Doubts of my students: Expert teaching is no better than good-enough teaching

Teaching is a great job. I particularly appreciate how teaching keeps me thinking and questioning, which is particularly important for an education researcher. I’m teaching two classes this semester. I’ve mentioned recently how my data structures class has me thinking about new kinds of practice activities. I am also teaching a course on educational technology, where we’re reading How People Learn. Chapter 7 is a fascinating read with three detailed accounts of high-quality learning environments with expert teachers, one each in history, mathematics, and science. The chapter includes some strong claims about teaching:

The interplay between content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge illustrated in this chapter contradicts a commonly held misconception about teaching–that effective teaching consists of a set of general teaching strategies that apply to all content areas. This notion is erroneous….These examples provide glimpses of outstanding teaching in the disco- pline of history. The examples do not come from “gifted teachers” who know how to teach anything: they demonstrate, instead, that expert teachers have a deep understanding of the structure and epistemology of their disciplines, combined with knowledge of the kinds of teaching activities that will help students come to understand the discipline for themselves. As we previously noted, this point sharply contradicts one of the popular—and dangerous—myths about teaching: teaching is a generic skill and a good teacher can teach any subject.

We had a great discussion in class about this last night. HP is claiming that an expert teacher has (1) discipline knowledge, (2) understanding about teaching and learning, (3) understanding of conceptual barriers that students face in the discipline, and (4) a set of effective strategies for addressing those conceptual barriers. (3) and (4) on that list is what we call pedagogical content knowledge, discipline-specific knowledge for how to teach that discipline. My students don’t argue that CS PCK (pedagogical content knowledge about teaching CS) doesn’t exist. They just argue that it’s not necessary to be “effective.”

It may be a “dangerous myth” but my students cling to it pretty stubbornly. ”If you know the content, and you know about how people learn, then you can teach that content. You may not be as good as a teacher with years of experience, but you’re good enough.” That’s almost an exact quote from one of the students in my class last night. I tried to argue that, not only is it better to have CS PK, but we can also teach Cs PCK, so that a first year teacher can be much more effective than a brand new teacher who doesn’t know anything about student problems or teaching strategies. They pushed back. ”How much more does PACK contribute to being a good teacher, beyond just knowledge of the discipline and knowledge of learning sciences?” Since I don’t know how to measure knowledge of CS well, nor how to measure CS PK, I have two unknowns, so I can’t really answer the question.

One way of interpreting my students’ comments is sheer hubris. These are young, smart Georgia Tech undergrads (and a smattering of grad students). In their minds, they are intellectually invulnerable, able to tackle any academic challenge, and certainly better than any teacher from a school of education. Several of them mentioned Teach for America in their comments, an organization whose existence encourages them to think that teaching is not so hard. Maybe their comments also are the thoughts of expert learners — these students have had to teach themselves often, so they don’t see expert teaching as a necessity.

Another way of interpreting my students’ comments which is much more intellectually challenging is that the difference between an effective and expert teacher is hard to see. A recent Anytime article speaks to the enormous value of expert teachers — over a student’s lifetime. Barbara has pointed out that, in her experience, the first year that a teacher teaches AP CS, none of his or her students will pass the AP CS (with a score of 3 or better). Even some veteran teachers have few test-passers, but all the teachers who get many test-passers are veterans with real teaching expertise. But how do you make those successes visible? As we’ve talked about here before:How do we measure good teaching?

As a teacher of education research, I wasn’t so successful yesterday. I failed at convincing my class (at least, a vocal group of students in my class) that there is some value in expert teaching, that it’s something to be developed and valued. What I worry is that these are not just the thoughts of a few undergraduates. How many more people think that it’s easy to learn to be a teacher? How many other adults, voting citizens, even members of school boards agree with my students — that expert teaching is not that much better than effective teaching, so hiring a bunch of young, smart kids to teach is good enough?

Deepa Singh
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