The intellectual work that teachers can do but researchers probably can’t

[I’ve written versions of this post many times before. Here here here. Don’t read those, this version is probably better.]

Tomorrow night, I’m going to teach teachers about teaching. I think a legitimate question is, on what grounds am I claiming to know anything about teaching at all?

To be sure, I am pretty confident that I know something very important about my own teaching — in my school, with my students, in my courses, given my personality, etc. I observe my own classrooms (imperfectly) every day. The cumulative evidence of all that observation makes me pretty (not fully) sure that I’ve figured something out.

But the tricky thing about teaching is that this stuff often doesn’t translate to other situations. Just because something works in my classroom (according to me) doesn’t mean that it’ll work in vastly different contexts. To get really specific about this for a second, I teach students who are among the wealthiest children in America. This reality impacts my school in a bajillion ways. Who says that my dumb ideas about feedback will mean anything to the other teachers in my department. Teachers in other schools, and especially high-poverty schools? Forget about it.

(To be fair to myself for a second: I haven’t only taught in my school.)

The point is that there are obvious reasons to doubt that the things I think I know are really truths of teaching. This is even true if we move past the particular practices that I advocate and get behind the thinking and values that support those practices. I think I have a useful way of thinking about teaching, or I think I’ve identified some value that is important for the student experience. Who says that this is anything but my own thinking?

This is the natural place that research on teaching enters the conversation. Whatever you want to say about research, it’s not about my classroom. In general, it’s about forming generalizations in a way that improves upon (e.g.) my ability to make stuff up about my teaching.*

There are lots of interesting edge cases to consider, but I think the generalization about generalizations stands. Researchers might write cases grounded in particulars or engage in a teaching experiment, but the point of those is to contribute to the formation of generalizations that are broadly useful. 

This is getting pretty abstract so let me just get to the point: could researchers ever respect the generalizations that teachers make about teaching as knowledge that stands on par with their own?

The usual way of talking about teacher/researcher parity is to say that researchers excel at making generalizations, while teachers contribute crucial local knowledge. And it’s totally true that teachers do have local knowledge.

But does this really create parity between teachers and researchers? The whole point of broadly useful knowledge about teaching is that it goes beyond local knowledge — it makes a generalization. If what teachers can contribute is local knowledge, then I think we’re just saying that teachers are at best a source of data to the researcher. The teacher inputs local knowledge, the researcher generates broadly useful generalizations.

It’s true that there’s no reason to inherently value general vs. local knowledge, so in a certain sense there can be parity between teachers/researchers. But at the end of the day, what’s broadly useful are generalizations, and teacher knowledge can’t really compete with what researchers contribute.

Or…can we?

I want to speculate a bit about some different ways of sorting out the relationship between what researchers and teachers can contribute. To start, I want to ignore local knowledge for a second and talk about how teachers contribute to generalizations, i.e. researcher turf.

I have a few ideas here, and they’re very rough, so bear with me.

First, researchers are institutionalized while teachers are necessarily amateurs at producing generalizations. The relationship between teachers/researchers can then be folded into the general relationship between amateurs and experts. And, of course, we need experts. But the ecosystem isn’t healthy if it’s entirely populated by experts.

Amateurs play a lot of important roles, even when it comes to forming generalizations that are broadly useful. Here are a few that I’ve read about (too lazy to cite right now):

  • Amateurs can disrespect the boundaries of fields or sub-professions and put together ideas that from an institutional perspective are incongruous
  • Amateurism is in general lower stakes/lower payout than being an expert. If I’m an amateur and my ideas are wrong or useless, my career isn’t on the line. So there’s a way in which amateurs can attend to riskier ideas, or work on lines of thought that are perceived to be less rich in reward or are in general undervalued.
  • Amateurs play an important role in teaching and spreading expert generalizations, but in doing so amateurs often simplify or otherwise improve the results of experts in significant ways.

But this way of framing things — teachers as amateurs, researchers as experts — doesn’t really leave room for teachers to ever get institutional respect from experts as generators of generalizations about teaching, and two further points on that:

  • this is probably true
  • this is much more exciting to me than institutional respect

It’s not good for my $$$, but I am really quite fine accepting the role of an amateur in all this. It’s exciting to try to smash fields together and to not be beholden to conventional wisdom in the field. I can chase ideas about teaching, throw them out there for others and see what resonates for others. We make up the rules as we go. It’s fun!

That’s the spirit in which I’m going to teach this class tomorrow night. I’ve got this stuff I’ve figured out about teaching. I don’t want to make myself sound like a tin-hat Alex Jones-type, but I do think that what I’ve learned about teaching goes against a certain conventional, institutional, expert way of thinking. And it is the result of mashing up a bunch of things — trial-and-error in the classroom, reading research, experimenting by giving presentations to teachers. And if it’s not broadly useful as a generalization about teaching? Hey, that’s OK too. There’s very little at stake here.

So, I’m not an expert, and neither are you: maybe these ideas are useful to you? Let’s find out. That’s the way I approach this stuff right now, as an amateur.