When we don’t know what we don’t know


Many teachers and school leaders are largely self taught. For the most part, their training was on the job.

Their teacher and administrator preparation programs were inadequate. So, too, was (and is) their professional development.

They received little or no mentoring and have had few opportunities, if any, to learn with or from their colleagues.

One of the problems with being self-taught is that there may be significant gaps in knowledge and skills. Another problem is that educators are often unaware of those gaps.

Such blind spots will persist without skillful supervision and a strong system of professional learning that includes meaningful and sustained teamwork, peer observation, and instructional coaching that reveals what teachers and administrators don’t know about what they don’t know.

A strong system of support and learning will not only reveal gaps, but will identify and build upon educators’ strengths.

What do you think? What’s the best way for teachers and administrators to determine what they don’t know and to fill in those gaps?

9 Responses to “When we don’t know what we don’t know”

  1. 1 Kathy Leeper February 10, 2016 at 6:58 am

    The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.
    Benjamin Franklin
    I think this quote exemplifies your point. Unfortunately too often educators fear acknowledging what we don’t know is is admitting a lack of intelligence. As a leader I feel it is my responsibility to openly share areas I have identified as a need. I will often say to my teachers “teach me” you understand that so much better than I do. This openness has created a safe zone to openly seek to know what we don’t know and enjoy the thrill of learning and growing.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks February 10, 2016 at 12:01 pm

      What a wonderful approach, Kathy! Because many leaders believe that they are supposed to know everything, it is very hard for them to admit that they don’t…. I appreciate your comment.

  2. 3 Joellen Killion February 10, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Expertise is cultivated over many years with thoughtful, ongoing learning, continuous engagement in the feedback process, consistent implementation, and rigorous assessment of practice and effects. Thanks for reminding us that we all start somewhere, yet never actually arrive in our path toward professional growth.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks February 10, 2016 at 11:51 pm

      Exceptionally well said, Joellen! It is easy to see expertise as all or nothing—you have it or you don’t. Instead, as you point out, it is cultivated over years (or a career) in a never-ending process of continuous improvement.

  3. 5 Amy's Reflections February 11, 2016 at 11:00 am

    You are so right about this! I studied principal professional development in my doctoral research for this exact reason- we need to support our site leaders so that they know what they don’t know and can support the on-going, job-embedded learning of our teachers.

    • 6 Dennis Sparks February 11, 2016 at 11:03 am

      Very interesting, Amy! What did you learn about the types of support that most enabled site leaders’ self awareness and sustained professional learning?

      • 7 Amy's Reflections February 11, 2016 at 11:06 am

        A combination of: PD, peer mentoring, coaching from district leaders, and reflection, all creating a community of practice for site leaders to continue their learning

      • 8 Dennis Sparks February 11, 2016 at 11:55 am

        Thanks! Did you have any recommendations about how leaders might have the kinds of honest, “crucial” conversations with one another that are so often absent in work settings? Without such conversations it is hard for leaders to find out what they don’t know…

  4. 9 Katie Aldridge March 13, 2016 at 11:16 pm

    Yes! Huge gaps in skills are possible!

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