I’ve been pondering questions of educational reform and effective learning for a long time now. I ask myself, where did the idea ever come from that teachers needed to know everything?
In a traditional classroom the teacher stands at the front of the room and imparts his or her knowledge to the students. The students take it in, write it down and memorize it. We then give them a test designed so that they must regurgitate what they have learned. Errors are marked with a red X. The teacher must then show them the “gaps” in their learning.
This is a deficit-based model of student evaluation. The tests highlight students deficiencies. Only if they get very good marks on a test do we celebrate their success. There’s this idea that if only we could stuff our students’ heads with the right information, then they’ll be successful students. Which means they’d be successful in life, of course. The higher they go in the educational system and the more tests they can pass, they smarter they are and the more successful they’ll be.
I’m a product of this system. I went through the ranks, earned a high school diploma, then a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, then a PhD. Technically, I – and all my other PhD colleagues – are living proof that the system works.
The problem is that it propagates the idea of the teacher being the centre of all knowledge. We know today that model of education isn’t working with 21st century students. We know that collaborative approaches to education are more effective.
We know that teachers being “a guide on the side” rather than “a sage on the stage” engages students more.
There is tension between an outdated, highly revered system that puts the teacher at the front of the classroom, which effectively becomes an intellectual pedestal. It also puts incredible pressure on them to know everything. What could possibly be more intimidating? And more impossible?
Teachers are not ambulatory encyclopedias.
They do not – will not – and can not – know everything.
A teacher who makes a mistake is not a bad teacher. He or she is simply human.
Of course teachers need to hone their craft, build their knowledge and engage in personal and professional development so they learn both the depth and breadth of what they are teaching. There’s no question about that. But in today’s world where information is at our fingertips, where there are more articles, Tweets, blog posts, videos, webinars, scholarly journals and conferences on any given topic than any human could possibly absorb in one lifetime, we need to get one thing straight:
We can never know everything on a topic.
Being interested, engaged and dedicating years of deep study to a topic does not mean we’ll ever know everything on that topic.
It’s also our job to guide students and, if we’re doing our job right, to unleash their curiosity and their inner drive to discover, to challenge them and provide sufficiently safe environments for them to explore and challenge themselves further and to discover the best that they can be.
As I look back on my own years as as student, the “best” teachers… the ones who inspired, motivated and struck that oh-so-elusive balance between kicking their students in the butt and giving them healthy doses of sincere encouragement, those are the teachers I remember the most.
As this school year draws to a close, who are the teachers you remember?
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.