Knowing something really well doesn’t mean you can teach it well

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Over the holidays, I taught my niece how to throw a frisbee with a forehand. It took five minutes, and she totally picked it up. It was awesome. And then we just played catch for a good long while. There may not be a more pleasant thing than throwing a frisbee on warm afternoon in the park with good company*.

Picture in your mind a person throwing a frisbee. The typical throw is a backhand, where you hold your arm across the front of your body, the back of your hand facing outwards. If you’re playing ultimate frisbee, you’ll need to throw from the right and from the left, which means you’ll need to throw backhand, forehand, and maybe a couple other ways.

Throwing a forehand is easy, once you figure it out and get a bit of practice. I don’t remember learning it when I was playing ultimate in college. My forehand is about as good as my backhand. I can throw a frisbee** pretty well, I’ve been doing it once in a while for a couple decades now.

I do remember trying to teach folks how to throw a forehand. I wasn’t so good at it. I tried demonstrating, gave a variety of tips and explained what I did. With time, they figured it out, not because of me, but despite my help.

Then, someone showed me how to teach people how to throw a forehand. It’s rather funny, because someone taught me at some point, but I promptly forgot how I learned. This knowledge about teaching a forehand is how my niece learned in just a few minutes. (Well, afterwards she told me that she recently had a unit of frisbee in her middle school. Which involved writing, math, physics, and whatnot. Doesn’t that sound great? So maybe it wasn’t my help in this case.)

When you show someone how to throw a forehand for the first time, the most successful approach looks and feels awkward to an experienced person. But this approach helps them figure it out really quickly. If their throw doesn’t go quite right, just because you can throw really well doesn’t mean that you can troubleshoot, and then provide the best suggestions to improve their throw.

This phenomenon — that experts can’t readily teach what they know — is well established among folks who study education for a living. But among scientists, it’s not something that we discuss all that much, and some folks don’t even recognize this as a fact. The expert vs. novice gap is quite real. Most of us scientists bridge this gap by stumbling through ways to make it narrower. That’s how we often get better when we teach the same class multiple times — we figure out better ways to teach each topic, usually with trial-and-error.

We know stuff. That’s content knowledge. Then, we may or may not know how to teach that stuff. That’s pedagogical content knowledge. In our professional training, we pick up oodles of content knowledge. But there is a lot of discipline-specific pedagogical content knowledge that we just don’t even discuss. This is something that certified K-12 teachers get trained about in detail. There are methods courses that teachers take to learn how to teach particular topics. Does such a thing even exist for folks in higher ed?

So, for example, what’s the best way to teach the biology of photosynthesis at the introductory level? A lot of us have taught this in many different ways. But who among us have gotten a lesson in the most effective ways of teaching it? I sure haven’t. Likewise, when I’ve been teaching biostatistics, I didn’t study up on the most effective way teaching the central limit theorem or how probability distributions work. That’s my shortcoming, but it’s nearly a universal shortcoming among folks in the same boat as me.

Frankly, at the university level, nobody expects us to be familiar with the pedagogical content knowledge in our fields. We just need to know our stuff, and be good teachers in general. We might be asked to assess learning outcomes, and make adjustments to teach better in future years, and that’s how we develop our pedagogical content knowledge. We just sort it out and maybe ask for help from pals who have taught the same material.

I think a critical step in becoming a better teacher is to recognize how pedagogical content knowledge is distinct from content knowledge. We don’t magically know how to teach something just because we understand it really well. I don’t think it’s practical to do a full literature search on best teaching practices for every single lesson we teach at the university level. But if there are lessons where you just don’t know how to teach it well, then, it might be worth finding the book or the article or the human being that already knows how to teach it.


*There’s an elegant passage in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius about this, that comes to mind every time I gain some clarity from playing catch in the park.

**Purists might snigger at my use of the term “Frisbee.” Because the trademarked Frisbee disc by Wham-O has been considered inferior to discs by Discraft or whatnot. Meh, I say.

5 thoughts on “Knowing something really well doesn’t mean you can teach it well

  1. My facebook page is constantly advertising “expert classes”. Learn to write, sing, act whatever from famous people that do it well. I think you’ve explained exactly why I have a sceptical feeling everytime I see these ads, because I am not convinced they will actually teach you how to do the thing. Definitely different skill sets to do something and to teach it to someone else.

  2. What about the opposite case–teaching what you don’t know? Profs get asked to do that a lot. For instance, I just taught (half of) our upper level aquatic ecology course even though I’ve never had an aquatic ecology or limnology course in my life. I don’t think I taught the students anything that’s incorrect or misleading–but it’s hard to say for sure, given that I’m not an expert! For instance, I doubt that what I taught them about the evolutionary ecology of diel vertical migration is bang up to date. I worry about this because it’s one way zombie ideas get propagated.

    Absolutely not arguing that everyone should only teach what they’re experts on! Just musing.

    Any practical, scalable tips for making sure that, if you’re teaching what you don’t know, that you teach it well?

  3. True true. I started deconstructing my own teaching after taking a bioinformatics training and suffering…it just hit me how hard it is for students to learn the vocabulary and being bombarded with details at the same time. As for how to teach better, I always learn a lot from going to education sessions of conferences, or science education meetings (ex. ASMCUE for microbiologists). SABER West is happening in Irvine this coming weekend, and the speakers are good.

  4. Jeremy, I was able to travel back in time and write a post about when I taught a lab in grad school on a topic for which I was totally ignorant: https://smallpondscience.com/2013/10/23/what-happens-when-you-dont-know-anything-about-the-subject-you-teach/ (and for the students it turned out really well, only because to learn anatomy you don’t really need instructor who knows much. But for me it worked out poorly)

    No grand tips, otherwise, I don’t think. I think there’s a lot to be said about leaning heavily on learning-by-inquiry. Though it’s a good idea to know what you expect the students to learn through the process of inquiry.

  5. “Jeremy, I was able to travel back in time and write a post about when I taught a lab in grad school on a topic for which I was totally ignorant:”

    Yes, I too find that the longer I blog, the more often I’m able to answer questions with “I have a blog post about that…” 🙂

    Cheers for the link.

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