Teaching Today's Students

Broadening our Definition of Expert

by Lauren Arend, Assistant Professor, Education

I’m always looking for ways to connect my students at SLU to the broader St. Louis community.  One of the ways that I have done this is to bring local school and non-profit leaders into the classroom as guest speakers.  These guests are framed as experts who can insert a real-life perspective into our theoretical work.  This semester I continued a problem-based learning project centered on the events in Ferguson in my School and Community course for preservice teachers.

While following the conversations in St. Louis on both traditional and social media forums, I began to notice the ways in which the young people who were a part of the movement defied traditional notions of “expert”.  They dressed casually, spoke informally, used emoticons on Twitter.  The young activists in Ferguson have challenged the status quo not only with their mission and message, but with their inclusionary vision of who is capable of delivering that message.  This current movement has exemplified the rejection of expertise residing with a select few.  For me, this was reminiscent of Paulo Freire’s characterization of the “expert” teacher as oppressive to student thought.  This semester I wanted to redefine “expert” in my course and encourage students to broaden their view of community expertise.

Early in the semester I invited Alexis Templeton, a co-founder of the group Millennial Activists United and one of the plaintiffs in a case where a judge ordered that protestors be given reasonable warning prior to the release of tear gas, to speak to our class about her activist work and what she saw as the role of schools in addressing local protests.  I thought Alexis, who is currently a student at UMSL, had the potential to change the power dynamic in the class conversations in a way that I could not.

Alexis’s visit was an important contribution to our coursework this semester.  She also defied the role of traditional expert.  She entered class in sweatpants and a black hoodie with white print reading, “Not Your Respectable Negro.”  She eloquently spoke about the issues in the community, but did not hide her passion or excitement or anger.  She triggered students to ask questions about the ongoing events in Ferguson in a way that I could not and have not since.  Student inquiries during her visit were more in-depth and led to more prolonged interchanges than I typically am able to support when discussing contentious topics with my students.

So why was Alexis’s visit to my class so great? With the student-teacher relationship, students are often concerned with saying the right thing or asking the right question.  In other words, students assume (often correctly) that they are continuously being assessed by the teacher.  Similarly, often when we invite guests to lecture, these figures can be presented in such a manner that students are too intimidated to engage in meaningful dialogue.  Because Alexis was a peer and inspired students to engage in unique ways, the students dove right in to the conversation.  My role during her visit shifted as well.  I took a seat and observed.  I took copious notes of the interchanges that were occurring.  Occasionally, I prompted the conversation to go deeper, into less familiar territory, when I felt the students teetering on the edge of asking (or not asking) something.  About halfway through the class, I interrupted the conversation to ask my students, “Isn’t anyone going to ask Alexis about her sweatshirt!?!” which led to a rich conversation about dress codes, activist clothing as a provocation to dialogue, and free speech in schools.

Our community is filled with individuals who are not only experts on their own experiences, but experts on delivering a narrative that runs counter to the same old, same old.  For me and the students in my class, Alexis’s expertise was refreshing, powerful, and informative.  There was no fanfare in manner or preparation for this expert lecture, which made it seem possible for all of us in class that day to develop a position and articulate it broadly.


Lauren Arend is an Associate Professor in the department of Educational Studies. Before pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership from Saint Louis University, Lauren worked with young children and teachers of young children at the International Child Resource Institute in Berkeley, California. Lauren’s research focuses on early childhood leadership, particularly how early childhood directors develop a leadership practice. Lauren currently serves as a Reinert Center Faculty Fellow.