Why Experts Don’t Make the Best Teachers

Beautiful fingers on the frets
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Fiona in Eden via Compfight

We naturally assume that those with the greatest amount of expertise would make the best teachers.  We hold this assumption across a variety of disciplines including guitar, language, sports, yoga, fitness, arts and almost any other domain you can think of.

It seems only natural for beginners to turn to experts for instruction because they make things look so effortless.  A new book on “Maximum Brainpower,” by Shlomo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway, explains how experience and repetition leads to this kind of automatic expertise.  Experience provides a historical database for the brain to draw from, allowing it to quickly find a response to any familiar situation without even entering into consciousness.

So while a beginner guitarist might feel the sweat bead up on his or her brow, using every ounce of mental attention possible to will his hand to contort into what seems like the most unnatural position possible, the virtuoso is hardly aware of his hand at all, while it lithely glides from one chord to the next as if on autopilot.

But Breznitz and Hemingway warn us that this same automaticity that allows the experts to perform great things so effortlessly might actually prevent them from being good teachers.  The problem with experts is “they have no idea how they do what they do.”

I was thinking about this earlier this week when my friend Karen posted this on Facebook:

Did yoga….the back went out again. Does this mean….yoga is hazardous to my health? Everyone always talks about how much help they get from it…but I get dizzy, fall over, turn red & boom!…..down for the count for days. Sounds sexy doesn’t it?

Hatha Yoga Video - Revolving Lunge PoseCreative Commons License Photo Credit: My Yoga Online via Compfight

Then in the comments she mentioned how this happens regularly when she tries to start yoga, and she was ashamed to admit this because her yoga friends on Facebook (like me) would see it.

But I told her not to feel any shame . . . the shame should be felt by the yoga instructor who had failed this new student.  The reality is most yoga instructors have no clue how to teach a beginner.

Many of the yogis who read this, will nod their head in agreement, thinking I am not talking about them, only those other yoga instructors that are truly clueless.  “I always take the time at the beginning of class to identify the beginners,” they will say.  “And I always advise them to go at their own pace or take child’s pose should any posture become too intense.”

But this message is for all the experts, the gurus, the maestros who know their craft so well as to have become (perhaps too) comfortable with their mastery.  For it is you, o thoughtful yogi, most rooted in your experience, who is most likely to fail your beginner students.

Advising a beginner to go at their own pace is not enough.  They don’t know what their pace should be.  They don’t know how much intensity they should experience.  And a typical one-hour class is simply too much for the uninitiated to handle.

Unfortunately, most experts will not recognize the errors of their ways.  Breznitz and Hemingway say that the greatest challenge of expertise is that the easy answers become so readily available that they lose a certain amount of openness and creativity.   They suggest a few ways to avoid this trap:

  1. Challenge your assumptions:  Continually question where your expertise might be a crutch.  As a teacher, where might you be losing touch with your beginners?
  2. Ask for outside perspective:  Question people with less expertise to be sure you are seeing how things look from a different point of view.
  3. Hold your experience loosely:  Learning is important.  But so is the ability to “unlearn.”  Breznitz and Hemingway say, “having experience is far less important than being able to abandon experience when circumstances require it.”

As another blogger said, “you’re a better teacher if you were (and perhaps are) completely baffled by the subject you’re supposed to be teaching.” A new student becomes a regular student when they feel safe and they feel progress.  The success of the teacher may have less to do with the expertise of the instructor, and more with their ability to let it go.  Good teaching requires a beginner’s mind.

References and recommended reading:

Breznitz, S. & Hemingway, C. (2012). Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom.  Ballantine Books.

Suzuki, S. (1973). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Weatherhill.

by Jeremy McCarthy

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5 Responses to Why Experts Don’t Make the Best Teachers

  1. Sherri Fisher October 23, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    Jeremy–As usual you have brilliantly taken a widely held assumption and melded it it with research and practical findings that give us new perspectives. I would agree that good teaching requires a beginner’s mind, to some extent, but only if one is teaching beginners. Great teaching requires the ability to know where in the trajectory a student is, and what it will take (body, mind, spirit, etc) to get the student to the place they can go. This is often a different place than a set of arbitrary, albeit “high” standards would suggest. A great teacher is able to be both in and out of the box, often simultaneously. Being highly experienced but particularly flexible, to have finely honed diagnostic skills but without the values bias that tends to “grade” a student–that is what can make the experienced, expert teacher exceptional. I am very interested to read this book!

  2. David Hamilton | Everlution October 23, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    This is really fantastic…I needed to be reminded of this as an “expert” in my field. I def. have fallen into this pattern many times, and probably even yesterday and today unbeknownst to me!

  3. Lisa Sansom October 23, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    I agree entirely – and it was a sort of “truism” when I was a teacher that the B-grade students would actually make the best teachers. They knew the material, but still had to work at it and therefore would understand a student’s struggles. Alas, teaching college admission was largely based on grades and so it was the A-students who became teachers – and not all succeeded because it’s a very different set of skills to learn material than to translate it into lessons and experiences to teach to someone else. Some are able to do both, but it isn’t anything that we can take for granted.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy October 23, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    There is, of course, the important distinction in the person whose expertise is in teaching! One of the things I liked about Aikido as a martial art is they don’t wait until you become a black belt to start learning how to teach. Once you reach blue belt you start learning how to teach beginners. I think if you learn how to teach along your pathway to mastery it makes a big difference.

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