Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What If Being a Good Scholar Bore No Relation to Being a Good Teacher?

A Plea for Understanding Teaching as a Practice: The First Part in a Continuing Series.

Very good scholars are amazing. They have sophisticated, high-level skills. They generate new knowledge, discover facts we didn't know before, challenge our assumptions, and re-frame the things we already knew.

But as I think we all know, scholars are often not so good at communicating with the general public. And by extension, scholars are not always so good at making themselves understood to undergraduates.

On the cognitive level, it's not hard to explain. Disciplinary knowledge is expert knowledge, and expert knowledge involves highly-facilitated neural pathways. (Or so we're told.) Experts can do things they can no longer explain, because those tasks have become second nature to them. A lot of an expert's knowledge is tacit, not explicit: experts just can't state a lot of what they know.

All of which suggests that very good scholars may not make the best teachers.

There I said it.

Indeed, a couple of large-scale studies have concluded that there is zero correlation between research productivity* (which isn't even scholarly talent) and teaching effectiveness: at least one study even finds a negative correlation. (Interestingly, those who make strong claims that scholars should be active teachers do not make any claims that scholars are effective teachers.)

That surprised me. I thought the correlation of scholarship and teaching would actually be negative: the better the scholar, the less effective the teaching. I suspect the zero correlation masks a negative correlation because effective scholars are at least good at organizing things, and this cuts against the other feature of scholarship: that you are immersed in a discipline which is its own universe, and it's very hard for you to explain it to non-experts.

But we don't want to consider that a good scholar is not necessarily an effective teacher. We don't want to think about this, since the whole idea of higher ed as we know it today largely rests on the assumption that good scholars are at least capable of teaching, if not proficient at it.

This a fine assumption--if you're training students to be scholars, to become disciplinary experts. Then you're using an apprenticeship model, which fits well with the medieval university-as-guild system.

But our colleges produce graduates who largely do not become professionals in the disciplines they study. So an undergraduate experience cannot be an apprenticeship in a discipline. Rather, the undergraduate experience is an apprenticeship in learning--learning how to learn, learning how to work with experts whose knowledge is tacit but who must have their immense knowledge accessed to be useful to non-experts. Students don't just learn how to access library resources: they learn how to access the knowledge locked up in experts' brains.

The successful college graduates departs towards an adventure of lifelong learning, faring on a sea of changing industries and practices, new tools, new ways of living, and ever-new ways of making a living. But that graduate is not a disciplinary expert, not a scholar, except in the most general sense.

Hence an apprenticeship in scholarship is not really what the university should offer undergraduates.

Scholarship is wonderful, but it is largely a closed system.

  • Scholars pursue highly refined, often abstract knowledge: theories, methods, correlations, etc.
  • Scholars develop theories which allow them to interpret, explain and control. Scholars seek correlations amongst variables.
  • The scholarly enterprise involves controlling elements of a process--whereas practical matters are almost always defined by things that cannot be controlled: given's, requirements, limitations.

What's more, teaching does not mesh well with scholarship, because teaching is a practical matter, and scholarship is highly abstract and theoretical. Yes, you may be teaching theories, concepts and abstractions; but neither teaching nor learning are primarily sets of theories and abstractions. Teaching and learning are concrete processes.

Sure, there are many theories of teaching and learning. But most scholars are not experts at theories of teaching, learning, educational psychology, pedagogy, instruction, etc.

Further, all those theories then need to be "applied," and the relation of theory to practice is itself a vexed theoretical topic. This is typical of scholars: to treat practice as an extension of what they do (which is to say: theory), rather than as its own domain.

Teaching is a practical art: something you can do at a basic level or very, very expertly. Other practical arts include: cooking; crafts like sewing; sports and games, which must be learned a bit at a time and mastered slowly; and artistic activities--like playing a musical instrument, painting, dancing, acting or writing a screenplay.

All of these practical arts are learned in stages, starting with simple skills and tasks, and leading in some cases to lifelong study and outstanding levels of achievement.

  • Beginners in practical arts master simple tasks: baking a genoise cake, sauteing without burning, throwing and catching, keeping a beat, drawing a head with the correct proportions.
  • Experts in the practical arts can do complex things: make a Tiramisu or cook a perfect steak; pitch a no-hitter or play chess with and beat or draw ten chess masters at once; play a Beethoven sonata, represent a complex scene with paint.

Expert practitioners also do the simplest tasks well.

  • An expert omelet is leagues above some tough, rolled-up scramblings.
  • A line drawing by Picasso or Manet is superb in its grace and simplicity.
  • A top notch shortstop is as good at catching a simple pop fly as he is at fielding the fastest wildest grounder.
  • A great actress may pack a lifetime of meaning into the line "I'd like a glass of water."

By contrast, the expert scholar's knowledge is mostly opaque and incomprehensible to the non-expert.

We should think of teaching and learning this way, too: as skills which are developed over time and can reach very high levels of refinement, but whose products are always accessible to non-experts.

What we should not do is think of practical arts, including teaching and learning, as "the application of a theory."

  • Cooking is not "applying a theory of chemistry."
  • Sewing is not "applying a theory of tensile strength."
  • Baseball and chess are not "applying the rules of the game."
  • Dancing is not "applying a theory of gravity."
  • Playing the piano is not "applying a theory of harmony."
  • Acting is not "applying a theory of drama."
  • And teaching is not "applying a theory of learning."

In none of these cases can you teach people the theory and then have them go "just apply it." Imagine saying to someone "Here's what yeast and gluten are--now go and bake me some bread."

Hence the contradiction built into higher education: even though you may be teaching the most abstruse ideas, the activity of teaching is still practical. Students need to own the book before they open it, know the room number before they can show up, know where the test is being given before they can pass it. You may counter: but those are trivial pre-requisites, not the "core of learning." And I say: trivial things matter when you do them poorly, and further, there are aspects of practice which are non-trivial and which the theoretically-minded tend not to notice.

Thus, somewhat paradoxically, teaching has more in common with cooking, playing the piano or drawing than with sociology, chemistry, literature, philosophy--or whatever subject is being taught. This is why you often get further in teaching if you think about how you learned to sew, play tennis, or strum the guitar.

So with all due respect for scholars and scholarship, teaching is something else again. And we need to respect this fact.

––Edward R. O'Neill


  1. Absolutely agree, 100%. I've been trying to communicate this argument for years, but you've nailed it down. Teaching a field is not the same as expertise in a that field!

    1. Thank you, Cameron. I'm trying to tease out the differences between theoretical and practical knowledge. So this is one step.

      There's an article by Sullivan et al. "Assessing the teaching of procedural skills" (The American Journal of Surgery 2008) in which they interview three surgeons, and none can describe more than 50% of the steps required to do a simple procedure.

      To get a full description, you need to interview three surgeons.

      Maybe we should teach by sending students out to interview three of everything....