Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Teachers Have to Know Their Subject

I've said it before and I'll say it again. The top three criteria for good teaching are: (1) accuracy, (2) accuracy, and (3) accuracy. Everything else is in fourth place or lower and that includes style. If what you're teaching is not accurate then nothing else matters.

It is hard to teach an introductory science course. You have to go back to basics and make sure that what you cover all the fundamental principles and concepts and that ain't easy. That's why the best teachers in introductory courses are often senior professors and lecturers with plenty of experience behind them. They have learned what's important and what's not and they can tell the difference between wheat and chaff.

PZ Myers puts it very well in a blog post defending teachers [Teaching is so easy, anyone can do it!].
One of the first things you learn when you start teaching is that you have to know the content inside and out — it’s simply not enough to know the bare minimum that you expect the students to master, because as a teacher, you need to push just a bit farther to get them up there. You need to be able to lead them to knowledge, and you need to be able to point off in the distance to all the cool stuff they can learn if they continue. How can you inspire if you’re not drinking deeply from the Pierian Spring yourself?
Keep this in mind next time we discuss teaching evolution and biochemistry. Teachers have to be experts and it takes a lot of work to make sure you know your content. If what you're teaching is not correct then you are not a good teacher no matter what the student evaluations say. And it's not only a question of accuracy—as PZ points out, you need to be more than a few steps ahead of your students in order to inspire them to do better.


16 comments :

  1. But where does "accuracy" begin and "opinion" disappear? Some topics, such as, say, "junk DNA," are deemed by some to be a matter of opinion. Others grow red in the face bewailing the lack of accuracy of others. Who is to decide?

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    1. I don't think there's much controversy about the difference between fact and opinion. You are right to say that junk DNA is still a legitimate scientific controversy, although the tide is turning against those who argue for function.

      In this case, the most "accurate" teaching is to present both sides. That doesn't prevent you from expressing your opinion in class.

      If you're worried about the accuracy of biochemistry teaching at Queen's, I'll be happy to sit in on your classes and make a decision. :-)

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  2. Well. on an issue like that state the facts, that approximately 10 % of the human genome has a known use or function and the rest doesn't, and that this is consistent with the concept of "junk DNA". Mention that there are vast regions of repetitive text in the human genome which has no known function nor has anyone been able to suggest a function, which is consistent with the hypothesis of "junk DNA". Mention the Onion Test. Mention all the species we know of with vastly different genome sizes yet comparable biochemistry and complexity. Mention all the pseudogenes within our genomes and presumably within the genomes of other organisms. This is all consistent with a hypothesis of "junk DNA". This is not opinion, it is all fact. Hedge your bets on this issue by allowing that it is likely some of the 90 % will be found to have function, but that it is not likely to be much as it is all intensely studied and has been for decades and any function in there would likely have shown up by now.

    On all subjects knowing the evidence and the ideas that explains it consistently or that in some cases, many, no ideas serve to explain a set of evidence consistently is not opiniion it is fact.

    I teach physics at high school so I know I need to be an expert in what I teach and why I think it is valuable. Why it is valuable is an opinion, but the facts and theories of physics are not, they are established and it is really only at the cutting edge that doubt exists and that waits for more evidence and more mathematical reasoning in order to be clarified.

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    1. i think i have a good argument of the evolution-id debate.

      a)we know that a self replicatwatch with dna need a designer because of its complexity
      b) a cat is more complex then this kind of watch

      a+b=the cat need a designer?

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  3. You're so right about the need to know the subjects well. And teaching certainly makes one learn! I think I learned more biochemistry when teaching introductory biology than I ever did getting my bachelors or masters' degree. (I finally learned more later.) Teaching caused me to learn lots of intricate things thought I knew and found out quickly I didn't know well enough. I was of some use to the students in my first few classes, but later students got a lot better teaching.

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  4. It's interesting that the very existence of an "education" degree is basically predicated on the OPPOSITE of what you and PZ are saying -- the idea that "a teacher" is someone who has learned "to teach", and that subject matter is largely interchangeable. (See, for example, Richard Mitchell's The Graves of Academe: http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/graves-of-academe/ ). This is akin to the idea that "business" is a separate subject, applicable to all businesses, and that someone with a "business" degree will be better at "business" (whatever that may mean) than anyone else.

    Meanwhile, anyone who lives in the real world knows that teachers who know their subject matter are vastly better than those that don't, and that MBA-holders tend to destroy the long-term stability of businesses by looking for short-term profits. It's a mad world, with mad people in it.

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  5. Of course teachers have to know their subject, but there is rather more to it that just that. Probably the worst taught class I've ever attended was taught by a Nobel Laureate who certainly knew the material backwards and forwards, but just wasn't very good expressing himself orally or organizing a good lecture. Teaching really *is* a skill that has to be learned either formally in education courses or simply from experience doing it.

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    1. I am not saying that knowing your subject is the only possible aspect of teaching that anyone should consider. What I'm saying is that it's way more important than style. I dare say you still got a lot out of your exposure to that Nobel Laureate but if your lecturer had been very good at expressing herself AND what she said was bullshit, you never would have known. That would have been worse, Students need to make an effort to get the most out of the brilliant minds they are sometimes exposed to. Education is a two-way street. Don't expect to be spoon fed in university.

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  6. You will note that PZ's post explains that in his first year of teaching, he sucked. Not because he didn't know the subject. Because he didn't know how to teach. You're arguing about whether the right leg or the left leg is more important in walking.

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    1. No I'm not. I'm arguing whether legs are better for walking or whether it's the style of sneakers you wear. Students often focus on whether the teacher is wearing the latest sneakers and not the path they are being led down.

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    2. Sure, I'll go with your metaphor. It turns out that PZ taught the first year with ugly sneakers, and though his legs were in great shape, it turns out that your sneaker style is indeed crucial. His example is a counterexample to your claim. You have to know the stuff AND you have to be able to teach. Absence of either makes you a poor teacher.

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    3. There are sixty professors in my department. Every single one of them gets a passing grade in ability to teach. Several of them would not get passing grades if we were to judge the content of their lectures but we don't do that. Being able to teach is routine for 99% of professors although, as we all know, being able to teach WELL is much more difficult. But the problem with university education these days is not so much HOW you teach but WHAT you teach.

      I never meant to say that accuracy and content were the ONLY criteria in good teaching, You are quibbling, as usual.

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    4. This isn't a quibble. You say what is more important than how. I say you can't gauge the relative importance of two essentials. You counter by pointing out that how is useless without what. And I counter in turn that what is useless without how. It seems simple to me: an effective teacher must both know his subject and be able to communicate it. Is this really at issue?

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    5. Of course it's not really an issue. So why did you make it an issue?

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    6. But Larry, you made it an issue by claiming that knowledge of the subject is much more important than teaching ability.

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  7. Anthony Sheldon is a high school teacher and not a university lecturer. The two tend to need a different ratio of a) knowledge and b) teaching skills. Of course in an ideal world both university and high school teachers will be equally good at both. But in reality a university teacher needs more of a), since university students are more mature and can understand more even if it is not very well presented plus they are already interested in your subject (otherwise they wont do that particular major). On the other hand high school teachers need a wider variety of techniques to get their students interested and always have to revise and adapt their methods (which is not to say that univ teachers dont benefit from these, but they need them less). Also, because they do not need a PhD to teach, by definition they do not have such a deep and specific knowledge of their subject.
    Having said that I too am appalled at the idea that subject knowledge is secondary to teachng skills for a high school teacher. Although I would not say that it is more important (which is the case for univ teachers). I would argue that both are equally important and a high school teacher should aspire to be good at both. In my country high school teachers need to have degrees in two subjects plus teacher training.
    Maybe an ideal univ and high school teacher should have a PhD both in his/her subject and in education. Although I suspect there are few of those.

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