I have discussed expert blindness in a previous post, and how we teachers can easily succumb to its alluring hold. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about a closely related topic: the teacher-student empathy gap in the classroom. As English teachers, often with a wealth of subject expertise, it can be tempting to impart our nuggets of literary wisdom whenever an opportunity presents itself. However, empathising with how complex and overloading that can be for students is critical in order for a lot of learning to happen.
Rather than throwing stuff at them and ‘seeing what sticks,’ or seeking opportunities to dazzle students with our own knowledge, we must carefully craft lessons around consolidation of prior knowledge, precise instruction, modelling and deliberate practice in order to narrow the empathy gap. Rather than teaching them everything we know, they need to over-learn what is most important. Disclaimer: that isn’t to say that you should reduce your subject down to the bare bones of exam content for five years. But it is important that students spend most time on understanding the core of the subject. You cannot build on crumbly foundations.
Should you be teaching all the rhetorical devices if students have not really mastered the idea of figurative language/metaphor? Should you teach Aristotle’s peripeteia if students aren’t entirely clear on the conflicts between the characters in the play? While I am a huge believer in high challenge and cultural capital for all, I am also more and more convinced that this approach can be overloading and riddled with expert blindness if it is not designed with a long-term, gradual mastery approach in mind.
A recent CPD session at my school focused on these four things that the human mind struggles with:
- Overload– our working memory is easily encumbered.
- Abstraction– it’s hard for students to grasp abstract ideas.
- Forgetting– within 1 day, students forget most of the new content they have learned.
- Transfer– applying knowledge to new challenges is especially hard for novices.
So, how do we overcome these things and reduce the teacher-student empathy gap and expert blindness? The following broad suggestions are ideas that my English department is thinking about. I’d like to explore each in depth over the coming months in more precise, targeted blogposts.
- Simplify and clarify explanations.
- Use precise examples (and lots of them!) every time we teach a new concept and ‘bad’/ ‘non’-examples too.
- Break tasks down into component parts and practise each chunk.
- Plan ahead by selecting the priority content that must be mastered, and the ‘fingertip’ or ‘hinterland’ knowledge that enhances understanding.
- Over-learn the most important and transferable knowledge in each unit.
- Minimise distractions, both in the classroom (displays etc.) and in the lesson content. For instance, when talking through a new concept, consider having an image on the board that enhances understanding rather than a dense chunk of text.
As ever, let me know what you think!