A Culture of Experts vs A Culture of Reflection

Valencia Church-Williams

By Valencia Church-Williams

As educators, we work within the constraints of a “Culture of Experts.” We believe that it is our job to know and to show. To admit that we do not know or that we are incapable of showing is to mark ourselves as inadequate and ineffectual. To speak of such would be heresy. If the aforementioned is true—and it is—how then do we move beyond this and develop a culture of reflective practice?

As educators, no matter the content or discipline, we should be developing a culture that honors reflection and progression based on “Growth Mindset” as has been so eloquently stated by Carol Dweck in her 2006 best seller. We can never fulfill our full potential so long as we insist upon masquerading as though we have both mastered and attained in a profession that is as much magic and artistry as it is skillfulness and will.

In education, we often speak of “The swing of the Pendulum.” This is the idea that nothing ever really changes in education. A theory or an instructional practice simply swings out of favor, only to return years later shiny and new. We ask among ourselves, “Does anything ever change?” when the better question is “Have we?”

When the desire to be right ceases to eclipse the real goal of doing right and getting it right then not only will education change, our entire world and worldview will change. We will begin again to be professionals and like every professional acknowledge that our mastery of our craft depends on continued study and perpetual practice.

People who operate from this paradigm of a “Culture of Experts” often find themselves angry and righteously indignant when challenged, but the truth is knowledge is not static so no matter what we know and to what extent, a day will come when we will be wrong. A day will come when all that we have known will have passed away and we will have to acknowledge that we are no longer an expert.

Or, just maybe, others will confirm their suspicions that we were never really experts in the first place. Many people are angry because they did not do the initial work necessary in its entirety or with high enough fidelity to truly be an expert. One can appear “deep” and “rigorous” as we rely on our performance skills and in this way hide the lightness of our knowledge from most observers. But, when called upon to actually prove what we say we know—to combine objective knowledge with subjective experience–we are weighed and found wanting. This place of lack becomes a festering and uncomfortable wound and we may find ourselves attempting to patch it with denial, deceit, and jealousy. However, discomfort is a guide. Attempting to relentlessly silence or ease the discomfort causes us to miss the message the discomfort bears up.

Although the preceding words have been written in third person, this post will not ring true unless I write to you from a personal, inward place.

I also know the discomfort of being caught unawares and unprepared for the challenge of the day while trying to bear the mantle of expert. The truth is that I am no expert. I am the discomfort. I am the dis-ease. I am the scandal. When I blame fellow educators for their inadequacies or insist that it must be poor parenting that has produced students without academic habits of minds, I become the dis-ease and the scandal. But, I am also more. I can also be the balm, the healer, and the bringer of peace.

But, all of these things require silence, solitude and reflection. In the absence of grandstanding, we might replace our “Culture of Experts” with a “Culture of Reflection.” It is not through our experiences that we gain wisdom but through our reflection upon our experiences. In order to reflect, we cannot be afraid to sit in complete silence and do the work of the jihad within our own self and soul. We must die to hubris and ego. We must die to the need to be right. We must die to the need to see others humbled. We must die to the fear of being alone with one’s Self and of hearing what Self might have to say. We must overcome the fear of knowing what Self might challenge us to do or be. The truth is that the place of lack is the place of work. We do not have to climb mountains or move to monasteries to know the purpose and work of our lives. Only find the place of lack and you will have also found the purpose of your life’s work.

So then we find the aforementioned discussion to be bigger than one person or one profession. A school is after all a microcosm of real life. It should be a safe place to practice, fail, and progress. We all spill soup. To admit such may erode our positions as experts but it will solidify our positions as reflective practitioners.

I hope that as you read, you feel my heart reaching out to you across the vastness of space and time and that my intention and love both meet and greet you. Be well.

Valencia Church-Williams

Program Coordinator, Professional Developer, Instructional Coach, Reading Specialist, Children's Librarian

Valencia is a scholar-practitioner with 20+ years of experience as a performance artist and 16+ years as a literacy educator. She completed doctoral course work at North Central University, studying leadership and special education program administration. She also earned credentials as a reading specialist and children's librarian from East Carolina University. Her research interests include learning disabilities in reading, metalinguistics, teacher preparation, professional learning communities, and special education teacher quality.