The teacher expertise paradox
Teaching looks easy but is actually super hard
Sending you good vibes on this sunny (in the UK at least) Thursday. This week, we’re jumping into a new series on teacher expertise, for a very good reason…
Big idea 🍉
Classroom teaching is one of the hardest tasks ever devised (waaay harder than brain surgery). Yet many people think it's easy. This is the 'teacher expertise paradox'.
First up, brain surgeons: we appreciate and respect you. You are enormously skilled and save lives every day—this is not a dis. It's just that... you are tasked with:
Restructuring parts of the brain that you can see…
On only one patient at a time…
With sophisticated tools and a multi-person support team constantly by your side.
By contrast, teachers are tasked with:
Restructuring something invisible (student knowledge)…
On tens of people at a time, each with a different starting point, and some who don't even want to be there…
With ONLY WORDS AND IMAGES AS OUR TOOLS 🤯
And all this happens in an environment of time pressure, high stakes and minimal realtime human support. In short, teaching is orders of magnitude harder than brain surgery.
"After some 30 years... I have concluded that classroom teaching is the most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented... the only time medicine ever approaches the complexity of an average day for a classroom teacher is in an emergency room during a natural disaster."
However, despite this immense complexity, the challenge of teaching is often overlooked. What's going on?
Mary Kennedy argues that this situation arises because of the extensive experience—over 12,000 hours—that almost everyone has of observing teaching and generally participating in classroom life. As a result, everyone feels like they're an expert in teaching. Even when they're not.
Participating in classroom life as a student builds a skewed view of teaching. It misses the vast amounts of information processing and decision making that go on in the minds of teachers before, during, and after lessons. Pupils only ever see the results of all this thinking.
And here’s the rub: in general, the better the teaching, the easier it looks to the outsider.
The best teachers make what they do look effortless and natural. But it's not. Not even close. Teaching is one of the most fiendishly complex tasks ever devised. This is the 'teacher expertise paradox'.
Helping wider society to better appreciate the vast value and complexity of teaching is a critical agenda for us all to get behind. Because if we can make collective progress on this, it is likely to lead to higher (and more proportionate) status, funding, and professional agency. Which can only be a good thing for the world.
Challenge → How do you think about and talk to others about teaching? How might we help others more clearly see the vast complexity of this work?
• Teaching is one of the hardest tasks ever devised.
• However, from the perspective of (past) students, it looks easy.
• This creates an unhelpful paradox for our profession, which we must collectively work to redress.
Little links 🥕
On topic → For more from Kennedy on teaching, see How we learn about teacher learning, and for more on the argument around public perceptions, see Why education experts resist effective practices.
On trend → An interesting paper for Early Years colleagues on the link between vocal development and gaze direction, and a fascinating study around optimal timing for retrieval practice.
Behind the scenes → At the weekend, I published my latest book 🥳 It’s the result of 10 years of reading/thinking/testing, 3 years hard writing, and will only take you 60 minutes to read. If you’re interested in getting better as a teacher, or helping others to do so, it’s definitely worth a look: get your copy here.
Have a cracking weekend when it arrives.
PS. If you do end up ordering a copy of the book, thank you. And if you get around to reading it, do let me know what you think 🙏