Roland: Bringing teaching into the world

Editor’s note: Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. This is one of a series of stories highlighting teaching excellence at Western.

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Sophie Roland stresses that all the world is a stage for her students.

“We teach applied music; we teach lessons; we teach opera. But I have tried to go beyond this direct and practical approach and add more experiential learning into the curriculum of our students, in particular international experiential learning,” the Don Wright Faculty of Music professor said.

Each summer for the last decade, Roland has led the Canadian Operatic Arts Academy at Western involving singers, musicians, conductors, directors and tradespeople who go into making an opera happen. As part of the academy, students spend five weeks in Italy, specifically Tuscany, where they mount an opera through Accademia Europea dell’Opera.

“As instructors, we have a direct rapport with students – a one-on-one rapport. We teach them applied lessons, be it opera, piano, voice or any other instrument. That already creates a different kind of approach to teaching. We take the theory the students have been learning in the classrooms and bring it into a quasi-professional setting, trying to approximate what they will be facing in their first professional experience.”

The international experiential learning introduces students to some of Europe’s top conductors, coaches and directors.

“Students learn the kind of rapport they’ll need once they’ve reached this stage, but in a safe and nurturing environment because we’re still in an academic setting,” Roland said. “There are new language skills; some have never lived on their own in new environment like this. They are working on soft skills, like resilience, work ethic, flexibility, balancing work and life responsibilities. The temptations for not working are high; they have to find their own balance individually which will resemble the kind of professional life they want to have as professional musicians.”

Roland was recently selected to be part of the Teaching Fellows Program in Western’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. There, faculty members develop teaching innovation projects, perform research on the impact of those projects and provide professional development opportunities in teaching within their own faculties.

With this new opportunity, Roland has begun studying the impact of this international experiential-learning opportunity for her students.

“We want to assess the true impact it can have on a student development of professional and soft skills, by incorporating a lot more reflective learning,” she said. “We, as faculty, see the results, but we want the students to speak about their experiences and discover for themselves whether or not they are improving on their skills. Not only are we, as faculty, delivering what we think is strong learning, but we are asking them to participate into the evaluation of this process. The mutual feedback we are creating will strengthen the experience on both sides.”

Roland added it’s crucial to have the students be part of the process.

“The more we can communicate back and forth, the more we strengthen the end result, the larger impact we can have,” she said. “I am deeply invested and passionate about student involvement. I want to give them this opportunity, but at the same time know if it actually improves their participation and level of engagement.”

That engagement is also about taking the experience beyond the classroom.

“You have to have life experience to come out on the other end and look at a piece of music and let it speak for you. We need to help these students find those experiences,” Roland said. “They can observe us from the audience, but if they are able to perform side-by-side, share the stage, this enhances our teaching. There are several moments that are just not teachable in a classroom setting, you have to live them.

“We can teach them about Mozart, his music, how to technically sing, spend countless hours refining our technique. But to put that into practice requires an endless list of soft skills that are hard to teach. The more we can bring that world to them the more successful the students will be at the next step. As a teacher, we can take them along.”

Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. It will be dedicated to discussing teaching, celebrating achievement and exploring how to advance the practice towards greater success. Attendees will include higher education leaders, innovators, investors and government policy-makers from around the world.

“The more we can be in contact with other professors and learn about successful ways they have brought to the classroom, the better we can be,” she said. “This opportunity is fantastic for professors who are also passionate about teaching.

“Students respond to passion, to dedication, to the love you have for what you do and how you communicate that to them. The more you are engaged in that process, the more you get back. If you cultivate that relationship with your students, it’s a pleasure to be in the classroom”