Dear Teacher, Your Knowledge is What Sets You Apart.

The teacher is the fountain of knowledge.

Or so you would think. Especially in a room full of children. However, such a sentiment is not shared by all in the world of Australian education. Recently, a discussion was sparked when a tweet addressed to teachers encouraged them to embrace their less than adequate knowledge:

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This idea was defended vigorously. One would think that in order to teach, one first needs to know. Despite how obvious this may seem, this view is not shared by all. For teachers do not require knowledge, they say, and nor should they, especially in the primary school:

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This set off a storm, and rightfully so. To encourage teachers to take to the classroom with a knowledge and skills deficit is, in my opinion, quite damaging and grossly misinformed. It speaks a lot about the culture from within. In society, expertise is highly valued. This does not exclude education. Any parent sends their child to school with the expectation that the teachers have knowledge and skills beyond what they have; they trust the teachers have the required expertise. This is true of any parent in any society. Yet as the tweets note, many within education do not value expertise in this profession. That’s a position not aligned with the expectations of society.

I share these tweets not out of malice but because it is important to back up my claim. I’m not erecting strawmen here. This is actually what many people in Australian education think. It is a real problem. Many do not value the knowledge of a teacher, yet you only have to watch a knowledgeable teacher at work to tell how crucial knowledge is. After watching a teacher in action, another teacher noted:

“It’s the teacher’s subject knowledge. It’s really important in being able to plan for those difficult points. You’re really aware of the misconceptions children might have and what they’re going to struggle with, and you deliberately build that into your lesson and let those children have those ‘Ah! I don’t get it’ moments.” (Second Video at 4:14).

The teacher acknowledged this teacher’s expertise because the value of teacher knowledge is obvious – it helps students perform at a higher level.

But what of Primary teachers? They teach everything; aren’t Primary teachers just generalists? Let’s dig a little deeper on this. Primary teachers are charged with what is arguably the most important job of all: teaching a child how to read. That’s not something I’d like a generalist to do. In Primary, if a teacher does not have the required knowledge to do anything else, then you would at least expect them to have the knowledge required to teach reading. Yet this is not the case. In Australia, deficits in teacher knowledge around reading have been exposed time and time again. For example in one study, only 38% defined phonemic awareness, 41% defined a consonant blend and 53% defined a morpheme (Stark, Snow, Eadie & Goldfield, 2016). Basic language concepts. It is clear we have a serious problem with teacher knowledge around the most important job in the whole profession: teaching reading. To me, that’s an issue. I am not immune to the situation, I was educated in the same system, hence why I find passion in advocating for more rigorous education for teachers. Primary teachers need expertise. Comments that not only accept but even encourage a knowledge deficit will not help us fix this problem.

So why the anti-knowledge agenda? I argue this has a lot to do with deep-seeded ideological principles strongly engrained in the lifeblood of schools. We need to create a love of learning. Students must create their own learning. We need critical thinkers, not regurgitators. Learning to learn is more important than content. The anti-knowledge sentiment is everywhere and is deeply ingrained. Yet we know from a swath of research that knowledge is a key component in the learning process, it cannot simply be sidestepped. And in order for students to engage with the knowledge they need, we, quite simply, need knowledgeable teachers. We need experts. Those that play down the need for expertise are only making it harder for everybody – teachers and students alike.

 

Stark, H, Snow, P, Eadie, P & Goldfield, S 2016, ‘Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: the knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers’, Annals of Dyslexia, vol. 66, no. 1, pp. 28-54.

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