This post is probably geared toward secondary teachers most, but I can see there being an application of the idea K-12. I just think it is usually secondary teachers who struggle with it the most.
A while back in time, I was working with a group of teachers (site, district shall remain nameless) who all taught the same subject (for sake of discussion, let’s say it was math). They were a lovely bunch of passionate educators, and I was pleased to be working with them on some tech integration planning. Nevertheless, I was challenging them with some tough questions. Here is one that got them:
“Is everyone in the room here good at Math?”
They all looked around the room and nodded with increasing intensity. Yes, they finally said.
“Was everyone in the room good at Math in school?”
Again they looked around and nodded confidently. Yes, everyone in the room had been very good at Math.
“Are you sure?”
They regarded each other for a very long time, and finally one of them looked at me, and perhaps seeing the twinkle in my eye, came to the realization:
“Were you? We don’t know if you are good at Math. We don’t know if you were good at Math in high school.”
Exactly. An illustration of a sometimes large blind spot. We then had a very nice conversation that got to the roots of this blind spot in our teaching:
- We assume others understand things as easily as we do/did.
- Most teachers did not specialize in a subject they were poor at in school.
- It is hard to understand when others don’t grasp concepts as easily as we do/did.
- When like groups work together, these truths are even harder to consider
- We have a tendency to heap praise on those who are wired with aptitudes most similar to our own.
For some teachers, this realization is a cornerstone to their emergence as a great teacher. The true skill of a teacher is not in how well they understand the content area, but in how effectively they can relate that content to students, especially the ones for whom it doesn’t come easily.
For a great example of this, see the new iteration of Cosmos, hosted by Dr. Neil DeGrasse-Tyson. He displays the greatest quality of a teacher: knowing his stuff, but teaching it in a way that is easy to relate to, even if one is not an astrophysicist.
Here are a few ways teachers can stay grounded and not make mistakes related to this blind spot.
- Talk with your struggling students. A lot. Ask them what is working and what is not. They need you far more than those who grasp the content easily. Remember, you have likely have no experience with struggling in this content area, since you chose to be a teacher in the subject. They do. Learn from them.
- Gear the majority of your instruction to those who struggle learning the content. In most cases, the group that does not possess natural aptitude in the subject will be half or more of the class. Challenge your students with more natural aptitude to explain the application and synthesis of the concepts beyond your instruction.
- Don’t over-emphasize your own content knowledge or expertise. Having a Ph.D. in classical literature gives you no inherent advantage in helping eighth graders to understand plot and theme. What does give you an advantage is if you can understand where students struggle to understand, and help to relate the content to them in a way they will connect with. That requires very little true content knowledge, but does require understanding what it’s like to not understand these concepts.
- Use true formative assessment. Not for them, but for you. Find effective ways to gauge how your students (all of them!) are learning, and adjust the pace, intensity, or method as necessary.
- Most of us have some areas that are difficult to learn. Ask yourself, “How would I want to learn if this was (my worst subject)?”
A final reiteration on this:
Remember that the students who need you most will not need your content expertise nearly as much as your empathy.