What do I know? I’m just the teacher!

When I began my M.Ed., I used my then-blog, Something Up With Which I Will Not Put, to reflect on and share ideas that came up in the courses I was taking – much the same way I plan to blog through this next phase of my development. I figured it might be interesting to revisit those posts. At first, my plan was to import them all in one shot, but now I’m thinking that it might be more beneficial to bring them here one at a time, taking time truly to revisit them, rather than just dumping them all and not appreciating them. I’m leaving the date stamp, and wherever possible, the links, as they originally appeared. I will also attempt to import comments from the original posting, and try to comment on the posts as I upload them. Please feel free to add new ideas, insights, questions, or feedback!

January 19, 2005

One of the on-going assignments I’ll be working on for the course I’m taking is a journal. Apparently, the journal is something I’ll continue working on in subsequent courses. [NB- the course in question was the first Master Teacher Program course, “College Teaching: Issues and Challenges.”]

Our first journal assignment was to write about knowledge – we’ve been talking about the term in class. Some writers in the field of education think of knowledge as the bottom chunk in the Maslow-esque learning pyramid. For instance, one such writer posits that student first know facts, then understand these facts, then apply the facts to given problems in a given context, and finally recognize when the application of these facts is required in a new situation given out of context.

Anyway, for the sake of nothing in particular, I give you my first journal entry… 

After only four classes, my ideas about knowledge are already changing – not that I am ‘changing my mind’ about knowledge, but I am expanding my definitions. I have always thought that there is a reason we talk about knowledge and wisdom, and that the two are not synonymous. In the context of this course, one way to think of these concepts is that knowledge is knowing certain information, and wisdom is knowing what to do with that information.


In class, we’ve looked at different kinds of knowledge, and discussed knowledge as a basic foundation upon which to build the learning experience. As an English teacher, and generally, as a student of the language, I find it fascinating to consider the various nuances of a single word – knowledge. What do we mean when we say that we “know” another person? Context is key here – we can “know” someone in the sense that we are aware of that person’s existence and can pick them out of a police line-up. Alternatively, we can “know” someone in the sense that we can predict that person’s behaviour, and be surprised when that person does something “out of character.” Do the same degrees of knowledge apply to information, such as literature? It seems to me that when we talk about the levels of learning or thinking, when we discuss knowing vs. understanding, we are simply drawing distinctions between knowing a subject superficially and knowing the same subject in-depth.

In the courses I teach, knowledge of the subject depends on the level of the course – the knowledge a second-year student is expected to bring into the course is obviously different from the knowledge a first-year student is expected to have. By the time a student gets to the second-year English courses, his or her knowledge of basics – from grammatical structure to key analytical elements such as plot and symbolism – should be well-enough established to allow an analytical discussion of specific genres and themes. So when I’m designing an introductory English course, I try to keep in mind the knowledge I will expect from these students next year, and work backwards from there.

I have chosen to design* a second-year course because I find designing second-year courses more challenging – first-year courses demand a lot of juggling, but are so chock full of material that course design is really a moot point. Second-year courses, on the other hand, are much looser – the ministerial objectives, for instance, simply state that the student should be able to write a 1,000-word essay and “to apply a critical approach to literary genres.” While this ambiguity allows us as a department to create and offer myriad variations on the theme of genre courses and thematic courses, as individual teachers, we are very much left to our own devices in terms of course content and assessment.

This leaves me with the question “what do I want my students to know at the end of my course?” Well, to quote myself (from the Successful Student assignment**), ‘I consider students successful if they have not only learned the material, but learned to appreciate it, and have understood the relevance of the material. For instance, in a course on literature, students can pass simply by reading the material and writing a competent essay or two; but successful students will see connections between authors in the course and other authors, between themes in the course texts and their own lives, and between analytical skills honed in this course and those required for other courses. Ideally, students will seek out new authors, and expand on what they have learned. Ultimately, maybe the measure of a ‘successful’ student is not the grade but the grasp – and maybe the student can only be as successful as the teacher!’

*One of the major projects for this course is to design a complete course, from outline to final paper.

**Our first assignment for the course (aside from a whack of reading) was to write a paragraph on what we considered a successful exiting student

More than a decade ago, these were my thoughts on knowledge. It’s interesting to note that I still feel that ‘backward design’ is the most logical course design approach, and that in recent years, I’ve been engaged in projects at my college that operate around the concept of the ‘Exit Profile.’ What should a student graduating from Course X know? Be able to do? What about a student graduating from Program Z? Or, more generally, from Cegep?

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”

~ Michel Legrand

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