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Mistaken Beliefs About Content

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Having immersed themselves in its study for years and having been surrounded with colleagues equally enamored of the area, new faculty arrive at those first teaching jobs no longer objective about how the rest of the world views their content domain. 



The posting below looks at the difficulty of making certain content relevant and interesting to students. It is from Chapter 7, New Faculty: Beliefs That Prevent and Promote Growth, in the book Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Research for Professional Growth, by Maryellen Weimer. Published by Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint. 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741— Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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  Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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 Mistaken Beliefs About Content 


Many new teachers develop beliefs about content that implicate present and future growth as well. Unfortunately, too often colleagues and institutional cultures reinforce there initial beliefs, making them especially resistant to change.

                   Mistaken Belief: The Importance and Relevance of Content Will Be Obvious to Students 

The discovery that students don't love the new teacher's content area is one of those school of hard knock lessons. Graduate education reinforces the centrality of discipline-based content knowledge. Having immersed themselves in its study for years and having been surrounded with colleagues equally enamored with the area, new faculty arrive at those first teaching jobs no longer objective about how the rest of the world views their content domain. 

Moreover, beginning teachers usually don't get to teach courses devoted to the details of their specialties. In most first jobs, they teach introductory courses, or if really lucky, they get to teach early courses in a major. More often they are assigned the required general education survey courses—arguably the most challenging courses in the curriculum to teach. Even so, new teachers approach these first teaching assignments with enthusiasm, wearing their love of the field on their sleeves. 

Most students do not verbally express disdain for the subject matter, but their nonverbal behaviors say it eloquently. As beginning teachers cover bedrock basics, the veritable building blocks of a discipline, students check the clock, yawn, or look comatose. I once observed a new teacher laying out three approaches to a particular kind of literary criticism. After putting each on the board, he proceeded to expose their strengths and weaknesses. “On the one hand, this theory allows…, but this theory ignores…and this one integrates, but not as well as the first one separates.\" Everything he did betrayed a deep-seated passion for literary criticism. As he finished, face flushed and eyes bright, a student hand went up. You could tell the teacher expected a good question. “Which theory do we have to use in the next paper?” Not only did that student fall from grace, but the instructor plunged from a pinnacle of hope to the depths of despair.

New faculty (and those not new) forget how content looks when first encountered. After having been intimate with it for years, they cannot imagine missing its obvious importance and relevance. But the content looks different to students. Sometimes they miss the obvious, giving teachers so inclined the opportunity to criticize the students rather than question their assumption that the content's relevance is readily apparent to everyone.

What makes content relevant and meaningful to the teacher doesn’t always make its importance obvious to students. Gregory (2005), who teaches (and loves) British lit, explains by using one of his favorite poems, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.\" “I used to try to motivate students to enjoy and value Gray's poem by taking them carefully through a descriptive analysis of the poem’s artistry and intellectual content, and its historical position as a poem that sits on the fence between neoclassical restraint and Romantic expressiveness. This was all good because I’m reasonably smart and highly trained, and I really love this poem. But the truth is that it never worked very well” (p. 96). Why? “I was giving my students a reason to understand why some people—namely other strange persons like me—might find Gray’s poem interesting, but I was giving them no reasons of their own for finding Gray’s poem important” (p.96).

To help students understand the importance and relevance of the content they are learning, teachers must encourage students to connect with the content, letting them make connections meaningful to them. This doesn’t excuse students from learning the basics of a discipline, but it does mean that teachers will help students learn by working to understand (possibly remember) how the content looks to a novice and by being open to other ways of connecting with the material-—ways that make it meaningful to the learner.


Gregory, M. “Turning Water into Wine: Giving Remote Texts Full Flavor for the Audience of Friends.” College Teaching, 2005, 53 (3), 95-98.

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