Education, higher, humor, learning, school, students, Teaching

Why Experts Are Not the Best Teachers

I admit, that’s a deliberately controversial title. The whole notion of ‘expert’ has become problematic lately, as more and more people catch on to the fact that pieces of paper and honorific statuettes and bumper stickers mean jack squat about your ability to communicate your esoteric knowledge to other people.

It so happens that last week’s bidness (yes, I actually do have some, hence my Johnny-Cash-inspired policy of inviting eminent guest bloggers to have their say) involved several chats about who should teach what.

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.

Hence the conclusion that Dr. Gross, Dr. $hiraz and I had independently reached: you’re a better teacher if you were (and perhaps are) completely baffled by the subject you’re supposed to be teaching.

Case in point: I’m sure I wasn’t the world’s best Latin teacher. Latin always seemed like an eminently sensible language to me, and while I could sort of grasp the mindset of students who didn’t get it, my brain had been doing it for nigh on twenty years by the end. Throw in a little universal grammar (the byproduct of some Linguistics dabbling) and I often felt like I came off like some hippie praising the spirit in the sky: “This ablative is, like, on a whole different plain, man, because it was there in all the Indo-European languages.” I knew I wasn’t speaking the language of the students, but I had no idea how to get back to a point where I could.

Contrast that to Mythology, which is the bane of anyone studying ancient stuff. You’ve gotta understand, those ancient poets and historians quoted entire tragic cycles as glibly as today’s pundits would reference last night’s Glee episode. So, when you’re trying to understand the art and literature, there’s this whole subtext you’re not getting if you don’t know the mythology. And the mythology sucks: thousands of stories told by hundreds of authors, often in conflict with each other about the details, aren’t something you can just pick up.

Unless you suddenly have to teach Greek Mythology, which I did, for five years, because they asked me to. It wasn’t my area of expertise. I didn’t even particularly like it at first — the sadistic trivia-mongering of grad school takes away all the joy of ‘wow, isn’t this wacky?!’ But, by teaching it, I learned it. And I even learned to embrace its insanely conflicting array of crazy-ass stories. And I think I was probably better at teaching it because I started from the premise that it made no sense whatsoever.

Same goes for computer stuff. I have a hate-hate relationship with programming languages and the people who think they’re anything like real languages  — but this means I’m willing to be one in the room who admits, ‘Hey, what gives, this makes no sense!’ If you can admit that about the topic at hand, but nonetheless appreciate the value of learning it, you’re off to a good start.

So, here’s my point: knowing something at the PhD level benefits very few of your fellow citizens. Oh, sure, a company may really need that applied calculation or fission diagram or whatever; but when it comes to teaching, you’re mostly supposed to model the basics, or better yet, a global kind of intelligence — the kind that does not pretend to know everything, but knows how to find solutions to the problems at hand, and maybe even gets over the crazy notion that ‘I don’t know’ is an obscenity coming from a teacher.

There’s also the fact that if you, like me or Dr. Gross, are stubborn and insist on learning something that’s hard for you, you can model that for the students. Or that if you, like Ann Daly, are intellectually curious (which teachers are supposed to be, right?), you can model the ability to find and research new areas of interest. None of which is encouraged by systems that test teachers and students alike on stupid, superficial points of knowledge.

So, when you’re putting together a class — whether it be on marketing, physics, or ancient poetry — there’s something to be said for letting amateurs do the teaching. Unlike PhDs (or CEOs or Supreme Thetan Guardians), supposed dilettantes often have their enthusiasm intact, and haven’t lost the ability to communicate with the outside world.

Oh, and they’re usually cheaper to hire.

UPDATE: Today I found an interesting article on Tracy McGrady, wondering whether being good at something, without having to try, can be an impediment….seems like this could a related issue?


  • There seems to be a great problem at universities with the confusion of “person who is an expert in their field” and “person who is really good at teaching undergraduates”. They are NOT the same. Teaching is a whole nother skill set that many of the science lab professors just do not have.

    They *know* a lot. They are just really bad at understandably communicating it, or making it interesting, or, in the worst cases, just making it audible.

    You don’t just need someone to be an expert in the field to teach. You also need them to be an expert at teaching.

  • Yeah, pretty much. Not that the expert in the field isn’t a total star in office hours, when he can explain one-on-one the spectacular things he’s discovered in his A+++ research. But in front of the classroom he tends to ramble and go off on tangents and generally intimidate everyone except the kids who were planning on catching him in office hours anyway.

    On the rare occasion that the expert actually is a good teacher, though, life is completely awesome for three hours a week.

  • The moment in academia when we don’t know but teach is grad school: I walked into my first discussion session on jello knees because I had NO idea what I was supposed to do and, worse, no clue about the subject matter. Why? Because the prof for whom I was the “assistant” couldn’t teach his way out of a bag, paper or otherwise.

    I realized the students were completely baffled. I could tell that by the looks on their faces, plus, if I was baffled, then, hey, they must be! So I tossed out the “assigned” lesson, and simply re-gave the week’s lectures from the perspective of the clueless.

    It worked. I figured out what was going on and so did the students. So that’s what we did the entire semester. (When the prof was to show up to watch me teach, I warned the students in advance, gave them the required assignment, and asked them to go along with his plan. They did. Then we went back to what we’d been doing.)

    Moral of the story for me was: Never assume anything about the audience, a lesson that I carried with me through the rest of my time in torture, er, in academia. And it’s what guides me now: I intentionally choose as book topics subjects about which I know nothing, so I can learn as I go and so, with luck, I won’t bore my readers silly with a buncha bullshit they don’t know anything about.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying: If we could capture and contain that moment of jello knees back in grad school, we’d probably be better “teachers” for many years to come.

  • Just wanted to throw this out there: I love mythology. I’ve always had an ability to keep a lot of the stories straight, which helped immensely during a Classics course that I took on Homer and the Trojan War. (It also came in handy when taking undergrads through European art museums and fielding such questions as “Why can’t we walk two steps in Rome without seeing those pudgy little babies suckling at a wolf?” / “WTF is that swan doing to her??!”)

    Would have LOVED to have taken your class on the subject though…

  • The best teaching points I use are mostly a combo of stuff I learned from asking others because I didn’t understand and stuff that came to me on the fly when I had to figure it out quick because I didn’t know. Being an expert doesn’t really mean anything anymore.

  • This was actually somewhat inspiring. It got me thinking of all the teachers who got frustrated with how not-intuitive a subject was for me, and how I felt stupid at the time, only realizing years later that it was the teachers’ job to make me feel LESS stupid. It also got me thinking of teachers I had who seemed to know little about their subject. They were, as a rule, better, though there are some extremes, such as an admittedly-bad-at-math math teacher who relied entirely on clever acronyms and never tried to explain the basic concepts to us.

    This also makes me think of the advice I’ve heard a bunch of times to not do what you love, but do what you’d only do if you were paid. I get a feeling that, for most people, the occupation that makes the most sense is not the one that they could do in their sleep, but the one that challenges them just enough to keep them awake.

  • Of course there are those who are both experts and good teachers, but yeah – most of my experiences of bad teaching came in grad school where the profs were more interested in defending their research territory or publishing. The head of the department was the worst offender. I shudder just at the fleeting memory of those classes!

    In my classes, I always try to think of the subject from a novice perspective. For my lit classes, I design a Learn-Practice-Teach syllabus. We learn about how to look at a work critically and understand it better, we practice with class activities, papers, etc. And then the students give group presentations at the end in which they take over part of a class session and teach a story of their choice. This show the students not only how much they’ve learned, but that they learn even more through teaching it to others. I think it helps demystify my role a little and show them that critical thinking and reading is something they CAN do, and I’m the teacher mostly because I’ve just had more practice at it, not because it’s a skill or knowledge set that is beyond their reach. They also get a chance to follow their own interests and reading tastes.

  • As a writing prof, I’m sorry, Instructor, I had to remind myself that no one actually ever taught me how to write; I was a “good writer” and so didn’t require teaching. Meanwhile the bad writers weren’t taught anything either because they were written off as bad writers. I remember that now that I have to teach writing, not only to my students, but to myself. I think it is also a case of letting students know that they, too, can do this, rather than, WHY CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND THIS?!?!?!?! Sorry for the all-caps, but it seems that sometimes as professors/instructors we tend to throw our hands up in the air and ask the wrong questions of our students in terms of understanding the subject matter.

    Having said that, I remember my best friend, long ago, trying to tutor me in physics; he couldn’t explain to me how to do the problem because for him, it was obvious. He would get impatient, couldn’t explain, only show. Brilliant guy, but too brilliant to be able to teach me. I see and hear about that a lot in the sciences. These guys just “get it” in a way that most undergrads don’t; hence why they became professors.

    It was, admittedly, why I chose to become a professor, but when I realized that what came easily to me was, in fact, a complete mystery, and I really wasn’t that good at it, I had to change how I approached teaching and learning about writing.

  • I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading this post. I am currently in Grad school, working on a thesis. I am also a full-time elementary teacher. I’ve had experiences with profs who have asked questions such as: “Why don’t you get this? Why do you keep asking these questions?” I was always crushed and frustrated because I would never say things like that to my students; instead, I would find other ways of explaining.

    Sadly, it seems to me that “expert in the field” is almost synonymous with “person least likely to answer my questions”.

    I love this post – and the discussion that follows.
    Probably because I agree with it all. :)

    Thanks for posting!

  • The irony is that if universities thought you needed to be an expert to teach they would have WAY MORE tenure track posts.

    As it is, the bulk of the undergraduate teaching is done by TAs, adjuncts, sessionals and whatnot. They may have PhDs, but even if they do, they are probably not teaching in their specialist area because they are too far down the food chain to have much choice about what they teach.

    And the reason the people with the secure jobs aren’t always good at teaching is because it is not valued. They aren’t given any credit for being better than basically competent. And there aren’t enough hours in the day to develop a hobby of pedagogy. So even if they cared, it is not a good use of their time. They will get more recognition, career security, and pay to spend that time writing grant proposals, articles, books, etc.

  • Agreed, in part, but I’m more and more in favor of just getting rid of the ‘expert’ requirement all together. I mean, why not recruit from the ranks of non-experts? Like, I dunno, actors. If you start from the assumption that communication is the important skill set, why not find people who have this and train them in the material? I say this in large part because I find that self-proclaimed experts have little interest in acquiring the other skill set.

  • True dat, but practical solutions won’t come from the ranks of completely awesome moments or teachers. It’s great when you have ’em, but we’re just going for a level of generally good!

  • >> Never assume anything about the audience

    I came to the same conclusion, and I think it works like a charm. The frustrating thing is, when you try to tell this to ‘expert’ teachers, they often give you a bunch of lip about patronizing your audience!

  • It’s true that mythology is part of Western cultural literacy, and when asked about the practical application of the material I always pulled out the ‘if you’re in a museum somewhere, you won’t need that tour guide!’ Not that most people saw this as practical, though.

  • Well, you don’t want a dumbass being a teacher, in any regard, but I think that if people would just get off their cowardly butts and fire incompetent employees (in any field), the world would be a better place. And keeping you awake is a good feature of any job.

  • I’m not so sure you can be an expert and a good teacher in higher ed. The requirements for demonstrating ‘expertise’ (research, mostly) are so time-consuming that I totally understood the frustration of (the very few) profs who actually cared, but were still resentful at being asked to go to presentations or lectures on good pedagogy in the midst of all the other crap they had to do.

  • In my most curmudgeonly moments, I think that the ‘too brilliant to teach’ argument should face the guillotine. If you’re not able to communicate your knowledge, you’re not brilliant. Or at least not as brilliant as you think you are. If a tree falls in the forest…

  • Dr. Gross suggested that recent grads should be writing the textbooks, because they still understood the questions students would ask. I, characteristically, suggested that they write textbooks instead of useless dissertations. Because that way, they might actually be contributing something to the world at large. Crazy, I know.

  • I think the cause-effect is a little more complicated. I agree that the university doesn’t value teaching as a skill set; but I’ve also observed that the most successful tenure-trackers started out with little to no interest in teaching anyway, and that universities certainly (and falsely) shill these ‘experts’ as a great teaching resource when they’re selling their wares to the parents.

    There’s also the fact that tenure-track jobs as they currently exist are placing a ridiculous amount of demands on profs. Even if they did have the interest, there’s no way they could be great teachers…so I’d argue that the TAs, adjuncts and lecturers are bound to be better teachers anyway, for a variety of reasons — but yes, this should be rewarded financially and with job security, which certainly isn’t happening.

  • Well, the only reason I think that such a rare creature can exist is because I did have some very good teachers in the midst of the…not-good teachers in both college and grad school. Maybe they were the ones who had to cut their teeth in grad school by teaching, and so they had already gained some understanding of how to do it well. Maybe teaching just came more naturally to them, the same as biology or writing or mythology can come more easily to some than to others.

    It is not common, to be sure, but I do believe it’s possible.

  • No, I guess it’s not practical to wait on the golden unicorn that is the talented teacher who somehow also manages to publish like Simon and Schuster. And considering some of the best teachers I’ve had had mediocre CVs (can I say CVs? I know the plural of curriculum vitae isn’t curriculum vitaes because that would make no sense, but it looks odd without the S), I definitely agree with you. Just, you know…being idealistic here.

  • It’s okay to be idealistic, as long as you know you’re being idealistic. I’m only cautious on that front because extremist idealism (masked as ‘high standards’) allows people to hold up teachers as martyred saints or cults of personality, then blame them when they aren’t; so I’m more interested in ways to find a workable norm that would actually focus on providing a good education, irrespective of whatever awesome individuals happen to traipse by.

  • Possible, yes, but as I mentioned to Eileen above, I’m less concerned with outliers who happen to get through unscathed, and more concerned with a systemic solution!

  • Do you think nothing can be learned by those outliers? What I mean is, could figuring out what they are doing right lead us to something more systematically better for the rest? The metaphor milling about in my head is how studying why someone is immune to a disease could give clues as to how to defeat the disease.
    (It’s a real question, not a counterargument in sheep’s clothing :)

  • Nope, I don’t think outliers can teach non-outliers anything. I had less than ten totally awesome students in five years — but trust me, their awesomeness didn’t come from my instruction, they just happened to be in that small, uber-competent percentage of the population that will adapt, succeed, and probably lead in every arena.

    IMHO excellence (unlike genes) cannot be instilled in those who do have not the potential for it already, which is by definition most of the population. So it’s unfair to point to the superachievers and say “Ah, so, we can all do that!” It’s better to find a solid B/B+, set that as the bar for what can reasonably be expected, and then talk about what lessons we can take from it.

    Here’s why I think this so strongly: in higher ed especially, overachievers are very regularly taken as proof that it’s totally reasonable to ask this crap of everyone. (As in, “Well, I wrote my diss while teaching five classes and sleeping three hours a night and feeding orphans. What’s your problem?”) Whereas, in my observation, these people are either a) freaks of nature who don’t need sleep or b) actually a lot more insane than they’re letting on. Either way, they should not be used as the basis of any sort of lesson for non-insane, non-freak, normal human beings.

  • I’ve got a “maybe yes, maybe no” response to this. Here’s how it goes:

    The lower the level of the class is, the more of a generalist (and thus the less of an expert) I end up being. 100-level? That’s the intro Western Civ course, of which I’m proficient in about one-fourth of the content area (medieval stuff, in a general way), and have a decent familiarity with the rest. 300-level? Medieval survey. I’m proficient in all of it, but maybe have only one lecture that’s kinda-sorta on my own area of real expertise. Grad courses? I teach to my areas of real expertise whenever possible. The one time I tried to do a lecture on my own research area in a 300-level class it was a total bomb, for them, and for me.

    I didn’t plan it this way, but I think it actually works with what you’re saying. All students need an instructor who doesn’t teach way above their heads. But as they advance, their heads are higher (weird metaphor, but I’m committed to it now).

  • Of course, this opens up another can of worms: the dreaded interview question, “So, how does your research inform your teaching?” What is a candidate supposed to say? “Oh, my research has taught me how essential the postcolonial perspective is to the discipline as it’s practiced today; that’s why I start off even my intro courses by having them read Edward Said.”

  • You make a good point: the most ‘basic’ 101 courses actually require a much broader knowledge base than specialized ones. I mean, Roman Civ covers 700 BC to, oh, 313 AD or whichever date you like. But teaching your own research is somehow considered more noble/sophisticated (I guess?) because you’ve slogged through the secondary stuff. And of course, the fact that you can teach your specialty to grad students is one of the foundational myths of why departments with grad programs are preferable job-wise.

    But, I guess what I’m saying is, if the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, then it doesn’t particularly matter how great it is to teach other specialists, or even advanced undergraduates, nor does it matter how awesome anyone is at it. It’s an afterthought in the grand scheme of things, unless your primary goal is to reproduce yourself. Which it often is in grad programs.

    Re: the research/teaching question, it’s total BS to begin with; the only acceptable answer is something that indicates you’ll incorporate enough research into your teaching to guarantee the teaching won’t get in the way of your research.

  • Oh, yeah. These are – as I mentioned – very rare creatures, even in my comparably limited experience with academics (as in, I know two, and they’re married to each other. Figures.) I had one senior prof who tried to tell the class that the best student evaluations usually go to the professors with the best research, but judging by my own experiences (including with him/her), there’s no way that’s the case. I don’t want to shame the professors who are on top of their research but are mediocre teachers, because I’m sure they’re doing the best that they can under the circumstances (idealism again…), but in almost every case the best teachers don’t need to know everything, just more than I do. And I do agree that that should be the normative example.

  • In just about every other adult education setting, the trainer/educator is not the subject matter expert. Plus there is sometimes a separate instructional designer as well. Makes ya think.

  • “you’re a better teacher if you were (and perhaps are) completely baffled by the subject you’re supposed to be teaching.”


    You know why? Because you ask questions when something confuses or baffles you.. and you remember, if you were really listening, the answers to those questions. It, your (initial) poor understanding/ fear of the subject, enables you to identify with your ignorant student on a way deeper level than if you had always been enlightened and knowledgable of the subject.

    Thanks for your thoughts; I appreciate your.. ministry.
    Aun Aqui

  • I completely agree; one of my professors is an absolute genius and interprets poems on a whole new level. But he lectures like a restless animal; leaving us, the students, with pages and pages of half-notes, of sentences started. Similarly there is an extremely artistic, creative lecturer who doesn’t really say anything to reflect his talents, but just makes small, Ozzy Osbourne-monotoned comments.

    On the other hand, I once had a maths teacher who had to teach mechanics – which she had never taught before – and completely panicked. Tentatively teaching modules with so much uncertainty she was having to ask the students if she was right! It was reassuring for me though, with my approach to mechanics of simply multiplying everything and hoping for the best, occasionally crossing out an unwanted negative sign.

  • Interesting thought. I think you make a good point. Although, I’m sure there are teachers out there who know their stuff and do a good job at teaching, too.

  • I just pitched this exact idea to the local community education people. And you know what — they are going to let me teach the class. (Which I basically want to teach because I want to learn about the topic myself.) Nice!


  • Great post! As a sunday school teacher who has to constantly go into scripture to explain something I was never sure of, being a dillatente willing to explore something always makes the adventure more exciting. Congrats on being freshly pressed.

  • Experts have the unfortunate tendency of going way too in-depth, especially on details that don’t seem immediately pertinent to laypeople. This tendency leads them on tangents that ultimately lose a lot of people either in technicality or from disinterest.

  • As a high school teacher, I feel that this topic speaks loudly about some of the most educated but least effective teachers I’ve worked with. Most of them worked for really good grades in their subject when they were in high school, followed that topic to university and turned their one academic love into a career. They often don’t understand why the students are not engaged and blame the students for lack of interest and low achievement.

    On the other hand, the most engaging and entertaining and inspiring teachers I work with are those who weren’t the best student in high school or university but feel passionate about teaching. They could, in all likelihood, teach any subject well because it’s not the subject matter that was most important but the teaching methods that made the difference with students and achievement.

    Great post. Kudos on being Freshly Pressed.

  • Ministry, hmmm, don’t think that’s the kind of club that would want me…but I agree, publicly asking your own questions is an important way to show that questions are not the mark of an ignorant person, but rather someone who wants to understand their world!

  • Man, I wish I’d thought of the Ozzy Osbourne method, it would have saved me a lot of trouble! And yes, it is an interesting case study when you have to teach something you’re just not an expert at — you have to decide how much you’ll let that show. Show your hand too much, and the students won’t have confidence in you; but if you pretend to know everything, you’re just asking for trouble!

  • Less than you’d think, at least given how teachers are selected — you have to pass a knowledge test first and foremost. Fine, but where’s the communications skills test? At the college level, teachers are often asked to give a lecture, but most high school hiring can’t afford to do this for every applicant. So sure, there are experts who communicate well, but the question is how to prioritize the skills a teacher needs, and to hire and train teachers to be their best.

  • I’d like to think we could find a happy medium — childlike curiosity, adult-like comprehension, and maybe a little more fun. But I agree, smug does not go over well, in any event.

  • One shouldn’t regret that, but you bring up a good point: there’s definitely a very prevalent idea that you are being cheated if you don’t have the most expert teachers. This assumption fails to realize that, in order to really get anything from a lecture given by some Nobel-prize-winning physicist, you’ll probably need about the same level of expertise as the physicist! So, as I was saying, the majority of learners are better off with someone who can answer their (presumably beginner-level) questions. And if they progress to an advanced level, then they can worry about finding a qualified expert!

    Unfortunately, though, colleges are some of the worst offenders at presenting experts as better teachers — as are the sort of profs who desperately try to separate their teaching as somehow more important/sophisticated/whatever than high school teaching.

  • Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. Unless they really can recall what it was like to not know/understand the subject, it’s difficult for experts to strip things down to the genuine basics.

  • I agree 100%. Experts often lose the ability to explain concepts in simple understandable terms and then grow impatient when students fail to grasp a concept. I’m teaching an ESL course right now, my first teaching experience, and my biggest struggle has been explaining things in simple terms and remaining patient with my slower students. I’m by no means an expert in English but I’ve noticed our other English teacher, who’s not a native speaker, is much better at explaining things in simple understandable terms. She’s experienced the difficulties associated with learning English and can form sentences for beginning students far better than me.

    Great post, I’m looking forward to reading more.

  • Thanks! And believe me, I sympathize — the more education you get, the less you are encouraged to speak to any sort of normal audience! You’re correct that that a good teaching method (let’s say, communicating understanding) plus a genuine passion for teaching makes a good teacher apt for many disciplines.

    And as for the students…let’s just say that it’s only partly the teachers’ fault on this one, because it is also true that today’s students aren’t exactly inspirational a lot of the time!

  • Hmmm, not sure what would happen if you tried to put the words ‘insurance’ and ‘philosophy’ in the same sentence…people might be a little skeptical.

  • Yes, ESL is one of the best arguments for non-expert experience speaking louder than any education degree. If you’ve had to struggle with something, you definitely have a different approach/vocabulary, and I think that really speaks to the students. Thanks for reading!

  • Yeah, I am no expert in almost anything, but I have always had the ability (and patience) to explain stuff. First, because I know how damn hard it was for me to grasp it in the first place, then I found a way to understand it by applying common sense and everyday knowledge (simple examples and associations). And I often find myself understanding the stuff I was explaining much better after saying it than before that. I also like to watch how other people’s minds think and trying to find patterns. It’s a great thing to do, and it makes your world a better place when you help towards less confusion around you :-)

  • Indeed, patience and persistence might be the best places to start when trying to identify potential teachers! Dr. Gross and I have often discussed that, too. While frustration is never any fun, it does mean you can sympathize with the students who just aren’t getting it!

  • I’ve considered your post and I think you make some good points. Since I don the “expert” hat from time to time and I’m often being taught, I think I have some input from both sides of the equation.

    From the student’s point of view, I hate being taught in such a way that it makes me feel stupid. Like when things are so patently obvious to the teacher that they are beneath being actually mentioned. The expert sees the information as self-evident when it really is not. This can have a lot of negative side effects, especially when the teacher has erroneously assumed I already know and understand the skipped information when I really have absolutely no clue. Teaching is communicating knowledge and then building on that knowledge over and over again. It seems to me that if there are missing pieces then understanding that follows will never be complete.

    As a teacher, on the other hand, I can get extremely frustrated when we’ve moved on to new concepts only to discover that what I thought was already taught was not. “What do you mean you don’t know when to single-click and when to right-click? We covered that!” Or, “For the umpteenth time, there is a big difference between the DELETE and the BACKSPACE key. They perform similar yet different functions. You need to grok that before you can become a master of editing.”

    I admit up front I’m not the best teacher or student.

    So an expert teacher may introduce some frustrations in the early going. But when the concepts become advanced and students start to become more than the sum of their parts, then I think you need the expert teacher after all.

  • Ah, but that’s my point: how many people are really going to advance to the stage where they need an expert? Not many, at least in comparison to the number who will merely dabble, or learn only the basics as required by their high school/college/work environment/whatever. So setting the highest premium on advanced expertise is a problematic way to find good, general teachers, which is what we most need for the large number of inexpert students.

    As for people who don’t get the DELETE vs. BACKSPACE, perhaps these are just incompetent people (there are many in the world) or people who have no real desire to learn, let alone achieve any sort of mastery. I certainly found that to be the case with many of my students.

  • “But , by teaching it, I learned it” sounds akin to “Docendo Discimus”. Not a coincidence I am sure. Good days gone by. Great post.

  • If you can get hold of it online, watch Jamie’s Dream School, a series just starting in the UK.
    Last week’s episode (the first episode of the series) including David Starky, making uncalled for comments to a student. An amazing expert in his field, a teacher for secondary school…perhaps not.
    Very very interesting watching.

  • Very interesting post. To a degree, expertise speaks for itself, but experience and the ability to communicate are essentials. In a classroom filled with many different types of learners (tactile, visual, etc.), any teacher/professor will face challenges, but again, the bottom line is effective communication and enthusiasm. With those one can draw from areas of expertise, and nurture it with experience.

    Great job. Congrats on becoming FP!

  • You made your point very clear and I think, if applied, your methods would work. however I also believe that the reason people that are experts are bad at teaching is because they know the subject and not how to teach.

    I’m saying that even though you hit upon a working solution, there should be a way to not only elevate the level of teaching but certainly, elevate the level of what is being taught, and that is something that only an expert can do. The fact that we have so called “experts teaching” is good only if these experts know how to teach. Let me put it another way, say you have two teachers, one is able to teach 90% of what he knows but his knoledge on the subjects barely gets to 50% of what is known, then you have another teacher who knows a good 90% of all knowledge on a topic, but is only able to transmit around 30% of his knowledge on the topic.
    You quickly see the value in having a non expert with this skillset teach a topic, however, this non expert can not be a better teacher without also becoming an expert.

    So even though it makes sense on the face of it to have non experts teach, in the long run people dont learn more since, really, the reason classes are boring , and the only reason a class is ever good is down to the teacher.

    A good teacher always has good students. Because part of teaching involves creating a good student.

    Someone else commented that teachers are responsible for teaching the student , but its not as straightforward as that, good teachers find a way to make students learn.

    Anyway, experts that learn the art of teaching are the best teachers possible, they not only teach you the curricula, they teach the value and how to apply things in real life.

  • I disagree that you should set expectations for the people you teach at all. I think i’m a pretty good teacher, i work really hard at it. And in my experience, teachers that set too low an expectation have those expectations met by those they teach, thus they think they’re succesful; and teachers that set expectations too high only do so for self serving reasons. The trick is to have the person set theyre own expectations and teach them what they need to know all the while pushing them to expect more from themselves.

  • We’re gonna have to agree to disagree on this one; if you read my other posts, you’ll see I’m very opposed to the idea that “good teachers always have good students” or that “good teachers find a way to make students learn.”

    There are some people who simply don’t want to learn — and this might even be the majority when it’s a class they haven’t chosen to take — and to put the students’ success entirely upon a teacher’s shoulders is unrealistic, unfair, and downright pathological. So, while I agree a good teacher can be a wonderful motivator, it’s very dangerous to start asking them to take responsibility for students’ own choices to succeed or fail.

  • Thanks, but after ten years in higher ed, I don’t think expertise speaks for itself. At all. I think that’s the assumption that’s harming our educational system — we need to identify actual teaching skills as separate from subject knowledge. This is what Ed schools purport to do, but they are usually so theoretical they don’t know what they’re talking about either. It’s unfortunate.

  • I haven’t seen that, but I admire Jamie Oliver’s devotion to education; having seen some of what he does, however, I wonder if he isn’t a little blinded with the optimistic idealism that is the trademark of someone who hasn’t faced the teaching grind…

  • One of my favorite profs. in college was what I would call an expert in Theatre History. When she was just talking, most of what she said would go over my head. But then there were the projects she gave us or the other random work she would make us do. I learned more we she acted like she was not the best expert for the subject, even when she was.

  • It’s not like your undergrad degree means anything. It’s just a $200K piece of paper that says “I have the minimum requirements for white-collar jobs fulfilled!”

    And what, extend this to graduate-level work and you have the blind leading the blind.

    Yeah, I’ll take an incomprehensible, titty-leering expert (Hi Dr. Joyce!) over some neophyte who’ll lie to his students like it’s high school again. At least I might LEARN something.

  • So true. These experts have forgotten what it’s like not to know a thing about the topic they’re experts on, and have no idea how to begin to teach it. Instead, they talk down at you, speaking in a language code that is unique to their field. Alas, teachable moments are lost on them. Great post! Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  • The problem with using experts (especially academics) as teachers, is that most academics detest teaching. They’re more interested in their research, books, and other projects. Teaching is often an afterthought.

    Also, to teach well requires a whole extra skill-set that being an expert does not necessarily confer. Communication skills, good theory of mind, enjoying working with people, etc, etc.

    The best situation is when an expert also happens to possess those extra skills, and is motivated to use them. But that is a rather rare convergence…

    Good, thought-provoking article. Well done for a much-deserved Freshly Pressed.

  • I definitely hear you on this one. Sometimes the best way to cope with somebody lost in the beautiful complexity of their field is to just sit back, take what you can and try to teach yourself the rest. Get in there!

  • The worst professors and other teachers I have had at any level have been in the subjects of math and the more “mathy” sciences. I came to the conclusion that the part of the brain that is used for math is just too different from the part of the brain used for teaching. I don’t necessarily believe my own theory however, because I also had a few really good math teachers, leading me to major in math at university. The funny part is that I later switched from Mathematics to Education as a major.
    On a side note, World Mythology was one of my favorite college classes.

  • This is something that I come across often, someone who says they were already good at it from the get go. This is impossible of course, you never were someone who doesnt know. you learned this somehow. People that can remember when they didn’t know can carry this into the classroom and teach people who don’t know.
    That’s why I agree with you when you say that you had to change how you approached teaching, I see many people that don’t.

  • Interestingly enough, two of the math teachers I had in high school were far superior to any of the ones I have had in college.

  • I’m sorry If I my comment came across very one dimensional. You, of course, cannot teach someone who doesn’t want to learn.

    I was trying to make the point that changing the teacher does not change the system that perpetuates having bad teachers in the first place.

  • Not one-dimensional, just one of my pet peeves — I’m glad to hear you’re not on the ‘every student wants to learn’ bandwagon. And oh, yes, I agree, the system is way broken!

  • I believe that — this is why I’m trying to get a conversation going. Too often, profs look down on high school teachers, and vice versa. But really, the problems is systemic, and one that needs to be addressed in any teaching arena.

  • This is something I’m struggling with right now; I agree that math + hard science uses actual different areas of the brain, and I too experience the feeling that the neurons just aren’t working there — BUT there’s sound evidence that the best way to keep small, possibly biological differences in brain chemistry from growing into large ones is to exercise those areas. So, while trying to think on that side of the brain certainly feels like beating a dead horse to me, I wonder how much of it is simple atrophy…

  • Ah, trying to teach yourself is such a lost art; most students have become passive consumers to the point where, even if they genuinely want to learn, they can’t understand that this require the active application of brain to subject and ass to chair! Because yes, this is what’s necessary to learn something if you don’t happen to be the kind of savant who just picks it up.

  • I agree it’s a rare convergence and I certainly won’t disagree with you on the count that PhDs don’t want to teach — speaking from experience there! Thanks, and thanks for reading.

  • Thanks! Teachable moments are often equivalent to questions you both have, or things that everyone in the room baffled, I think. And it’s too bad when people retreat behind jargon rather than just admitting that…

  • Actually, my grad school profs lied far more than my high school teachers. And leered more. So overally, all I learned was that leering really distracts you when you’re trying to learn something.

  • It makes sense to me that a person who had difficulty understanding a subject would make a good teacher once they mastered the information. Why? Because he/she once had to break the subject down into bite-size concepts and, as a result, can guide others through the same process. An expert may never have experienced that process and may not know how to do it.
    Since subjects I understand already make sense to me, I may be liable to skip important steps in teaching others, not realizing that they aren’t working from the same body of knowledge. Perhaps some of the experts “forget” that not everyone is as well-versed in an area as they are.

  • With the way the world is constantly expanding on knowledge, it seems that what you suggest — child like awe, and adult-like comprehension — is fully possible. Mandated curriculum might stand in the way, but teachers should be on the forefront of their fields knowledge (voluntarily — if they like what they teach that is), so as long as they get the freedom from the schools to be able to share what they are learning on their own with the kids in the class than this all could gel pretty nicely.

  • A great blog!
    Your post has interesting echoes on the other side of the pond too!

    In England at the moment there is a TV programme called ‘Jamie’s Dream School’ where the chef Jamie Oliver (I believe he’s already had some bad press over there with his Schools Healthy Eating campaigns?) has set up a ‘school’ for pupils who have been kicked out of traditional educational establishments. These pupils have challenging behaviour, and are taught by ‘experts’ in their field – with the aim that these experts will inspire the young people to achieve their goals, and do well in school. The experts are people such as the historian David Starkey for History, the artist Rolf Harris for Art, the Olympic athelete Daley Thompson for P.E., ex-PM Tony Blair’s wife Cherie, for Politics etc.
    The first programme would seem to prove your points accurate! check it out – interesting viewing!

    Sarah, West Midlands, England

  • I could teach mythology off the top of my head- and usually did. No one asked me to, I just turned my English class into mythology class.

  • I only have an undergrad degree, but I could teach mythology because of lust. I fell in love with a boy in third grade that liked mythology. So I read all the books my little school library had on the subject. I even explored the city library when I consumed all the books in school. I read books where I didn’t know every fifth word because I wanted more. I lost track of the boy, but still love the stories. Yea, they are mixed up and crazy, but fun and come in handy when reading all sorts of other stuff since mythology is often buried in other books as well. I even got a 5.0 on a college paper where I wrote – whales and Greek mythology are all the same (it was about Moby Dick). My passion had been stirred early on.

  • It always makes me sad to such a question like that from people. Personal edification seems to anathema to many Americans (a tragedy that Susan Jacoby discusses in her book The Age of American Unreason) and a lone autodidact such as myself is left puzzled by this attitude, as if a job is the only thing worth pursuing and not a life well lived.

  • I find that really amazing! I too have a deep and abiding love for Greco-Roman mythology (as well as Japanese, Norse, and Egyptian) It seems a passion gave birth to another passion Like Athena being born, no?

  • Perhaps some of the experts “forget” that not everyone is as well-versed in an area as they are.

    Quoted for truth. I have known a couple of people with PhDs who feel that, if someone can succeed in their areas of expertise, everyone can.

  • Hi! Got to this post through Freshly Pressed. Congrats! :)

    I’m not a teacher and I’ve left student life for some time now, but I used to practice medicine. There is some similarity between what you have said (sort of) to what I’ve always felt. The point that you made about expert not being able to come down to the level of students was what it was.

    I’ve seen a lot of that as an intern and even as a Medical Officer working in a district hospital. It’s as if the “higher the rank” you go and the longer you have been in service, people just seem to forget what it felt like being a lowly intern or a first year Medical Officer. It’s sad really but most times I think it’s sadly natural.

  • We at the Mid-Atlantic Lounge collectively agree on this post. Our teachers have sometimes blessed us with knowledge, other times they have been very hilarious people. Overall, we all had a somewhat good experience with school and we are lucky to be where we are now, running our own business.


    The Mid-Atlantic Lounge

  • Believe me, I’ve known enough frazzled PhDs too! I could never do a DPhil; I picked up my honorific the cheat’s way (medicine ;) ).

    The thing about teaching though, is that you can’t really learn it on one of those teaching courses they insist all university lecturers/tutors attend these days, at least here. At university level (even undergrad) the best teachers aren’t the ones who try to follow routinised ways of teaching. Those techniques just make things worse because then they really start to perceive teaching as the bane of their lives, and that rubs off on their students.

    The most worthwhile tutorials I had were from slightly nutty and at least somewhat brilliant people who really enjoyed their fields and liked chatting about it with other people. That didn’t help much directly with exams, mind you, but my exams were largely a matter of memorisation anyway. What mattered was someone making you interested enough in a topic that you resisted the urge to procrastinate doing some study by yourself later in the day/week.

    I like teaching, but forcing those who don’t want to teach to do so is a recipe for dissatisfaction all-round. There has to be a better model for structuring higher education, but I’m blown if I can think of it!

  • Very true. The thing about experts is they think they know everything and are caught in their rule-based ways. As far as they’re concerned, they know it all. Thanks for the post.

  • I LOVE this! It speaks to me so much…I was headed to bed, getting ready for my first workshop on a subject I have been studying for almost ten years now…and I am not an expert at all! I have continued to learn and grow in my knowledge as I have worked with others and taught them how to do what I have been doing. Now I see that my High School Diploma and my desire to continue to learn something new everyday are enough to help me be the great teacher I am hoping to be and will become…thank yo so much for the boost of confidence to go to bed with!!! I can’t wait for tomoorw and those eager minds, new to the information and ready to take me on a journey of learing!!! Well desevered to be Freshly Pressed!

  • Lust is a perfectly fine motivator for learning something; even if you’re not doing it for the right reasons at the time, you will have gained something valuable in the end. Or at least Plato thought so with his black horse/white horse…

  • Yes, I think it’s natural too, which is why it’s a kind of a conundrum. I mean, if people teach the same thing, over and over again, they quite naturally get bored, and if they practice something their expertise takes over. Which is why I think teachers (or maybe doctors) should always be learning something new, to remember the humility!

  • Good luck, and be sure to get enough sleep, it’s hell to lecture when you’re tired. But yes, know that almost every teacher I know still gets stage fright on the first day, at least if they still care!

  • I think you people all know the wrong experts. All the experts I know are constantly talking about how much we don’t know, how much more there is to learn. They certainly don’t think they know everything. Most of them are excellent communicators. If you propose to have people teach outside their areas of expertise all the time, where exactly are they supposed to find the time and energy to do all that? Teaching is effing exhausting even when you DO know what you’re doing. My most hated teachers, at all levels, were the idiots. My most beloved teachers were the experts who conveyed their deep and abiding love of a topic — a topic they loved so much that they specialized in it. Someone who did this course topic as a hobby could never engage in the kinds of discussions I wanted. Expertise is, in fact, good for something.

  • Hmmm, most of the responses to your post are long and involved. Mine is simply an observation. “Howzit that Thomas Edison was the most prolific inventor the world has seen, made more societal changing innovations with less information available to him than our contemporaries, and only had a third grade education?” Seems that curiosity thing might work for humans better than cats! But, that’s just canine logic.

  • Something I forgot to add in my earlier response: there is a real and important difference between “beginner’s mind” (great in a teacher!) and flat-out ignorance or lack of knowledge (bad!). There is a difference between “not knowing what can’t be done!” and just not knowing.

  • Thanks for your post! I really appreciate your views on teachers as students of their field, especially since I’ve been wondering if I should go to grad school to study Victorian history and culture (which I’m currently teaching myself through various resources). I agree that you become a better teacher when you first take the role of a student, learning your subject from the ground up and answering all those “Why”s and “How”s and “What if”s. Education is a beautiful thing. :)

  • Educators can teach us useful things we might fail to learn ourselves, but I agree that good old-fashioned curiosity can leave a person fairly well-educated (and the information would probably be more applicable in the real world than a formal education).

    However, I do have a few questions: Do you think we need to be spending all of our money on college if we can learn so much on our own? Or do you think college is a way to force unmotivated young adults to make something of themselves rather than roadtripping their way into debt?

  • It is very difficult to for a person who knows a subject to think from point of view of a person who does not. The most important aspect of teaching (at least in my opinion) is to listen to students and improvise as you go. This is one common aspect I have seen in all my good teachers.

    As far as knowledge is concerned, quality of teaching is independent of knowledge, assuming that you do have certain minimum level of knowledge.

  • Couldn’t agree more. I’ve always known it for a fact that very good students – the kind going for a Phd – rarely make very good teachers. And that’s coz they don’t understand where a not-as-bright student may get stuck. Besides, communication is different act altogether – and you don’t need a Phd to do that right.

  • You need to distinguish between Teacher and Researcher. The academic discipline between Teacher and Academic Researcher are completely different. For example, Language Teacher and Linguistic Teacher. The worst language Teachers are ( Linguistic disciplinary ones.)

  • good point. I suffered from too many experts in University who had no idea how to communicate their point. the same goes for books written by those experts… they should let somebody else write for them or at least edit their books, somebody who doesn’t know the subject but knows how to write and will ask questions to the expert that the reader would ask.

  • I completely agree.
    I am currently an undergraduate studying journalism and for three out of four of my lectures in the week, I wonder what I’m paying over £3,000 a year for.
    When a skatty and depressive lecturer turns round mid-sentence, looks out the window and says: ‘Look how big those bird nests are’ – You know there’s a serious problem.

  • LOL!!!! This is not just true for Western countries… but all over the world!!! Here in China, students are just taught to repeat word for word from a text book… and if they understand the subject matter? Good for them. And if they do not understand it? As long as they pass their tests it is all good.

    Now try being an ESL teacher, who is paid to be an expert in Western Culture to Chinese students. Lots of fun!!!

    I agree with all the above posters saying that in order to be an effective instructor, one must remember what it was like when you first started to learn and to struggle with the subject matter.

    Thanks for the post!!!! I like it!!!


  • Education is a subject I’ve been thinking a lot upon recently. I recently blogged about what education actually is. I myself being a student am taught by some amazing people, both experts and ‘non-experts’. I feel that what the experts lack in their de-personalisation of the individual, ‘non-experts’ prevail.

    Very interesting article.

  • I agree with the concept that it is much easier to teach something you had difficulty understanding once you have grasped it. It takes a lot more skill to make others understand concepts you can pick up easily because it did not require as much effort on your part.

  • My favourite subject at school was Tech Drawing. The teacher hadn’t done it since he was in school and was working things out and learning along with us. Made for great interaction.
    But Latin, ancient mythology, AND Freshly Pressed. That’s pretty special, not many mere mortals can achieve an FP with those subjects! Well done. The gods must be smiling.

  • More than the idea of expertisse or lack of it, for me, the point is this: content focus or learning focus. In the first the task is to “give” the content. You did it, you acomplish your mission. In the second, you are acountable for your students learning outcomes.

    PS: Excuse my english: I’m non native

  • Good post, the word expert definitely is defined differently by different people. I concluded experts have little common sense and book learning does not qualify someone to be an expert.

  • I think your questions are very interrelated. We spend way to much money trying to motivate the unmotivated. Those who have the hunger to achieve, will do so! Those that don’t…. Equality should be in limited to opportunity and those who don’t have the desire should be allowed to move on. The dumbing down of the brightest is the result. My human is very well educated and believes in learning, but he also believes that not everyone can be the president of a university, the US, or General Motors. Unfortunately, in our well intentioned effort to provide “equality” we’ve stigmatized those who’d prefer to work with their hands creating an “underclass” in our media (from news to sit-coms), in polticians rhetoric, and in our socio-economic definitions. So, yes I believe we over spend a gargantuan sum “on college” and should recognize there are other career paths that are in themselves noble and deserving of respect.

  • Agree with Sandy: there is a general idea that college (and even high school) is there to force learning on the unwilling, but that does not work. And while I do believe the community college model (i.e. making higher ed available to everyone), right now a degree means nothing much, especially since it’s still more easily available to those with money. So no, I don’t think most people can teach themselves, and all I’m saying is that, if they do have the motivation to seek out education in the first place, they will get more from a teacher who can start from the genuine basics.

    Also, Thomas Edison was kind of a big jerk, and a lot of people think he stole his idea from someone else!

  • As a superintendent of schools, the most talented teachers I see tend to be those who kindle interest in students to seek insights and knowledge on their own … in essence, to learn without really knowing they’ve been taught. The teacher is critical, but not as a purveyor of information. The teacher’s role is so important as an establisher of the conditions for learning, and as an inspiration to students to explore the world.

    Enjoyed your post very much!


  • Well sure, I don’t want idiots becoming teachers. But I disagree with your previous comment. In my experience anyone who proudly, un-ironically calls themself an expert is usually a pompous ass who couldn’t teach their way out of a paper bag. Now sure, anyone motivated enough to go to grad school (or law school or b-school) might be able to stomach the pomposity and decipher the lesson and actually absorb something, but I think that’s much less likely at the beginning (or ‘lower’) levels of instruction– and again, that is the majority of teaching that goes on. That is the greater good, and most PhDs aren’t very interested in it.

    I do agree that teaching is exhausting, though, and that’s why I don’t think it should be mixed with research at all. Nor do I think it should be done 40 hours a week. But that’s a whole nother post.

  • That’s a good way of putting it: I agree that there’s a minimum level of knowledge required. But, if focus on that minimum, why not find teachers by locating people with excellent communication skill first, then teach them the basics of geometry or history or whatever?

  • That is exactly what I’m doing. Researchers are frankly pretty useless to the world. Universities like to pretend that they’re all curing cancer or something, but very few are actually doing something so worthwhile that they shouldn’t be expected to explain it to the outside world.

  • >>”let someone else write for them…” etc.

    For a long time, that was what a wives were for. I don’t think we should let them do that anymore, I think we should fire them if they can’t explain the value of what they’re doing.

  • Well, that sounds like a case of simple incompetence – unfortunately, rooting that has proven to be one of those unsolvable problems of the human condition!

  • Thanks, glad you enjoyed reading it. Yeah, the learning by rote is problematic. It works to drill in the basics, but at a certain point, students need to move beyond that…Richard Feynman wrote about that problem when he was living in Brazil.

  • Yes, that is a good point. There’s a lot of talk about ‘objective’ reason, but as George Lakoff has been trying to point out, humans just don’t work that way. A personal connection is important; but having been on the other side of that equation, I think society expects teachers to put far too much of themselves into the classroom, to the point where it really effects their well being. It’s a tricky balance, and one that needs to be addressed.

  • That’s a good way of putting it, and something I think about often: you’re right that being a ‘purveyor of information’ isn’t very useful anymore, especially in this world of Wikipedia. Unfortunately, people haven’t that grasped that concept, and continue to judge and select teachers (and students) based on rather superficial knowledge!

  • Content focus is the problem, though; as John pointed out below, simply passing along information isn’t really teaching. You could get the facts, figures and equations from a book or online. So the teacher has to interpret, or trouble-shoot, or do something more than just repeat. Also, I don’t think teachers should be held accountable for outcomes, at least when a) said outcomes are determined by a poorly designed test and b) there is no concession that the students (and their parents) are unwilling to take the steps necessary to learn.

  • I agree that novices can be great teachers. Some experts are not because, ironically, they love their subject too much and don’t take the time to think about how to translate that love into something teachable. All good teachers are even more focused on the best way to teach than they are on the subject matter itself. Thanks for the post!

  • As a former Grade Two teacher, I have come to the conclusion that teaching is the art of breaking knowledge into smaller chunks until it is at the level of those you teach.
    For children that little, the chunks had to be tiny, down to the level of knowledge that I forgot that I had ever had to learn. For instance, I forgot that I once had to learn that counting objects requires the ability to recognize a one to one ratio. You can’t just decide to skip a block, or skip a number (e.g. 1,2,4,7)
    The problem with being significantly above students in the discipline(s) that you teach is that it becomes harder to remember the things you learned much earlier — and those are the things you are required to teach.
    The ability to divide information into its component parts sand explain the relationships between them is itself a skill which can be learned, but applying it is harder the further up the academic ladder you climb.

  • Very interesting post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    As a former student, I certainly agree with your point. Many of my own professors showed an overwhelming inability to communicate even the most basic knowledge of their subject. It was as if they were teaching with the assumption I’d already taken the class.

    My most positive experience with this in college, however, was in math – my WORST subject. One of my professors didn’t just scribble numbers and equations on the board, but used visual cues and memory tricks to help the class understand math in, not only a logical way, but an artistic way as well. Her unique style gave math movement and purpose. I credit her creative teaching for both my A in the course and for my priceless knowledge of calculating percentages. I’ll never be stumped by a 25% off sale again! :)


  • I was just talking to someone about this “expert” thing the other day. I find it such an ambiguous word… I mean, is anyone really an expert at anything? Because…aren’t we all still learning, creating, applying and measuring outcomes in our own way? With this in mind, wouldn’t it be safe to say that an “expert” is the end all of end alls? The end nobody ever reaches? Not sure.. What I do know is that some people who call themselves experts are not as intelligent as a well executed google search.

  • I remember having this very discussion with a friend in college. We had a wide variety of professors (despite being a fairly small school), and we came to pretty much the same conclusion that you did: expertise does not necessarily equal teaching ability. The most blatant example was when I took organic chemistry my sophomore year. The first semester, I had a professor who hadn’t taught in quite a while, so she was basically reviewing it as she taught it. As a result, she tended to break things down and explain them more clearly. It wasn’t an easy subject for me, but thanks to her I still managed to get a C that semester. The second semester, I had a professor who’d been teaching it for years and clearly knew the subject matter very well. He probably could have rattled off all the information in his sleep. Unfortunately, this meant he didn’t always take the time to explain things and instead tried to cram as much material into our heads as he could in one hour. Needless to say, I didn’t feel too badly when I ended up with a D+.
    I did have a couple of professors who were experts in their field and who really knew how to teach. My favorite was my molecular biology professor: that class was one of the hardest ones I ever took (as far as the material was concerned), but he knew how to make it fun and understandable.

    I’ve done some teaching too, and I know that it can be tricky sometimes to explain something that seems simple to you but may not be obvious to someone else. I had an easier time teaching stuff I’d recently learned myself than stuff I’d known for years and picked up very easily to start with.

    All that to say, I’m glad I’m not the only person who thinks that way. :)

  • I very much agree with this post. I work in e-learning (online corporate training), and while it’s not academic like teaching Latin or Mythology, it can be quite hard working with SMEs (subject matter experts).

    A lot of the experts we work with think that the best way to learn is to provide a whole detailed history of the subject, and shove fact after complicated fact at the poor learners, when actually the most effective way of teaching them is to focus on real-life situations, and things that they can actually do differently in their jobs.

    That’s why it’s good to have learning designers like me and my colleagues who know little or nothing about the subject — we have to strip things right down and explain the content as simply as possible. It can be hard to do, but the results prove it’s the best way to teach/learn. So I definitely agree with you!

    Well done on being Freshly Pressed!

  • Oh, yes, I definitely want someone teaching me who is lacking the expertise on a subject that is costing me a fortune in tuition….et tu worstprofever?

    spread the humor:

  • Interesting concept to know Little or Nothing about a subject….how do you think that would apply to Medical students…..Yowsa! I think that’s what they do in the ER…strip down and explain the content as simply as possible..

    spread the humor:

  • I stumbled on your post while taking screenshots for a book I’m working on – about using WordPress. I’ve been using WP as a programmer and web designer – and it seems so easy and accessible that I’ve started teaching some classes so that people can do this for themselves.
    Thanks for the reminder that I need to teach from the perspective of the novice, not the expert. I get very frustrated when I explain something that is TOTALLY AWESOME about WordPress, and everyone is giving me blank looks.

  • The best math teachers I ever had tried to get students involved as much as possible, while the worst ones I had used the “copy down these equations I write on the board” approach.

  • I strongly disagree.

    Read Feynman’s lectures on physics or search for his “Fun things to imagine” on youtube and tell me he was a worse teacher because he was a Nobel prize.

    Of course there are many experts who are bad teachers.

    The justified conclusion is that teaching involves more than just knowledge. However this doesn’t imply that having the knowledge makes you worse at all the rest.

    On the other hand, complete ignorance of a subject matter automatically makes you a bad teacher of it.

  • No, but Feynman wasn’t a great teacher because of his Nobel prize, either. He was a great teacher because, as he remarks in his Six Easy Pieces lectures, he was lecturing at two levels: for the person who really got it AND for the person who really didn’t. What made him exceptional was ability to keep the latter in mind even while being a genius. And I absolutely disagree that complete ignorance of subject matter makes you a bad teacher. I was utterly ignorant of mythology, and I did all right. Oh, and by the way, formal logic doesn’t work for real life.

  • Yes, copying and rote memorization are definitely not the best techniques, at least after a certain point…and there are some very good teachers, in almost any field!

  • This is an interesting blog. I’m in the process of looking at the 13 part documentary Cosmos, again, by Carl Sagan.
    Now if anybody was a great science teacher, it was Carl, though he was never given, even when he died, true recognition, probably because like Darwin, he upset the religious establishments so much in the USA.
    If you want to see a great teacher at work, go to the web and look at Cosmos, if you’ve never seen it, and let me hear what you think.

  • Oh yeah, if you think WordPress is easy, you need to step back a few paces. I’m pretty much in the middle — neither a technophobe or a technophile — and I’m gonna have to say I didn”t find it very intuitive! I agree it’s got great potential, but yeah, I’ve got at least a little programming under my belt. But thanks for your perspective.

  • Wah, when you say you’re a “learning designer” I get hives, despite being sympathetic to some of what you’re saying. Some, because I’m little skeptical of delivering content with context, preferably provided by an actual teacher — expert or not, they’ll be able to address individual issues.

  • Well, that’s sort of the underlying issue, how to really definite expertise. All I’m saying is that a PhD (or whatever credential) doth not a teacher make.

  • Perhaps, but I’d also guess it was because he was doing popular science — doing anything that people can actually understand gets you very little credit in the “serious” academic community!

  • Good post, so true.

    I’ve been taught by my fair share of experts. It’s absolutely true that they don’t transfer to also being good teachers – in actual fact most of them do suck.
    To be fair there are a few out there who know how to communicate at a better level to undergrads – this is a big thing because poor communication & explanations of complex subjects just leads to people either not listening or not understanding = what’s the point of being there?

  • To me this is like businesses who take the best engineer (or lawyer, or whatever) and make them a supervisor. The logic seems to be is if you’re the best in your field, then you should be a supervisor. SO NOT TRUE. Supervising has specific skill sets. You can be very very good at your profession and be a lousy supervisor — I know, I’ve seen it in action. Yet companies make this same mistake over and over again.

    Seems like it’s a common misconception in academia, too. “Oh, you really know a lot about that. Why don’t you teach it?” “Oh, you really know a lot about that. Why don’t you supervise?” Arrrrrrgh.

  • Agreed. But I feel funny saying that since I only have a bachelors degree (judging someone – even a hypothetical prof- with a higher degree then mine feels weird.) I base my opinion on the fact that some of my best profs were masters students and some of the worst were PhD’s. There can be two reasons for this..1) a masters student has an uninhibited drive and fresh look upon teaching and 2) PhD’s have lost their drive or never had it to begin with. These are my opinions…of course there are others. Regardless, to be a teacher…you HAVE to want to teach. And like you said, having a Phd doesn’t make you a good teacher…its akin to a Ferrari in the slow lane. And..boy, I’ve had a few profs that fit this category….

  • But! Does that mean that a person with _no_ knowledge at all about e.g. teaching teachers theory* would be the best teacher± in the world?

    * the ones who teach teaching teachers teach teachers teach
    ± in teaching teachers theory of course.

    Or, is it important to teach teaching teachers teach teachers teach?

  • As a teacher, I can completley agree from experience that this is true. I’m able to clearly describe and teach the things I wasn’t great at in school because I know how fuzzy it was for me. Good post!

  • I have two favorite professors from my collegiate experience: The Mad Scientist and the Jack of All Trades.

    The Mad Scientist had two PhDs, 40 years worth of varied industry-related experience, and a massive hankering for learning. He was phenomenal because no matter what question we had: he had both an answer and a hands-on demonstration for it. And he was totally nuts which made things fun.

    The Jack of All Trades was a young professional student. He dabbled so much in so many different arenas of technology that he could relate what we were learning to so many real-life applications that nothing about Hydrogen Fuel Cells seemed mystical… which is an amazing feat. But he’d never actually had a job in any related industry just the very degree that all of us students were working toward.

    I agree that “expert” can generally result in an awful learning (or lack there of) experience but so long as the instructor has a thirst to learn through their students, no matter how credentialed or experienced they may be… students will find more success.

  • I suppose there are exceptions to every observation you can make, but I’ve seen examples of what you’re talking about and I am an example of it myself.

    I’ve never gone into teaching music because I worry that I don’t have the patience to let a student progress at his or her own pace, but maybe there’s more to it than that. Although I remember a time when I couldn’t play a musical instrument, I learned piano at such a young age that I don’t remember it well; furthermore, I have trouble remembering a time when I could look at printed sheet music and not understand it. This was brought to my attention when my fiancee found the sheet music for a song she liked, which I could read on sight, but to her, it meant nothing besides the lyrics under the staff.

    There are times when I value the novice teacher like your description of teaching Mythology, as a student it feels useful when learning a subject that you have equally little interest in and don’t expect any level of mastery once you’re through. However, there are times when I wanted a full-on expert for a teacher, for subjects where I feel like I already have a sense of mastery but know that I need that little bit of something more, but can’t quite identify it without another person’s help.

  • I agree in part, but once you get past the 101 courses I think it’s best to have someone with a Phd or extensive experience in the field teaching the material. I believe the teacher should always be able to answer anything a reasonably inquisitive student could ask about the subject- which, when it comes to higher level courses, could become tricky without Phd-level knowledge of the topic.

  • A Phd .hum …How many founders of the top 5 Big companies like ATT..ect had a Phd,or masters. 0
    I think people as a hole now, think there just ain’t no people that smart anymore.Which is untrue.
    .And for all the Phd’s Out there that teach their way only, It puts you in a cube”base you on the ground”, They have no room for people that do things differently.
    Your only hope is,The people to learn from is the Inventors. There the one’s that the Masters,phd’s study the work of and strive to teach it.
    And the inventors are open to all ideas all the time..
    Rule 1 the Inventor that sets the standard in anything . Understands what it does and why and how to make it do it again. And can teach it better.
    And they usually build’s the first 1 of it.
    This is in reply to this..
    .I believe the teacher should always be able to answer anything a reasonably inquisitive student could ask about the subject- which, when it comes to higher level courses, could become tricky without Phd-level knowledge of the topic.
    If you look for the wrong person…for complete answers. and you will never find it..sorry

  • There are so many Professors or Teachers who simply cannot communicate in student mental capacity. I have interacted with so many Teachers and Professors in the past and present. They all have so many information in there head. They all share same characteristic they cannot communicate or reason with students.

  • Great post. I disagree slightly- in that I don’t think there is exclusivity; Experts do not necessarily make bad teachers, nor do non-experts make great teachers. There is a special skill in disseminating knowledge, and it can be learned or inherant. I have had some excellent teachers who were the experts in their field, and it was because they broke down the topic logically and reconstructed it in a way that was easy to understand. I also think that there are some that students consider excellent teachers that don’t do jack squat; the students just like them because they are “buddies” and/or they give out good grades without challenging their brains.

    That being said, I can help a student or peer through a problem that was an issue for me in the past because I know the exact steps it took to get me from A to B. But, not everyone’s mind thinks like mine and even then, they might not understand…

  • Great post! One of the best teachers I ever had was a history course in high school taught by the football coach. He covered for another teacher on leave and it ended up being a permanent gig. Us students knew he didn’t know what he was doing, but he made it exciting because he was learning it with us. So I think it’s not only an issue of the inability to relate, but also the level of excitement and newness that is brought the material, which fades over time.

    By contrast, the worst professor I had in college was a renowned anthropologist who spoke above our heads, as though we all knew what it was like to live in New Guinea with cannibals. The ironic thing is that he was a genius when it came to relating to people in different cultures, who spoke different languages. But he had no clue how to relate to college students.

  • Yes, I think that’s of this discussion: there are a few experts who can really communicate well. But I stand by my assertion that most don’t seem able to acquire the separate skill set needed for teaching well — and as I’ve said, I’m interested in a more general solution for improving teaching.

  • Very true! Supervisory competence, like teaching, is a different skill set than knowing your material. On rare occasions, general competence will get you promoted, but all too often the credentials are used in exactly the wrong way.

  • No, that’s not what I said at all. I think we can all agree that total idiots shouldn’t be allowed to teach. However, what if we conceived of teaching as it its own, abstract set of skills, we might be able to designate expertise in that, rather than by content.

  • As I’ve said in a few comments above, I think that if you’re at a place where you can really appreciate what an expert has to offer, you’re already in the category of advanced learning — but by definition, that’s a smaller category, and should be taken care of after we’ve figured out a solution for the general problem of getting more good teachers!

  • You’re assuming that reasonably inquisitive students exist in quantities large enough to notice, which suggests to me you haven’t taught a great deal. And, as I’ve said several times, how many advanced classes do we really need when the majority of learners are going to stop/stay at the 101 level?

  • As I’ve said above, I don’t deny that a few wonderful expert teachers exist. But I think it’s not the norm, and the higher up you get the less you can put yourself in the correct mindset. But I agree, it’s the step-wise process that matters.

  • Interesting fact: whenever I hear someone is a ‘renowned expert’ I am actually more suspicious that they won’t give lecture, for exactly the reasons you state!

  • Great post – a view I wholeheartedly agree with.

    I’m studying my masters degree in the UK right now and the course tutors are populated entirely from ex-professionals who worked in the field for several years (journalism) and gave that up to teach at University.

    Whilst some do have a kind of appreciation for teaching methods, many seem to believe that it is by some kind of osmosis that their knowledge will transfer.

    Good teachers are good at communicating knowledge, and are experts at learning new knowledge.

    However, the very best teachers I have come across through my educational career are both experts in their field and fully fledged teachers.

    A good teacher can transmit enthusiasm for any given topic.

  • I completely agree!!
    It also makes me happier since I got a degree in biology and will end up becoming a physics teacher – you’ve shown me that actually this may be for the best!!

    Thanks :D

  • I don’t believe for a second that knowing nothing about a subject makes you better at teaching it than an expert.

    However I do agree that empathising with students and teaching at a level appropriate to their knowledge of the subject is important, and just as vital to good teaching as actually knowing the subject. However I’m not going to get carried away and say it’s MORE important, it’s not, they are just two sides of the same coin.

  • There’s got to be a happy medium. To be honest, I don’t want to be taught by an amateur at anything – I want them to know more than I do or will know by the end of a class. I want to be able to ask them questions and not have them panic or BS me because it’s slightly outside of the material that they’ve been trained in on. (This presumes a learning environment where asking questions and digging deeper is encouraged and acceptable, of course.) At university level they might not be the person with the absolutely astonishing research profile, but they shouldn’t be completely clueless either. Expecting academics to be experts at both research and teaching is absurd – needs to be far more scope for them to specialise in one or the other.

  • That’s really a question I think academia is struggling with. Colleges keep bringing in ‘professors’ without advanced degrees, from journalism, the music industry, and other industries — a clear indication that experience is valued, perhaps even more than instruction in a topic. But people in the humanities, especially, would be hard pressed to bring in what the outside world would perceive as a successful career in anything else. I tend to think that’s part of the problem, though, and what makes many academics obsessive about making academia their entire lives.

  • I think you’re in pretty good shape. From what I’ve seen, the sciences tend to transfer a little more easily than say, an English major trying to teach microbiology. Best of luck to you, and I hope you enjoy learning with your students!

  • Actually, I think “empathy” is far over-emphasized, and used as an excuse to let students actually run the classroom. I was an effective, ignorant teacher despite the fact that I often wanted to strangle some of my darling students. So I’m going to stick to my guns; communication + research skills are more important than content knowledge.

  • Ah, but if you are truly at the 101 level, an amateur (who, by definition, is somehow involved in the subject already) WILL know more you. And as I’ve said above, the biggest classes are the 101 levels where people won’t know anything. I don’t think amateurs will panic or BS either because if they don’t know the answer they’ll be happy to look it up, or tell you where to look it up — precisely because they are not an overworked academic. Because, yes, I agree wholeheartedly, it’s ridiculous to expect people to do both. It’s like having two jobs; one is going to suffer.

  • I completely agree. As a life coach I am not an expert at some of the things my clients want to focus on, but I sure as hell am able to help them every single time.

  • This post made me think of Jamie Oliver’s dream school as well – a concept that belittles teachers by assuming that all they need is to be experts in their subject.

  • In 30 years of teaching (primarily undergrad community college courses in Ontario, Canada), I can honestly say that some of my favourite courses were the ones assigned to me as ‘new preps’ (i.e., content or context that was relatively new to me and/or where I wasn’t necessarily an ‘expert’). The more I had to learn myself – and learn well, in order to subseqently teach it to others – the better prepared I was to deliver the material in an engaging, interesting and interactive way – and the better the students learned the material. Professors who don’t challenge themselves (by not learning new things) don’t challenge their students either. Learning is a lifelong process – for EVERYONE! (Oh, and just because you ‘know’ something does NOT mean you can teach it!!!!!)

  • Absolutely! Having been a lab rat – too true.
    It’s unfortunate that knowing something and conveyance of that same knowledge do not go hand in hand.
    Thanks for the post Worst Prof Ever – and comment Lab Rat!

  • Experts tend to study more and more about the finer details of their subject. Eventually, they know more and more about less and less. The end result is they know everything there is to know about nothing.

  • Great post! I’ve found that only after I’ve gone through something difficult am I better able to help someone else. Credibility? Experience, real, tactile, often says more than a piece of paper saying you finished coursework, dealing primarily with theoreticals, from a college…


  • Maybe it should read:

    Experts make good teachers. But they seldom make good leaders. They seldom make good warriors. Because they are roles mostly successfully played by ‘hybrids’

  • I wonder why you find it necessary to put teachers and leaders in separate categories? It really says it all when society makes them mutually exclusive. Think I’ll be writing about that tomorrow…

  • One basic problem I see, in academics is that production (the research you put out) is way more valued than teaching. Its difficult to excel at both and more prestige is put on those “publishing machines”.

    Universities really go after top-researchers, and it is the ultra specialised in specific field who are at the very-edge of human knowledge (all-be-it in a specific area), who know what critical & novel questions need to be asked and answered…producing the top research landing in top journals…. it can take years to master the whole body of knowledge on a topic and then lead the production of knowledge before all others (bringing prestige and attracting funding to the university)… So yes…the system works on people ultra-specialised, its a wild shot as to which of them might have interest and skill at teaching….

    The best teacher’s I’ve had in university really had a passion for teaching that came from within…. but they were usually under fire for not producing minimum amount of research productions per year.

    Its like a balancing act, time and energy is limited and if you give your whole on one side, the other task required of you will suffer in quality.

    Maybe fixing the disparity in recognition and value between teaching & reseach activities would do giant leaps to fix the problem.

  • i think if a teacher connects with their students and can find a fun and effective way to teach, they’re right for the job! that’s why mss rubow should of left, not mrs. torres! why’d she have to leave!?!?!?! parker’s been born, now can you just come back so i never have to argue with mrs. york ever again!!!!!!!!!!???

  • I realized good writer are not good at speaking or communicating. Good speakers are not good writers. I prefer good speaker over writer. I tend to learn better if professors or teachers have strong speaking command. How about you?

  • I actually needed a reminder of this. I’ll finally finish undergrad this year (ten years after I enrolled!) and I find myself pulled towards Staying In School Until I’m 75 just so I’ll be Legitimate and Respected! … when really all I want is to never stop learning. Thanks.

  • I’m an engineer. I, however, had been teaching ESL for twelve years until last year I was given a Physics class for junior-high students. Someone thought I would be good at it since I had studied engineering. After such a long time without contact with the subject, I definitely confess I was terrified as I thought most of it had gone away from my mind.

    Truth is that learning (in this case, relearning) as you teach (and viceversa) becomes a really gratifying experience for both students and teacher. It made me humble and really appreciative of my students’ insights and thoughts about the universe and the way nature works. Thinking that they are a lot more knowledgeable in ways of getting information through technology, I can say that I probably have learned more than I had expected since I gave them freedom to tell me wrong whenever they could as long as they had a scientific attitude (scientific attitude in a Mexican junior high school would mean mostly respectful).

    So what I want to say is that I totally agree with you. Thanks for this post…

  • Agreed. The whole “patronizing your audience” thing is usually not the case and/or about the speaker’s burning desire to come off as Really Smart. i.e. you say it’s about the audience, but it’s really about you. In the handful of occasions I’ve had to present to other grad students, they seem downright grateful when I assume they don’t already know what I’m talking about, honestly. And I’m sure grateful when someone else extends me the same courtesy. It’s like we’re all allowed to say the Emporer Has No Clothes. What a relief!

  • just the title itself reminded me of my physics teacher in high school
    –really big head
    –kind of insane
    –would hit the desk with a ruler when he lost his temper
    –probably knew a lot about physics
    i didn’t know the first thing about physics after 9 months in his class
    such thing as “too smart”?

  • There are plenty of examples of your theory in the world of professional sports. Basketball stars like Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul Jabbar were not especially good coaches, for example, and the analogies go on and on. Maybe it came too easy for them, and they expected others to “get it” just as easily.

  • You have see in University Auditorium Academic Environment setting. You will see good speaker are not good writer. Good writer are not good speaker. Past as a student. Present as my Profession. I tend to stick with good command in communication makes learning much more exciting. Students need strong academic focus on learning new materials. It makes big differences if you have strong speaking command.

  • Possibly the problem there is to do with the university system and the whole notion of 101 classes. I live in Ireland where we’ve got a system like the UK one – do a degree in a subject or set of subjects instead of being told you need to fulfil a bunch of general requirements before you can specialise.

    But if they’re an amateur they won’t necessarily know where to look it up or how best to guide you – I think really we’re talking about someone who’s not necessarily an expert but nevertheless has a reasonable degree of competence – the term ‘amateur’ doesn’t really apply.

  • I believe this is why California has two university systems. The UCs are more focused on research, while the CSUs are more focused on education. That’s not to say that research isn’t done at CSUs, but in my experience as a student it’s mostly driven by a combination of the interest of the professor and to provide stuff for grad students to do. Of course, CSUs generally aren’t accredited to award PhDs.

  • As a teacher, I can agree that the skill of teaching is often underestimated. It is a skill that takes years to cultivate. I can confidently say that I could teach almost any subject well, regardless of content, because I understand how people learn best. Great article!

  • Wonderful article! Let me just say that I have come across very few professors that teach at our level ( I say our level, but it’s probably just my level) and can help us understand each topic. But luckily as a chem major, I had 2 professors that could teach each subject really well. Sadly, enough I had to ask them for help in Physical Chem, even when they weren’t teaching the class. :)

  • It’s true, university requirements in the US are very broadly-based. But the 101-level issue is important, and possibly even more pressing, in high schools, and that’s one reason I’m arguing that, by the numbers, we simply need more people teaching well at that leve.
    Also that I wouldn’t assume an amateur (who I’d just define as ‘someone who really loves something, and probably doesn’t have a credential’) couldn’t guide you or answer questions! But of course, that depends on how you define amateur :-)

  • I agree that universities have become almost exclusively research-oriented. IMHO, teaching and research are both full-time jobs. So, if universities really care about teaching, they have to give up on the whole teacher-research model altogether, and just start caring about teaching again.

  • Yes, this is a problem: students being afraid to get out into the real world — and who can blame them, given the current state of things? But putting it off won’t help, especially if it’s costing you money! So yes, remember that you can always keep learning.

  • You’re welcome. Yes, that’s exactly it — the terror is what keeps you honest, I think. It’s not exactly pleasant, of course, but it’s a reminder of what being a student can feel like. Which is the hard part for any teacher, I suppose.

  • Yes, I think there’s something to it….and, if academics are the intellectual equivalent of athletes (i.e. people who naturally excelled at their subject), this is another argument for taking a different approach to selecting teachers.

  • Hmm, this something I’ve seen happen a lot: students recognize a really good teacher/professor, then keep coming back to them for help other classes. Understandable, given that there are so few good teachers, but a problem because it can overburden the individuals in question – not that any of them mind helping, just that it really highlights the fact that the system at large isn’t selecting/keeping good teachers.

  • Worst teachers at high-school:
    – not interested
    -little knowledge
    -boring beyond imagination
    -easily irritated (which was the fun part)
    -lived outside of any society it seemed (just by the way they dressed)
    -very authoritarian style (homework, exams, etc)

    Best profs at University which I loved:
    – humanity spirit
    -well read in different areas (not only their field of expertise)
    -lots of humour (also about themselves)
    -caring about student`s wellbeing
    -always approachable and helpful
    -always curious about their own field
    -out of the ordinary teaching style
    -very motivating
    -lovely to listen to
    -a little awkward
    -did not give a fart about academics, but about their field of interest

    I thought teaching was the furthest from my mind. Strange, how things turn out in life. I teach and I love it! I learn every day I teach. I will stop teaching the day someone tells me I sound like a teacher :-)

  • That doesn’t surprise me, sadly. There’s a lot more to day about how education-centered institutions are lower on the perceived class scale….but it’s just too depressing.

  • This blog reminds me middle school Math Teacher name Mr Plock. He used to pull students hair like driving car stick gear. He says its time to pull some ” Protein” or ” time to gear”. I felt so sorry for my fellow freckled face red hair classmate. I mean whole class so scared. This math teacher was total freak!!!

  • With college level dance professors it seemed like the point was not actually to teach anything but to use your class as a way to identify the well trained dancers so you could give them big parts in your upcoming choreography, thereby making yourself look fabulous. I found one masters level instructor particularly hilarious when she kept telling us we were doing it wrong for the entire class. She kept simplifying what she wanted us to do until finally we were just walking across the floor. We couldn’t do that right either. I don’t recall her offering any real suggestions on how to do it better, mechanically, but she talked the entire time. At the end of class we were expected to dance her choreography to music. She had failed to inspire any interesting movement in me, but I certainly learned a lot from the class.

    Mostly what I learned is that everyone thinks their technique is the best and only way, but few know how to tell you what it is really. They can show you, and if you are a good mimic you might get it that way, but they can’t really break it down into digestible pieces and explain it. Neither can I, but I have the good sense to say out of the classroom.

  • Well said good sir.

    Throughout my college experience, I came across numerous professors that would just “talk,” rather than “teach.” Meaning, they knew the material they were teaching so well, they would just go through the motions, rather than explain why X + Y = Z.

    I agree with everything you said. Professors need too learn to go outside of their comfort zone, and learn/teach new material. It would be of great benefit to them, and to those learning the subject. Hopefully your ideas will soon catch on!

  • I completely agree with you. I had a chemistry teacher in high school who knew chemistry better than anyone I knew, but he was a horrible teacher. I just don’t think he grasped that it wasn’t nearly as easy for us to understand…the fact that he had a very thick Middle Eastern accent didn’t help much either! All in all, he was a very smart man but just couldn’t communicate his knowledge very well.

  • The accent thing can be a real problem. It’s a tough question because it can stir up tensions about immigration so easily, but I have to agree that teachers should be able to communicate in the agreed-upon language of whatever university! Add that to an inability to explain the basics, and you’ve got a non-teaching experience.

  • Good way of putting it. Unfortunately academia discourages discomfort by treating discussion like a war zone — if you put an idea out there, people will go out of their way to tear it apart and point out how much of an expert you’re not!

  • I agree with your sentiment. It’s probably along the same lines as the best rehab counselors are former addicts themselves. You have a different understanding of things because you had to work really hard to understand it.

  • I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree then.

    I believe you must have had some previous knowledge of mythology and related matters to “do alright” at teaching it.

    Oh, and by the way, I don’t enjoy being patronized. Anyhow, congrats on the thought provoking post.

  • Agree! I had a astronomy professor who is only enthusiastic to his research but not his class. In his class, he just talks very fast and goes through the knowledge, which is “easy” for him, as fast as possible. Then he will start to talk about his research.

  • I agree with the phrase “experts are not the best teachers”. So far, I believe this is SOOO true(especially in math and science subjects). Every expert I met seems to “sort-of suck” in teaching, but hey I know it’s nothing general. I just have not come across anyone who is an expert and seems to teach very well. I know somebody out there is like that, hope I get to meet one one of these days. :)
    Being an expert in a field and the skill teaching is totally different. Many get confused with these two.

  • I know of what you speak. This semester I was assigned a subject in which I had NO experience nor training but was nonehteless required to teach. I did, in fact, have to work a little harder.
    Additionally, I came to teaching through a program designed to recruit “experts.” The first year was hell–knowing what I know and teaching what I know are two different things entirely!

  • Teachers Are bad at teaching when they reviewing the same stuff over again which is BORING! We don’t even listen anyways,so why review? I know it’s good to review for a test , but we don’t want to review everyday. And students barely care.
    Reviewing is good for us,I give you that, especially when we’re about to take a quiz or test , but reviewing is just super boring especially when you already know it. All I’m saying is, less reviewing , and more activities and moving onto the next unit or subject. We all get annoyed and super irritated when we re-learn something we all know. And sometimes we learn something even a little kid would know. For example, how to and where to write your name. And in technology that’s probably the class where we review everything. For example , in technology we learn how to draw sample shapes, and how to draw simple shapes. I don’t even feel like I’m learning anything or anything new at all. All my classmates are bored, and always get really extra irritated in that class. Sometimes we all feel like little kids, because when you teachers re-teach us simple stuff like this, we just get angry. And the reason we pick a elective class is to learn something new, not to re-learn something.
    Reviewing is a great thing for student’s who need it, but doesn’t really help the kids that don’t. I mean if we wanted to review, we would’ve studied, but i know that some students just don’t ever study at all , but that’s their fault. I Mean sometimes its not the student’s fault that they failed a test or quiz, it could be the teacher, because he/she is bad at teaching. For example, if a teacher always, was lazy, un-organized, and taught us, but didn’t do it step-by-step, then of course we barely learn anything.
    I’m sure a lot of students would doze off and just don’t even listen in class when the teachers review and teach us the basics. So Let me ask you again, Why review? I’m pretty sure, you’re just going to say what i said earlier, “because some student’s don’t study or they might need it for the test or quiz”, but does it really help? I don’t think so

  • It’s true, it’s a harder assignment for the teachers — another fact which gets conveniently overlooked — but that does often make it more rewarding!

  • That’s an excellent parallel. I mean, really, I’ve never understood why smokers (to pick a legal example) are supposed to listen to someone who’s never smoked in their life — yeah, yeah, we all know it’s bad for you, but do you understand the jones?

  • Yeah, that was one of my points: why is it so darned rare to find someone who’s skilled at both? I think it’s at least in part because we don’t demand good communication from them. Stop hiring people who can’t do it, and perhaps they’d see the need to learn.

  • Think a good rule of thumb is the more people you are teaching at a particular level, the more time should have been spent studying education or being trained to teach – there’s a lot of teacher-training stuff that works at its best when it’s at that broad level.

  • I couldn’t agree more. Some of my worst teachers were wonderfully smart people, but had no concept of how to explain the topic at hand to students. This happened in high school – notably in gr.11 chemistry – and in at least every other university class I took. I will never forget taking a first year humanities course on Greek and Roman mythology. The TA had no concept of how to explain something or other in layman’s terms. I luckily had cultivated an interest in mythology from a young age – hence why I had taken the course in the first place. As a result of having the prior knowledge of my own I did understand his point. He ended up using me as a translator of sorts numerous times in that class.

    I’ve found my own teaching experiences have already been a huge eye opener to me – especially when it comes to students who struggle academically. It’s not something I ever had to deal with myself, but I find it incredibly rewarded to be able to find a way to explain it in terms they understand. I think what has helped me is that I would not be considered an expert in my field – I’m too much of a jack of all trades and generalist knowledge kind of person. I’ve got just enough of everything to sound like I always know what I’m talking about.

  • Ha, I vote we take the ‘wonderfully’ out of that statement. As I’ve said before, I don’t care how smart anyone is if they can’t communicate it — yet, people are rewarded for ignorant use of jargon. Boo that! But using your own experience to teacher better, now that’s a good thing!

  • Touché – if one can’t communicate their knowledge, said knowledge does become a bit moot. But I did have a brilliant chemistry teacher who knew all this amazing stuff and could show us amazing experiments in the lab, but sort of missed teaching us the basics. I think that’s a real issue in high school – they try to jump ahead without teaching the foundational stuff first cause the foundations work is going to come across as boring compared to the cool experiments they could be doing.

  • id like to retract my last comment because some of the teachers are the inverters also. so that makes my idea nil in void sorry if it offended anyone in any way..

  • Reminds me of graduate school. One of my professors did not understand community. My major was Sociology. As an individual who was involved in identifying voids and gaps to pursue proposals to reduce social ills in the community; my professor could not relate. Discussions were limited. He had never looked outside the box. He seemed overwhelmed with real world issues.

  • I took a 2 week course on programming calculators in the late ’70s. About a dozen students. There were two types of student. Those who already understood the topic and took the course because they were interested. Those that didn’t (yet) get it. All the students were brilliant engineer types, top 5% or less of the population. Two weeks was not enough time to make much progress. All i hoped for was some sort of technique to practice later. Not sure i got it.

    But it made me think about what one could do to teach a new topic. One needed skill is taught in boy scouts. It’s called “trailing”. The easier skill is “tracking”. That’s following someone by noticing the clues they leave behind. Trailing is the art of intentionally leaving clues so someone can follow. It requires guessing what clues will get noticed, and what the follower will do next. To do that, you need to know something about the follower. It’s not a very common skill, as far as i can tell.

    I always had a long attention span. But my son does not. So when i help him with his school work, i must keep that in mind, and structure aid so that it is effective. He has receptive moments, and so timing is important. I wonder if the techniques i’ve used for math would help everyone.

    I’m taking piano lessons now. I’m concentrating on sight reading. There’s a Bartok series that’s really good. It breaks down piano playing into a bunch of different easy skills, and teaches them one at a time. It’s not just easier first and more difficult later. It starts with playing in unison (both hands on the same notes) with notes moving one step up or down, and all notes the same duration. Then just the duration changes. Then same duration but with skips up and down rather than steps. And so on. Only a real expert could have come up with this. If you’re a novice to the topic, you’re unlikely to come up with a framework. The framework clearly accelerates learning. It keeps the barrier to progress low.

    I learned to spell when computer spell checkers became available (late ’70s). They constantly told me what mistakes i made, and i corrected them. Eventually, they stopped complaining. No emotional pain.

    My astronomy club has two hour long talks (lectures) a month, given by members. Members generally give at most one talk a year. Talks are well researched, well prepared (with presentation software). The better talks 1) don’t have text on the slides, 2) explain all likely technical terms in advance, 3) aren’t read from a script, 4) stop to answer questions as asked, 5) are reluctant to simply answer questions, but rather encourage audience discussion, 6) provide context (historical or scientific) around discoveries when possible, 7) have some sort of reasonable organization, 8) are entertaining. We’ve started exporting talks to other clubs.

    I had a taxing pair of engineering courses called Stress. They had a high failure rate. In retrospect, there was too much material. My estimate is that nearly all students would achieve competence if it were doubled in length to four courses. Learning this stuff faster does not a better engineer make you. The 25% fastest learners are not always the best engineers. There’s nothing in industry that requires this sort of abuse.

  • Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong wrong. Experts make bad teachers at R1 unis because they have no incentives to be good teachers. Having attended a SLAC, I experienced tons of great teaching from awesome experts. But the institution rewarded great teaching. And if amateurs made great teachers, AP scores would be a lot higher. I’m former college prof who now teaches at a private high school. I am an expert in my field (I’ve been teaching hs for ten years and I still get asked to do book reviews by journals, give conference presentations etc.), but seeing the dreck that passes for teaching in my field on the relevant AP listserv shows that amateurs are just as bad at teaching as experts or maybe worse, since many of the teachers are actually teaching stuff not just incomprehensibly, but wrong. Any schmuck can deliver content. But only an expert can match content to skills and identify where a student is making a mistake and help them discover the means to correct it. They have to have time and incentive to do that. But trust me, amateurs are just as bad at teaching as experts.

  • The commenters here all seem to be self-entitled students who would not take responsibility for themselves. Do not blame everything on the instructor if you are having a difficult time learning the subject. You need to do your part. My experinece as an instuctor is when I challenge the students (in order to bring out the best in them), they all complain to the department head and the dean (bypassing me!) that I am an unfair teacher and grader. I notice this bad attitude only from my American students – the foreign students in my class are all willing to do the hard work in order to succeed; they never complian, and they all tell me that they want to earn their A’s. American students are different: they feel that they are consumers buying a product and blame everything on the instructor if they are not satifided with the “product”. The US will continue to crumble as a world leader if the students of today are encouraged to espouse this bad attitude.

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