Critical reflection follow-up post 3

Internalising Inadequacy

Thanks for sharing your experience of feeling like an imposter. From your description, I can see clearly why you feel so. Your situation opens up many avenues for critical reflection, not least one that investigates the meaning of a doctorate. However, I’d like to focus on the sense of lacking credibility and why teachers may feel inadequate (without any implication that you embody either of these characteristics). I’m thinking out loud here.

George Bernard Shaw’s famous criticism that; “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches” (cited in Shulman, 1986, p. 4), is probably unfair. Yet possibly, it holds a grain of truth. Goldhaber (2002) notes that in 1993/4, the average SAT scores of American newly-graduated teachers was around 80 points lower than those entering other professions. The latest figures show that those entering education studies have scores lower than all but culinary, agriculture, various technicians and fitness studies (NCES, 2012). Although Goldhaber goes on to defend the skill set teachers have, the Sapir-Whorfian constructivist influence of Shaw’s adage perhaps retains its power at some subconscious level. Whorf claimed that “the structure of the language one habitually uses influences the manner in which one understands his environment” (Whorf, 1956, p. vi); I know myself that I entered teaching because making a living playing the recorder was impossible. How many others have internalised a sense of social failure during their journeys in becoming teachers?

Onto the positive side. Feelings of inadequacy may result from an unexplored understanding of one’s own teaching body of knowledge, i.e. not being aware of how much one knows. Birch and Bernstein describe “the curse of knowledge”, the phenomenon where an individual has expertise but has forgotten the effort they expended in achieving that knowledge and the resultant erroneous assumption that their interlocutor knows what they know (Birch & Bernstein, 2007, p. 100). To be on this Ed.D. course, all ‘students’ need to have at least three years of service: most have much more. The students here have amassed an impressive degree of knowledge and skill as well as experience. But when standing in front of others somehow we may project those abilities onto our listeners. Allied to this phenomenon is Beeler’s notion of ‘unconscious competence’, where students are unaware of the abilities they possess (Beeler, 1991). The Dreyfus brothers’ studies (2005) into the nature of expertise supports the idea that experts cannot verbalise why they arrive at certain decisions, the precise understanding that led Schön to his famous work. I’d like to turn this around to guard teachers from feelings of inadequacy.

Taking the Beeler’s unconscious competence one stage further, Socrates’ (and Einstein’s and other attributations) quotation comes to mind; “The more I learn, the less I realise I know”. I wonder if humble and experienced teachers internalise their perceptions of the increasing gaps in their knowledge as weaknesses? Quality assurance is now an established part of HE life (Nicholson, 2011), and many metrics employed reflect the values of technical rationality (Brockbank & McGill, 2007). There is the possibility that the metrics used conflict with less quantifiable attributes held by teachers. A critical question arises: What metrics are applicable in judging teacher quality and how much do individual teachers internalise those metrics, including the ones whose values are not readily shared by the teacher? The wider the gap, the greater the risk of feeling inadequate, I propose.

The notion of inadequacy goes far deeper than this simple outline.


Beeler, K. D. (1991). Graduate Student Adjustment to Academic Life: A Four-Stage Framework. NASPA Journal, 28(2), 163–71.

Birch, S. a. J., & Bernstein, D. M. (2007). What Can Children Tell Us About Hindsight Bias: A Fundamental Constraint on Perspective–Taking? Social Cognition, 25(1), 98–113.

Brockbank, A., & McGill, I. (2007). Facilitating reflective learning in higher education (2nd ed.). Buckingham, PA: SRHE and Open University Press.

Dreyfus, H. L., Dreyfus, S. E., & Dreyfus, S. E. (2005). Expertise in Real World Contexts. Organization Studies, 26(5), 779–792.

Goldhaber, D. (2002). The Mystery of Good Teaching. Education Next, 2(1), 50–55.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). SAT mean scores and percentage distribution of college-bound seniors, by selected student characteristics: Selected years, 1995-96 through 2011-12. U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences [online]. Retrieved on January 2 2016 from:

Nicholson, K. (2011). Quality Assurance in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature. Council of Ontario Universities Degree Level Expectations Project, 1–15.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4–14.

Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought, and reality. (J. B. Carroll, Ed.). New York and London: Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Wiley and Sons.


About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a private university.
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