TCDC Workshop: The Expert Blind Spot

“Knowing something and teaching something are two different somethings” – Kevin Tumlinson

Following a term of what felt like a teaching rut, I started to examine what was behind this change, and I realized I was falling into the same trap that caught me when I first started teaching. When most of us start as instructors, we are fresh out of graduate school and keen to ignite the passion of our discipline in our students. For myself, before I knew it, I was knee deep into my very first class with 15 years worth of knowledge in my field, but limited training on how to teach it to first year students. In my first few years developing courses, I found myself including too much content that was way above the capacity of my students. It took me a good five years or so before I understood the balance between the content and the instructional strategies to give students enough practice to learn that content. Fast-forward another ten years and add some intentional research into andragogical principles, and I was in the sweet spot. I was no longer focused on teaching content, instead I was teaching students, and to my surprise it was working!

However, this didn’t last. In recent years, I have found myself thinking things like – why don’t my students know this by now? Or, they should already be able to do this type of assignment, and it sure is taking them a long time to finish this in class task. I even found myself adding extra content for fear that the course had become too boring or too easy. On my last course surveys, I was dismayed to hear that students were struggling, and that their main issue was that there was a lot to know, but not enough time to know it. So I was back at square one, with a lot of content and not enough emphasis on learning.

Why was this happening?

The Eureka Moments

So here I was, into the second decade of my teaching career and wondering why my students were not getting it. I am realizing for a second time that it isn’t them, it’s me. I am the one who isn’t getting it.

One a-ha moment came to me when I remembered that although I have seen this material thirty times, for my students it is brand new. Each task, each topic, each concept is brand new to them. Each story, each joke strategically placed into the lecture is novel to them despite the robotic execution and queued chuckle that it had become for me. It is me, for which this material is getting old, not them.

Another series of a-ha moments arrived whilst participating in TCDCs first book club. This fall, we read “How Learning Works: The 7 researched-based principles to smart teaching” by Susan Ambrose et al. As I read the first chapter, it became increasingly clear to me that I had stopped considering the perspective and experience of my first-year students just beginning their journey into my field of study. The book describes how, in becoming an expert, we move step-wise, from a state of unconscious incompetence to a state of unconscious competence. This means, as experts, we are no longer able to see all of the discrete pieces of information required to understand the complex concepts in our disciplines. Nor are we able to easily identify the component skills required to complete problems, projects or papers. These concepts and tasks as well as their interrelationships, seem simple to us because we have spent years studying them. This is our expert blind spot. In order to help our students succeed, we need to be able to unpack all the things that are automatic to us so that we can give explicit instructions on all of the component pieces and skills our students will need in order to learn the material effectively.

Are you interested in learning more about your expert blind spot? Sign-up for our workshop.



The Master Becomes the Student

The final a-ha moment came when I became a student. I decided to take an oil painting class at Langara through continuing studies. Calling myself a novice in this area would be flattering. It was my first foray into painting, period. Over ten weeks, the assignment for this class was to replicate an old master’s oil painting and I, foolishly, chose an angel done by Leanardo Da’Vinci. On the second day of classes, we started our paintings. The task for that day was to forget the figure we were looking at painting and instead to paint the tones we were seeing. As everyone around me started, I stood there looking back and forth from my blank canvas to the painting I was to replicate, with no idea where to begin. The instructor came over to me, clearly observing my struggle. He tried to elaborate on the task and said, “…all you have to do is paint the low-lights and in our next class we will do the mid-tones and the last thing we will work on are the highlights”. Still utterly confused, I turned to him and said – “what are low-lights?” I saw the look of realization in his eyes that meant he finally understood where I was starting from, and he launched into a lesson on tone. I as a novice, needed my expert teacher to go back to the beginning and explain in detail what was now, for him, a simple process.

Teach the student not the content; teach the learner not the lesson.

Identifying and working around my expert blind spot has helped me to improve my teaching strategies. I remind myself to focus on decomposing the content into the building blocks required for my learners to learn skills, integrate them and apply them to new contexts. This strategy is more apt to produce students who experience success and have the motivation and passion for lifelong learning.

Written by Jessica Kalra, Instructor in Langara’s Biology and Health Sciences Department and Curriculum Development Consultant in TCDC