Freebies – January giveaway!

In no particular order, each of the next 10 posts will be a ‘top-tip’ on classroom practice. These are devices or approaches that I’ve found to be effective in, either, improving performance – if we’re looking at exams – or just in helping the harassed teacher survive until the holidays.

Today – 10: Be the expert.

It’s so obvious it barely requires stating – you can’t possibly teach effectively if you aren’t an expert, or a developing expert, in the subject you are teaching.

This doesn’t, however, just mean that you should be the most expert at the specific topic (eg, the presentation of Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men) that you’re teaching, but also in the surrounding, subsidiary knowledge.

Assuming that Anders Ericsson’s point about experts possessing a complex schema of understanding is correct, this means that the web of understanding the teacher has is made up of myriad, interconnected, nuggets of knowledge and experiences. If you are just expert in one specific topic, there is no way in which you can suggest a student improves – you don’t, for example, have a way to extend knowledge by linking the presentation of Curley’s wife with the presentation of women in other literature, an extension that many students might benefit from.

Let’s take another example: you have a student who struggles to spell. You have two choices – you can go to your ‘expert teacher’ mode, where you work with ‘look, cover, write, check’, which won’t work for all students; or you go to ‘expert speller’ mode, where you cycle through the multiple strategies that you have used in your time, learning to spell. I’m afraid to say that I learned to spell from a lot of spelling tests, a lot of reading, and a heck of a lot of looking stuff up in the dictionary, together with correcting errors – there’s four strategies, straightaway (and look, cover, write, check was not one of them!). This may, however, mean that you need to stop the class, take a moment, model an approach, and then move back to the ‘main’ work of the lesson. In reality, the expertise you are demonstrating is that of the expert reader / writer / mathematician / scientist – not the model of the expert teacher. The expert teacher as a tool for learning should be kept for those needing to develop their teaching expertise – ie, teachers.

(Teaching, then, is the vessel through which expertise is shared and reproduced – through whichever means are most successful. It has become a bit of a fad with OFSTED and observations to show expert teaching, whereas, actually, this comes from understanding how expertise in your subject is created).

The caveat here, however, is that to become an expert in a discipline, you must always be learning – it is not enough just to be more of an expert than the others in the room – the schema of knowledge always has the potential to grow. To share expertise, the teacher needs to have a passion for that expertise, and the will to overcome their own weaknesses. When was the last time you read a book on your subject? Do you still have the passion for the subject, or are you now a ‘career teacher’, and your own learning has ceased?

I remember all too clearly being asked questions when I first started teaching to which I didn’t know the answers. They were now, I see, quite simple questions, but the knowledge and skills I had used to pass my degree and my teaching qualification, were just not good enough to be able to answer those particular questions. It is only through developing my own knowledge of my subject that I am able now to answer those questions – or ask the students the questions I had to ask myself in order to answer those questions.

So, at 10: Be the expert.

Next, 9: How to make the most of observations.

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