On Campus

Canada’s best teachers: Billy Strean

This 3M winner emphasizes ‘full-body engagement’

In 1986, to recognize the importance of university teaching, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada created the 3M National Teaching Fellowships. Ten university faculty members are recognized each year for their educational leadership and exceptional contributions to teaching. Here we continue our series profiling all 10 of the 2011 3M Teaching Award winners, with a look at Billy Strean, a physical education  professor at the University of Alberta.

If you ask Billy Strean what he teaches, there’s a good chance he will simply say “students.” The University of Alberta physical education professor takes great care to learn as much about his students as he can, typically learning all their names after only a couple of classes. “I find the students more interesting than ‘content’ and I find the process of engaging with the students to be the heart of the learning enterprise,” he says.

At the centre of that enterprise is what Strean calls “exhilarated learning.” The approach features three pegs. The first is “human connection” where Strean spends time getting to know his students and encouraging them to get to know each other.

The second is what he calls “full-body engagement,” or “the synergy of thinking, feeling, and acting.” Here he emphasizes the “mood of the classroom” by playing music, using humour, and employing experiential and group activities. To illustrate flow theory, for example, students may be asked to juggle in class.

Third, Strean “connects content to context.” What matters is not only that students learn the material, but that they understand why it is important. “When the focus is too heavily on the content, a pitfall is trying to ‘cover the material’ at the expense of uncovering meaning and building understanding,” he says.

Strean’s suitability for the classroom is unmistakable. Unlike most university professors, he earned a teaching certificate along with his bachelor of arts, and he has been coaching basketball, soccer, and a variety of other sports since he was 16. His doctorate is in sport and exercise psychology.

Strean’s enthusiasm for teaching combined with a charming personality, infectious smile and magnetic presence leaves his students more than a little taken with him. Shelby Stollery who took a third-year class with Strean called, “Structure and Strategy of Games” describes what she calls a “ridiculous enthusiasm.” He frequently opens classes with a dance, a joke, or by blasting baroque music.

“One day we played ‘historical basketball’ and started off by playing the original game with the original rules from the 1800’s,” she says. “We didn’t even realize how much we were learning because we were having too much fun.”

Another student refers to “the awesomeness that is ‘The Strean,’” while yet another calls him an “amazing human being.”

High praise, but it all stems from Strean’s simple student-centred philosophy: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

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