I challenge all teachers to try this daily: forget all you know as an expert of your content area. Yes, I am asking that, for a moment, pretend you cannot remember all you have learned as you followed your passion as a reader, writer, historian, chemist, artist, athlete, chef, or whatever your expertise may be.
Once you have done this, recall how you learned all about your area of expertise. Did you read widely or tinker? Did you write reflectively or talk with experts? Did you grapple with ideas or ask for feedback? Whatever you did, this is the key to teaching students to be learners of that content.
What this can look like
Whatever the content area, your response to questions can go two directions:
- How to be a learner of the content
- What to learn about the content
It’s up to you. A balance of the “how” and the “what” engages learners.
For example: I was co-teaching in a science classroom about electricity, specifically conductors and insulators. A student asked, “Is an insulator just a really poor conductor?” Instead of answering the question, we suggested ways the student-scientist try to uncover the answer by:
- Trying out a few items considered conductors and insulators with the question in mind. See what you discover.
- Reading up on conductors and insulators and see what other experts say.
- Sketching what is happening when electricity passes through conductors and insulators. See what conclusions you can draw.
- Speaking to others about your question and get their take on it.
- Jotting your ideas and try them out.
These are only a few ways we responded. Notice the responses are not about electricity, conductors, and insulators but rather how to find out the answer to the question posed by the student.
Strategies to become content experts
No matter the content you teach, here are a few strategies you can offer that help learners uncover the answers to their questions, and in turn become experts in that subject:
- Research widely with your question in mind.
- Study what others do and gather potential answers to your question.
- Jot your best guesses and compare. Talk them out with others.
- Bring your question to others (students, teachers, parents, experts in the field). Get their take.
- Experiment and see what you discover. Tinker, play, uncover, discover, make mistakes and try again.
Outcomes of not answering questions about content
Honestly, we were surprised! We instantly saw an engagement, sometimes a bit of frustration, that had not been present before we stopped answering questions and started suggesting strategies. The frustration emerged because the students were used to getting answers right away. However, the frustration was also motivating and pushed learners to try out different roads to discovery that they did not try before. There was a passion that fueled discovery. When we stepped back, we realized that these were roads similar to those we took to become experts in our content.
You are a strategy!
While at the beginning of this post I asked you to forget, for the moment, all you know about your area of expertise, this should not be permanent. You are a priceless asset to a learner and should be considered an expert they consult for both strategies to learn and essential understanding of content.
As the teacher and expert, you create the artful balance between delivery of content knowledge and the strategies for lifelong learning of the content. What a gift!