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Perspectives on student expertise

“The ideal teacher student relationship exists when the student is better than the teacher”, so writes the Japanese author Kenzaburō Ōe.

The Nobel-Prize winning writer comments on the nature and expression of what it means to be human, in social, environmental and political spheres. Some of his most notable works consider the power dynamics at play in post-War occupied Japan and use characters at the fringes of society to make pointed, and often uncomfortable, critical observations of contemporary society.

The above quote is taken from Shizuka-na seikatsu (A Quiet Life) (1990). The story concerns children abandoned by parents who move to America. The eldest daughter takes care of her younger sister and her brain-injured brother. It’s a turbulent tale of changing roles of responsibilities, of caring for others, family relationships, and a son’s musical gifts.  

From a sad situation, there are silver linings and huge outpourings of compassion. Crisis becomes a vehicle for positive transformation, and through the toughest situations humour and intellect carry through.

The themes of the book prompted me to reflect on what we’ve all collectively been through because of the pandemic, what perspectives through challenge and with compassion we cherish, and what now inspires us anew as we move forward.

I loved the quote above about how our students could or should become better than their teachers. It immediately made me think about how we’re pushing for research-led teaching and learning opportunities. The themes of the book also make us reconsider how our roles as teachers can oscillate in different teaching scenarios – one day I might be on a podium as an “expert” lecturer, another day, I might invite students to educate me on novel topics they’ve explored. When we push our students to become more active and competent researchers, we also facilitate them to become more expert than their teachers, more knowledgeable on niche areas, and more innovative with new methods and theoretical approaches.

In these research-rich scenarios, we tend to think about learning design, the student learning journey, and how to create interesting assessments. I’d love to hear from staff about how they feel through this process, how they reflect on changing power dynamics in such situations, and what they might recommend to others new to the process that will help them.

Anecdotally, staff who take such approaches talk about how invigorating it is, how it transforms their sense of teaching worth, that they get that spark back in their daily teaching and researching lives. So the risks of trying it out have some tantalising rewards.

It’s also a good conversation starter to use in staff meetings. Do others in your school think that students should finish their degree programmes (of some or all levels) better than the teacher, or is their disagreement on this? Tell us how such conversations go in your teaching teams and what interesting questions arise, we’d love to have a chat about your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “Perspectives on student expertise”

  1. This is quite interesting and what we academicians can aim for, for our students. Interestingly, I made comment once in commending students group presentation, about how much new knowledge I learnt from their report and that I look forward to learning more etc etc. This was to postgrad students of which majority were international students and it appeared this comment didn’t go down well as their expectation is that the teacher provides the knowledge and not the reverse. Following this experience, I had to choose my words carefully in my feedback. So I guess, everything depends on the context and types of students, orientation, culture etc. Just a thought.

    1. Thanks Oghale, I agree – context is everything – and we have to build that awareness within the student perspectives to respect this teaching approach, and value it in addition to traditional modes of knowledge expertise. Your comment also prompts me to think about the impact of student feedback on us as teachers, when we are confronted with such unexpected feedback (a negative despite the experience of a positive), and the emotional toll that takes on us.

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