There’s No “I” in “Expert”

| By Gary Harstein

I remember my early days as a newly “minted” classroom teacher.  As I planned the first lessons for my elementary students, I was a bit overwhelmed.  30 students, six subjects (including PE) and a year’s worth of knowledge I was charged with, as I believed, imparting to eager young minds ready to sop it up like sponges.  But how?  How was I going to master content in all of these areas?  Of course I had completed the post-graduate requirements for a teaching credential.  But did I learn everything I needed?  Did it prepare me to suddenly be an expert on all things?  How would I handle the questions?  How would I deal with the subtle distinctions about subject matter that didn’t fall into my own academic “sweet spot?”  “They’ll know I’m a fraud,” I thought to myself. “What am I doing here?”

Sound familiar to anyone? A part of me wishes I knew then much of what I have come to understand now.  If only I’d “gotten it” back then.  But I did what most teachers did.  I prepared by looking at the texts, the content that was both provided and required by my district, and becoming familiar with it enough to be able to regurgitate it to my students in one form or another.  More often than not, that form took the shape of a lecture.  Sure, I wrote on the board and drew (very bad) pictures to drive my points home. But I stood in front of the class, like my teachers had done before me, and I told them “how it is.”  Never mind that I’d likely be bored-out-of-my-mind if I had to sit through my own lecture.  They needed to know this stuff and it was my job to make them learn it.

It’s easy as educators to see ourselves, and to want to be seen, as the experts in the classes we teach.  But what does it mean to be that expert? Does it mean we have to be the ultimate source of knowledge about everything?  Can we realistically be the ultimate source of knowledge about everything?  And if we could, is that really what our students need?

Not long ago, in an Edutopia piece entitled “The 21st Century Digital Learner,” Marc Prensky challenged us with a new perspective. In today’s digital age, students are engaged and connected at a level never seen before.  They have instant access to volumes of information on virtually any topic one can imagine.  They’ve played online games that require them to fail repeatedly, and in doing so provide opportunities for them to learn from their mistakes.  They can ask a question and get an immediate answer – one that speaks to them in a language they understand and on their own terms.  So why do we still plan our lessons in the same old way?  There’s a missing piece, according to Prensky: the student’s voice!

Helping educators implement blended learning has brought this issue to light for me, as well as for many of the teachers I support.  Teachers are beginning to understand that to reach today’s students, we need to engage with them, not talk at them.  But incorporating students’ perspectives into planning? Well, that’s the equivalent of heresy for many experienced educators.  But, when we really think about it, doesn’t it simply make sense?  If we’re really trying to engage students and make learning meaningful to them, don’t their opinions matter?  Do we simply discount their input because they are the “learners” and we are the “teachers?”

If you haven’t done so already, I ask you all to read this important piece. Don’t just look it over, but really dive into it. And as you read it, I ask you to consider the following:

1. How do I plan my lessons now?  Do I simply re-do what seems to have worked in years past? Or do I look for new ways to engage students with the content?

2. Am I really reaching my students?  Are they getting all they can from my class?  Do I really engage them?

3. Am I afraid to actually ask students the questions that the author does?  Am I confident enough in my own ability to take “criticism” and learn from it – especially when the feedback is coming from students? Or is that too much of a challenge to my role as the “expert?”

4. If you answered “no” to question #3, why?  What is driving that fear? How can you overcome it?

5. Is the author making valid points about student feedback? And if so, how do I move from where I am now, toward a more student-centered approach to learning?

The five considerations outlined above point to one central theme:  changing the way we think of “teaching.”  As we explore issues in online and blended learning this year, we need to remember why we’re looking at these “new” models.  Good blended learning – a hybrid of face-to-face and online instruction – addresses all of these and more.  The most difficult challenge for many of us in education is admitting that we don’t have to know it all.  Our expertise as teachers is still needed – we just have to learn new ways to apply it.  We need to focus on actually helping all students to learn, and not just teaching to the middle and hoping students memorize and regurgitate enough correct answers to be passed along to the next grade level.

Remember, it’s not about the technology. It’s about the learning.  We have to walk the talk. If we are able to chanage the way we do things because we’ve learned a better way, aren’t we really modeling excellent learning practices for our students? And isn’t that ultimately why we’re here?