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Why Experts Make Bad Teachers

Charles Scalfani
Jul 22, 2016 · 6 min read

We’d all agree that to teach a subject, you must know the subject. So you’d think that experts would be the best teachers, but they’re not. The question is why?

To understand why experts have trouble teaching well, you have to understand what makes experts different from the rest of us.

People who are truly experts in a subject have knowledge most of us don’t. But that does NOT make them a true expert.

What makes them a true expert is understanding.

And with real understanding comes Abstractions.

Abstractions

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Let’s look at how we all build Abstractions, naturally. Imagine you’re a child that has never seen a dog. And today you see a RED dog. And that dog barks at you.

You ask your mother, “What is that?” She tells you that it’s a dog. “And what’s that sound he’s making?” She tells you that he’s barking.

So you’ve just learned something. That there’s this animal called DOG and it’s RED. And it makes a sound called BARKING.

A few months goes by and you see a GREEN dog. At first you’re taken aback because, as far as you’re concerned, dogs are RED. So you quickly change your understanding of dogs. It seems that they come in GREEN too.

And when the dog barks at you, you’re not too surprised because according to your model of dogs, they bark.

And then another week goes by and you see a BLUE dog. After this encounter, you’re thinking that dogs can come in all kinds of colors. And when a cat walks by, you expect that the dog will bark.

But when the BLUE dog tries to bark, NO SOUND comes out. Confused you ask your mother, “Why can’t he bark?” She explains that BLUE dogs cannot bark.

Upon this new information, you revise your model.

Abstract Model of Dogs

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So here’s your model of Dogs:

  1. Dogs Bark (except Blue dogs)
  2. Dogs come in Red, Green and Blue (and maybe other colors)

This is an Abstract Model of a Dog. Not a particular dog, but ALL dogs.

No one taught you how to build this model. You did it naturally as you experience your world.

Abstractions Cannot be Taught

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Now, if instead of allowing you to encounter dogs and naturally build your Abstract Model of Dogs, your mother just recited the aforementioned model as a that you had to learn BEFORE you ever saw a dog.

How well would you understand or remember it? It’s hard to imagine since we’ve all seen dogs. So consider a different model:

  1. Binkles napigate (except Large Binkles with spots)
  2. Binkles have long plackerts and whipitat their snoblats when they get excited

Not so easy now is it.

That’s because you’ve never seen a Binkle and you don’t know what napigate, whipitat or snoblats mean.

Now imagine an expert who understands this model and tries to teach it to you. Would they take you out in the world and let you encounter Binkles? Probably not.

Experts Teach the Abstraction

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In order to teach efficiently, experts try to cut right to the chase. They teach the Abstract Model. Why? Because, they’re trying to save you all the hassle of learning it, “The Hard Way”.

The problem is, as seen by our made up model, without Concrete experiences and many of them, it’s very difficult to understand the model.

In fact, I’ll bet you don’t remember what Binkles do when they get excited. (No fair cheating). But I’ll bet you remember which color dogs can’t bark.

You could argue that it’s hard to remember the model when it’s all made up. Well, that’s the point. Everything is just made up.

The word “dog” is made up to represent something in the real world. “Barking” is the word to describe the sound that a dog makes. It just turns out that you already understand “dogs” and “barking” through your experiences.

You’re an expert on dogs.

Now as an expert on dogs, imagine how hard it would be to teach an alien the Abstract Model of Dogs. They would have the same problem you do with Binkles.

The Hard Way is the Only Way

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Unfortunately, the Hard Way is the only way to understand things. You can’t cut to the chase and just absorb the conclusions like you download a file. Humans don’t work that way.

And experts have long forgotten all of the concrete examples they encountered along the way to build their Abstract Models. So they find it very difficult to think without their Abstractions.

Learning is messy and random and time consuming.

What to Do?

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The best that an expert can do is allow the student the opportunity to experience the world of dogs, binkles or whatever so that they can begin to see patterns and create rules that will make up their model.

Simulate discovery whenever possible. For example, to teach the importance of numbers, first, imagine a world without numbers. Now give the students a problem to solve, like keeping track of the number of sheep in their herd in this world without numbers.

Now have the students make up their own numbering system. And then compare it to the Roman Numeral and Arabic systems.

Or to teach music students about musical notation, have them write a very simple melody and have them transcribe it in their own notation. Then you try to play back their piece.

When the piece you play sounds like the piece they imagined, because their notational system lacks note duration, they quickly understand what note duration is and why it’s important when transcribing music.

In both of these examples, we start by first imagining a world without numbers or musically notation. Then the Expert leads the Student on a journey of discovery where the Student can experience concrete examples that they use to build their own private model of the world.

This process takes time and patience. And as much as the Expert would like to speed up this process, they cannot. The student needs the same opportunity to build their own abstractions as the Expert got. Without this, they can never gain true understanding.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.

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