The old adage of “one page ahead” is dangerous territory for any teacher to find themselves in. Our students justifiably expect that our knowledge of our chosen subject area is more extensive than their own. But the current train of thought in New Zealand that more academic qualifications (knowledge) equates to more effective teaching is a fallacy.
I trained with people with PhDs in their chosen subject areas some of whom struggled to share that knowledge effectively with their students. Some never made it to a classroom. Why? Because when it comes to teaching, pedagogical skills (often considered to be lower level thinking than knowledge) win over subject knowledge every time. So in this regard, the push towards more time in the classrooms for secondary teacher trainees, IF adequately resourced, is a positive move.
Teaching is not an exact science. It is both art and science, profession and vocation. It requires knowledge, pedagogical understanding, experience, empathy and stamina. Experts in their fields have a tendency to forget what it is like to struggle. Their ability to recall the difficulty in learning new concepts, at breaking down subject material into bite-sized chunks for students can in fact be a hindrance. This is vital in classrooms characterised with a range of learning needs from low literacy to ADHD combined with hormones, cell phones and an endless list of other potential barriers to learning in any classroom on any given day.
It is a well known fact that we are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist. That most of students will have not only more than one job but more than one career during their working lives and that those with a wide range of transferrable skills are most likely to succeed in a future where the pace of change is exponential. Yes, shift truly happens.
On the other hand, in some instances, it might be okay to be not just one page ahead but actually on the same page as students. A focus on inquiry-based learning in New Zealand’s curriculum, which has become almost modus operandi in our primary schools, endorses this approach. Multiple pathways to accessing, processing and synthesising new information have made it acceptable to trek the learning path alongside our students – and that in itself can have benefits for student-teacher relationships. It allows students see us as human and therefore fallible too. This is especially the case with digital technology. (Who hasn’t used a 14-year-old as their ICT go to in a classroom?!)
At the end of the day, it is how we use and share our knowledge that has the potential to make a difference to students’ lives. Pedagogical content knowledge means being aware of different teaching strategies, being able to adapt and employ them, accepting that one size does not fit all and, like our students, not being afraid to try again if things don’t work out as we anticipated the first time around.
It’s a real shame that the decision makers in New Zealand seem so far removed from the daily realities of teaching. The current obsession with more bits of paper (proof of knowledge) highlights the gap between what the general public believe makes effective teachers and the diverse skill set teachers actually require to succeed.
When I chose to become a teacher five years ago, I had plenty of knowledge in my chosen subject areas backed up by 17 years industry experience. What I didn’t have were the skills to share my knowledge (and experiences) with my students. After four years teaching and learning in four different schools, I’m getting there but the beauty of teaching is we can never know everything while our skills in student-centred learning environments, by definition, must be constantly developing. Surely this in itself makes us if not good role models than at least good ambassadors of the life long learning philosophy espoused in the New Zealand Curriculum?