What makes a good teacher? At a pre-college level, we’ll often find teachers who don’t like what they teach, who don’t like children, who don’t like teaching, or some combination of the three. On the other hand, at a collegiate level, we can be fairly sure that teachers like what they teach — simply because teachers in American colleges are also scholars of the field they teach. Instead, what distinguishes a great teacher from a good one, a good teacher from a fair one, and a fair teacher from a bad one is the ability to present their knowledge.
Contrary to intuition, being good at a subject doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at teaching it. In fact, I’d argue that the more of an expert you are in a field, the harder it is to teach it. We’re all familiar with at least one professor who is clearly some kind of genius but whose jargon-filled ramblings about their research make their teaching unintelligible. And since college faculties tend to consist of experts, we come across this problem more often than we should. Something in our brain switches off while we’re sitting in class, we fall asleep with our eyes open, and the subject being taught becomes a turn-off. Forever.
So, how can experts present their knowledge better? I’m sure pedagogical theory answers this question in all sorts of ways. But, all the pedagogy in the world won’t save experts if they can’t stick to some basic principles: 1) Don’t explain jargon in terms of jargon, 2) don’t show off, 3) don’t use long sentences, and 4) be patient.
- Don’t explain jargon in terms of jargon: Specialized fields require specialized languages, and researchers have such a deep knowledge of their fields that their specialized language often becomes their first language. It becomes hard to explain things any other way — because they simply don’t know how. Explaining jargon in terms of other jargon is probably the worst offender of the four points I mentioned above — its use in introductory courses has the potential to drive away competent beginners from a field. It’s also the biggest reason why the public finds it hard to understand scientific progress. Being able to speak without jargon isn’t just a plus — it’s essential.
Here is an easy way to test how well you can speak without jargon in your field of expertise: Find a concept that you want to explain, try and explain it to a friend, and see how long it takes for you to reach a fancy word. The longer it takes, the better you are. Now, substitute that fancy word with something simpler and begin again. Explaining from scratch ensures that you’re rehearsing the simple explanation. Some of you might know this as part of the Feynman Technique. A small percentage of you will know it as the wisdom of Rancho from the Bollywood film “3 Idiots.” Others will know it as the obvious way to do things. And the rest won’t know it at all. In any case, practice it.
- Don’t show off: College professors are researchers, and a researcher’s art is their research. If you’re a researcher, it’s only natural to want to talk about your findings. They are, in a sense, your creations. But indulging students in your own findings out of context won’t help the students — it’ll just confuse them.
- Don’t use long sentences: People have short attention spans, now more than ever. Use short sentences, and people will listen. Although this applies in writing, it’s especially imperative in speaking. Written information is constantly available, and speech is transient unless you’re recording it. Admittedly, this distinction is why I’ve clearly violated the rule in this article. Instructors usually violate this rule to be specific about what they’re explaining. Example: Instead of “There’s a sheep on the grass,” they might say, “There’s a bipedal fluffy mammal on the vertically challenged plants.” The latter is more specific, but in many cases, as in the previous example, there’s no need to be that specific. Instead, explain in unspecific codes that people already understand. Example: “Sheep” is less specific than “bipedal fluffy mammal” only when you don’t know what a sheep is, and most people know what a sheep is. More often than not, long sentences make things more ambiguous.
- Be patient: We know that there are different types of learners. When a student isn’t understanding what seems like a simple concept, it’s often because the concept isn’t presented in the student’s optimal mode of learning or in the student’s native language. But let’s take this one step further: Someone’s optimal mode isn’t just their preferred sense and language of input, but also the rules that they follow within that sense or language. There’s immense variability in syntax within a language in any given mode. Often, when a fluent English-speaking student doesn’t seem to get an easy concept, it’s because they use different rules to structure concepts. If most of the class doesn’t get it, it’s probably because you’re not explaining it right. Some instructors are better at dealing with this conundrum than others.
The others should work on it, for three reasons: If no one’s getting it, there’s a good chance that the instructor’s jargon or sentence-framing caused the confusion; ascribing the student’s confusion to ineptitude runs the risk of losing a potentially brilliant student; and getting frustrated, flustered, and giving up doesn’t solve the problem.
It is my hope that these simple guidelines will help improve connectivity between instructors and students, between students and peers, and generally between experts and listeners, thereby fostering the culture of fearless curiosity we speak of so highly but so rarely achieve.