The Myth of: “I Totally Do That Already”

26 Jul

expertWhen I was just a few years into teaching, I had the opportunity to spend a week at Columbia Teachers’ College, learning from the gurus who invented reading and writing workshop.  As I listened to Lucy Calkins, the director of the program, share her thoughts on teaching and model exemplar lessons, I thought to myself, “I totally do all of that already.”

I felt satisfied, and maybe a tad smug.  This really wasn’t that difficult–just focus and work hard, and you could have it down cold.

Five years later, my new thought is, Will I ever be an expert at this?  That week in New York feels like a lifetime ago, and I can only look back with a shake of my head.  How wonderful to feel so confident, with so little actual knowledge.

The myth of expertise can you hit you anywhere in life.  I felt it as a student teacher, watching my mentor teacher lead the class.  I totally already do that.  I believed it before I led my first training.  No problem I can definitely do that.  And I even felt it, in a different way, before I had my daughter.  I know how to do all that already.

In each of those situations, it wasn’t until I gained a little more knowledge–enough to know what I didn’t know–that I began to realize I wasn’t quite the expert I thought.

My experience isn’t atypical–it’s often the least experienced who feel the most confident.  Why do we tend to overestimate our expertise when we’re new?

1.  You only see the outcome, not the possibilities.

Let’s take the example of calling on a student to answer a question.  Seems fairly straightforward.  But there are a lot of other choices that can create a different outcome.  A teacher could call on a student who doesn’t know the answer, and then have to make a decision about what to do when the child is stuck.  A teacher could have all of the students share their thinking with a partner, and then share the answer herself.  A teacher could pose the question and have students record a response, and then look over their thinking later.

None of these choices are wrong, but they all have a slightly different purpose.  An expert understands the different decisions that could be made at the “share out an answer” point, and the ramifications.  A novice might think, “pose questions, call on a student to respond,” with no thought to the other choices that could be employed, or the reason for each.

2. It’s hard to know what’s the cake and what’s just decoration.

When you’re inexperienced, it can be hard to learn from experts because you don’t know what to focus on, what to learn.  The year I spent observing my mentor teachers is a hazy blur.  I’m not sure what I was observing–from my notes, it seemed to be mostly anthropological details like where students’ eyes were tracking at specific moments–but it’s pretty devoid of anything that would lead to meaningful practice on my part.  When I started teaching, after a few months of struggling with the basics, I would have given anything to go back and watch them again.  Now, I thought, I know what to look for.  

3.  You don’t understand that what’s not happening can be just as important as what is occurring.  

The absence of problematic behaviors is just as important as the presence of positive ones.  We often focus on this in students–the ubiquitous “caught you being good!” We know the myriad of possibilities for negative behaviors, so we can notice the absence of them, and the presence of quieter actions like starting quickly and time on task.

The more expert you become in a subject, the more you can notice the absence of problems.  When I watched a master lesson as a new teacher, I didn’t know why things were going smoothly.  I failed to notice that the teacher didn’t instruct for more than ten minutes at a time.  Or that the teacher didn’t jump from teaching point to teaching point.  Or that the teacher didn’t pick a model that wasn’t accessible to the kids.

I totally already do that.

It’s a wonderful thought, really, and it’s not all bad.  It gives you confidence and makes you feel a little less overwhelmed, which lets you take on tasks that might otherwise seem too daunting.  But the blanket statement can also close you off to areas of growth.  If you already do that, totally, there’s nowhere to go, nothing to learn.  So I’ll try to change my thought to, I totally do some of that, or I can totally learn to do that, because in the end, becoming an expert is way more motivating and fun than just being an expert already.

2 Responses to “The Myth of: “I Totally Do That Already””

  1. Paula McVeigh July 27, 2014 at 8:26 am #

    Great topic. The closer I get to student teaching, the more panicked I feel inside. I TOTALLY get “the more I learn, the more I learn how much I don’t know.”

    • elizabethstavis July 27, 2014 at 8:46 am #

      But you also have such a great foundation–in thoughtfulness as well as practice Paula :).

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