Teacher Expertise Really Does Matter

Commentary, Education, Michael C. Zwaagstra

“Teachers – don’t worry if you don’t have the knowledge or skill set. You are the lead learner. Inquire not lecture.”

This was an actual tweet from a prominent education guru. Sadly, this message is far from isolated. There is a common belief in education circles that teacher subject-matter expertise does not matter a whole lot.

The underlying assumption is that learning is more about a generalized process than it is about mastering subject-specific content. In other words, the journey matters more than the actual destination. Since knowledge changes so quickly, students should learn how to learn rather than spend their valuable time memorizing facts that will soon be outdated.

This thinking has been popularized by the 21st Century Skills movement. Advocates of this approach suggest that students need to work on generic skills such as creativity, cooperation, and critical thinking. Since these skills are allegedly transferable between different subjects, they will never become obsolete. This is why provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia are going through a curriculum revision process that involves reducing the amount of content in core subjects.

Look again at the tweet quoted earlier. It tells teachers not to worry if they do not have the knowledge or the skill set. It reminds them that they are lead learners and encourages teachers to inquire rather than to lecture. This is exactly the message you would expect from someone who does not value teacher expertise.

By this reasoning, it does not matter if math teachers know little about math. In fact, teachers who lack math knowledge or the specific skills to solve math problems may actually be more effective in the classroom since they can learn the material together with their students. That is the message teachers often hear from the many gurus who speak at their professional development conferences.

Of course, no other profession would tolerate this kind of direct attack on expertise. Imagine telling a heart surgeon not to worry if she does not have the knowledge or skill set to perform heart surgery. Even more absurd would be telling airplane pilots that they don’t need to know how to fly a plane since they can learn alongside their passengers. The reason we call people professionals is because they have specific expertise that the public lacks.

When it comes to teaching, there is a wealth of research that backs up the claim that teacher expertise matters, and it matters a lot. While some gurus apparently believe that one teacher is as good as another, the evidence is clear that some teachers are far more effective than others. Students fortunate enough to have a series of effective teachers experience significant academic benefits.

A recent study also validates the claim that the subject-specific knowledge of teachers, in fact, makes a noticeable difference to student achievement. The study, Pulling Back the Curtain: Revealing the Cumulative Importance of High-Performing, Highly Qualified Teachers on Students’ Educational Outcome, appeared in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. In it, Dr. Se Woong Lee analyzed a longitudinal data set involving more than 6,000 students and their teachers across the United States.

Dr. Lee found that students taught by teachers who majored or even minored in mathematics at university had better short-term academic results than students taught by teachers without a math major or minor. Not only that, but these students also benefited in the long-term, as they were more likely to graduate from college. If subject-matter expertise matters in math, it is reasonable to assume it matters in other subjects as well.

This is why it makes sense for teachers to teach subjects in which they competent, completing at least a minor in their university studies. Teachers who know a lot about Canadian history are going to be more effective at teaching Canadian history than teachers who need a copy of Canadian History for Dummies in order to keep up with their students. The same holds true for teachers of chemistry, physics, and geography, and all other subjects.

Teachers should not put up with education gurus who continually downplay teachers’ expertise. Teachers are not interchangeable factory widgets who can be replaced at the drop of a hat. Rather, teachers are professionals who possess specialized knowledge and skills. Just as pilots are not merely lead flyers, teachers are much more than lead learners. They are, in fact, professionals.

Thus, teacher expertise really does matter. It benefits no one when education gurus downplay teacher expertise by saying that knowledge and skills do not matter.