Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Teach What You Know

A teacher must be both a magister and a paidagogos, both a master of subject content and a leader of students.  The latter sense of a teacher's craft is explored through pedagogy, and while this is important, it seems to be the focus of many professional educators at the expense of subject expertise.  Many blogs and podcasts, workshops and professional development activities, focus entirely on how to teach, and even the sessions at content-specific conferences often present tips and strategies and ideas on the presentation of that content.

So let's talk about the importance of content mastery for a moment.  This means more than reading the chapter the day before the students do, and while we can certainly acquire good material from our colleagues, I am talking about more than asking your neighbor to send you the PowerPoint slides on a lesson you both teach.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

In 1711 Alexander Pope published his poem An Essay On Criticism about the relationship of the literary critic to the poet, yet many of his lines speak to education and the importance of content mastery.  Early in the work he writes,

Let such teach others who themselves excell.  (line 15)

We talk a lot in education about student-led approaches to learning, and this is fine, but at the end of the day, the teacher should be the content master, the magister.  Yes, students can access raw data from the Internet.  Yes, students can teach their teachers, and I have certainly learned much from mine.  Yet I must be a recognized master of my content for one very important reason.  My students need to have confidence in me.  Not only must they be confident that I what I teach them is accurate, but they must also be confident in approaching me with questions.

So how does one become a content master?  Is a college degree in that area sufficient?  At best it is a starting place.  There is simply no substitute for deep, ongoing reading.  

Be Homer's Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring;
Still with It self compar'd, his Text peruse;
And let your Comment be the Mantuan Muse.  (lines 124-129)

Commentaries are good, but read the text.  Read the laws and the primary sources if you are a history or social studies teacher.  Read the poems and the novels if you teach English or a world language.  Listen to and perform the music of great composers, contemplate the great artists and create your own masterpieces.  Come to understanding through other great works within your discipline, not merely through the study guides and commentaries and lesson plans of your contemporaries.  When Pope counsels comparing the text of the Mantuan muse, by which he means the Roman poet Vergil, with itself, he is suggesting exactly this.  As a teacher, a magister, you want the richest possible understanding, and this comes from drinking deeply of the original springs.

By doing this, a teacher moves beyond mere instruction and discovers the art and craft of the calling.

Musick resembles Poetry, in each
Are nameless Graces which no Methods teach,
And which a Master-Hand alone can reach.
From vulgar Bounds with brave Disorder part,
And snatch Grace beyond the Reach of Art.  (lines 143-145, 154-155)

When Pope speaks of art, he is using the word in the sense of its Latin origin, meaning a skill.  Skills can be taught, and every craftsman must first learn them.  Yet true artists in any endeavor move beyond the "vulgar bounds" of mere methodology.  Teachers do this when they have become what they teach, when they embody the content and students can no longer tell where the content ends and the teacher begins.

You may be asking whether an 18th century British poet truly has anything to offer the connected, modern educators preparing students for jobs yet unknown as visions of technology dance in their heads.  This question betrays one of the most regrettable aspects of contemporary education.  We value nothing that was said more than five minutes ago.  With staggering arrogance we assume that we know more than those who have gone before us, yet with regard to what Edgar Allan Poe would later call "the glory that was Greece and that grandeur that was Rome," Pope cried,

Oh may some Spark of your Coelestial Fire
The last, the meanest of your Sons inspire
To teach vain Wits a Science little known,
T'admire Superior Sense, and doubt their own!  (lines 195-196, 199-200)

Humility is a key disposition for learning, and if teachers are to become the content masters they are called to be, they, like their students, must be willing to learn from those who know more and whose knowledge has been tested and proven by the passing of time.  No matter how robust the data supporting the latest published strategies, nothing is as valuable as time-tested, time-approved wisdom and understanding.

It is human nature for each person to think he or she knows it all.  It is, and there is no point in denying it.  Pope certainly did not.

We think our Fathers Fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser Sons, no doubt, will think us so.  (lines 438-439)

Yet he leaves us with a wistful, hopeful plea that continues to call out to educators today.  Perhaps you can be one of those magistri who will answer it.

But where's the Man, who Counsel can bestow,
Still pleas'd to teach, and yet not proud to know?  (lines 631-632)


  1. You have, again, spotlighted a critical part of teaching. So much focus has shifted to *how* to teach that the importance of *what* is being taught is shunted aside. The sheer mass of information available to students and teachers would appear to ease the question of content. On the contrary, I believe that it escalates the need for a well-educated magister/magistra to guide the learner through the morass of unvetted/questionable material so readily provided by search engines. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the prevailing attitude among those setting educational trends. On the contrary, masters of content seem to be pushed aside. Just my dupondius worth of opinion.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Lori!


While I welcome thoughts relevant to discussions of education, comments that are vulgar, insulting, or in any way inappropriate will be deleted.