Why instructors should learn from each other

Instructors who teach the same content have something valuable to offer that few others have: pedagogical content knowledge.

Content knowledge

Instructors who are experienced professionals in their field have a thorough understanding of the subject matter they teach. This is called their content knowledge. To upgrade or update their content knowledge, instructors can take industry training, go to work in their industry again for a period of time, attend a manufacturer demonstration or take a professional development course.

Pedagogical knowledge

Experienced instructors also have practical knowledge of how to teach. This is called their pedagogical knowledge. To upgrade or update their pedagogical knowledge, instructors can take workshops, courses and education in teaching.

Pedagogical content knowledge

Both content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge are important for teaching excellence. However, to truly teach a certain topic well, an instructor needs knowledge of how to teach a specific topic. This is why Lee Shulman introduced the term: pedagogical content knowledge. Shulman wrote:

Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one’s subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations- in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others. Since there are no single most powerful forms of representation, the teacher must have at hand a veritable armamentarium of alternative forms of representation, some of which derive from research whereas others originate in the wisdom of practice.

Pedagogical content knowledge also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific topics easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning of those most frequently taught topics and lessons. If those preconceptions are misconceptions, which they so often are, teachers need knowledge of the strategies most likely to be fruitful in reorganizing the understanding of learners, because those learners are unlikely to appear before them as blank slates.

(Shulman 1986 Shulman, L.S., 1986. Those who understand: knowledge growth in teaching. Educational researcher, 15, 4–14. 10.3102/0013189X015002004[Crossref][Google Scholar], p. 9)

An example of pedagogical content knowledge, is the knowledge required to teach students how to put an electrical circuit box together. Students should not only be able to connect certain colored wires with the right colors. They also need to know what happens when the wrong wires are connected, and why. Only instructors who have taught circuit boxes before know what the common mistakes are that students make, and how to guide students to a better understanding. This is why instructors who are bound to teach a course they have not taught before can best learn from fellow instructors who have taught this content before, by:

  • asking for teaching materials and advice
  • observing a colleague teach the course they will be teaching themselves
  • requesting peer feedback on self-developed assignments for the course
  • informal conversations on how to address common student questions and illustrate concepts

While most instructors will do this peer learning naturally, administrators can help by:

  • scheduling teaching in a way that allows instructors who are new to the course to observe colleagues with more experience with that course
  • provide a shared digital space for instructors to upload and download each others’ teaching materials
  • allow for and recognize the importance of informal conversations and positive work relations in the instructional team

Create Informal Learning Opportunities

How can we best support instructor learning at work?

In general: consider the instructors’ stage in their career: for instance, new instructors might need coaching and mentoring, while experienced teachers might need new challenges, such as teaching/developing a new course or serving as a mentor. You may also consider creating opportunities, removing barriers and inspiring learning.

Create opportunities

  • Job rotation: If possible, ensure that an instructors do not teach the same courses over and over again, change it up to encourage them to keep learning
  • Encourage collaboration on projects
  • Create an online repository for sharing teaching materials (for instance: sharedrive)
  • Encourage new instructors to audit more experienced instructors and discuss teaching practice
  • Create buddy system for new instructors
  • Ensure instructors have time in their schedules so they can meet and discuss their teaching
  • Have instructors present their best teaching assignment or strategy in staff meetings
  • Make sure course coordinators collect feedback from the other course instructors; ask them to share the feedback with the supervisor during PMP review
  • Seek out and share PD opportunities for instructors and encourage them to go, ask them to report what they learned after
  • Encourage instructors to participate in committees with instructors from other departments
  • Celebrate instructors’ accomplishments, both formal learning and accomplishments learned on the job

Remove barriers to workplace learning

(The biggest barriers to learning are 1) lack of time, 2) lack of proximity to resources (including colleagues) and 3) fear of being perceived as ‘less competent’ when asking questions.)

  • Create a culture of learning: where everyone acknowledges that everyone is still learning, and it’s ok to ask questions and ask for feedback
  • Be clear that the only behavior that qualifies as ‘less competent’ is pretending not to need to learn anymore
  • Reduce workload where possible
  • Ensure that instructors’ work spaces are close enough together so they can easily access each other for advice and discussion

Inspire learning

  • Appeal to instructors’ own motivation for their work
  • Show an interest in instructors’ own efforts to learn and grow
  • Encourage instructors to investigate the success of their current behavior
  • Present instructors with alternatives that might further improve their practice
  • If necessary, discuss with individual instructors the consequences of not learning
*Picture courtesy of Lars Ploughmann

Improve the Impact of Training on the Job

by Kathy Cocchio

Recently, I was reading Lancaster, Di Milia, and Cameron’s (2013) findings on supervisor behaviours that facilitate training transfer. Employees reported that training transfer was optimized when they felt involved in training decisions, and supported throughout the training sequence. As a result, the authors propose meaningful support prior, during, and after formal training—they call this the PDA model for supervisory support of workplace learning.

While I was reading this article, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d heard the term PDA before; Google quickly reminded me that PDA has long been used to refer to public displays of affection. That got me thinking about the public displays of affection for learning I initiate with my team and about how these actions might align with Lancaster, Di Milia, and Cameron’s (2013) PDA model, support training transfer, and be perceived by my team members.

Here are some public displays of affection (PDAs) for learning actions that I’ve integrated into my supervisory practice, sorted according to the PDA model, with some reflections on feedback I’ve received from team members.


To meaningfully contribute to a workplace culture that supports learning, to encourage staff to take ownership of their learning goals, and to enhance their capacity to support our departmental outcomes, I employ the following PDAs for learning throughout the year.

  • In team meetings, I make space for discussion and collaborative decision-making around training goals for the team as a whole, and for individual team members.
  • I regularly send out emails to the team identifying professional development opportunities and encouraging them to apply for funding support.
  • I send out emails to individual team members alerting them to professional development opportunities that I know align with their individual professional goals.
  • I maintain a developmental focus in performance evaluation and development conversations.

Team feedback on these PDAs has validated that my actions are perceived as meaningful, motivational, and helpful. However, I note that I have not made it a point to meet with staff prior to a training event to pointedly discuss course content, its value to our departmental outcomes, or my expectations. Lancaster, Di Milia, and Cameron’s (2013) findings suggest that this kind of meeting is perceived by staff as motivational. I will, therefore, consider this additional PDA in future practice.


In this stage of the training sequence, I enact the following PDAs to optimize conditions for learning:

  • I ensure ongoing, meaningful coverage of and/or suspension of responsibilities of team member’s portfolio while he/she is in training.
  • I initiate F-2-F or digital check-in’s to see how the training is going, what the highlights have been thus far, and whether any assistance would be helpful.
  • I provide encouragement: listening, coaching, and sharing stories as appropriate.
  • I send out links to articles related to the training event to demonstrate interest in and underscore the relevance of the training to our professional practice.

Lancaster and colleagues (2013) note that “Supportive supervisors were those that made themselves available to provide information, to discuss topics or listen and talk through ideas that required clarification” (p 16). It’s long been my belief that ensuring that team members can meaningfully participate as a whole learner—as opposed to one distracted by competing priorities—optimizes conditions for learning. Feedback from staff supports this assumption: staff have told me that my check-ins relieve some of the stress associated with learning, that not having to worry about what’s waiting for them at their desks enhances their cognitive presence in learning events, and that they appreciate my interest and hands-on care. AFTER

Post training PDAs are a critical component of my supervisory practice. To demonstrate my confidence in their ability to transfer their learning into our work context:

  • I initiate conversation about key learnings in training and possible impact on practice.
  • I provide opportunities for staff to use and continue to develop new skills.
  • I require staff to report in to our team, sharing highlights of training, key learnings, and possible implications for practice (either at a team meeting or in a document). I make it safe to be real about any shortcomings in the training, or to challenge existing practices.

These actions align with Lancaster, Di Milia, and Cameron’s (2013) recommendation that “…supervisors to create a supportive work culture that provides participants with the confidence to try new work behaviours” (p. 16). Staff feedback appears to support the validity of this recommendation. Staff report that they appreciate my authentic care in their development, the opportunity to discuss their learning (with me and team), and opportunities to apply their learning and/or collaboratively determine next steps.

Final Thoughts

Providing support to staff prior to, during, and after training appears to have supported a team culture of learning and transfer—for staff and me. My practice is more informed, richer, and delightful for having initiated these PDAs for learning. Michelangelo is quoted as having said—at the age of 87 no less—“I am still learning.” His many works of art are a testimony to his PDAs for workplace learning and training transfer. What are yours?

About the Author

Kathy Cocchio has 18 years of supporting faculty development in the post-secondary sector. For the past 7 years, she has led NAIT’s team of Teaching & Learning Specialists and Educational Technologists in their support of faculty development. In 2015, Kathy’s team nominated her for the STHLE College Sector Educator Award; although she was not selected for the award, the nomination stands as a highlight of her practice at NAIT.


Welcome to a New Academic Year!

Last week, NAIT staff came together during NAIT’s PD Day. What a great way to start the academic year with new ideas and the chance to reconnect with colleagues. I had the opportunity to present a workshop on Supporting Instructor Workplace Learning. After the workshop, I asked participants to indicate what they learned in the workshop. Below, I’ll and elaborate on some of the learning outcomes mentioned.

Share Student Feedback in Class

• “I learnt about best practices after administering a feedback survey to students.”

This participant refers to our conversation about what we should advise instructors to do with the student feedback they receive. We talked about instructors presenting the main points of the feedback with their students and talking about how they plan to address the feedback. These two actions have four positive effects.

  1. Students realize the instructor takes the feedback seriously.
  2. Students will find that the instructor is willing to make changes accordingly.
  3. Students realize that their ideas on how the class should be run might not be shared by the other students.
  4. They see how the instructor juggles the wishes and needs of all students.


On the Value of Peer Learning

• “Good time of the year to realize that learning happens continuously and that I may ask my peers for their thoughts on new ideas.”
• “Other instructors’ help seems to be required for everything.”
• “Reinforcing the idea of lifelong learning – supervisors should encourage instructors to ask questions.”

This last participant likely refers to our conversation about the fact that the learning environment for instructors is co-created by the chair and instructors in the department. In other words, all instructors are a source of and support for their colleagues’ learning. Who knows better how to teach subjects and topics than colleagues who have already taught them? Who knows better about students’ misconceptions regarding difficult topics, and who can provide strategies to help students see the light? Supervisors might allow this peer learning to happen by encouraging instructors to do the following:

• attend each other’s classes
• collaboratively create assignments and assessments
• provide each other with feedback on teaching
• attend formal learning events together
• present examples of their best assignments during staff meetings

My favourite pieces of feedback were:
• “Stop hiding in your office, you’re fabulous.”
• “Thanks for sharing the blog link. I will be following it.”

It’s this kind of feedback that keeps us educators going. Over the next month, I’ll be interviewing program chairs about the strategies for supporting instructor learning that work best for them. I’ll also discuss how different types of instructor learning require different types of support. So stay tuned…

*Picture of the Active Learning Classroom courtesy of Texas A&M University-Commerce Marketing Communications Photography

Create Opportunities for Learning in Program Meetings

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Meetings can be dull and sleep-inducing, or they can be engaging and provide great opportunities for learning. In my conversations with program chairs, I learned that some departments don’t have meetings during the semester. Some departments meet every two weeks throughout the academic year. One chair told me that, because of the way classes were scheduled, there was never a time during regular working hours for department members to meet. Basically, the way the schedule was organized created one gigantic barrier for instructor mutual learning. By reorganizing the entire teaching schedule of that faculty, the chair removed this barrier. It freed up one hour in which instructors in his program could meet.

In addition to removing barriers, chairs can create opportunities.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with Leanne Telford, chair of the personal fitness trainer program at NAIT. I asked her what opportunities exist in her program for instructor learning. She told me about the staff meetings in her program.

Instructors in the personal fitness trainer program meet bi-weekly for two hours. Their agenda always includes items where instructors can learn from one another. I will highlight three items.

The first item is Best practices in course delivery. Leanne explained how this came about:

In our meetings, we typically start with a positive update. At one meeting, one of the updates was, “I had the best class ever.” So someone asked: “What happened in the class?” And as we discussed that, we were like, you know what? …we should have a standing item where we share what has happened in the classroom. So it kind of organically happened. And now this is on our agenda. We usually spend 10 to 15 minutes on it. We don’t have to share: sometimes no one shares; sometimes everyone does. We can share experiences, and instructors can hear what worked for one instructor and maybe try it as well. It’s now a standing item. And it’s great. Unintentionally, it causes us to reflect on what experiences to share. We share what worked and what didn’t work. Instructors ask each other questions and give each other feedback.

I asked Leanne what a chair could do to motive instructors to share. She suggested:

First of all, a chair could lead by example and share positive and frustrating experiences. Explain how instructor learning might benefit students.  Explain how such a conversation might help instructors to work towards organizational goals. Also, you could identify together what makes your program unique compared to similar programs at other institutions, and that learning together could help instructors to strengthen that uniqueness.

640px-Personal_Training_Overlooking_MelbourneThe second item is Student Updates.

Leanne: At every meeting, we discuss students with poor attendance or participation. By discussing students together, we can further identify students’ needs. It also helps us find out whether we need to call in additional supports from student services.

The third item is Committee membership.

Leanne: All our instructors serve on an institutional committee as part of their corporate citizenship. During this agenda item, instructors share new developments in their committee work. This way, we share information on what’s happening across the institute. It contributes to an understanding of how our work fits within the larger organization. 

*Image of meeting courtesy of Bill Branson. Image of fitness trainer http://www.localfitness.com.au

Teaching Excellence: Whose responsibility is it?

In elementary and secondary school, there’s no question about it: teachers learned how to teach before they were hired and are expected to keep learning throughout their careers. By managing teaching performance, the school principal is responsible for ensuring that teachers do a good job. This task is also called ‘instructional supervision.’ Some say the principal should have a top-down approach as an inspector of teaching competence. Others promote a shared leadership model where the role of the principal is to support professional growth in teaching (Poole, 1995). This shared leadership model seems an appropriate model for post-secondary education as well.

However, in post-secondary education, good teaching is often seen as the responsibility of instructors alone (Viscovic & Robson, 2006).  In this blog, we posit that teaching excellence is a responsibility shared by instructors and the organization they work for; in other words, the organization should set the instructor up for success. Program chairs play a crucial role in the organization (Hoekstra & Crocker, 2015). In fact, program chairs can create the circumstances that allow the instructor continuous learning and improvement. However, program chairs should also hold instructors accountable for their teaching performance. Instructors, on their part, should do everything in their power to keep improving throughout their teaching career.

Learning requires willingness and opportunity to learn. Good instructional supervisors:

  1. Remove barriers to learning
  2. Create opportunities for learning
  3. Ignite and cultivate a willingness to learn
  4. Support change

Future blog posts will focus on strategies to make this happen.


Designed for program chairs in post-secondary education, this blog is about creating an environment in which instructors can learn at work, in order to provide quality instruction.

Why does it matter that instructors learn at work? In vocational, polytechnic, and college education, instructors are typically hired because they’re very good at what they teach. They’re good carpenters, social workers, hairdressers, bakers, beer brewers, lab technicians, landscape architects, accountants, and cheese makers. They might or might not be phenomenal teachers; most must learn how to teach by doing it: through trial and error, student feedback, and the occasional course or workshop.

While most institutions offer workshops and courses on how to teach, the real learning happens through practice, day in and day out, during interaction with colleagues and students. This blog is part of a research project, that looks into how this daily instructor learning at work happens and how it can best be supported.

Annemarieke Hoekstra