Dan Newcome on technology

I'm bringing cyber back

Do experts teach best?

with 2 comments

I’ve taken the title of this post from one of the sub-topics in this article about learning to learn. The article makes several good points and is certainly worth a read, but I want to focus on one question that was brought up near the end of the article: who should teach?

The article’s argument pointed to the fact that an expert on a subject may be blind to things that a student needs to know. To the teacher some things might be taken for granted, so they aren’t communicated well. On the student’s side, enough insight may not be present to even articulate the need. Beginners need to see the process, not perfection.

When I was taking music lessons in school, I had a private teacher that was also a teacher at the school that I attended. Fortunately for me, he lived close by and my parents were able to afford to pay his private lesson rates. I made significant progress under his tutelage, but it wasn’t until much later that I  learned that there was more potential for me to progress in my studies than I thought.

Fast forward several years, and I found myself in a position to informally teach a student who was a friend’s younger sibling. The family was happy to compensate me for my time, which I gladly accepted. The compensation was much lower than what an accredited music teacher would have earned, but since I lacked any credentials, the arrangement was certainly appropriate.

Upon hearing about my student’s informal arrangement, her teacher (who was also my former teacher) expressed concern that she should not be taking lessons from anyone that was not a certified music instructor. Ordinarily that, as they say, might have been that. However the teacher noticed that the student had been progressing faster than her peers and the student cited being more comfortable asking questions in the less formal lessons that I had been giving her.

She continued her lessons with me for about a year and I turned her over to another peer of mine, who was more accomplished than myself. I considered her in better hands and I felt good about the progress that we had made during our lessons.

It wasn’t until several years later that I learned that the formal school curriculum had changed to encourage informal lessons by older students. Apparently, the technique really worked well — well enough to formalize as part of the curriculum.


Written by newcome

January 14, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Hey Dan,

    As someone who tutored in college, recently took a teacher training course, and is starting a job teaching in Korea next month, I have a few thoughts on the matter 🙂

    For a teacher, being an “expert” in the subject is kind of like bringing a nuclear bomb to a knife fight. It will get the job done, but is definitely overkill. I’d say “subject knowledge” is about 40% of what makes a good teacher. Important skills for a teacher are:

    Making students feel successful: No, this doesn’t mean you mindlessly praise everyone. It means you give students challenging tasks that they can still complete.

    Getting out of the way: This is especially important in language classrooms. Students need to be able to speak/practice as much as possible, and the teacher’s involvement needs to be minimized.

    Knowing what to correct and what to leave alone: For most students, you can’t point out every mistake they make. Their confidence will be destroyed. You have to use your judgement to see when they will benefit from correction. I tutored a special needs student in Java programming. If I corrected him every time he mis-used a term, we’d never have gotten anywhere.

    There are more, but those are a few off the top of my head. Also, I think you will see a major difference in the teaching styles of free-lancers (private tutors, training centers) compared to traditional teachers (public school teachers, tenured professors, etc…). Freelancers don’t have the luxury of a captive audience like other teachers do. If they can’t deliver, the students stop paying.

    Trent L

    February 12, 2010 at 4:57 pm

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences Trent. I’ve come back to thinking about this several times when asking myself the question, ‘when does learning happen?’ I think that you are right on with the ‘getting out of the way’ idea.


    February 12, 2010 at 5:50 pm

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