Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Good Teacher Paradox

In his blog post “The Good Teacher Paradox,” The Bearded Teacher describes the following paradox:

This epiphany of the good "teacher" paradox came to me as I subbed for the math teacher all last week. As she was gone, I was expected to teach 8th grade math all week (a truly terrifying endeavor for a history teacher). But the teacher left a truly awesome project where they needed to design a carnival game based on probability....I had no way of anticipating what they would come up with. All week I had the attitude that I was going to learn with them and that we were going to challenge ourselves. With every problem they threw at me I had to go back and relearn probability. It was tough at first, but when I "got it", wow did we have fun. I may have not had the best content or pedagogical knowledge, but I was a darn good math teacher last week. Thus is the good "teacher" paradox: The less you know the better you are?

Recognizing and understanding this paradox is fundamental to education reform.

Having been exposed to a myriad of teachers and professors, I've come to the conclusion that being a good teacher has nothing to do with the amount of degrees accumulated, the number of academic articles published or the amount of years spent in the profession. The ability to stand up in front of a classroom and sound overwhelmingly knowledgeable might corroborate a sense of arrogance but is hardly relevant for learning.

I believe that our culture puts too much emphasis on a teacher's demonstrated knowledge. We care more about erudition and specialization than passion, curiosity, morality, creativity, sincerity and character. Our schools want teachers that can answer any question thrown at them without a sweat. We seem to fear that if a teacher wouldn't know the answer to some question, students might band together in rancorous protest having lost all respect for that teacher, or might become distrustful of the course material and arrogantly incredulous of that teacher's qualifications, or might become wholly disillusioned about the institution of education and aspirations for knowledge altogether.

Over-valuing a teacher's answers to the questions that students ask stands to devalue the questions themselves. I once had a teacher who would respond to difficult questions with a lengthy explanation of why that question wasn't directly related to his/her area of expertise and therefore essentially irrelevant.

A memorable scene from Joseph Heller's Catch-22 parodies the dismissal of difficult questions:

Group Headquarters was alarmed, for there was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions they wanted to....Under Colonel Korn's rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.

Worrying too much about what a teacher knows completely ignores the characteristics that matter in a teacher and that for the first time in history we have textbooks, online open-course-ware, wikipedia, curriculum materials, study guides, and expert Q&A sites which make the world's repository of information and expertise freely available to students and teachers alike.


  1. Thank you for your delightful and thorough reflection on my post. How humbling! Education and learning is about curiosity and excitement. In fact, I try to model that for my students. While I aim to increase content knowledge everyday (because I am excited by it), the level of it does not define me as a teacher. In some sense, my willingness to admit my miniscule knowledge defines me. That means I am willing to listen to student questions, to look at things from unique angles and model a general curiosity for my students. By showing them the way to look for and dissect new information, I am modeling life-long learning. This is something most teacher say they want for their students.