The democracy of knowledge

I couldn’t have done this without all of you

This weekend I’ve been in Turkey, speaking at a workshop and being treated with a huge amount of respect and deference, because I’m a professor.

Whether those same people would have thought the same of me in the airport as I walked away from security without my mobile phone, forcing a very unseemly effort to resolve the issue is a moot point.

So let’s moot away.

A major challenge in many parts of our education system is deference to seniority: we stick labels on people that somehow means they know better.

Yes, a part of getting a fancier job title is knowing your subject, as expressed through publications and engagement. But it’s not the whole picture.

And knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean knowing everything.

All weekend I listened to colleagues just starting out on their independent research journeys, talking about subjects they knew about and which I didn’t. As much as I could offer some insights from my own understanding, I was very aware of the limits of the utility of this to the needs of those colleagues, so became more intent about trying to leave spaces to those who could say something more, or about asking questions that might open up more reflection on their part.

Just as we want workshops or conferences to be spaces for developing ideas, so too the classroom.

Students and teachers very often fall into their socialised roles: one lot listen to the other lot to gain knowledge and ‘be taught’. But again this misses the potential to recognise that everyone in the room has something to give.

My fervour for active learning comes precisely from the realisation that I didn’t know it all, couldn’t know it all and needed to have my students’ insights to gain more. The more we can place students into positions where they can take control and make contributions the better the chances of creating not only a more rounded understanding of the matter in hand, but also the skills and comfort to continue doing that in whatever future role they take on.

Inquisitiveness about others and their understanding and knowledge is central. We have to open to what others can bring to the table, not because of their title, but because of the knowledge and reflection they have.

As the security guy at the airport could testify, just because you’re a professor doesn’t mean you can’t also be a doofus too.