Expertise, a cautionary reply

Connected Principals recently posted in support of adopting the schools without walls model. Connected Principals post on this topic regularly and readers would do well to read their blog to catch up.

In the meantime, what is a school without walls? I tend to think of a school or classroom without walls as one in which students are invited and encouraged to explore the topic of study using the Internet. For example, a student in such a school might be encouraged to contact a biologist before dissecting a frog.

Although I appreciate the goal, I would respectfully caution these principals to tread carefully with their first declaration, “we are not the experts.” They go on to explain that:

Regardless of how good we might be at our jobs, I dare say that when it comes to almost any teachable concept, we can find someone in the world who knows more about the topic than ourselves.

Unless you’re Michael Jordan, there will always be someone with more expertise. Does this really exclude the overwhelming population of humanity from having expertise in anything? My widget defines an expert as having “comprehensive or authoritative knowledge.” In other words, expertise need not be the single leader of any given field.

Although I am not so arrogant as to suggest that I am as knowledgeable about, say, The Canterbury Tales, as an academic who specialized in Chaucer, I am not ready to relegate myself to someone without “expertise” in his field. I have received training. I am certified. I have distinguished myself from my peers. I have done these things just like all teachers do. It is inaccurate, and disrespectful, to declare that teachers lack authoritative knowledge in their content area.

Finally, I dislike how easily this argument — that there is always someone with a little more expertise out there we should defer to — can be used to belittle members of our school communities.

Let’s turn the tables.

Principals often bring specific reforms to their school community, whether it be related to curriculum design, management, or the use of web-based strategies. Although I tend to enjoy learning about new strategies, I can certainly understand when teachers are reluctant to change their carefully and expertly planned course of instruction just so new principals can add an “initiative” to their resume. After all, principals are not experts in their field — certainly no more so than teachers are if we agree with the logic that Connected Principals offers — so why should teachers take the time to consider their administration’s suggestions? Why should teachers undergo mandatory training if expertise is impossible to attain?

Surely administrators provide valuable leadership for their school community. Surely schools can benefit from adopting a common vision. Surely teachers can benefit from learning new methods. Surely there is such a thing as expertise.

The Connected Principals are on firmer ground with their next two arguments, which illustrate the benefits of teaching in a school without walls without diminishing the expertise of their team. Indeed, these are the arguments that I would adopt if I were leading a school community.

Of course, I’m no expert on administrating.

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