Discover more from Desk Notes by Charles Schifano
Those Who Can't Teach
Although I will never underestimate the power of stupidity to reach unimagined vistas, the saying “those who can’t do, teach” must be the stupidest of all clichés. I don’t blame George Bernard Shaw for placing these words in a fictional character’s mouth on the stage long ago, though I do blame those who speak but don’t examine these words today. At least the cliché does provide one useful function: the speaker of these words identifies themselves as someone who can neither do nor teach.
The logical failure—which is visible after just a schoolyard glance—is to equate these positions, to consider them in a hierarchy, with both the assumption and the requirement that the teacher possesses the skills of the practitioner, with a list of great practitioners simultaneously a list of great teachers, rather than, more accurately, recognizing that these are different positions which require diverse and even mutually exclusive competencies.
To argue that the cliché is wrong is to miss the point—it is misleading, absurd, and utterly confused. Implicit in these words is the assumption that highly skilled practitioners make good teachers, yet that is, at best, rather dubious. The unspoken corollary—those who can do, can’t teach—just might be worth considering, however, especially because it will forever remain difficult to observe while you act, to coach while on the court, to critique while holding the pen, to detach while you are involved.
Interestingly, this isn’t as controversial in sports, where the failure of elite athletes to transform into good coaches is a regular occurrence. Perhaps the distinction in sports, and the willingness to see that distinction, comes from the fact that in athletics the coach is responsible for articulating physical acts with language—the coach observes and analyzes and then speaks, which doesn’t require an ability to jump or pull or lift. Muhammad Ali didn’t hire a former heavyweight champion as his trainer, and Michael Phelps was a better swimmer than his coach. The obvious truth that coaching entails distance and a particular skillset is for some reason lost once the subject becomes intangible: the greatest mathematician will be the greatest math teacher, the greatest pianist will be the greatest piano teacher, is the conclusion of this misguided belief.
And that’s a commonplace notion even though the truth is often the reverse: despite some notable exceptions, there’s a general tendency for elite performers to be astoundingly, stupefyingly inarticulate about their discipline—unable to explain what they’ve done or advise others or even examine their own success. This is an inability to distill a complex activity into its component steps, an obvious aspect of effective teaching—and one explanation might come from the necessity of high performance to be the consequence of reflexive action. At such a high level, whether the act is physical or mental, the performance is refined, integrated, and visceral, and the highly skilled performer isn’t distracted by distilling each aspect of an act into its component steps, as there’s usually less foreknowledge than intuition in much of elite performance—with advanced abilities often a consequence of transforming conscious actions into reflexive actions.
Perhaps there’s even an inverse relationship between natural ability and the potential to relate to those who lack experience. If you’ve always been a little bit behind, if you’ve always labored to maintain an elite pace, you’ve probably been forced to learn more of the nuances that are required for excellence—whether you’re the most exhausted person on the swim team or always behind the group in physics class. Clearly it is necessary that you do eventually reach the end of the pool or complete the coursework, but it just might be that those who strain hardest are, in some cases, in a better position to guide those who come later. Because teaching demands that you inhabit an earlier mindset. It demands that you have the capacity to understand someone who doesn’t understand you. Can you recognize the gap between yourself and another person, and then clearly delineate the necessary steps for them to understand you? Is the ability to do this similar or unrelated to proficiency within a specific discipline?
Good teachers are engaged, they have a process, techniques, yet they’re also flexible, dynamic, perceptive, able to think and act and adjust in the moment, they’re comfortable with uncertainty, and, most crucially, they’re able to comprehend the state of a person who doesn’t know what they know—a state that’s more properly thought of as empathy. To wonder how can this person possibly believe this during an argument is perfectly natural, yet it is also the exact question that a teacher should be able to answer. It is a recognition of the learner’s position and an awareness of how best to facilitate a move away from that position.
Especially precocious young swimmers reach a wonderful moment around aged twelve—a moment that is visible to the coach and ripe for effective instruction. For the young swimmer, the sensation of the water starts to change. The exertion required for a practice starts to diminish. The capacity to move through the water with fluidity starts to emerge. After so many years of struggle, weariness, and awkwardness, there’s an abrupt recognition of potential. From a distance it is clear when a young swimmer, still a little shaky, still a little asymmetric, still a little too fatigued, begins to approach a more mature form.
So what comes next? If you know just a little about competitive swimming, a glance at all this potential will reveal dozens of simple and glaring mistakes—in elbow position, in the kick, in the nuances of breathing, in an endless amount of adjustments to every part of the swimmer’s body. Which makes this one of the most important moments for a young swimmer with potential: what do you tell this athlete? You can’t deliver a list of thirty major stroke changes at the end of a lap. Nor can you choose the most complicated position first. Instruction, in this moment, involves selecting the most salient aspect of the stroke to adjust, in full knowledge that each adjustment will trigger another adjustment, and that the true objective is a great distance from the current form—which can only be reached through minute, individual calibrations that are practiced over time. For many young swimmers who reach this point, they are already faster than their coach, but the coach’s qualifications doesn’t really pertain to speed in the pool: a good coach has a keen eye, an awareness of potential, and an expertise in articulating the steps to reach that distant potential.
Merely for the experience, everyone should attempt to teach at least one subject, even if it is just to realize that a very different cliché about teaching is absolutely true—the teacher does in fact learn more than the student. Forcing yourself to articulate a tricky concept is certainly the best way to solidify that concept in your own mind. To be confronted with unusual and peculiar and fundamental questions about a subject—questions so basic that you couldn’t have predicted them—is one of the best ways to gauge your comprehension. And it is not an accident that there are so many techniques for learning that mimic the act of teaching, such as writing out lesson plans or attempting to explain a complex subject with straightforward language, because articulating how something is done is complementary but not equivalent to performing the act. You can excel at a game without being able to explain the rules, just like a child, but, once you are able to understand and explain those rules, you can be confident in your expertise.
Regardless of whether the subject is biology, computer science, art history, sink repair, or anything at all, the method of instruction will always be extrinsic to the subject. Instruction comes in language, with quality determined by the teacher’s proficiency in delivering the appropriate message at the appropriate time. A few great practitioners manage to grasp the additional skills required to teach—of language, in empathy—but it is worth remembering that these are additional skills, separable from the practice of a discipline.