Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

home >> Teaching and Learning >> A Letter to Martha Piper
posted on August 2, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
A Letter to Martha Piper


For several
years around the turn of
the century, atmospheric physicist
Douw Steyn and I co-taught a course in
Integrated Sciences Program called
The Sizes of Things.  It was
around a single question:

What difference does it make
what size things are? 

We gave
students fundamental
mathematical and statistical tools,
let them practice using them on more
and more complex problems, then turned
them loose
to ask that question about
work out how to an-
swer it,
and answer it to
the best of their

They studied
from galaxy
clusters to enzyme arrays on
subcellular membranes,
economies, sociologies, morphologies,
physiologies and technologies,
the same questions about size and
scale and using the same tools
to answer them. 

Douw and I
often knew next to
nothing about the systems
they studied and it didn’t
matter a whit, and when
we did know it still
didn’t matter. 

Our ignorance
didn’t matter because we
weren’t teaching the content of
what our students 
learned, but the process
of learning it.  They learned the content
themselves and we taught them
how to do it.

Everyone’s content
was interesting to everyone
else and we talked about that.  But the
content was above and beyond what we most
wanted them to learn.
We wanted them to learn
ways of thinking and asking questions, and
learn to use powerful tools to answer
. Some students learned
no one had ever
learned before.

The course was
successful in many ways and
we wanted to promote the approach
it embodied, so 
we invited UBC President Martha
Piper to attend a class meeting and she accepted. 
following letter was my way to prepare Dr. Piper
to understand what we were doing and gain the
most from her visit.
What is significant about
her visit, other than that she was the
president and was interested,
is what we did that day.


The Hotseat
Rather than trying to teach
the students anything (we didn’t do
much of that anyway), we let them teach each
other using what had become a central part of our
classroom culture: the hotseat.
I describe the hotseat
in my letter to Piper below, but it is essential to understand
from the outset that it is almost the scariest thing any
undergrad can imagine.
The person on the hotseat is
alone in the centre of a large circle of chairs, that
day occupied by about 50 other students, two
course instructors, one teaching assistant,
and the President of the university.

The person on
the hotseat outlines a scientific
problem and a way of solving it, then asks
for feedback from the group, specifying as clearly
as possible what he or she most needs to understand
or be able to do. 
This is an especially intense example
of what I call embracing ignorance and is at the
heart of
my approach to education.  If trust is high
enough in a course, the hotseat is a powerful tool
to bring
many minds to bear on problems and
it produces useful results.  But there is no
denying that it is scary.

By the middle
of October that year and halfway
through the term, we had used the hotseat
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 in class that
?”  Immediately, everyone piped up
with The Hotseat!
how it worked.

Each student
had to “apply” for the event.  In
written applications, they argued either
to be or not to be on the hotseat for Piper’s visit.
We didn’t care whether they wanted in or not, we said,
but expected clear, well-written arguments and full
participation on the day of the event. 
They knew
we would not announce our selections until
Piper was in the room, just before the
first student made the long
walk to the centre of
the circle. 

When everyone
was ready and Piper was in place,
Douw scanned our list, said
It’s Sarah!”
and everything that followed for the next two hours
was a wonderful manifestation of trust,
strong learning, and community.
is my letter to Dr. Piper.

October 14, 1999
Martha Piper
President, UBC

Dear Martha:
I’m writing to let you
know that Douw Steyn and I, and
our class, are thrilled you will visit our ISP
Sizes of Things  course next Thursday.  I also
want you to know more about the course
than our invitation could express
and alert you to what the
session will be about.

First, we
understand that you prefer
to sit unobtrusively in the back when
you visit classes and simply observe.  That
makes sense in general, but in this case it
would be inappropriate for reasons that
will become clear, as well as being
physically impossible.

One reason is
related to my first visit to Dave
White’s 5th grade class in about 1969, so I’ll
tell you the story.  When I arrived at the door and
was about to enter, two kids stepped into the hall
and closed the door behind them.  “You must be
Lee”, one said. “We need to tell you some
things about our class before
you come in.”

“Most important
is that we never have observers
in our class.  Even the Principal.  Nobody sits
in back and watches our class because everyone has
to participate. Don’t worry too much about that.
We won’t make you talk unless you want to.
But don’t be surprised if someone asks
what you think about what we’re
talking about after a while .”

I was amazed
to hear 5th graders so clearly
articulate my own philosophy of
education, but my amazement
had not yet reached
full bloom.

“We’ve been talking
about Sally. She’s been saying things
that hurt people’s feelings and make them want
to stop sharing in class and stop participating.  She
says our ideas are stupid.  Sometimes she laughs when
we say things, and it hurts, especially because Mr. White
keeps telling us how important it is for us to trust each
other.  This morning she did it again and Larry
said we’d all have to talk about it before
he would go on with the work.”

“Just before you
came, people were telling Sally
how they feel when she does things like
that and she cried a little.  It might embarrass
her when you come in because she doesn’t know
you, but that’s OK. Don’t worry about it.  Every-
body will know when it’s time for you to say
something, so watch what happens
when we go in.  Do you have
any questions?”

Needless to say,
Dave White was a legendary
5th grade teacher, and I sent my best
teacher candidates to visit his class.
Something wonderful always
happened in Dave White’s

 The name of the game
in the
Integrated Sciences Program
is interaction.

What we call
interactive engagement,
or students talking with other students
about things they only partially understand, is
key to their deepest, fastest, longest-lasting, and most
powerfully transforming intellectual growth. Trust,
or the willingness to risk vulnerability, is an
absolute necessity and the ISP as a
whole is a test of that idea.

Today in class
and again for the hour you’ll
spend with us next week, we’ll be doing
something frightening for anyone
from the answer-based system
we and most of our students
came up through.

Our approach
is based on ignorance and
questioning.  I got the idea of the
hotseat from a technique F.S. Perls
used in group psychotherapy.
He called it the hotseat
and we call it that
as well.

The hotseat is
at the same time intimate, intrusive,
and non-threatening, the way research group
meetings must be to be most useful to graduate
students.  With about 50 people in the room, no one
yet knowing what they are doing in their research
and no therapist, one person sits in a chair
in the middle of a large circle of
chairs: the hotseat.

The hotseat
unfolds in the round, leaving
nowhere for observers to hide.  You will
be part of the circle.  The hotseat’s objective is to help
students tune their research before they get down to the
research, like a very large lab meeting for undergraduates.
When the hotseat works it powerfully transforms
its participants. We did it the first day of class
this term with our teaching assistant
on the hotseat first.

She introduced
herself by admitting that she
always thinks she doesn’t fit the mold
because she keeps changing professions – –
engineer to education PhD student teaching an
experimental science course.  Students responded
immediately, asked probing questions, revealed
related things about themselves and really did
help Gillian answer her own question.
Douw and I went, and 3 or 4

At the end,
one student exclaimed
“Wow! I could pay $200 for that
kind of therapy!”  Therapy is not the point.
But teaching is transformative whether
we admit it or not.  To my mind, the point is
that  people learn quickly and easily when
their social environments make it safe
for them to risk significantly
and learn with others.

The take-home
messages we want you to get from
this letter are that we and our students are
thrilled you will join us, and that we welcome
participants but not detached observers. You will
be free to play if the spirit moves you, or to parti-
cipate silently through the power of your listening.
That alone will be an important contribution.
We don’t know what will happen that
day and won’t try to predict
it in detail.

The trick is to
make the social environments
of courses safe places to fail in small ways,
especially by making it safe to expose ignorance,
which sets in motion strong self motivated
learning in our students. That is the
idea, in any case.  I hope it works.
See you next week.

Gillian Gerhard
continued working in the ISP,
finished her PhD in Education, taught
other places for a few years, and is now
the Senior Manager of Teaching and
Learning at UBC’s Centre for
Teaching, Learning, and

Amazing things came
out of The Sizes of Things.  I tell about
three of them in
Architects of their Own Education.
There are stories about the importance of socially
safe failure in learning
throughout this site
and some important ones near the
end of
Making Magic Together.

Edited May 2022

One thought on “A Letter to Martha Piper

  1. Never have I read of anything like the experiences this story “A Letter to Martha Piper” describes. Possessed of a PhD in environmental science, I feel relatively “uneducated”. Most of what I could do in university was trying to keep up. It was like living under a dump truck. One day, my brain just stopped memorizing. This does not mean that I think knowledge and information are unimportant. It is how you get those things. I am a hands-on, physically active, visual learner. I have not pursued science as a career, but rather have become an artist, a sculptor. Your work is beautiful, thoughtful, distilled emotion and understanding. Thank you for this awesome website and the chance to hear your voice in different forms. There is much to learn from you and much to enjoy. I am inspired. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *