Phys Ed prof earns 3M Fellowship for staying focused on students

(Edmonton) Billy Strean inhabits a modest office on the fourth floor of the Universiade Pavilion. But this month he moves into Canada’s academic penthouse, as a recipient of a coveted 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education names no more than 10 3M Fellows each year across Canada. Strean is the first University of Alberta Physical Education and Recreation instructor to receive the award in its 25-year history.

Strean summarizes his teaching philosophy with a little story. “When I meet people in social settings and I tell them I’m a teacher, the standard question is, ‘What do you teach?’ I often say, ‘Students.’ My wife doesn’t think that’s funny. But, I actually think there’s a difference between focusing on your content or your discipline versus being truly learner-centred.”

To Strean “learner-centred” is more than a cliché. “By the time you get to university, you’ve learned that when you’re in a classroom, you can get hurt,” he said. “Somebody can tell you you’re wrong. You can be embarrassed. You can be humiliated. I believe that, unless we deal with that history, people are going to be intelligently careful about how they participate. So you need to foster a sense of trust, of getting to know each other, and setting some ground rules of what we will and will not do.”

To build a connection with his students, Strean begins at the most basic level – learning their names. “That’s a big way of grabbing people’s attention,” he says. “In a class of 36, within the first five minutes I’ll know their names.”

Earlier in his career, when he often taught classes of 200 students, the task was a bit more daunting. “I used to take pictures of them in groups of 10, with their names in front of them. Then, I’d look at the photographs and spend time memorizing their names,” he said.

As a 3M Fellow, Strean looks forward to contributing his own voice to the society’s ongoing efforts to promote teaching in higher education. More than that, though, he looks forward to learning from his peers.

“The more one learns, the more one realizes the size of one’s ignorance,” Strean said. “It’s that feeling of, ‘Gee, I think I’m just starting to get this right.’ There’s always more to learn; there are always different ways to develop.”

For example, Strean hopes to explore the generational differences that are transforming the entire realm of teaching and learning. “My nine-year-old is doing things, without batting an eye, that I didn’t even think of doing until maybe the end of graduate school,” he said.

The pace of change presents teachers with a daunting challenge, says Strean. “The whole idea of a lecture makes sense if you’ve got the only book in town. But, information—the kind that can be read in a textbook or on a website—is absolutely not a commodity anymore. And, to the extent to which we treat it like that, we’re shortchanging what’s possible when you have a bunch of people who are alive and in a room together.”

He adds, “There’s a lot for me to continue to think about and learn, of how to incorporate technologies with human engagement, with the emotional and biological qualities of people and learning. It’s not just an above-the-neck undertaking.”

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