Book Review: Teaching What You Don't Know

The Book

Teaching What You Don't Know by Therese Huston

The Premise

Instructors frequently need to teach outside their expertise. This book offers reassurance that you're not alone, and suggestions for making such experiences successful and rewarding.

"Can you be a good teacher before you've mastered the subject matter? Or perhaps while you're mastering it? I believe the answer is yes. Plenty of faculty members teach outside of their expertise and do it well. In telling their stories, this book shows what we can learn from their successes, which are many, as well as from their failures, which are few but memorable." p.2

I read this book on the suggestion of a friend, and I loved it. Huston, a neuroscientist, lays out her case that not only is 'teaching what you don't know' very common, it can even be advantageous.

The more I know, the more I know just how little I know

"New faculty fresh from graduate school are likely to believe that they are teaching what they don't know. On the one hand, this perception is grounded in reality…On the other hand, this perception is exaggerated by graduate school . If you have just left a role that was exclusively focused on your won sliver of research, you probably have a heightened sense that you are teaching beyond your knowledge base. After all, you just left a research experience where the standard for 'knowing something' was extremely high…" p.17

I think of expertise like climbing a mountain. From the valley floor, you look around and think "I know so much." But when you start climbing up that mountain, and you can see farther to other mountains and valleys and lands beyond, you realize there is much more to know. The higher you climb, the more expansive the view. Your own knowledge, though it has grown, feels so small in comparison to the vastness before you, and you think "I know so little!"

In graduate school we hike up a mountain and learn its every crevice, but when we turn around, we can see that there is more out there that we don't know and haven't learned, and we know that those other things can be learned in all the same detail as our own familiar mountain. So when you need to guide someone up a different mountain, it's easy to think you know nothing and forget that you have had a better view from your mountain top than those coming up the trail behind you.

Don’t know much about science books…

"'Why aren't we talking about it?' If it's so commonplace to teach what you don't know and it's clearly hard to do, why don't academics discuss it?…It seems to be taboo." p.21

"…if we can be honest with ourselves, another fundamental reason that we don't talk about teaching outside of our expertise is that it's one of the most revealing professional statements we can make.…To admit that we're teaching what we don't know would beg the questions 'So what have you been doing?'" p.24

"Although we don't admit it very often, the classic default model of college teaching is 'teaching as telling.'…But this model breaks down for those of us teaching outside our expertise. 'Teaching as telling' is a disastrous model for content novices because they have little to tell." p.41

I remember the first day of the first class I taught. The professor had asked the GSIs 1 to come to lecture to be introduced to the students. I wore a jacket that I hoped would make me look a little older, so their first impression of me wouldn't be "she's too young to be my teacher." I don't know if it worked.

Walking to the front of the classroom the first time (and the first time in every other section for a year and a half) made my stomach turn in knots. I had never had a discussion or recitation section for my classes as an undergrad. I didn't know what they were for. I had taken general chemistry, sure, but that was four years earlier with a different book and a totally different order and focus, and I felt like a complete fraud: "Hi, I have a Bachelor's degree in Chemistry but absolutely no idea how to solve your freshman and non-majors homework." Of course, that last bit was an exaggeration; I did know how to approach their homework. Still, I wasn’t all that sure what I was supposed to do in discussion, and I had a real fear of making mistakes and losing creditability.

For the most part, this fear has faded, but it came back again when interviewing this winter. At my first interview, I had a teaching demo for a course I had taken as an undergraduate but never taught. It was material I thought I should understand completely, yet I knew there were aspects I understood only superficially. (Set Impostor Syndrome drive to maximum warp!) I spent weeks preparing: reviewing my old notes and relearning parts of the topic. I wanted to incorporate active learning, but I feared that loss of control, and so I defaulted to lecture style. At the teaching demo, a student asked a simple question, and I fell into a pit of doubt. I had an answer, but I was afraid it was wrong. I was also afraid of saying I wasn’t sure. I should have moved on, but I didn’t. I lost the little control I had and didn’t know how to put things back together. The result was a crappy teaching demo that wasn’t representative of my teaching abilities. Really disappointing.

I read this book just before my most recent interview, which also included a teaching demo. The book convinced me to give up: give up teaching as telling, give up trying to be the Master when I feel more like a Journeyman, give up control to the students. I had been doing this before, in my own classroom, with my own students, where I had learned to be comfortable despite not having all the answers and making occasional mistakes. I needed to do that more, even when the students weren’t my own and the material was less familiar.

Teaching What You Don’t Know gave me a huge boost in confidence. It reminded me that a demonstration of my teaching is really a demonstration of my students’ learning, not a demonstration of my expertise on the subject. It reminded me that The Experts don’t have all the answers to everything, either. It also gave a good list of concrete examples of active learning activities and other ways to approach teaching some of those things you don’t know.

Funny bone

I should also mention the great use of humor throughout the book. I laughed every few pages at funny little quips or amusing comparisons. Here’s one, for example (p. 52):

“Without even knowing what the terms mean, most of us would agree that we’d rather promote ‘deep learning’ than ‘surface learning.’ It’s like summer camp versus federal prison camp. One phrase is immensely more appealing.”

It’s an engaging read. I devoured the book in a weekend.

The Bottom Line

If you're teaching anything, you really ought to read this book. I think it ought to be required reading for new GSIs.

1: Michigan calls TAs "Graduate Student Instructors," or GSIs. Likely because (depending on the course) GSIs are instructors, rather than assistants to the teacher/professor.