CURMUDGUCATIONThe slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.

Source: CURMUDGUCATION: Expertise


Do teachers need to be experts in the subjects they teach or ‘just’ experts at teaching?

I was not the only person to see this tweet and have the following thought…

One of my college education professors drilled this into me, and my last thirty-some years of teaching have only confirmed it– half the secret of classroom management is to know what the hell you’re talking about. The best leverage for classroom management is neither love nor fear– it’s respect. And the best way to garner respect is to be competent, to display expertise in the content area, to know what the hell you’re talking about.

Yes, teaching is both a skill and an art and to do a good job, you have to know the skill and the art of teaching. But just as you can’t have waves without water or air, you cannot have “teaching skills” without content knowledge– and all the teaching skills in the world will not make up for lacking knowledge. You cannot make an awesome lesson about adding two plus two if you do not know that the result is four. You cannot lead your students through an illuminating and inspiring study of Hamlet if you have never read the play yourself. And just as students can smell fear, they can smell uncertainty and lack of knowledge. I don’t mean that you must be infallible in the classroom– but if you don’t know your content well, your students will smell it, and they will wonder why it’s important for them to learn something if the teacher doesn’t even know it.

Can you be an expert in your field and still fail as a teacher because you don’t know how to communicate your knowledge to your students? Sure– most of us have had that teacher. Can you go too far– way too far– in trying to impress upon your students how terribly smart you are? Absolutely– I once spent a very long semester with a student teacher who did not want to be a teacher so much as he wanted to be the smartest student in the room. But content knowledge is still teh foundation for everything else.

This notion of free-floating skills is a plague on our society. Management types believe that they can manage any company with raw management skills, even if they are completely ignorant of what the company does and the specifics of the industry in which they now work. I have watched the major industries in my neck of the woods brought down by people who didn’t know anything about the companies they were managing– but, hey, that’s okay because anyone can manage any company as long as he’s a super-duper manager.

It infects our government– you don’t need to know anything about an agency or sector of the economy to head a bureau or even hold a cabinet-level position. And education is an “industry” that shouldn’t be run by educators, but by business types who have the kind of management experience necessary.

But you cannot develop skills playing a musical instrument without playing something. You can’t learn how to “sport” without putting your hands on the specific object used in that specific sport.

And you can’t teach without teaching something. And you can’t teach something without knowing about that something. And the more you know, the better you will teach.

“Oh, no– I just pull something out and the students and I just, you know, explore and discover together,” you say. “And it works great.” Respectfully, I think you’re probably wrong on several counts.

First of all, unless you are a sensory deprived bat just emerging from a cave, you can’t pull out anything “blind.” You may have never tried that physics inquiry before, but you know about physics. You may never have read that Emerson essay before, but you know who he is and what he believed. And those management problems you have in your classes? Those happen because some of your students don’t think you know your material.

Whether you believe that learning is about following a carefully proscribed path, or wandering pathlessly through a vast territory hoping to find a teachable moment or a unique insight, you cannot take your students on that journey unless you know the territory like the back of your hand. That leadership skill is important, but you cannot learn the “how” of teaching without it being attached to the “what” of content. You can’t just teach– you have to teach something, and you can’t teach that something unless you know about it.

Content knowledge is the foundation of everything else. You cannot be an expert at teaching without being an expert at subject matter. Yes, even teachers of the littles, who in particular need the security of knowing they are in the hands of a grownup who Knows Things.

So the question is bizarre, like asking “Do you need to cook food really well for a good meal, or is it enough just to have a pretty plate on the table.” You cannot be a great cook without food. You cannot be a great musician if you don’t play a note. And you cannot be a great teacher without knowledge of your content.


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