Teachers are responsible for multiple perspectives

If you’re not a teacher, and you need to figure out how to do something challenging—like lose weight, reach a high depth of meditation, or understand statistics—you only have to figure out how to do it for one person. (Yourself.)1

But if you’re a teacher, you need to figure out how different kinds of people can achieve your skill. This is challenging because of the variety in what people know, how they learn, what they like, what they fear, their habits and motivations, and so on.

Some teachers, of course, don’t do this. Many teachers teach only to their own preferences.

For some, they can still pull off being a great teacher. Maybe their perspective or method is so new, or so universally applicable, that it’s widely helpful. A funny example of this might be Marie Kondo—it turns out only owning shit you like was a novel idea for most of us.2

Other teachers who can get away with only teaching in their own mode have a style of thinking that either naturally addresses different perspectives, or they have a few other ingredients that broaden the palatability of their approach. One example I’m thinking of is a lecturer I had who presented with a subtle but compelling room presence, kind of a nerd gravitas. It naturally drew in the students.

But by default, teaching only to a teacher’s own perspective is risky. If it doesn’t align with a particular student, the teacher won’t be much help.

In school, this is a big bummer. If you get a professor for a class who just does not make sense to you, you have to suck it up and learn things the hard way. Though they hadn’t flourished back when I was in college, YouTube and Coursera and Kahn Academy are probably great for exactly this reason: getting different perspectives on your material.

Out in the real world, this manifests as many programs for weight loss, many meditation techniques, and many statistics textbooks. The messiness is actually a feature: as consumers, we have a variety of available teachers’ approaches to choose from. Of course, the difficulty is then, “how do I choose?”

It’s interesting to me that we don’t model this more explicitly in how people learn. Like, someone takes a detailed test to determine their learning style, and then they get matched with material that suits it. I remember hearing teachers refer to coarse learning styles (visual, kinesthetic, and linguistic?), and I recall hearing a bit about this from cognitive scientists. I wonder whether the literature here is super mature and we just haven’t adopted it, or if we still don’t understand people well enough to operationalize this?

At a minimum, learning your style seems worth doing personally.

A few addenda:

  • Potentially in tension with this idea is that a teacher must teach from their own experience, which is rooted in their own perspective.

  • For one-on-one teachers, I think this is why having someone who has worked with many people is valuable. They’ve—hopefully—figured out which aspects of their approach seem to hold universally, and which need to be broadened into a buffet of styles to adapt for different students.

  • I’ve had teachers that attempt to teach in multiple styles, but are actually so bad at the teaching thing itself, that it just gets in the way and makes the whole thing more awkward. At least right now, this seems like as much an art as a science.

  1. Figuring this out for the first time can be misleading. If you’ve tried several approaches, and then finally one works, you may think that method is the only on that’s not a dud. But in fact you just found a good alignment. (I have made this error.) 

  2. It might be embarrassing to admit, but I have read Marie Kondo’s OG book like four times. I think her work is genius. 

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started 26 Jun 2021
disclaimer This is an entry in the garage. It may change or disappear at any point.