Today’s Expert was Yesterday’s Beginner
My husband, Bob, and I have been learning lots of new and different things during the past year. He is nearly finished building a strip canoe and recently acquired a more advanced camera and lenses commensurate with his wildlife photography skills. Meanwhile, I took up trail riding last spring and started knitting in the fall.
These learning activities often lead us to specialty stores and interaction with professionals. Sometimes, walking into a specialty shop is like stepping into a foreign land. Other times we meet the expert and despite the difference in skills, we feel at ease. What drives these differences? Let’s consider a few scenarios to explore the implications for teaching and learning.
Building a Strip Canoe. I have written about this project before. It’s a BIG undertaking. Bob and his boat building buddy/mentor, Michael, having been working together for nearly a year. Bob would not have attempted such a challenging project without an expert by his side. Long before they started, Michael made this point very clear: You are not in this alone. We’ll do it together. Teaching Implication: The teacher’s commitment to the task, process, and learner shrinks the gap between expert and novice. Genuine belief in a student’s ability to learn, and teacher commitment to the process is a powerful motivator.
Photography Enthusiast. Bob has been interested in photography since his teens. An avid outdoorsman, he shoots more with a camera than anything else these days. After ten years with the same camera and lenses, it was time for new equipment. Bob visited a local camera shop to explore options and brands. On his first visit, he learned a lot but the interaction with the expert was stilted. Some questions weren’t answered. The expert stepped away and seemed preoccupied. When Bob visited a different shop, rapport was established quickly. He felt valued as a customer. His knowledge of photography was recognized and he was encouraged to take advantage of classes to further enhance his skills. Teaching Implication: Relationship matters. Recognizing students’ prior knowledge and experiences builds mutual respect. Personal connection minimizes distance and promotes trust.
Knitting & Yarn Stores. Have you walked into yarn store recently? Depending on your interest and skill you may feel indifference, intimidation, exhilaration or inspiration. Before I started knitting, I was indifferent. It was nice to look at the colors and touch the textures, but yarns simply didn’t excite me. Now that I’m an intermediate knitter, I’ve become a yarn harlot. I feel exhilaration and inspiration when I shop for yarn. I love when the store displays sample garments. It shows me what’s possible. Samples entice. Teaching Implication: Teachers can promote student interest by previewing what they will know or be able to do after the course. Consider how much easier and more fun it is to teach students who are interested in the content and learning. Investing a bit of time to pique curiosity can shift students’ attitudes about the discipline from indifference toward inspiration. Two strategies are showing examples of prior students’ work and sharing what alumni are doing professionally. These approaches are particularly effective if students or alumni share their work and experiences first hand, by video or classroom visit.
Biking & Bike Shops. Contrast the yarn store emotions with my feelings when I walk into a bike shop. These stores cater to serious enthusiasts by selling high tech gear. I generally feel like an imposter. “Don’t mind me, I’m only pretending to be a cyclist. I don’t belong here.” The shop clerks never do or say anything to make me feel this way; it’s all in my head. Last week’s post mentioned how a bike shop technician validated me as a rider. That encouragement increased my sense of belonging. Teaching Implication: Teachers probably can’t change the narrative scrolling in students’ heads. But we can engage in behaviors that validate and build community. We do this when we smile, welcome them by name, notice and reach out if they are absent, offer help, and engage in behaviors that show each student they are more to us than just a face in the crowd.
Teachers are experts. Experts can be intimidating. To promote learning, students need to see the professor as more than an “authority” or “professional.” They need to see us as real, caring people, who happen to know a lot about a subject. They need to be reminded (and it’s healthy for teachers to remind ourselves) that today’s expert was yesterday’s beginner.
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Singham, M. 2005. Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom. Change, The Magazine of Higher Learning, 37(3): 50-57.
Teven, J.J. & Hanson, T.L. 2004. The Impact of Teacher Immediacy and Perceived Caring on Teaching Competence and Trustworthiness. Communication Quarterly, 52(1): 39-53.