One of the things that I enjoy most about being an Instructional Technologist is that I am constantly required to stay up to date on the newest learning technologies and instructional strategies. Part of my job involves designing and delivering professional development sessions to faculty at the College of Charleston. As we all know, technology is constantly evolving, new tools are being developed and released daily, and old tools are updated with new features multiple times throughout the semester. On several occasions, I’ve spent weeks or months preparing a session on a particular web tool, only to realize an hour before faculty members are set to arrive that the site navigation has changed, the tool’s features have been removed, altered, or upgraded, or the tool was pulled from the web. In those moments when I’m scrambling to pull together a session on something totally unfamiliar, it’s easy to become stressed or anxious, wondering whether attendees will see me as unprepared or unqualified. Surprisingly, some of these sessions have been among my favorites and have received the highest ratings, and I believe that the reason for this is that I was able to better understand how my attendees viewed the content since it was new to me, too.
I recently had the opportunity to read “Teaching What You Don’t Know” by Therese Huston, who is the Founding Director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (now the Center for Faculty Development) at Seattle University. As the title suggests, the book provides strategies to help faculty members who are tasked with teaching outside of their areas of expertise. As part of her research for this book, Huston interviewed 28 faculty members on topics related to teaching what you don’t know, which seems to often be the norm in academia.
While Huston understands the disadvantages of teaching what you don’t know, she also identifies some of the benefits to being what she calls a “content novice” early in the book along with a reminder that instructors should focus on creating an environment conducive to learning rather than feeling discouraged because they see themselves as givers of information.
How can your lack of expertise in a certain area actually help you in the classroom? According to Huston, some of the advantages are:
- Content novices can better predict the steps that it will take a beginner to complete a task. It makes sense that someone who has only recently studied a topic in depth would be able to predict the steps that a student would go through to learn the same information.
- Content novices are capable of relating difficult concepts to what the student already knows. Without higher level knowledge in a particular content area, content novices often make sense of difficult concepts by considering how they apply to everyday scenarios rather than connecting them to abstract theories.
- Novices are better able to assess the amount of time it will take a learner to complete a task. Because they are rather new to a particular topic area themselves, content novices remember the amount of time it takes to learn new concepts, and according to research, people who have a little experience in a particular area are actually better at estimating the time that it takes to do something than both people with no experience and experts. In fact, experts were actually worse at predicting the amount of time it will take a beginner to complete a task than someone who has never completed the task before.
So next time you’re tasked with teaching a class that may be a bit outside your comfort zone, remember that there are benefits to your situation. That new course that you’re prepping may just become one of your most successful due to your ability to reach your students in a different way.
Huston, T. (n.d.). Teaching What You Don’t Know. Cambridge, MA 2009: Harvard University Press.