Beginners and Experts
“A great teacher is an expert in her subject, but carries inside the mindset of a novice.”
This is the best response I have when someone presses me about what makes a good teacher. It’s cocktail party good, in that it balances two ends of a binary and sounds familiar enough to make everyone nod. Every adult has memories of many teachers who failed them by falling off either edge of that balanced continuum. Some so rich in subject knowledge, but lacking any language to help students into their discipline. Others frustrated and angry when their subject knowledge is outstripped by an adolescent, or when they’re stumped by a 3rd grader. So, yeah, clearly we want what’s in the middle. Someone with a deep knowledge of their subject, but who can remember what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. This is a powerful image, evoking the best of our cultural presentiments of what a teacher should be. The extended hand, the timely recommendation, the insight gleaned from student error. In all honestly, this was my schtick through my first decade of teaching – the math teacher who hated math class, bringing good news back from the farther shore.
In the last year, I’ve started to wonder about the sustainability and necessity of this particular vision of “great teachers.” Especially when it comes to adolescents and the middle grades. Especially when we’re hip-deep in the 21st century, and subject matter expertise is incredibly accessible and highly commoditized.
This essay from Phillip Torrone has me poking at that definition from another angle. Is it really possible to retain any of a beginner’s powerful fearlessness and improvisation when you’ve defined your role as being the “expert”?
Experts stay still; beginners are constantly moving. An expert can point out the difficulty in every project, while the beginner can only see possibilities (and later many ways to make mistakes) … Beginners do very simple things before they understand what they are doing, but they are simplistic. Experts struggle to make things simple because they want to put everything they know in something, to demonstrate their expertise.