Experts aren’t the best teachers

I once had a math teacher who was considered a genius. For several decades, he had taught brilliant minds at India’s leading technical institute. As high school students, we were told how fortunate we were to be learning the elements of calculus and vector algebra from such an accomplished soul.

But here’s the flipside. Majority of his students did not understand most of what he taught. He would solve limits, calculate derivatives and perform complex vector transformations in his head. He would skip all the ‘unnecessary’ intermediate steps while we sat there dumbstruck. His lessons whizzed past our heads, but we only blamed ourselves. We weren’t smart enough to be taught by him.

In contrast, I have an uncle who is a great teacher. He is an engineer by training, but teaches children in his neighbourhood accountancy and economics. He reads their textbooks, understands the concepts and makes them more accessible to his pupils through patient explanation. He is clearly a non-expert in the subjects he teaches, but that does not hinder him from doing a great job.

The world often makes the error of assuming that an expert in a particular field is the person best suited to teach it. Alternatively, they write off non-experts in a particular domain as not having enough expertise to teach it. What we often miss is that teaching demands its own expertise. The best elementary high school science teachers aren’t Nobel prize winners, nor have the best football coaches had world-class playing careers.

Do not confuse expertise in a particular field with the ability to teach it well. In fact, being an expert actually serves a hindrance rather than an aid to teaching.

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