There’s Always Something

Today I’m going to visit a physiology prof’s third year class. Yup. Me. Who took “Astronomy for Poets” as my science requirement in undergrad. I’m going to watch someone else teach. Not to provide that person with a critique, but to learn what I can do better by observing another person’s approach.

In many professions we have ample time to observe others, in meetings or we observe how our bosses manage us, or how people interact in certain situations. Lawyers can watch other lawyers in court, doctors have an extensive training in which they observe more experienced professionals (See one, do one, teach one).  But there are professions where we don’t have that opportunity. For example, at least in most of Canada, police officers generally work independently – the ride in their cruisers solo. So there is little opportunity to learn through observation.

Observation and reflection is one of the most effective, least costly forms of professional development. Yet even in professions where observation is easily accomplished, we often don’t take advantage of the opportunity to observe and reflect. Based on a sample of one (that is, me), my guess is that most of us are so caught up in getting the task done, that it doesn’t even occur to us to take a moment to observe and reflect.

Observation and reflection are intentional learning strategies that we can use anywhere and any time. They take a little planning, but not much.  Here are some basic steps (cribbed from the Western University Teach Support Centre’s Teaching Squares Handbook, by Natasha Hannon).

  1. Identify some observable behaviour or skill that you would like to improve.
  2. Consider whether there is a particular lens through which you would like to focus observations. For example, if you want to improve your decision-making skills, you may want to focus your observations on how you interact within groups that are making decisions. Or, you may wish to focus on how you undertake evidence gathering.
  3. Carry tools in which to capture your observations. I like a pen and a notebook best, but many people like a phone, tablet or laptop.
  4. Stay alert for opportunities to observe.
  5. Make your observations.
  6. Reflect on your observations.
  7. Share your observations.

As part of the reflection process, you might want to include three questions:

  1. How is this different or the same from my current approach?
  2. What works well and what doesn’t seem to work as well?
  3. What changes would I like to make in my approach to X?

I encourage you to share your reflections and plans for change with someone you trust.  By keeping your discussion focused on self-discovery and self-reflection, you can avoid feeling defensive. I’ve found that sharing can actually improve change plans, and energize both participants.  I’ve also found that focusing on too many areas for change can be overwhelming and self-defeating. Don’t try to boil the ocean. Just pick one area to work on. Recruit some trusted colleagues to provide you with support and encouragement.

You don’t need to be in a classroom to develop your skills. You don’t need a lot of money, you don’t need a lot of training, or even a mentor. You don’t need even need much time. All you need is the intent to learn, a plan, a pen and a notebook. So get on with it.

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