Turning the Tables: Students Teaching Teachers

When you’re looking to improve your teaching, the first resources you might turn to are other teachers, pedagogical scholarship, or the Bok Center (hint, hint!). But what about the people who have the largest stake in your ability to teach successfully – the students?

After all, students generally have more (and more current) section and lecture experience than TFs and faculty. They are witness to any number of teaching philosophies, strategies, techniques, and failures over the course of every semester. And while they approach teaching issues with an obvious bias – their own self-interest – that bias should probably be shared by the teacher.

At the Bok Center’s recent Fall Teaching Conference, a panel of undergraduates presented attendees with a rich and varied collection of teaching tips. Here – and in a series of future posts – we’ll present their insights. Let’s start with something both basic and profound:

Be honest. When you don’t know the answer to a question, say so – and then promise to get back to the class with a response. It turns out that students hate seeing their teachers posture, obfuscate, and otherwise charade as authoritative just for the sake of seeming authoritative. The teacher-student relationship shouldn’t be about authority or the unidirectional transmission of knowledge, but rather about open communication, the sharing of ideas, the collective formation of knowledge.

In response to this idea – that it’s better to say “I don’t know” than to maintain an aura of infallibility – one panel attendee asked whether teachers should advertise what they don’t know preemptively. If you’re teaching outside your discipline, or teaching a new topic within your discipline, is it best to be completely honest and admit your novice status from the get-go? The panelists agreed that “complete honesty” in this case would constitute oversharing: odds are you’ll stay a step (or three) ahead of your students despite the newness of the material. And your disciplinary experience automatically gives you a plethora of skills and methods you can apply to a new topic. Let your students assume you’re the expert, and use “I don’t know” as an infrequent, exceptional response. (Or, use “I don’t know” all the time as a pedagogical tool, throwing questions back at students – that way they’ll never know for sure whether you really don’t know the answer to something.)

“I don’t know” is never easy to say. Rather than viewing it as a sign of weakness, though, use the phrase as an opportunity to model intellectual curiosity and scholarly inquiry. The more willing you are to admit you don’t know something and remedy the situation by doing research or asking an expert, the more likely your students will be to take the same tack when they don’t know. And in the end, isn’t the path from ignorance to expertise what education is all about?

The Beauty of "I Don't Know"

The Beauty of "I Don't Know" - http://xkcd.com/170/

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