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

Department Chair as Educational Leader

Department chairs in teaching universities and community colleges are typically hired from the ranks of professors. Yet, leading an educational program might require a different skill set than teaching or coordinating a course. Our newest paper, recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, discusses the role of department chair as educational leader. Literature on transformational leadership, instructional leadership and leadership in post-secondary education, identified the following as important contributors to leading teaching and learning:

ed leadership

  • Leading teaching excellence:

Considering individual instructors’ needs and contributing to improved teaching and learning through the provision and promotion of and participation in high quality, relevant teacher professional development and evaluation of teaching performance;

  • Leading quality curriculum:

Defining and sharing the curriculum purpose, promoting external and internal collaboration with curriculum stakeholders, coordinating curriculum development activities;

  • Leading an optimal student learning environment:

Effectively managing educational resources and program specific student guidance, instructions and regulations;

  • Building and communicating a shared vision:

Including setting expectations and goals for teaching and learning;

  • Assuring program quality:

Evaluating program success and implementing improvement where needed (through collecting information about graduate satisfaction, student graduation rates, student performance on provincial or national exams, student employment rates, employer satisfaction with graduate performance, etcetera).

The paper further explores how leaders in five departments from three institutes conceptualize and enact their role as educational leaders of their departments.

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

Why is Workplace Learning Important for Instructors?

We just presented in Budapest our first research paper. It’s about instructor learning. The paper shows how important workplace learning is for instructors. Most trades and professional associations have conferences, workshops, webinars and such. These allow instructors to learn the latest and greatest industry developments. Most Post-secondary institutions have workshops on teaching in general. Such opportunities allow instructors to learn the latest and greatest in teaching and educational technology. However, the paper argues that the intricacies of learning to teach a specific subject need to be learned on the job.

What does the paper show?

Half of the 58 learning episodes reported by our 17 research participants involved learning how to teach a specific piece of their subject matter. They were learning things like:

  • Learning to anticipate the ways in which students interact with the subject
  • Students’ misconceptions regarding the subject
  • The parts of the subject the students might struggle with the most
  • How to make the subject matter relevant to the students
  • The explanations that help most of the students tackle the subject

Unsurprisingly, such learning was most intense when instructors were faced with having to teach a new course. The data revealed a number of strategies instructors use in these situations:

  • Ask colleagues who have taught the course before for advice
  • Use colleagues’ materials
  • Observe colleagues teach
  • Solicit student feedback, to find out what worked and what didn’t
  • Observe students when working independently on course problems
  • Observe students in the lab, to further understand their way of thinking
  • Just try an explanation and improvise, see if it works
  • Take notes on how a lesson went, so future lessons on the topic can be improved

As you can see, instructors and students are important partners in instructors’ learning process. In addition, collegial interactions are crucial for instructors to learn a great deal in a short period of time. Program chairs could support this type of learning, through:

  • Fostering collegiality amongst instructors
  • Discussing challenging and successful teaching strategies in meetings
  • Creating a share drive or online space for sharing instructional materials
  • Being strategic when allocating desk space to instructors, so as to foster informal relations
  • Encouraging instructors to visit each other’s classes
  • Encouraging peer mentoring, for instance by including this in the performance management of instructors who could act as mentors
  • Encourage instructors to collaboration on the creation of course materials and exams

Most importantly, though, program leadership should recognize the importance of such learning processes, and intentionally support it rather than taking it for granted.

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