Virtual Liberating Structures Meetup – Monday, August 28th at 7pm PST

As part of the Vancouver Liberating Structures User Group, I’ll be coordinating our first Virtual LS meeting on this last Monday of August, the 28th at 7pm. If you’re interested in Liberating Structures and in particular applying LS in a virtual environment, you’re welcome to join! You can access the Zoom meeting here:

Please arrive early (we’ll open at 6:45pm) to iron out any tech glitches and make sure you have the Zoom software downloaded on either your phone or laptop (check

Here is a detailed structure for the session and also includes links to great resources that one of the Virtual LS specialists Jim Best has put together:

We’ll also invite those interested in V-LS from around the community. Hope to see you all there!

David Helfand’s out-of-the-box thinking on higher ed

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” – Chinese Proverb

David Helfand gives a fascinating TEDTalk on “Designing a university for the new millennium” at TEDxWestVancouverED:

What I found insightful about this TEDTalk was how out of the box Helfand is about his thinking on higher education. He doesn’t believe in tenure (turned it down at Columbia University), believes faculty should not be divided into hierarchies and that their focus should be on the student learning, that they should not silo themselves into departments but instead interact with other disciplines. What he has done as president of Quest University is astounding. Quest University “offers only one degree, a bachelor of arts and sciences, has no departments, and students take just one four-week course at a time through its block plan” (Charbonneau 2015).

This is a radical break from the traditional university, and they’ve not only succeed, they are influencing other similar initiatives around the world. What I especially like about it is the focus on student learning, engaging students in ways that help them learn. Quest University was ranked “highest among Canadian universities on five key criteria: academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, supportive campus environment, active and collaborative learning, and enriching educational experience” (MacQueen 2011). That is pretty astounding, and there are certainly many lessons that traditional universities can and I believe, must learn, to stay viable in the 21st century higher education landscape.



Charbonneau, L. (2015). David Helfand reflects back on a decade at the head of Quest University. Available at: Accessed May 1, 2016.

MacQueen, Ken (24 February 2011), “The student’s Quest”, Maclean’s. Available at

Having a constant awareness of student learning and teacher perception

Brookfield’s core assumption #3 of skillful teaching in Chapter 2 of his book, The Skillful Teacher, is that “Teachers need a constant awareness of how their students are experiencing their learning and perceiving their teachers’ actions” (Brookfield 2015, p. 22).

Student Learning Awareness

What Brookfield means by an awareness of how students are experiencing their learning is “having some insight into what students are thinking and feeling” (p. 22). He argues that it is crucial to have some awareness of what is going on in the classroom in terms of actual student learning about the subject.  Without that awareness the teacher can be blinded to what is really going on, where the understanding is happening or not happening in the classroom. As a result the choices a teacher makes can be erroneous in trying to address the learning gap in the classroom.

The implications of this are that a teacher’s day to day decisions on how to lead the class, what content to introduce, what problems to go over, what exercises to give, etc.,  must be guided by a very real awareness of how student learning is happening. This ties in with Hattie’s concept of making learning “visible” (Hattie 2012).

Brookfield goes on to note how incredibly tricky it is to get into a student’s mind and really know what’s going on in their heads, so the cardinal rule for getting student learning feedback is to ensure the anonymity of the students’ responses to the questions teachers would ask them about their learning (Brookfield 2015, p. 23). They need to feel safe to express whatever concerns they have, whether positive or negative, about what is going on in the classroom. This holds especially true for “perceiving their teachers’ actions”. Students simply don’t feel safe to openly express any concerns they have in their instructor’s abilities to teach. This can be especially pronounced with students coming from cultures where the teacher as  authority figure is highly respected and where it would be taboo to openly criticize anything they do, with possible harsh repercussions.


Winning the trust of your students is hard work but crucial in getting real honest feedback on how learning is happening. When students see that you take their anonymous feedback seriously, there will be a much healthier dynamic of transparency in the classroom. Students are able to reflect and describe how their learning is happening, including what helps and what hinders them from learning, and the instructor is able to bring up these issues with the whole class, especially those issues which impact the majority of the classroom, and provide solutions and teaching improvements moving forward.


Brookfield, S. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2013). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

Featured image from:


Using Liberating Structures for Instructor Feedback in Higher Ed

Summary: Using the Liberating Structure known as What, So What, Now What? W³, students give feedback to an instructor in term so how the learning is progressing in the classroom. As well, student get a chance to reflect on and evaluate the effectiveness of the teachers instructional strategies.


I am fascinated with the concept of Liberating Structures being “simple rules that make it easy to include and unleash everyone” in purposeful, productive work to improve the learning in the classroom (Lipmanowicz & McCandless 2013). Since I had attended a workshop on how to use a variety of liberating structures in various group configurations, I was interested in seeing whether I could apply one of the structures to a classroom setting related to giving feedback to an instructor on their teaching style and other factors in the student experience. In particular, the Liberating Structure known as “What, So What, Now What?” allowed for a collaborative activity for students to look back on the progress of the course and see what adjustments were needed in the teaching/learning approach. This liberating structure would allow students to reflect on a shared experience in a way that builds understanding and spurs coordinated action while avoiding unproductive conflict” (Liberating Structures website). I felt like using Liberating Structures would offer a new, novel and likely not done before activity for students to engage in reflection on their shared classroom experience with the teacher, with a result of getting everyone involved with coming up with solutions for how to improve the learning experience.


It was really interesting to adapt an activity from what would be more of a corporate/business context to a classroom teaching context. I found that the Liberating Structures material and resources were adaptable enough to be re-designed for a classroom context. I would learn more if I had the opportunity to actually apply this to a real-life classroom situation, but because I have not had that opportunity I could only speculate that this activity would give all students an opportunity to engage in a non-threatening, productive way to discuss what would otherwise be a sensitive issue.

I found that the way that the liberating structure divided up the steps into What, So What, Now What was helpful in breaking down what the students needed to do in a methodical way. It’s definitely not as simple as a “Muddiest Point”, but a great solution for an instructor who wants to be very thorough in getting feedback from everyone in a rigorous manner.


Brookfield, S. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Diamond, M. R. (2004). The usefulness of structured mid-term feedback as a catalyst for change in higher education classes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 5(3), 217-231.

Lipmanowicz, H., & McCandless, K. (2013). The surprising power of liberating structures. New York: Liberating Structures Press.

Liberating Structures. (2016). What, So What, Now What. Liberating Structures Website. Available at: Accessed on: April 26, 2016.

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Liberating Structures content, including the images used in this PowerPoint, is licensed under a Creative Common License (Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported).

Best Practices in Teaching Online from Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher

Brookfield (2015) claims that the key to effective online instruction is adhering to the same fundamental principles of good teaching that are applied in any environment (p. 170). These principles include:

  • setting clear expectations
  • establishing the relevance of the learning early in the course
  • chunking the content in a manageable way
  • using a range of learning modalities
  • questioning skillfully
  • providing continuous feedback to students
  • organizing learning tasks from simple to complex

All of these principles can be applied in an online or blended environment very effectively using standard Learning Management systems. I would add to this list some of Hattie’s most impactful influences on student achievement (Hattie 2013), namely:

  1. Formative evaluation (see my blog post on this)
  2. Self-report grading 

In addition, Brookfield notes that the online classroom environment is still plagued by the same classroom management problems that face to face classrooms have (see Brookfield 2015, p. 170):

  • Reluctant students not wanting to contribute
  • Highly articulate minorities wanting to dominate the class discussion
  • The needs of diverse learnings needing to be addressed
  • How to work with larger groups of students
  • Allowing students to work at different paces.

Brookfield offers some suggestions for best practices in an online environment:

  • Chunk lecture videos into 10-15 minute blocks
  • Set clear expectations (syllabus contains objectives, chief topics and content to be covered, due dates, resources, how students’ work will be assessed)
  •  Set ground rules for discussion posting
  • Providing grading rubrics
  • Create teacher presence (daily summaries, critical incident questionnaires
  • Keep online discussion focused
  • Require students to appraise and critique peer work.

A lot of these principles apply equally well to the blended classroom, and really there comes a point when a teacher needs to decide the level of “blending” they want to do: more face to face, or more online.

Reflections on my context:

I think there is a huge opportunity in a university setting to enhanced otherwise fully face-t0-face classrooms with a more blended learning approach, taking the best of both worlds. It’s important to note and Brookfield has reminded me that best practices in teaching apply equally to the online environment as well as the classroom. A teacher can’t simply put the online course on autopilot and expect good results. That teacher needs to be “present” in some way – either by weekly video posts, online synchronous collaboration, or prompt feedback to assessments and even personal messages to students. Some instructors automate a personalized email for continuous enrollment courses, so students get timely feedback based on when they began the course. So there are lots of ways to enhance the face-to-face classroom so that students can get more out of the learning outside the classroom. More blogging on that later!


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2006). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Granada Learning.

Brookfield, S. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2013). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.