Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Those who can CAN'T teach?

So we're all familiar with the dismissive remark, "Those who can't, teach." I gather Socrates put the lie to that idea long ago.

But Worst Prof Ever argues (sort of) for the opposite: expertise in a field is not only no assurance of being a good teacher, it tends to make for worse teachers. Her proposal:

The thing is, experts are often the worst teachers; they’ve been practicing whatever topic for way too long, and snug in their cocoon of pigeonholed expertise, they have lost touch with what it feels like to be the student who finds, say, Econ 101 as inaccessible as alien hieroglyphics. ... you’re a better teacher if you were (and perhaps are) completely baffled by the subject you’re supposed to be teaching.
I have several thoughts here: First, 'expert' seems to be defined up here, not simply the way we would think any trained academic is an expert in her field. 'Expert' here seems to designate the cream of the crop. I'm not an 'expert' in logic in this sense, but Bertrand Russell was, say.

Her more intriguing idea is that natural geniuses make poor teachers because they've never had a personal struggle with learning. If it's never been hard for you to learn X, then you're likely to have difficulty attempting to teach X to those for whom learning X is hard. In my observation, there's some truth to this. Those who are superduperexpert in something often teach essentially by talking out loud, by laying out their understanding of a problem or question. This is terrific if that understanding is transparent to you, if you can readily appreciate why their understanding of the problem or question is a good one. But for anyone else, an expert talking out loud isn't teaching in any substantive sense. The expert is displaying knowledge, but transmitting it accidentally, if at all.

But I'm interested to know: What is the relationship between expertise and teaching ability? Socrates was on to something surely: You can't teach what you don't know. But is knowing too well (or too much) a hindrance to good teaching?


  1. FWIW, I find it hard to teach things I've written myself. Some of this surely is that I don't know how to explain the materials in a different way than are in the reading; but also some of it is, it seems to me, that I'm so familiar with the moves and countermoves that I don't see the issues as the students see them. This latter part seems to parallel some of what Worst Prof Ever is claiming.

  2. I've found (and colleagues such as the late Dan Ort agree) that it's actually much better for both myself and students to teach something that I'm not an expert at. Not only does it allow me to engage with the material at closer to the students' level, as the above post suggests, but it is also a great benefit to myself. It does mean that I'm working harder than I would be just teaching material I'm already familiar with, but that isn't necessarily a negative.

  3. I have to disagree.

    In the sense of "I've never had a problem learning anything" (as Micheal puts it), sure, I can see a direct connection. If you don't understand how people can have problems learning things, you'll be a bad teacher. You have no pedagogical intuitions.

    In the sense of "I know this subject better than anybody" I think there is an indirect connection, if anything. Indirect because I don't buy that there's anything about knowing a subject expertly well itself that makes teaching it difficult.

    However, people who tend to know things expertly well (at the extreme level we're apparently talking here) spend little time thinking of how others might approach the subject, or how they might misunderstand it, or how to better get people to wrap their heads around it. Instead, they are writing articles and engaging with opposition. So if they have difficulties teaching the material, it's because they don't spend much time thinking about those who don't understand it, not because knowing it expertly well magically causes pedagogical fogginess in some way.

  4. In my experience, courses go very well the first time I teach them and then there's a definite dip in quality as the material grows stale. This is why I have a standing policy to change every syllabus I teach every semester, which is easy with some intro courses because you can't really exhaust that material in a semester, but is much (!) harder with logic. I have no idea how this will play out over the next decade, though, and so I can always hope that some classes will be better the thirtieth time I teach them than they were the third.

  5. The more I have learned about philosophy the clearer my lectures have become to myself and others. I can tell by the reactions I get from those students who are there to learn and are capable of understanding the subject. I once read that those with IQs below 114 simply can't understand philosophy. Thus, the only way to reach such "students"- and they are legion- is by turning the subject into something it is not: writing facts and definitions on the board for memorization and not requiring anyone to see conceptual connections. Why are we beating ourselves over the head instead of acknowledging this rather obvious fact? Anyone who condemns expertise is just looking to excuse his/her failure. I would suffer fools gladly, though, if they were willing to keep their mouths shut, take their hard-earned Cs, and allow me to instruct those who can get something philosophical out of my courses.

  6. I think that the key is, if you are interested in x but not sure of what x is,or what the 'correct' approach to x is, you are more open to learning more about x. You then look at the teaching experience as a learning experience where you become a student yourself and simply facilitate the process of learning. When is the last time you taught a class and someone said something and you had to really stop and think about it? When is the last time someone took one of your arguments and completely tore it apart?

    I also think that if there is a personal stake in the issue being discussed that it helps to keep it fresh. Personal story: I got into studying philosophy because of the problem of evil. I was in the service and began to wonder why a God of love, who I still believed in and even thought of becoming a minister, would want me to kill my fellow human beings? 45 years later I am still puzzled by that problem. I no longer believe in God, but I know that I could be wrong. I have to admit that this is one reason I love Descartes - his bringing the ED into the picture really messes things up. After all these years Descartes and the problem of evil are still fresh, as is Socrates and Epictetus.

  7. I tend to think that I'm a good teacher [i]because[/i] I do Philosophy. I know not all philosphers are good teachers, but I do think there's a relationship between the two practices that should make skill in one translate to skill in the other.

    For in both cases, much of what you need to do is ask yourself "How can I explain this as clearly and convincingly as I can to someone who's possibly not even equipped to understand me much less agree with me?" (when philosophers come from different basic assumption sets, they're often not equipped to understand each other--they talk past each other) and also "Why would that person say that seeminly bizarre thing, and how can I respond to them constructively?"

    That didn't come out as compellingly as I had hoped, but hopefully you guys get the idea.

    Both teaching and philosophy are fundamentally concerned with understanding difficult texts and communicating about complex concepts with clarity. (In teaching, the "difficult text" is the student, or at least, the things the student says.)

    Wasn't it Wittgenstein who used to say to himself, right in front of the person he was talking about, "Now what would make a person say something like that?" I think this is one of the foundational questions in both philosophy and teaching.

  8. "Wasn't it Wittgenstein who used to say to himself, right in front of the person he was talking about, "Now what would make a person say something like that?" I think this is one of the foundational questions in both philosophy and teaching."

    Wittgenstein was working with graduate students, dedicated to learning philosophy. (When he was teaching grammar school he reportedly pulled a female pupil's hair for being slow.) Try challenging someone who doesn't want to be in your class in the first place and see what happens, e.g., the smart aleck mentioned in a previous post who openly questioned the value of philosophy itself. What are you going to do when they run to administration and accuse you of humiliating them in public? And don't try telling me 'It's all in how you do it'. You can be as gentle as possible yet many of them will still take offense. Spinoza said it is not possible to teach philosophy without making people feel uncomfortable. I know I benefited greatly from being awakened from many a dogmatic slumber by instructors who frankly and rightly didn't care about my feelings. But adjunct instructors are no longer free to challenge students in this way.

  9. According to the mythology of Wittgenstein at Cambridge, he disliked teaching so much that he hid under his desk when students were banging at the door of his room demanding to be taught.

    This is the opposite of the celebrated Doctor Fox Lecture in which psychologists, playing tricks on their students as usual, got an actor to deliver a lecture on a subject that he knew nothing about and which was possibly complete nonsense with great conviction and enthusiasm. Predictably, he was rated very highly by the students!


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