Teaching Squares: Sharing and Learning Across the College to Improve Music History Curriculum and Pedagogy

by Trudi Wright, PhD

Dr. Becky Vartabedian and Dr. Trudi Wright celebrating at Regis College’s First-Year Experience Convocation on August 30, 2019

This post is dedicated to my teaching partner, philosopher, and friend, Dr. Becky Vartabedian. Check out what she is up to here

As I began work on the subject of teaching squares as it relates to music history curriculum and pedagogy, the Universe, as she usually does, gave me what The Artist’s Way writer Julia Cameron calls “a moment of synchronicity.” Such a moment occurs when you trust that the universe is listening to you while you, in turn, listen to the universe, discussing ideas that you have been contemplating. Cameron says, “we change and the Universe furthers and expands that change.” In my experience, I was gifted a post on this blog (The Jigsaw!) by my colleague and friend, Sara Haefeli. In her “Revitalizing the Dreaded Course Evaluation: Turn Your Evals into a Research Tool,” she discusses how to use course evaluations to improve your teaching. In addition to the course evaluations completed by students, Haefeli gives examples of questions she created for instructor feedback that skillfully include reflection for student learning. In addition (and this is the part the Universe gifted me), she suggests including “peer reviews from faculty that observe your classes” as part of your course evaluation tool kit. Haefeli and I agree that if your institution has a peer review program, by all means use it! If, however, you find yourself without a formal teacher-mentoring program, I have a suggestion to add to the ones within Haefeli’s blog post: Teaching Squares. 

As defined by Carol Berenson of the University of Calgary in her Teaching Squares: Observe and Reflect on Teaching and Learning, teaching squares, for four participants (or teaching triangles, for three, as they are called at Bowdoin University; or a teaching line, which is what my colleague Dr. Becky Vartabedian and I created at Regis University this semester) are “designed to enhance teaching and learning and to build community through a process of reciprocal peer observation, self-reflection, and group discussion.” The goal is to create respectful dialogue on teaching and learning. 

I am sure we are all familiar with conventional peer observation teaching development programs that emphasize the giving and receiving of critical, evaluative feedback. This type of instructor assessment is an important tool for teacher observation. For example, in the article, “We Need Objective, Rigorous Peer Review of Teaching,” the authors argue that peer-to-peer assessment helps institutions maintain high standards of teaching. However, some educators like Carol-Ann Courneya, Daniel D. Pratt, and John Collins, in their article, “Through What Perspective Do We Judge the Teaching of Peers?” have argued against the capacity of colleagues to fairly assess the teaching craft of their peers, due, in part, to the traditionally competitive atmosphere of the academy. Still others, like Cornell Thomas of Texas Christian University, question the “effectiveness of critical evaluation as a tool for improving teaching,” citing the inflexibility of formal evaluation to account for the “human element” and the fact that some colleagues may not be the best judges of excellence in teaching due to their lack of preparation in the art of pedagogy. Thus, the Teaching Square becomes a more viable model for the improvement of teaching practices that supports the maintenance of high-quality teaching while removing the element of peer evaluation. (Please notice I used the term “peer evaluation” and not “peer interaction.”) Teaching Squares promote an integrative, collaborative, and self-reflective environment, which benefits both faculty members and the students they serve. According to Berenson, 

“In contrast to traditional peer observation initiatives, Teaching Squares approaches involve reflecting on what can be learned about one’s own teaching by observing colleagues…. By allowing individuals to be “learners” again in their colleagues’ classes, Teaching Squares can provide unique lenses through which to reflect on and talk about teaching and learning. There is also growing appreciation that reflective practice is, in and of itself, a skill to be developed and nurtured.”

In essence, a Teaching Square is made up of four faculty members from different disciplines who visit each other’s classes. They then gather over a meal or coffee to discuss what they observed.  Below, I will describe how Teaching Squares are set up according to instructions from the University of Calgary. I will also include descriptions from my own first experience in a teaching line to demonstrate the flexibility of this format. The Teaching Squares process should take around ten hours of your time within a semester, and less if you create a triangle or line.

The Teaching Squares Process

Step 1: Have an Initial Gathering (1.5 hours)

  • Meet with your colleagues.
  • Review the Teaching Squares philosophy and logistics.
  • Set goals and expectations.
  • Establish your observation schedule.

Teaching Line: Becky and I discussed forming a Teaching Square and the benefits of watching each other teach in order to reflect on our practices at an in-house conference. Over email we arranged our schedules for class observations.

Step 2: Prepare for Observations (on your own and by email; 1 hour)

  • Share and review your syllabi and pertinent context information for your observers.
  • Think about your observation focus before going in to observe others.
  • Gather and prepare your notetaking material.

Teaching Line: We discussed our courses and where we would be in our course schedules on the days of the observations. We agreed to use Berenson’s Teaching Squares: Observe and Reflect on Teaching and Learning and selected our reflection questions offered in a list by Berenson. We also used the suggested “Double Entry Observation Notes Example,” with the first column for a description of what we were observing in each other’s teaching, and the second for personal reflections and questions.

Here is a picture of Becky’s notes from her visit to my class: 

Notes from Becky Vartabedian's observation

Here are my notes:

Step 3: Classroom Visits (1 hour per observation; 3 hours)

  • Attend the agreed-on class and take observational notes (approximately one hour per observation).
  • Introduce the Observer to your class and explain the goals of the observational activity to your students. They should see their professors as lifelong learners! 

Teaching Line: Becky and I attended each other’s 75-minute classes. We introduced one another and the teaching line process to our students in each class. Although not prescribed or expected, we did end up participating minimally in each other’s courses because the content of our lectures was related to what the other was teaching in their class. 

Step 4: Optional Debrief Meeting (30 minutes per observation; 1.5 hours total)

  • This meeting gives the observed an opportunity to briefly reflect on their teaching and the observer the chance to share preliminary observations. 

Teaching Line: This was done in a very informal way at the end of each of our classes and as we saw each other in the halls after our visits. 

Step 5: Reflections (30 minutes per observation; 1.5 hours total)

  • After visiting your colleague’s class, reflect on the observations you made while watching your colleague teaching. This will help to prepare you for the group discussion at your final meeting.

Teaching Line: We both did this on our own. 

Step 6: Wrap up Meeting (1-1.5 hours)

  • Share with colleagues what you have learned about your own teaching from watching them in action.
  • Make a plan for implementing changes.

Teaching Line Reflection and Plan for Implementing Changes: This was a wonderful meeting, in our case conducted over zoom, where we shared our self-reflections, made plans for changes within our classes, and brainstormed ways in which we plan to use the Teaching Squares model next year within Regis College. One of the topics we both reflected on (offered as a choice by Berenson) was course organization, “specifically reviewing content already covered in a meaningful way.” As I watched Becky’s class, I was impressed with the way she brought in texts and student perspectives from earlier in the semester. I asked if this was a planned move or something that happened spontaneously, and she said it was intentional. She shared with me how she organizes her course around important questions from her field of philosophy:

  1. What does it mean to pay attention? 
  2. What constitutes a good argument? 
  3. What is a courageous act? 
  4. How does the influence of others help with your self-understanding?

The students answer these questions and discuss them together in the first days of class. Then, Becky intentionally expands their understanding of new ways to answer these questions for themselves through the course material they encounter together. She explained that she constantly thinks about their early answers and how the texts they read all work together to broaden their philosophical viewpoints. It helps them understand that philosophy is already something they are thinking about and not just an esoteric subject they bump into within their liberal arts degree. With this format, she is also intentionally putting the student perspective first and building from there. 

This made me think about a few different music history classes I teach and how I can be more intentional about starting the courses where the students are, encouraging them to begin from what they already know and are thinking about and growing together from there. One overarching question I’m thinking of incorporating is “What is good music?” If we start with students’ definitions, then bring them through the history class we’ve created to explore how “good music” is defined in different cultures and different periods of time, while constantly returning back to their initial definitions, this would (as it does in Becky’s class) help them understand that they are already thinking about music like musicologists do, not just, as she says, bumping into the discipline because they are forced to within the core of their performance major. 

Organizing a class this way would also speak to a few of the topics discussed at the musicology “Skillz”-themed Pedagogy Friday on April 29, 2022, of the AMS Teaching Music History Study Group. One of the participants said, “Talking about music is usually also about talking about how others have talked about music. Substance doesn’t just have to be just words about sound; it also has to be about teaching to think within the discipline.” I agree with this comment and can see myself using what students already know about music to relate it to what I want to teach them about the discipline. This can easily happen through the questions we ask as we listen to and explore primary and secondary musical sources of different times, people, and places. 

There is so much to learn from our colleagues both within music and from across the disciplines. I encourage you to try out Teaching Squares, Triangles, or Lines to reflect on your own teaching craft while creating much-needed community in the process.