Just below is a letter I wrote to UBC President Martha Piper

Just below is a letter I wrote to UBC President Martha Piper regarding her upcoming visit to the Integrated Sciences course The Sizes of Things that I co-taught with atmospheric physicist Douw Steyn. What is significant about that visit, other than that the President wanted to see what we were doing, is what we did.

Rather than teaching the students anything that day (we didn’t do much of that anyway), we held what was becoming an institution in the culture that grew up in our classroom: the hotseat. I describe the hotseat below in my letter to Piper, but the important thing to say here is that the hotseat is just about the scariest thing an undergraduate student can imagine. The person on the hotseat is alone in the centre of a large circle on that day composed of about 50 peers, two course instructors, one teaching assistant, and the President of the University. The idea is for her to share with the class the barely-formed outline of a research program and ask for feedback.

Given an unusually high trust level in a course, the hotseat is an extremely powerful tool because it brings so many minds to bear on a problem and produces such useful results. By the middle of October that year, we had used the hotseat maybe twice in the relative intimacy of our classroom. When we told the class about Piper’s visit, we said “guess what we’re going to do that day?”, and immediately the students said “the hotseat?” Each student was required to produce a written application to be selected (or not to be selected) for the hotseat, and argue that case. We did not announce our selections until just before the first student made the long walk to the centre of the circle.

What resulted was a wonderful, wonderful manifestation of trust, creativity, and community on the part of the students.

October 14, 1999

Martha Piper

President, UBC


Dear Martha:

I seem to spend half of my time one-on-one, educating students, faculty, and administrators about education. So it goes in revolutions, though, and this is indeed a revolution. You will see, hopefully not as an active participant in the debate, that the departmental advocacy committee for my next bid for promotion decided yesterday to argue that that largely invisible work is significant and important. Here we go.

I’m writing now to tell you that Douw Steyn and I are thrilled that you will visit our ISP “Sizes of Things” class next Thursday, October 21, and to let you know more than our letter of invitation did about what we that day will be about. When Douw and I discussed the visit this morning, he mentioned that according to rumour, you prefer to sit unobtrusively in the back when you visit classes, and observe. That makes sense in general, but in this case it would be inappropriate for reasons that will become clear. As usual, I’ll begin with a story (the story I’ll likely tell at the beginning of the class next Thursday).

In about 1969, I visited Dave White’s class for the first time. He was a legendary 5th grade teacher in Eugene, Oregon. Subsequently, I sent my best teacher-students to visit, because something wonderful always happened and students, teacher, and visitor were always transformed and strengthened by their interaction. The name of the game in the Integrated Sciences Program, in terms of process, is interaction. In the jargon, we say that “interactive engagement” among students (in the context of real problems of real significance to them as individuals) is key to their deepest, most rapid intellectual growth.

When I arrived at the door of the classroom and was about to enter, two children stepped into the hall and closed the door. “You must be Lee”, one of them said. “We want to tell you a little bit about our class before you go in, and the most important thing is that we don’t have any observers. Nobody gets to sit back and watch in this class, because it is important for everybody to participate. Don’t worry too much about that, because we won’t make you talk if you don’t want to. But don’t be surprised if someone asks you after a while what you think about what we’re discussing.”

I was amazed that 5th graders could be so wise in articulating my own philosophy of education, but my amazement had not yet reached full bloom. “We’ve been talking about Sally. For the last few weeks she’s been saying things that hurt people’s feelings and make them want to stop participating in what we do. She’s been telling us that our ideas are stupid, and sometimes she laughs when people suggest things. It really hurts, especially when Mr. White keeps telling us how important it is to trust each other. This morning Sally did it again, and Larry said we were going to have to talk about it before he would go on with the work. Right before you came, people were telling Sally how they feel when she does that, and she cried a little. She might be a little embarrassed when you come in, because she doesn’t know you, but it’s OK. Don’t worry about it. Just sit there, and everybody will know if it is time for you to say anything.”

Trust, or the willingness to risk vulnerability, is key. Today in class, and again for the hour you’ll be with us next week, we’ll be doing something that is very scary for anyone raised in the answer-based system we and most of our students came up through. I got the idea from F.S. Perls’ technique in group psychotherapy that he called “the hotseat”, and we call it that in our course as well. It is at the same time intimate and intrusive, but non-threatening, the way research group meetings must be to be most useful to graduate students. Important differences are that there will be nearly 50 people in the room, and none of our students yet feel that they know what they are doing! One person sits in a chair that is ideally a bit isolated at the open end of a horseshoe of chairs, and interacts with the whole class about some issue. Because our classroom is crowded the horseshoe will be a closed circle and the hotseat will be in the middle. The activity will unfold “in the round”, and there will be no place for observers to hide. The most likely hotseat agenda will be to help individuals or small groups “tune” their research questions before getting down to scholarship.

For a review of one hotseat experience, please read the article about our class in the UBC Alumni magazine. When it works, it is really quite powerful, and transformative. We did it on the first day of class this fall, for example. First, our sessional lecturer took the hotseat, introducing herself by saying that she always feels that she doesn’t fit the mold because she keeps changing professions. She got some very probing questions and comments. Then Douw and I went, and then 3 or 4 students. At the end, one of the participants said “Wow! I could pay $200 for that kind of therapy!” Therapy is not the point, except that our work in the university is transformative whether we admit it or not. To my mind, the point is that people learn so incredibly fast when their social environment makes it safe for them to risk significantly.

Your take-home messages from this letter:

We and our students are thrilled that you will visit us.

We welcome participants, but not detached observers. Participation is voluntary in our class, however. You are free to participate if the spirit moves you, or free to participate silently through the power of your listening. Even that would be an important contribution.

We don’t know what will happen, and don’t want to try to predict it in detail. The trick is to take control of the social environment of our courses, to make them safe places to fail in small ways, notably by making it safe to expose ignorance, thus setting in motion strong self-motivated learning in our students. That’s the idea, in any case.

See you next week.


Lee Gass