“The ultimate goal of the pedagogy of kindness is to establish this connection which benefits the learning experience,” says Dr. Fiona Rawle, associate professor of biology at UTM. Alongside the support of other instructors, Professor Rawle works to address challenges associated with online learning through the pedagogy of kindness.

The pedagogy of kindness explores how kindness is the foundation of learning. This idea has recently gotten more attention due to the pandemic, but the message behind it is always a crucial part of the learning process. Rawle explains that its introduction at UTM and in her teaching came in part due to the efforts made by Ann Gagne, an educationaldeveloper at the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre. Rawle says that it is essential to highlight the fact that the pedagogy of kindness is a way of moving forward, and not just a response to online learning and the global pandemic. It recognizes that we all have different experiences that are a result of different stressors. Rawle emphasizes that “it is not just about smiling and being nice, but really about having this flexibility and acknowledgement of different situations.” 

Through research on the science of learning, Professor Rawle has developed and applied a method of evidence-based learning. She explains that research has proven that students learn better when they feel a sense of connection. Thus, if students feel connected to their peers and connected to their professors, they retain what they learn longer and have a better learning experience. This connection creates a culture for a course, a culture of communication and collaboration, and this can only be built meaningfully if you have a foundation of kindness. 

Students learn better when they have autonomy in their learning and can take responsibility for the process. Rawle says that being able to “have a flexibility in your course design and bridging that with student choice then allows students to take ownership of their learning experience.” She explains that it is important for students to know that they are more than just a number—they are a unique person.

Rawle discusses her personal goals of creating a culture of openness and honesty. Her policy embodies more than just discussing the concept of failure; it also encourages sharing failures and mistakes. It is crucial to normalize failure and learn from failure because you learn your strengths and weaknesses. Rawle says that this is especially important when learning science, “Failure is crucial to the process of science because as scientists we fail all the time, and we have to be comfortable with failing because this is how we learn.” 

In terms of bringing this to the classroom, for the first 10 minutes before class begins, Professor Rawle organizes an activity for her students, whether it involves colouring a page on Zoom or answering a question that is open on the software. Rawle emphasizes the importance of maintaining a two-way dialogue with these questions. “It is not good if I am just asking the students. I have to answer it as well,” she adds. After receiving responses to the questions, she pools responses anonymously and displays them in the next class. This allows students to recognize that others in the class feel the same way and have the same types of stressors or completely different stressors. Either way, this activity encourages self-reflection and self-awareness in the class as they learn from those around them. This two-way dialogue also works to establish a connection between students and the professor.

For students to accept failure as a part of the learning process, it is important for professors to highlight their own failures that they have experienced in their academic careers. Rawle says, “It is easy to look at a professor and see this product that has gone through so many years of school and research and work. But every professor is a beginner at one point; they all start somewhere and have different struggles along the way.” Rawle says that remembering that everyone was a beginner at some point can make the learning process much less overwhelming. Professors should discuss mental health and even failures to normalize the fact that we are all works in progress.

In light of the pandemic, Rawle says that students can feel less connected because they are not in the same classroom environment, but online learning can actually give opportunities for more connection. She discusses her experience of office hours with students on the other side of the world, where students would introduce her to family members and even neighbours. Students are able to attend and connect to office hours in a different way. Rawle explains that although we can feel less connected, courses can be purposefully designed to foster community and connection. 

“The past nine months have not been simply learning online but learning online with a backdrop of major global changes and stress,” says Rawle. This makes the understanding of “trauma-aware teaching” more important and the pedagogy of kindness even more prominent. Rawle always asks faculty and staff whether they think students are under more stress than usual, and unanimously they say yes, the same response coming from the students themselves. 

Rawle also explains how essential it is to address the stigma of accessing mental health support because many think that they do not need support. The idea that we are all works in progress suggests that at some point in our lives, we all need to ask for help. This also ties back to the idea of connection and honesty, since through connections, we recognize that everyone needs help with different things. Rawle explains how she is open with her students about the many times in her life where she was scared or really stressed. She also states that she is impressed by the recent development and decrease in stigma with respect to mental health support for students.

However, other adversities are prominent in the STEM fields, differing by gender. The gender bias that exists in the STEM field is one that is very well documented. Professor Rawle says she has experienced this bias on different levels herself. “It is really important to address that this bias exists and be open to evidence-based strategies to overcome it because it is not enough to acknowledge its existence and do nothing.” We need to be able to talk openly about it—this applies to all sorts of biases, not just gender bias. It is important to acknowledge that biases exist and take purposeful steps to mitigate them. “This goes back to the idea that we are all works in progress, we all have biases of different types, and we have to learn about them.”

Furthermore, it is important to have mentors who can come from all different aspects of your life, not just university. Rawle explains that she purposely tries to use examples of research from people with different backgrounds—people that look different from one another. Representation matters, and it is important for students to see work from scholars of diverse backgrounds in their field. Building connections create an inclusive community that has representation from lots of different groups. 

Rawle is “part of a community of seven female professors and [they] meet frequently to support each other and give each other feedback.” She explains that, to this day, she has mentors she stays in contact with for advice because she too is still progressing. Rawle learns just as much from her students as she hopes they learn from her. Her students continuously surprise and leave her in awe, allowing her to see connections that she did not even realize were there. “I have students overcome huge burdens to just even be at university, and they bring with them this very different perspective that I really enjoy.” 

Rawle also emphasizes the importance for students to “work on building connections because there are so many people there to support you, but you have to take the first step to reach out and build those connections.” She elaborates that “professors are there because they want to be there to support you. Work on building very meaningful connections with peers, with professors, and with staff on campus.” 

She encourages all students to “try new things because there is no one perfect path.” In order to be able to figure out what interests us, we must be open to trying new things. We need to normalize the idea that we are all works in progress; it is normal to try and fail—this is an integral part of the learning process. 

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