What Can’t an Expert Do?
Last week, mailing list discussion included this striking phrase: “It is *impossible* to teach something you do not know.” That phrase bas been bouncing around my head for the last few days and it will NOT RESOLVE.
That simple idea simultaneously explains why I had the amazing opportunity to start teaching at 22, and strikes at the core of my concerns about middle school.
By way of background, the mailing list is one dedicated to CS teachers, specifically to ones looking for something other than AP prep support. The community is filled with K-12 teachers, university academics and gifted programmers (not mutually exclusive sets!), many of who share a deep concern that poorly conceived and inexpertly taught Intro CS courses do lasting damage to students’ enthusiasm and practice. As in many academic community, this community generally shares a belief that teaching an Intro course places huge demands on a teacher’s subject matter expertise, often in more subtle ways than advanced courses.
So there’s a real concern about teachers who just wing it, who run 30 pages ahead of their students in the textbook. In my head, it will always be the Rudy Huxtable ManeuverVodpod videos no longer available.
This concern is at the heart of the Common Core standards, and at the heart of every state’s “well-qualified” teacher programs. For years it was my primary selling point as an educator – “Choose me! I’ve got enough grounding in group theory that I won’t make a hash of the arithmetic properties!” I don’t think I would have ever passed the Wu-mustard, but it was a good differentiator at the time.
I love experts. I think the recipe for a great content teacher is someone who ties deep subject knowledge to solid pedagogy and reflective practice. But I’m less sure that every teacher in a student’s life needs to be that pillar of content knowledge, or that students should access the teachers primarily through the lens of that subject.
In a school where every adult is an expert in one singular thing, where do students learn how to begin? Great coaches can encourage and train novice athletes, but their advice doesn’t reach kids who don’t see themselves as athletes. Subject expert teachers contribute to the Captain Planet / Bionic 6 / My Little Pony / Thundercats / Smurfs influenced, Orville Reddenbacher articulated disease at the heart of adolescence. “Do one thing, and do it better than anyone.” (Yes, I’ve complained about this before). That’s nice when you’re an old man with a popcorn popper. It’s a craptastic slogan when you’re 12 and feel alternately good at four things or horrible at EVERYTHING.
It may be impossible to *teach* something you don’t know, but it’s surprisingly easy to start learning something.
When I teach programming to 5th graders, I feel pretty confident being the expert. In my high school class, I’m happy to be a peer with a slightly richer resource base. I may feel a bit embarrassed when I drop syntax or define my data model badly, but making those mistakes on the board or in IRC seem important to me. How do you learn how dig out from under your mistakes? Here, let me show you! There’s a power in failing, honestly and openly failing, in front of students.
Middle school students in particular could use a lot more exposure to adults struggling to master new skills, especially skills that are within the reach of the students themselves. I’ll walk my pink ukulele into our student guitar club, knowing that my half dozen chords can’t keep up with anyone in the room. I’d love to see more language and history teachers struggling with math homework, math teachers fumbling with French pronunciation. Librarians on the LAX field! Coaches using the centrifuge!
Students definitely need access to experts. They need accessible and dependable sources for far-sighted advice and guidance about every subject. But they also need adults to be their peers in being beginners. They need to see models of enthusiasm in the face of failure, of perseverance to the idea of learning that’s not coerced by a grade. They need coaches and mentors that aren’t experts to stand alongside them through the daily struggles of learning.