going up here, an expansion of the Library to include many more informal learning spaces for students to gather and work together. There will also be a formal learning space: a 400-seat classroom, the largest on campus. I’m in the group tasked with designing the classroom – it’s really exciting and I can’t wait to see (and assess) the learning that happens in that room. One of my tasks was gathering feedback on the preliminary design from a group of faculty members chosen by the Provost and Deans because of their experience and expertise around teaching large classes. Ten faculty, me, the team of architects, and some IT and A/V folks would meet for 90 minutes.

Here’s what I could have done. I could have brought the faculty together and unveiled the classroom design right before their eyes, getting them excited and inspired about what could happen in that room.

But this isn’t about inspiration – they’re dedicated instructors who have already committed to giving feedback about the new classroom. I needed their thoughtful analysis of the design, not their buy-in to the project. So I flipped the meeting. With input from others in the working group, I created a PPT presentation containing the plans for the classroom. To help them prepare for the meeting, I explicitly pointed out the features we designed into the classroom to support collaboration – features they may have missed because they were unfamiliar with how to read the architectural plan or because of the overwhelming amount of information in the plan. I primed them with a few questions, too, like,

What kind of teaching do you envision happening here?

The large size of the room means it would be difficult for students to read the whiteboards at the front of the classroom. How important is it to have whiteboards?

I didn’t show this presentation at the meeting. Instead, I sent it out as a PDF a few days before we met. I used that email to inspire and excite them to come to the meeting.

At the meeting, my educator skills kicked in hard. I moved around the boardroom tables so we could all see eye-to-eye. I made 11 x 17 handouts of the architectural plan so everyone had something to examine and annotate. I did not start with a presentation that showed them things they already knew. After introductions – it’s important to know who’s in the room, why they’re there, and what expertise they bring – we dove straight into the discussion. I used all of my facilitation and learning community skills: calling everyone by name, constantly watching for body language when someone signals they have something to add, keeping a speaker’s list so the loudest people don’t dominate. I even tossed in “turn to your neighbour and talk about XYZ for a few minutes.” It was exhausting.

Part way through that meeting, I had a revelation that I’m sure I’ll carry with me for a long time. With this position and title of Senior Advisor for Learning Initiatives, I’ve been granted a bit of authority by my colleagues.  With this privilege, they gather together when I call, they come prepared, and they allow me to facilitate the conversation. I’m a little overwhelmed, and definitely honoured, by the trust they put in me that this time together will be valuable and productive.

By the end of the meeting, we’d identified some important characteristics of the classroom and they were excited about the space. The lead architect confided later that she’d never been in a meeting with faculty as successful as this one.

Meeting with the Deans Council

Like many Centers for Teaching and Learning, we run workshops about teaching and learning…and no one comes. It’s apparent that faculty members do not find attending these “one and done” events a valuable use of their precious time. I get it.

I’m working on a series (a campaign?) of events to better support teaching and learning. I’ll save the details for another post. In order to make these events valuable in the eyes of the participants, I need support and promotion from the Deans of each Faculty. I was added to the agenda of the monthly meeting of the Deans Council. The Provost (my boss) who chairs the meeting suggested I write something about my presentation that she’d send out before the meeting.

So here are my options: I write a short email to tell them I have something really exciting to share at the meeting. I carefully craft (and maybe rehearse) a pitch, following well-known symptom-problem-solution or past-present-future arguments. When it’s my turn to talk, I pitch the idea and get their feedback.


I carefully craft a long email, using symptom-problem-solution or past-present-future arguments, laying out all the details of my proposed plan, and ending with, “I really need your input on how we pitch this to the community. I look forward to hearing your ideas.” They read the email before the meeting. When it’s my turn to talk, I say, “Well, what you think?”

No surprise here: I went with the second option. I spoiled the engagement and/or excitement of hearing my pitch. Instead, I gave them all the information and time to think so they could ask probing questions and contribute thoughtful feedback to our discussion.

They have what I need

You see, whether I’m “managing up” to the Deans, “managing down” to the team in my centre, or collaborating with peers, the audience has knowledge, skills, and experience that I need. My job is to draw it out of them so I can work with it myself or so I can empower them to contribute their strengths to the project. That’s the kind of flipped leadership I’m trying to practice. And practice.

It’s remarkably similar to how I strive to teach. So I guess I was wrong, 1600 words ago, when I said being a leader and manager is entirely new for me.

Final notes

  1. Am I concerned the people in those meetings, and future meetings, will read this and recognize how I operate? Nope, not at all. Just like in the classroom, transparency is critical for engagement and contribution. You can’t just tell students how to do something, especially something unexpected. You have to tell them why they’re doing it, too. I have no problem following the same principle in my leadership.
  2. I’m excited to add a new category, flipped leadership, to this blog and hashtag #flippedleadership to my Twitter feed. I’m looking forward to using these spaces to reflect on and share this entirely new trajectory in my career. And to hearing from you about your leadership and management experiences and approaches.
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The hardest part of teaching?

Today was the faculty and staff Welcome Back BBQ at UBC Okanagan. My Centre for Teaching and Learning had an information table among 25 or so other campus organizations. Always on the lookout to inject a little interaction and teaching and learning, I set up a laptop and i>clicker gear to survey my new colleagues about teaching:

Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)

Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)

Lots of people stopped at our table to talk, both faculty and staff. Many had heard of clickers but this was their first time ever holding one and clicking. It was really interesting to hear people say, “All of the above!” and then struggle to select one answer. Which is the point of a good peer instruction question – to make you stop and think carefully and deliberately so you decide for yourself which answer to select.

I was pleased by the results:

Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

Here’s what I’m thinking about the responses and how my Centre can respond:

A) knowing the material (selected by 18% of the respondents)
It’s true that the instructor needs to know the material. That’s why they were hired/selected to teach the content, after all. What my Centre can add is “pedagogical content knowledge”, that is, knowledge about how people learn the content. For example, we can let an instructor know which topics students struggle with and what are the common misconceptions. We can help the instructor see through their expert blindness.
B) preparing the lessons (21%)
No question that preparing lessons (and the bigger task of designing the course) is hard. There’s nothing my Centre can do to create time for an instructor to prep but we can help make that time productive. We promote the “backward” approach to planning a course by 1) establishing learning outcomes, 2) creating summative and formative assessments aligned to those outcomes, and 3) selecting instructional strategies and education technologies to support the outcomes and assessment. I tell anyone who’ll listen that investing your time in creating learning outcomes pays off many times over. That’s where I recommend people spend time.
C) speaking in front of a group (4%)
As important and critical as this is, public speaking isn’t something my Centre teaches. Sure, we all have experience in front of groups and can offer our own advice but we’re not experts. And, it turns out, people aren’t so concerned about this. Whew.
D) connecting and interacting with students (32%)
This is the answer I pick. There’s technology and templates and guidance for making the other answers easier. Connecting and interacting with students in a meaningful way, which to me means recognizing each student as an individual with their own strengths, that’s hard. It requires sparking a relationship the moment they walk through the door on the first day and then every day, building and maintaining that trust. I distilled some great advice from another group of colleagues about connecting with your diverse collection of students. My Centre is always ready to have conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and learning communities.
E) keeping up with the marking (25%)
Ahh, yes, marking. When there’s a lot to do, it’s a circle of Hell. And my Centre isn’t going to do it for you. But we’re ready to help instructors re-imagine and re-design their assessment techniques so that in the limited amount of time available, they can provide formative feedback that supports learning. Maybe that means getting the computer to autograde multiple-choice, not because multiple-choice is a such a good tool but because that could free up time to mark short- and long-answer questions. Maybe there’s a way students evaluate each others’ work. Maybe it’s better to ask fewer, but more probing, questions. My Centre’s goal isn’t to help instructors find ways to do the same marking faster but rather, to help create different assessments.

All in all, I’m really pleased with the responses I got from my colleagues today. And by the enthusiasm for, and recognition of, excellence in teaching and learning.

What do you find the hardest? And what choices should I put on the survey next year?

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Getting to know you

Every one of our students brings their own identity – age, gender, ability, language, ethnic background, orientation, experiences, knowledge, skills. You want to recognize and support and build on each student’s strengths but how do you support one student without accidentally alienating others?

I recently had an opportunity to draw out the experiences of more than 100 colleagues, every one of them leaders in their higher education communities, at the June 2016 meeting of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) Network at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Before I get to their advice, a quick story of how this came to be.

The CIRTL Network recently expanded from 23 to 46 institutions and this meeting would be the first time everyone was together. Bob Mathieu, Director of the Network, asked me to run some kind of “getting to know you” icebreaker early on the first day of the meeting. I’m a big fan of icebreakers, maybe not as a student (I hated it when my professors did anything like this) but definitely as an instructor. Icebreakers let you kickstart the learning community you’re going to spend the next 6, 10, 13, 16,… weeks building, maintaining, and relying on in your class. In my opinion, icebreakers are also an opportunity to introduce students to the kinds of thinking, communicating, and collaborating they’ll be doing for the rest of the course. In other words, yes, I’d do an icebreaker at the CIRTL meeting. But it has to be meaningful. Authentic. Inclusive. Valuable. I came up with an idea and I’m  grateful and honoured by the trust Bob put in me to go ahead and push my new colleagues, potentially upsetting some of them:

The rest of this post is divided into 3 parts:

  1. A detailed description of the jigsaw activity, mostly so I can remember what I did because I’d really like to do it again. I’ve written about jigsaw activities before so if you’re not familiar with them, you might want to take a look.
  2. A summary of the remarkable input I received from my 100+ colleagues.
  3. The documents and other resources I used, in case you want to try something like this yourself.

1. Exploring student diversity

In a jigsaw, recall, participants first build/refresh their knowledge of one particular case or example from a collection (like a collection of 4 artists, 5 calculus/integration problems, 6 National parks,…) Then they gather in groups containing one representative of each case or example to share what they know and learn from others.

For the CIRTL meeting, the examples were 6 students you might encounter in your class:

Six different students you might encounter in your classroom. For the purposes of the jigsaw activity, notice they're colour-coded (so people with white or salmon or blue sheets can easily find each other and then rearrange into one-of-each-colour groups) and the students names begin A, B, C, D, E, F so people (with colour blindness) can also find each other by letter. (Screenshot from a document by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Six students you might encounter in your classroom. For the purposes of the jigsaw activity, notice they’re colour-coded (so people with white or salmon or blue sheets can easily find each other and then rearrange into one-of-each-colour groups) and the students names begin A, B, C, D, E, F so people (with colour blindness, say) can also find each other by letter.
(Screenshot from a document by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Each meeting participant was assigned to one of these students according to which  coloured worksheet they found in their meeting information packet. The meeting room was set up with tables with 6 chairs, with a coloured/lettered sign on each table. As participants entered the room, they sat at a table with their colour/letter/student.

In Part 1 of the jigsaw, I asked everyone to take 10 minutes to introduce themselves to their new colleagues and then reach consensus on the advice they’d give to a new instructor to

  1. assure their particular student they’re welcome to contribute to the class
  2. build on that student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences
  3. what not to do

When I said, “…You’ve got 10 minutes. Go!” the room flipped from hesitant, anxious silence to loud, engaged, boisterous conversations. It was great!

As we approached 10 minutes, I reminded everyone to write down their group’s best advice on their worksheets [available below] so they’d have notes/reminders when they moved to Part 2 of the jigsaw. At 10 minutes, everyone re-arranged themselves into one-of-each-student groups (quickly and easily accomplished because of the coloured/lettered paper: look for a group without your colour and sit there!)

I asked them to introduce themselves to 5 more new colleagues and then take turns addressing each of the 3 prompts — assuring students they’re welcome, building on their diverse contributions, and what not to do. Notice I didn’t ask them to go around with the advice for their students, one after another. That would invite each person to talk once, for a while, and then not contribute again. And the representative of the last student might not have time. (Similarly, you’d ask your students to take turns describing the medium preferred by each artist, not all about Picasso, then all about Rodin, then…) I gave them about 20 minutes — many more conversations this time!

In Part 2 of the jigsaw, participants took turns sharing their advice about each student and listening to others. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

In Part 2 of the jigsaw, participants took turns sharing their advice about each student and listening to others.
(Photo: Peter Newbury)

At the end, I asked them to hand-in their worksheets with all their advice and notes and ideas. My plan was try to summarize what they discussed and report back the next day.

In terms of an icebreaker, I think this worked really well. There was no way anyone would be able to introduce themselves to 100 others with any chance of remembering anything. Instead, I opted for deeper, memorable connections with 10 new colleagues. The jigsaw activity met my other criterion, too, that the activity would engage them in an authentic, meaningful discussion, because teaching people to recognize and celebrate the diversity of their audiences is one of CIRTL’s core ideas.

2. So what did they say?

My colleagues wrote 2400 words in 420 responses on their worksheets. I know, I know, I should have approached these data clean and unbiased, ready to let them speak for themselves. Realistically, though, I wasn’t going to be able to properly analyze the responses in the time between Day 1’s conference dinner and the start of Day 2.

I needed a strategy in order to get something done. So I cheated and when looking for the presence (or absence) of something:

What I hoped NOT to find was special advice for students of colour, special advice for students with disabilities, and so on for each student, even if that advice seemed helpful. Why not? Because I fear that in carrying out those recommendations, an instructor would call out the students of colour, the students with disabilities, and each of the others and treat them differently:

“Alicia [the woman of colour], could you tell us what a black person would think of this?”

“Brian [who needs a laptop], you come sit down here at the front where you won’t distract other students with your laptop”

Instructors trying to connect and support their students but may end up doing more damage than if they’d done nothing at all.

What I hoped for, and gloriously found, was the same advice on every worksheet, advice that supports all students and treats all students fairly:

what not to do

  • make assumptions
  • ignore them
  • ask them to speak on behalf of their race/culture

how to assure each student they’re welcome to contribute to the class

how to build on each student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences

  • have student highlight their own strengths, potential, life experiences
  • “build a community where students value others’ perspectives and listen to each other”

That last suggestion? Wow. If that was the ONLY sentence that came out of this 45-minute icebreaker activity, I’d call that a success.

The excellent news is you don’t need a huge toolbox of techniques, one for each student. Instead, the same behaviours and strategies — respect, acknowledgement, structure, equity — support every student.

3. My diversity jigsaw resources

If you have the opportunity to run a diversity-awareness workshop or discussion with instructors, and are interested in using a jigsaw approach, here are the resources I created for mine. They’re shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License so you’re welcome to adopt and adapt, with a link back to me, thanks.

  • worksheets (PDF) – Each participant received a coloured worksheet in their conference info packet
  • here are the slides I used

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