Knowing less

“There is a very famous saying among Tibetan Buddhists: “If the student is not better than the teacher, then the teacher is a failure.”

Allen Ginsberg, in No Direction Home

In a previous post, I criticised discovery teaching being used to cover for teachers when they don’t know their subject. Here, I ask if there is a place for a teacher who knows less (or no more) than their students.

At first, the idea sounds preposterous. Yet this is the case in a number of situations:

(1) Talking about the unknowable. In Religious Studies, a typical lesson might involve consideration of what happens after death. Of course, the teacher will probably know more about what certain groups of people say happens after death – but this is different. An activity exploring this question would be fully in line with the 2004 Non-statutory National Framework for RE (p.28), which advised that KS3 pupils be taught to “express their own beliefs and ideas, using a variety of forms of expression.” This framework has been replaced now, but was in place when I trained.

(2) Teaching ICT. It is entirely possible that some students will teach themselves new programming languages which are beyond the knowledge of an otherwise knowledgeable teacher. Similarly, when teaching foreign languages, teachers who speak a language non-natively will occasionally get native speaker students.

(3) CPD often involves sessions in which teachers pool their responses to certain problems. While these can be chunky pen thought-shower nightmares, I have actually learned things in these dismal twilight sessions. The poor bastard leading them can hardly claim expertise in a room full of experienced teachers. INSET days which involve a lecture from some stranger claiming expertise are notably unpopular with teachers – unless the speaker has the necessary credentials.

Situation one: RE

I look back on my RE lessons on unknowable things with uneasy memories. The aims were noble: to make students step back and look at the big picture of life; to stand face to face with the unknowable and quiver in its presence. But I felt gagged the whole time. I could never say “That’s right – well done.”

The topic was, however, productive to discuss. Views on what happens after death profoundly affect how people live and are key to understanding the caste system, suicide bombers and people who say YOLO. So why not turn that key on yourself? What do you think happens when you die? How does that influence the way you live? A teacher can pose these questions, and taken with the right attitude, the student leaves with an extra iota of self-knowledge. Yet no teacher could claim knowledge of life after death.

Wittgenstein famously wrote, “Whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.” He may not have had much time for my RE lessons.

Situation two: ICT and languages

In one school I worked at, I had a year 10 student who built an internal video sharing system for the whole school. It worked really well. Luckily, I was teaching him RE and not ICT. If these situations are handled badly, you end up with a student who sits bored and unchallenged by their ICT lessons. Differentiation helps, of course. The student could be set challenging tasks suitable for their ability. The problem comes in feedback. Put simply, a teacher cannot give constructive feedback on an area where the student knows more than them – it would be a farce. And without feedback, there is no teaching. One solution might be to give feedback on areas where the student does know less. For example, a student might be able to make a better mobile app than their teacher, but the teacher could still suggest ways to improve it from an aesthetic perspective.

Alternatively, the lessons can be used to develop skills other than their subject knowledge. A native Spanish student in a Spanish lesson can be enlisted as a teaching assistant, developing their confidence. But then in what sense is this a Spanish lesson for the student? It is not. On the other hand, pushing them to explain to their classmates why their language is as it is would require them to know about Spanish grammar, and this is an area where a teacher could develop the student.

Assigning a mark for a child genius should be easy: A* all the way. Weirdly, this doesn’t always happen. This is a tragic story of a student who had to pretend to know less than they did, just so they could get a good grade. Mark schemes that lead to this kind of situation belong in a large fire.

Situation three: CPD sessions

There is noticeable anxiety about what to call these sessions. Workshop is an attempt to capture the idea that no one should assume the mantle of expert. In a similar way, development is more guide-by-the-sidey than teaching or training. I still believe the best use of these sessions is when I leave knowing something I didn’t know before. I first heard about Hattie’s effect sizes in an after school training session – in that case someone stood at the front and talked about it. Having said that, small group discussion with more experienced teachers taught me tips and tricks on what to do with latecomers (etc.) But what did the experienced teachers learn from these discussions? Not very much, I would guess.

Teacher training is a tough one. Teachers figure out what works best mainly through practice and reflection. My PGCE was three weeks of university followed by six months of placement, and then a bit more university tacked on at the end. It worked pretty well for a noob. But CPD sessions involve developing experienced teachers as well as the rookies. It’s based on the principle that every teacher can improve (true) and that training sessions are the best way to achieve this (questionable).

Ben Goldacre’s latest project is interesting, because it aims at improving the quality of educational research. When there is good research, a training session is a sensible way to share it. All you need then is an expert to digest the research so that they can lead the session.


The teacher who knows less or no more than their students is an undesirable situation. But even if the entry requirements to teacher training courses were raised, situations would still occur where it happens in at least three secondary subjects. The teacher in this situation can still motivate, probe and develop their expert students, but their ability to give feedback is limited.

CPD sessions, meanwhile, are typically based on a classroom model with one person leading a group. Where this occurs, the leader should ideally be an expert in something. Where this is not possible, a facilitator must accept that experienced teachers may well become no more than teaching assistants, helping the novices in the room. While this has value, the experienced teachers may feel justified in claiming that they are not receiving development themselves. This is a shame, because everybody can develop at any point in their career.


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