Great Teachers Are Content Area Experts Balanced with Skills

May 9, 2013 — 2 Comments

Tuesday nights are #edchat nights on Twitter, and educators across the country, even across the globe, discuss topics of general interest for an hour. Last night (5/7) the topic was posted: What is BIG Shift in ed that everyone is looking for? Is there 1 idea that can positively affect education? While I was surfing the column of tweets that piling up, I was alarmed by one of the “tweets” in one of the sidebar discussions that break out between tweeters.The topic began with a comment about high school teachers by one tweeter”

Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?

The response to this question caught my eye and made me a little concerned: 

 HS Ts need not be content experts, but rather good directors and literate within their subject.

The brevity in Twitter-language communication often makes the tone in tweets sound dogmatic; many read like proclamations, and this was a proclamation I found startling. Yes, teachers need to be good directors, but the standard for literate is “being able to  know how to read and write” in a subject area? That definition sets a low bar for teachers.  My own experience in school guided my response; I tweeted back:

I respectfully disagree; my best HS teachers were content experts. Made me want to know what they knew.

The return tweet by was unsettling:

Good T[teachers] facilitate learning & help S[students] engage. With tech, a content-expert is less imp. 

Captured in the dialogue above is a contemporary problem in education, a growing separation between skills or content created by the exponential growth of information.  For example, in 2011, The Telegraph published “Welcome to the Information Age – 174 Newspapers a Day” which began:

The growth in the internet, 24-hour television and mobile phones means that we now receive five times as much information every day as we did in 1986.

The article written by Richard Alleyne, illustrated the explosion in the increase of information using a variety of statistics:

  • Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase. 
  • We now each have the equivalent of 600,000 books stored in computers, microchips and even the strip on the back of a credit card.
  • In 1986 we received around 40 newspapers full of information every day- this rocketed to 174 in 2007.
  • The ability to process all this information with computers has doubled every 18 months.

Today’s information overload is the major reason that many educators are promoting 21st Century skills; there is little hope that any human could manage the amount of information available. Instead there is every reason to believe that developing the necessary skills to access information is critical in education. However, to declare that teachers do not need to be content experts is a step in the wrong direction. 

Would anyone want a doctor or lawyer who was skilled but lacked content knowledge? Would anyone want a business manager or a craftsman who had content knowledge but no skills?  Why then do respected educators suggest that there should be a preference for skills over content in the teaching profession ? The problem appears to be that many people, educators included, connect content knowledge in the classroom with “lecture”. This association is evidenced by another tweeter who continued the conversation:

Content I agree, but just trying to focus away from “content expert” = lecturer. That’s not best role.

Really? For thousands of years, information was passed from one generation to another through the lecture format. Each subsequent generation added more knowledge in lecture formats, preparing the next generation for an undefined future. So did the Socratic method (5th C BCE) which encouraged debate and inquiry between teacher and students in order to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. Instructors used dialectic methods, arguments to persuade and inform. Now, suddenly, because there is an over-abundance of information, the lecture is dead?

Well, certainly the long and dry lecture delivered to students without their participation has always been deadening. Contemporary educators have adapted and improved the lecture by delivering content through different strategies to accomodate different learning styles.  Successful instruction is not delivered from the podium, but delivered in mini-lessons, project-based assessments, literature circles, reading and writing workshops, and labs. Yet, there was one more concern about the teacher as content expert, a concern about teacher control:

T[teachers]s direct content. S[students]s don’t have total control, but the emphasis needs to shift to the S[students]s.

While this tweet sounded blunt, the reality is that teachers do direct a great deal of content in delivering content knowledge as outlined in curriculum, and that content could be lost in turning control over to the students. There are many ways students can be offered choice in content: choice in independent reading, choice in research, choice in project presentation. Students must first have some content to make decisions and to take control of their learning. This sentiment was reflected in one of the last tweets in the conversation:

I agree content experts are important, but not as important as allowing S[students}s to access and struggle to understand.

I added my final comment:

Sure, if they [teachers] give them [students] the answers all the time. But a content expert knows questions-what to ask & where to help guide.

That struggle for understanding is exactly what has happened for millenium, from instructor to student. This Twitter conversation had come full circle, a full Socratic circle. Through Twitter’s #edchat, educators discussed the teacher as content expert or as a skilled instructor. We were participating in reasoned debate from our different points of view about a subject in order to establish a truth.

balanceThe sidebar conversation on #edchat had begun with the question, “Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?” This answer to this question is not a choice between content knowledge or being “great” with skill. Furthermore, the skill to dispense knowledge is enhanced not replaced by technology.

In determining what makes a teacher great, on #edchat or in any other forum, there is no “or”…the balanced combination of content and skills is what makes a teacher great.

2 responses to Great Teachers Are Content Area Experts Balanced with Skills

  1. 

    I’m speechless, so I’ll use someone else’s words to explain how I feel:

    “[T]eachers are not only passionate about their students but also about the content they teach…. Teaching does not so much complement [an educator’s] expertise as it completes it….. [K]nowing a subject fully is being able to teach it.”
    (from intro to Conversations with Great Teachers by Bill Smoot)

  2. 

    In total agreement. A social studies teacher needs to be a master of content (expert may be too strong a word for all the subject areas we’re responsible for), otherwise how can the teacher possible organize the material for study. A basic example is ancient Athens: if a teacher does not use activities that allow students to experience the democratic process, including the denial of rights to non-citizens, then it does not matter what technological wizardry is employed or even what great primary sources are read. Teachers with extensive content knowledge can deliver much more authentic lessons.

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