Innovation Requires Subject Area Expertise

adsit80By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

[Note: This article was first published by John Adsit as a comment to “‘Has the Internet obsoleted formal schools?’” on 5 August 2010. -js]

“This alone tells us that teacher as sole source of info is no longer viable.” –Jim

When I participated in the creation of the teaching standards of performance for our school district, I ran into some interesting research regarding the common teaching styles of teachers with different levels of academic preparation. The results were probably counterintuitive to most people. Teachers with strong academic preparation in their subject areas were most likely to focus their instruction on thinking skills and project-based learning. Teachers with the weakest academic preparation tended to focus instruction on rote fact retention, with themselves as the primary sources of information.

The research did not not attempt to explain why that was true. Because it was a phenomenon I had observed myself over the years, I had a theory of my own. I believed there were two factors at work.

The first was a lack of understanding by the minimally prepared teacher of how very much there was to know and what a tiny percentage of it all could possibly be taught. This led poorly prepared instructors to overestimate the importance of the fraction they knew and believe that in forcing students to learn that, they were doing a more complete job of educating them than they really were.

More strongly prepared teachers knew that the ability to use information effectively is more important than mere fact retention.

More importantly, though, I believe poorly prepared instructors fear the unknown. Will they be able to handle concepts students encounter if they were to stray outside the teacher’s knowledge base?

I had that thought when, at the same time I was encountering that research, a student engaged in a project asked for some help. She had encountered an article that referred in an off hand way to a certain author’s “epistemological negativism,” and she needed an interpretation. I did happen to know the meaning of the phrase, and I was also able to tell from the context that the student did not really need to know that in order to continue on her way. If I had not known the meaning of the phrase, I would have known that there was no shame in not knowing it, and I would have had the confidence to work with her to explore the topic.

It is similar to the time I decided to teach a short story by Yukio Mishima (“Swaddling Clothes”), which I had never read before making that decision. I read it and then came up with a unique assignment. I told students that they should come to class with a list of the key points they would make if they were to teach the story themselves. One of the students laughed and said, “In other words, you have no clue what it is about.”

She was right, and I admitted it. The next day we had one of the greatest class periods of my life as we energetically and enthusiastically examined the story as equals.

7 Responses

  1. John has touched on one very important reason why some teachers fail: fear of the unknown, which translates to fear of failure, which implies fear of losing control. By embracing the unknown, teachers expand the horizons of their students and, sometimes, of themselves.

    Those with more education may have encountered and conquered the unknown more often than those with less and so may be more prepared to accept it and deal with it in a classroom setting.

    I suspect, without having taken a survey, that more teachers believe that they can handle the unknown that actually can.

    I also believe that more education simply means more opportunities to encounter the unknown, that it’s just a statistical thing. People with less, but excellent, education may excel in handling unexpected questions they don’t know the answers to.

    These thoughts point to the fact, the very real fact, that we absolutely must provide excellent education to all of our young people, many of whom will become teachers. Which sort of education would you have them perpetuate?

  2. Hi John,

    When I read your text as comment to Jim’s Has the Internet obsoleted formal schools? post, it reminded me of when I got a job for which I was beastlily unqualified in 1982: teaching English to electronics engineers. My own training was purely literary, I’m not a native speaker etc. But the organizers had suddenly got the needed funding, it was Summer, I happened to be available, so they appointed me.

    So I’d ransack the Scientific American for “digital” and “electronic” stuff I photocopied and gave them for the following lesson. I remember one article about computerized editing of satellite pictures. I told the students “This sounds thrilling but I’ve never touched a computer yet, so I only have a very hazy idea of what it’s about. I understand how the sentences work, and the normal words, but the tech terms are beyond me. Vice-versa, you probably know the tech terms and have a clearer understanding of the process the article is about. So next time, let’s put our heads together.”

    We did, and it was great. Then 12 years later, by another quirk of bureaucratic miscasting, I found myself teaching French to building engineering students (well, at least French is my native language). So again, I ransacked the technical publications in the school’s library and this time I came up with an article about water infiltration problems in road building for the first two lessons.

    It went OKish, sort of. But just before the beginning of the 2nd lesson, a student came to me: “Errh, the others have delegated me. We really do appreciate your trying to find something in our field, but you see, we are being taught about this stuff all day long. So couldn’t we read a novel instead during these French lessons?”

    We did, much to my relief, actually. The fact I had tried to explore their field had helped breaking the ice. Whereas if I had started with a novel, they might very well have grumbled: “We’ve chosen a tech training because we don’t like literature.”

    What I’m trying to drive at is that the teacher has never been “the sole source of information”. This is perhaps more blatant now, with the info available online, but it’s not new. In the two cases above, my ignorance was a help.

    • I would argue, Claude, that it was not your ignorance that was helpful as much as it was your willingness–your courage–to go to into an area you did not know and be open about it. That is, in fact, exactly what I did in the anecdote at the end of my comment. I fully agree that going into unexplored territory makes for excellent education; my point was that too many are afraid to go there.

  3. Regardless of what happens in the give and take of the classroom, though, the bottom line is THE TEST. If it is on what the teacher says and her/his emphasis in required readings, then all other sources don’t matter. Grades matter, and students quickly figure out what’s relevant to an A and what’s not. That’s always been referred to as learning the teacher rather than the material.

    But the technology of the times dictated this emphasis. In class or small group discussions, great ideas, probing questions, witty and ironic comments, flashes of brilliant insights — all evaporated into the stale atmosphere of the classroom, forgotten moments after their utterance. A test on what anyone said would be close to impossible since there’s no recording that all could reference.

    The internet changes all that, and suddenly nearly all contributions in discussions are recorded and accessible, searchable and reproducible, quotable and movable. This means that the knowledge base can now include students and their comments and papers as well as the infinite number of sources beyond the classroom.

    And if tests were also “open book,” that is, students are free to access all notes and sources durig the exam, then “teacher as sole source” would be an indefensible approach for the vast majority of subjects. -Jim S

    • I think that the problem identified here is caused by a disconnected between the instructional methods and the assessment methods. Alan Cohen of the University of San Francisco has examined instruction and assessment and found that they are USUALLY not aligned. A typical class discussion is a great example.

      Let’s take a typical failed literature discussion. The teacher assigns a reading and then tries to engage the class in a brilliant and witty discussion, but it does not go as well as planned. A few students participate well, but most sit and watch. The teacher hopes that certain key ideas come through, and some do. At the end, the teacher, knowing what FACTS will be on the test, summarizes those key concepts and adds the ones the class missed. The students then take notes on the teacher’s summary in preparation for the test..

      The instruction and the assessment are almost completely misaligned. Most of the students are not participating in the discussion because they have not read the assigned work. They have not read the assigned work because they know they don’t have to–at the end of the class, the teacher will tell them everything they need to know. In the class period, 95% of the instruction was devoted to the process of understanding literature, and 5% was devoted to a summary of the facts brought out (or not) through that process. In the assessment, 100% was based on the facts, which students could have gotten by sleeping through the first 95% of class and waking up at the end. The class period was devoted to process; the assessment was devoted to product.

      How could such a process be aligned with the instruction? Let’s say I assigned something like the poem “Rape” by Adrienne Rich. I could ask the students to talk about whatever diction stood out to them. Some will notice that she uses the word “machine” instead of “typewriter” each time the instrument recording her story is mentioned. Some will notice that the policeman is said to ride a “stallion,” which would not be literally true. As we talk about each of these things, the ideas of the poem emerge.

      How about the assessment? Well, that poem will not be on it. Instead, students will be given a new work, one never discussed. They will then have to use the same processes that were modeled in the class discussion to be successful. In this case, the instruction and the assessment are 100% aligned.

      If you want to teach process, then you have to assess process. If the only thing you assess is product, don’t be surprised when students are not interested in the process.

      The same concept is true for all disciplines. Science labs have a number of purposes, but one of the most important is to teach scientific processes. A student who has completed a good science program should be able to design and conduct experiments to solve new problems, not just repeat back the facts learned in an old one.

  4. John, this is a good poem for discussion because it provides insights into the differences between literal and figurative language and the creation of images and narratives that wouldn’t be possible without both. The persona is a young girl, and we see the cop from her perspective, her reality, which includes her victimization. And in this case, she sees herself being raped twice, the second time “in the sickening light of the precinct.”

    Focusing on certain words, such as “machine,” in different contexts, to construct an overriding image, is a good strategy. I think students would definitely latch on to this word as a key. But they’d also be drawn to the images from confess/confessor, maniac/crazy/hysteria, etc.

    Poetry’s (and Literature’s) strength is in its ability to share, with the reader, emotions at the visceral rather than the literal level, at depths where mere words don’t seem to shine.

    I’d hate to see an experience (which is what a good poem is) such as this turned into a right/wrong test with the teacher’s interpretations taking precedence over the students’. This is where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The teacher would need to be open to the students to devise a “test” that would allow them to experience the poem from their perspectives, e.g., by focusing on imagery at the feeling level to derive meanings at the literal.

    The results among students might vary greatly, and some may be more “logical” than others, but the teacher’s rubric for scoring may need to be fuzzier to accommodate the life differences that students bring to the poem.

    I guess the most rewarding result for me would be a student who makes a personal connection with poetry and says, “I really like this poem. I didn’t know poetry could be used to express such deep and personal thoughts — thoughts that ripple outward into social issues. I’d like to try my hand at writing poems, too.”

    In this case, right and wrong are less important than the student’s self-discovery that poetry can be her own thing, a source of lifetime enjoyment.

    How do you teach teachers to do that? I don’t think you can. It’s something they have to discover, on their own.

    In the same way, realization of the potential of technology to extend one’s powers of educative communication has to be experienced rather than taught to have any real force. -Jim S

    • Declaritive knowledge has long escaped the realm of the teacher except for use in examples. I often use the question Who was the 1st President of the United States? And then continue with, if it was who you think it was then why does Samual Huntington presumably have “Here lies the 1st president of the United States” on his tombstone? And, why does Google list John Hansen 1st when asked the same question? Imagery skills such as those taught via poetry, will dominate the next generation just as proposed by Daniel Pink in “A whole new Mind”. Factual and Process knowledge have all but been conqured. Yet the more tacit wisdom of understanding meaning is obvously our new frontier, and what should be the new focus for educators.

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