Become a brave beginner

Professional development involves many kinds of learning: short workshops, seminars, online microcourses or webinars, conferences and symposiums. You may read professional journals, listen to academic podcasts, participate in a community of practice for your subject area or job, and monitor / participate various social media channels. But what kind of development learning do you participate in most often?

In our fast-paced, ever-changing world, you need continuous professional development. No matter what your area of expertise or profession, you need to keep pace with the important changes that affect your daily practices. Finding time to focus on, absorb and apply new learning is challenging but I wonder – how often do you dive into learning that makes you uncomfortable, where you might fumble and even fail initially?

Research has shown that uncertainty and discomfort can trigger better learning. Emotions are a big part of learning – they don’t always have to be positive. But how often do we seek out learning that makes us uncomfortable? For many of us, reading professional journals, watching/listening to podcasts or webinars and attending annual conferences or workplace seminars or “lunch and learns” are the main avenues to learning about new developments or skills we should have. We are busy with the demands of our professions – it’s not surprising that we stay within our comfort zones when it comes to ongoing professional development.

And yet, to learn things that are new, not just that reinforce what we already know, is essential to moving forward in life. We need to take risks to expand our knowledge, make new connections and stay at the leading edge of our fields. That doesn’t mean we need to do this all the time. Yale professor, Daeyeol Lee explains that we need to take breaks from learning to balance the uncertainty we face in new situations.

I read an interesting article in HBR magazine the other day: Learning is Supposed to Feel Uncomfortable by Peter Bregman. He shared his experiences as as an expert in his field participating in a professional development workshop in which he had to learn from the beginning – and the discomfort and even embarassment he felt. Yet he deliberately seeks challenging opportunities for learning every year. He contrasts his perspective with a colleague who doesn’t dare to risk exposing their ignorance as it might undermine the respect and trust that students look for from a leader in their field.

His perspective resonates with my own personal professional experiences. I’ve taught and designed learning related to online and technology-enhanced learning environments for many years. The field changes constantly and no one is really an “expert” in the old sense of the word. So, my approach to learning tends to reflect Bregman’s in that I tend to seek out learning that makes me uncomfortable or in which I don’t know much yet. The acknowledgement of the possibility of learning new things also infiltrates my teaching and design. And yet, I have had learners (who were teachers) who told me they felt very uncomfortable when I openly stated that I too was learning while I was sharing what I knew. They wanted me to be “the expert” and felt a loss of confidence when I wouldn’t accept that role.

I think that the level of discomfort that you can handle, and the impact of public learning that might concern you has a lot to do with your area of knowledge and type of work. You may be avoiding exposing your ignorance in certain kinds of learning (as Bregman’s colleague was) and you may be correct in assuming that you will lose clients or the confidence of students (or your employer). But don’t avoid risk and discomfort in all forms of professional learning. Make sure you take on the role of the “brave beginner” in some forms of learning so that you explore new ideas, knowledge and skills and stay interested in your work and provide value to your learners.

Additional references and resources

Boaler, Jo. (Oct. 28, 2019). Why Struggle is Essential for the Brain – and Our Lives, Edsurge: Voices: Learning Research. Retrieved from

Bregman, Peter. (Aug 21, 2019). Learning is Supposed to Feel Uncomfortable, Harvard Business Review Retrieved from

Patel, Sujan (Mar 9, 2016). Why Feeling Uncomfortable Is The Key To Success, Forbes, retrieved from

Stillman, Jessica. (Aug 14, 2018). Science Has Just Confirmed That If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You’re Not Learning, retrieved from

TED Talks playlist – How to learn from mistakes Missteps, mess-ups and misunderstandings hurt. And yet, they offer an opportunity to learn and grow. Talks on how … 7 videos.

YaleNews (July 19, 2018) Aren’t sure? Brain is primed for learning, Retrieved from

Several of these articles cite research published in Neuron journal:

Found: RRU’s Teamswork

While I was poking around my list of BC’s Teaching and Learning Centres, I came across Royal Roads University’s TEAMSWORK site – what a helpful collection of ideas and resources to explore!

Teamwork, or collaborative / cooperative learning, are part of most learning and work experiences these days. In the past, students have complained about the necessity of working in teams to complete assignments, projects and courses, often because they felt unprepared or they experienced inequities in grading or assessments due to unequal participation/contributions from team members. Another significant factor was the difficulty of scheduling team meetings.

RRU’s TEAMSWORK site provides comprehensive information for students, staff and faculty.

  • Students:
    • tips on starting off a team project
    • ideas for maintaining a healthy team
    • how to complete a group assignment successfully
    • learning in online or multicultural teams
  • Faculty and Staff
    • ideas for methods and tools to support effective collaboration
    • designing assessments and activities effectively
    • guiding and supporting teams
    • what to do when teams experiences conflict

Check out this brief sample of references and resources:

Chiriac, Eva Hammer (2014) Group work as an incentive for learning – students’ experiences of group work. Frontiers in Psychology, Retrieved from

Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy (2013). Intercultural competences: conceptual and operational framework. UNESCO, Retrieved from

Wilson, Laura, Susie Ho and Rowan H. Brookes, (2017) Student perceptions of teamwork within assessment tasks in undergraduate science degrees, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, Retrieved from

RRU – Teamswork:

New Centre at SFU launched!

I tripped over news of an exciting change happening at Simon Fraser University in an email I received through the ISW network. On July 15, 2019 SFU launched the Centre for Educational Excellence (CEE) under the direction of Elizabeth Elle, Vice-Provost and Associate VP, Learning and Teaching. This is a major change in the structure and organization of the university and I’ll be curious to hear/see what impact it has for instructors and students in the months ahead.

a simple chart showing the intended organization of Centre for Educational Excellence

The new Centre will include the current divisions: Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC), Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE), and the Centre for English Language Learning, Teaching and Research (CELLTR). The launch message from Elizabette Elle indicates that the purpose of the re-org is to encourage better collaboration, streamline the services they provide to instructors and students, assist in the university’s indigenization and internationalization efforts, and add some additional capacity (?) in educational assessment). While I appreciate the recognition of the blurring of boundaries between modes of learning, and the intention to move away from compartmentalized services, I’ll be curious to see which area gets the most attention. I’m not a big fan of an entire area devoted to quality assurance and analysis as so much time and money was spent in Alberta and Ontario to develop guidelines and then they weren’t maintained – will this initiative consider “lessons learned”? But I have been impressed by SFU’s creative and dedicated staff in the TLC and CODE areas in the past, so I’m looking forward to positive changes from the intended focus on teamwork. and innovation.

Found: KPU’s helpful experiential learning advice

I took another look around BC’s teaching and learning sites and discovered a wealth of materials, tips and suggestions for experiential learning through KPU’s Teaching & Learning Commons. This agglomeration of resources could be enormously helpful to any instructor debating how, when and where (and why) to implement different types of experiential learning.

KPU’s Experiential Learning pages go beyond presenting video stories from students and community partners or links to specific courses or programs that include experiential learning/ opportunities. The Experiential Learning pages are full of practical advice and helpful forms and resources. You can explore:

  • a Guidebook with practical advice about how to plan and implement experiential learning
  • forms
  • tips for community partners and students, and
  • a motley assortment of external resources to broaden your understanding of the history, pedagogical foundations, and leaders of this field.

If you’re considering adding some experiential learning activities or assignments to your teaching, this looks like a great place to start.

Found: A map of engagement

During my random treasure hunt through compilation of BC’s teaching and learning websites, I noticed an interesting subsection in UVic’s Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation site (what a mouthful that must be to share when you meet others at a conference!) – the subsection is called Community-engaged Learning. I was curious partly because I’ve been working with a community planning consultant and educator from Whitehorse who has opened my eyes to possibilities for engaging rural and remote communities across the North, but also because I’m always looking at ways people interpret and advance basic learning theories. The Community-engaged Learning site began with a definition:

Community-Engaged Learning (CEL) is a form of experiential learning and community-engaged scholarship whereby students actively engage with course content through the combination of collaborations with community and facilitated reflection.

So, I was curious to find out the ways UVic’s interpretation or application might involve different approaches based on experiential learning. Although I didn’t find what I was hoping for – guidelines or tips on facilitating/managing experiential learning in the field/community to ensure meaningful learning (i.e., how to prevent disasters and go beyond – “I had such a great time”), I did find some interesting first steps CEL pedagogies and flagged that for future exploration.

My first find though was the searchable, international, multi-faceted Engagement map. The visual of the map gives you a sense of the surprising spread of UVic community-engagement activities and you can find public lectures, partnerships with community groups, community-focused research, and guided walks (if you’re in Victoria).

The map is pretty straightforward to use: either click on a blue circle in a geographic location that interests you, or use one of the nine filters or try a keyword search.

My initial explorations led me to co-op programs and then to impact stories from young participants and their community groups or health organizations. I discovered a unique Fraser Valley ethnohistory field school hosted by the Sto:lo that has been running since 1998!

I found out about a community research project that resulted in Victoria rain gardens that contributed to our understanding of municipal stormwater management. Other stories introduced me to international impacts where UVic students work to find business models to help Zambian goat farmers find the best markets for their animals. A Social Sciences community partnership allowed students to work with UVic sociologist William Carroll to develop a new online mapping tool to highlight 50 of the most influential fossil fuel industry players in Western Canada and develop our understanding of the power relationships within this sector.

So, if you’re looking for inspiration in terms of making your teaching more relevant and meaningful for your students, you might pick up some ideas while exploring this map. While the stories featured are somewhat lean on the realities of how to actually facilitate the learning and to keep the community projects manageable for students, partners and yourself, you could always follow up with the university or keep an eye on their CEL website. Enjoy!