In my last article, I argued that all students are novices. For some of you, this may have seemed “off.” After all, doesn't this ignore the many ways in which our students are different? Doesn't this pretend that each day we aren't faced with daunting diversity in terms of our students' prior knowledge, preparedness, interests, strengths, and weaknesses?
On one hand, no — thinking of our students as novices shouldn't negate the fact that each of them is very different from any other student I've ever taught. Each one has a different story, different likes and dislikes, different home lives, different relationships with all the other students in the room. Whenever I think on how distinct each of my students is — really think on it — I start to feel dizzy and overwhelmed with the scope of difference in my room.
And that's partly why the novice lens is so helpful. Anyone can point out how wide-ranging their rosters are; it takes an expert to focus on the deeper commonalities that all students share.
And this novice thing — it's a true commonality. No matter how “advanced” a student is or how “remedial,” all of our students are relative novices compared to us in two particular areas:
- They are relative novices in the disciplines you and I are teaching them (e.g., math, science, computer science, etc).
- They are relative novices in the discipline of learning in general (e.g., how to study, how to ask questions, how to get one's mind to achieve the outcomes one wishes to achieve, etc).
This idea of “novice is relative to me” is useful, too, for keeping this whole idea respectful. Just because a student is a novice doesn't mean they are less than me. It just means I have something that they don't; I've been to a place that I'm tasked with helping them move towards. In a culture like ours, there can be this sense that calling someone a novice is disrespectful. But look, I'm a novice in all sorts of settings. I'm a novice in medicine — that's why I go to a doctor. I'm a novice in tax law — that's why I go to an accountant. I'm a novice at home repair — that's why I go to YouTube to learn how to fix the hole in the drywall that my child made from opening the door too fast. (Aaaaaand that's also why they make door stoppers, apparently 🤦♂️.)
And so viewing my students as a group of novices is a helpful way for me to partner with reality. But also, it's very practical because when you teach all of your students as if they are novices, your job becomes much simpler. I don't need to split the students into a bunch of ability groups — I can teach all of them what it takes to be the best possible student in my course. If you've read The Will to Learn, this teaching attitude will sound familiar — basically, it's Woodenization (Strategy 7, pp. 175-193).
Finally, if you're interested in digging way deeper into what it looks like at a fundamental level to teach students as if they are novices, check out the Principles of Learning Course — now open for first cohort enrollment.