Ignorance – curse or blessing for teachers?

A couple of weeks ago, not long after the release of the Queensland Education Performance Review, I was engaged in conversation with some colleagues about the recommendations in the report. As teacher educators we shared concerns about the capabilities of some graduates and, while we recognise the problems inherent in graduating teachers with deficiencies in literacy, numeracy and science, we are sensitive to the implications of testing for registration, including that teacher education programs are somehow failing to ensure the quality of graduates.

One of my recollections of my first years of teaching in Queensland secondary schools is of sharing a staff room with a senior, in both years and level of teaching, English teacher who was widely respected by students, parents and colleagues. This was a woman who had started her career as a pupil teacher in the days before teachers’ colleges, when teacher preparation was a matter of apprenticeship to a master teacher. One of the things that had surprised me about her was her forthright admission that she had a problem with spelling. Her solution was to ensure that she was never far from her dictionary. Knowing that she had a problem and taking steps to deal with it appropriately meant that it was seldom, if ever, an issue in class.

As I recalled this in the context of talking about the qualities of graduates from our teacher education programs, it occurred to me that possibly the greater risk attached not to graduating teachers who might be unsure of their knowledge but in graduating teachers who, despite deficiencies in their knowledge, were confident that they knew their subject well. That brought to mind a statement that is often a subject of mirth, even ridicule, but which contains some important grains of truth:

as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. (Donald Rumsfeld)

Perhaps it is the “unknown unknowns” that should cause us most concern in the preparation of teachers. As a teacher of chemistry in schools, despite having several years of university study of chemistry culminating in a masters degree, I was seldom prepared to face a class without brushing up my knowledge to ensure I was comfortably on top of the topic of the day. As a principal and parent what concerned me most was not a teacher who may have had some uncertainty and made sure to get things right, but those who exuded ill-founded confidence and shared their ignorance with their class.

In the information age, when the available information on almost any subject is expanding at a rate much faster than we could hope to absorb it and much of it is almost instantly available at the touch of the screen on a handheld device, why should we assume that teachers need to know everything about their subject? Might we be better served by teachers with good basic skills, the humility to admit their ignorance of much beyond the range of everyday use, and the skills to seek out and critically apply the knowledge available on the networks?