How much should a teacher know?

civic mirror

Recently, when faced with students who were quite apathetic about their Social Studies course, I decided to integrate a web-based simulation called The Civic Mirror into my teaching plan. As all teachers know, there is no way to accurately predict the outcomes of any planned teaching activity.  I had expected that students would be excited about the simulation and that they would be deeply engaged in it – they were part of the digital generation after all –  but what I did not expect were my own reactions.

Through online and face-to-face interactions, the simulation provides a space for students to grapple with political, economic and social issues.  Students “live” in a simulated country in which they elect a government, trade goods and services and perform many roles of citizens in the real world.  They each have 7 family members for whom they have to provide food, shelter, education and health care, as well as a good standard of living.

hex-map

Their simulated country is divided into 36 property units called hexes. There are wilderness hexes, business hexes and housing hexes. As in the real world, there is scarcity within the simulated country and so the student/citizens have to compete for certain resources. Because everyone is affected by the decisions of the owners of the farm, energy, security and insurance hexes/properties, conflict arises as citizens debate over how these owners should manage their property and assets.  Citizens may appeal to the government for changes to legislation or they may take  each other to the National Court.   These are the issues that  provide fuel for the debates and discussions on an online discussion forum, a space that in some sense can be seen as a classroom in cyberspace.

Throughout the semester I had several taxing experiences in this classroom in cyberspace. For one thing, my role was not always clear. When the scene was the online ‘classroom’, students were in charge of the ‘curriculum’ and they wrestled with its direction and I was left to follow along, offering advice from the side-lines or more often from the back.  I felt out of my depth when the merits of mercantilism and Machiavellian politics arose as themes in both the traditional classroom and the cyberspace classroom. I tried to just hang on and go with the flow as I had never seen students so absolutely engaged in learning.

But when the scene changed to the traditional classroom, I was on familiar ground and my role was clear, as was the direction we would go: I was teacher, charged with delivering a synthetic set of information, the approved curriculum. This state of ‘stability’ would last  until once again fluidity would enter the classroom when students set up and ran a Town Hall discussion or processed cases in a National Court. Although it was deeply satisfying to watch them passionately debate, discuss, and dissect many contentious issues, it was a challenge for me to keep up as the theatre of learning was in constant scene-change mode and my role was constantly shifting.  Sometimes I was an onlooker, wondering whether to intervene or not, resisting the temptation to “play god” when ethical questions arose, such as this one, posted by  Ryan in the discussion forum:

What should I do? Use information that may hurt someone to get more money or think of another way to make money? I can’t make a decision. As you can see, I have no way of income, and no hexes,[ property within the simulated country]  and not very much money at all. However, I do have a way of getting some money to help for next year. The problem I am having is it may hurt a relationship irl [in real life] or at least cause a disturbance. So I’m not sure if I should be a jerk and get some money, or just don’t worry about my income right now and hope it will get better.

I was not sure how I should have responded to Ryan.  Should I have given him a Coles Notes version of the study of ethics?  Should I have told him what to do?  Should I have watched to see the consequences of his decision even if that entailed watching another student get emotionally hurt? What is my role when my students grapple with these dilemmas? Is there a educational theory that could have guided me with this? My hunch was that I should not interfere but that I should make sure that I was available to help if that was needed.

Another incident that occurred online at midnight on a Saturday highlighted the fact that my teaching practice had taken on a whole new dimension when I found myself debating economic theory with a student who was in the midst of machinations to advance his agenda. I do not teach Economics and know very little about the discipline. There was nothing in the curricula of the courses that I taught that would provide adequate responses to his questions. I was left scrambling to find information, engaged in “just-in-time” learning,  accessing the same websites that my students were accessing.

That was when I realized that my traditional role as information deliverer was defunct. It did not matter how much information I knew about any number of topics, I could not compete with the instantaneously available oceans of information on the Internet. This was a sobering realization. If information was so readily accessible, what was my role as a teacher of students who have never known a world without Google and Wikipedia?

At the time of the midnight epiphany, there was a raging online debate on the merits of Communism, Socialism and Capitalism. According to the curriculum, all students needed to know was the definitions of the different ideologies and the “advantages and disadvantages” of each.  The curriculum did not require them to do what they were in fact doing,  applying the ideologies to the situations in their simulated country.  The elected government was socialist and the capitalist opposition was accusing them of being communist.  I had entered the debate to try to clarify some of the positions that students were taking. With my limited knowledge on the topics, I am not sure I provided much help at all.

During the simulation,  Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Restorative Justice, Keynesian economics, the seduction of Fascism, and the concept of egalitarianism, were just a few of the topics that emerged in debates and discussions.  My knowledge in all these topics is limited. They were not part of any curriculum in any of my studies, from undergraduate to graduate.  But, I wondered,  as a teacher should I know more about them? What if these topics do not arise in the next simulation when I have a different group of students? Because each combination of simulation + students results in different scenarios, how should I prepare for such a dynamic and fluid teaching-learning situation?  How much is enough knowledge for a teacher to have in a  21st century classroom?  What kind of knowledge should she have?

2 thoughts on “How much should a teacher know?”

  1. Good questions and ones I have often asked myself. After completing my undergraduate degree I didn’t feel that I had learned that much, but I had a greater understanding of how much I didn’t know. Although I had actually learned quite a bit, I was always questioning further, and more knowledge just led to more questions. The greatest thing I learned in university was how to learn and where to find the answers (or better questions!). I also learned how to appreciate the vastness of knowledge and it all seemed accessible. In my classroom, I know that I need to have a toolbox full of knowledge, but more importantly, I need to show that I don’t know it all, but that I’m interested in learning so I can pass that on to my students – a passion (or at least interest) in learning more. I’m teaching to learn and learning to teach everyday – at least that’s the goal. The questions, it seems, are the answer…

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