“Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” Plato
Question: How well does an instructor need to know the material they are teaching?
Answer: An instructor needs to have a solid understanding of the key principles that govern the subject they are teaching.
Why: There are three reasons an instructor needs to have an excellent understanding of the principles underlying the content they are teaching.
Students learn best when the instructor conveys the content in his or her own words. This means the instructor should avoid (merely) reading the slides or course content to the students. Summarizing key teaching points into one’s own words and sharing that knowledge by communicating directly to the student is the best way to convey information. This requires practice, before teaching any new material.
When teaching from slides, I practice sufficiently to be able to summarize each slide in my own words. Then, when in front of students, I take a quick look at a given slide, and turn to look at the students, and share a summary of the slide in my own words. The value of being able to see students when you are teaching is explained in a later article.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Benjamin Franklin
Reading slides is a form of “telling.”
Students learn by asking questions, making mistakes, and contemplating principles. If the instructor has confusion on the subject matter being taught, they will not be able to address student questions or confusions in a meaningful way.
Students who are able to express and resolve confusions learn faster than students who keep their confusions to themselves. It is the role of a teacher to create a safe space where students can originate questions or express confusions without embarrassment. This allows a teacher to understand specific areas of confusion, relate it to the underlying principles, and communicate clearly to the student. If the instructor has any latent confusions, this process will be difficult.
Students need to be able to *think* with the subject they are learning. This means they should be conversant with the principles that govern the subject material, not merely memorize the content. It is well known that students learn in different ways. Good instructors know the principles sufficiently well they can share the wisdom in many different ways. Some learn better by seeing visual representations. Others learn by making mistakes and getting corrected. Still others learn by repetition. Effective teaching uses all of these ways and more. Being able to shift gears and use different ways to convey principles, requires a high level of knowledge of the teaching material.
Implementing this teaching principle
When starting out, I recommend co-teaching with a more experienced teacher, and request and listen to feedback from the other teacher, as well as students.
In addition, study and practice are essential ingredients in learning principles. Keep this in mind: There is no limit in how well you can learn the basics of any subject.
There are no shortcuts to achieving teaching excellence. In this first principle, anyone who wishes to be an excellent teacher should study and learn the material they are teaching from multiple sources, and be able to teach for the anticipated application.
In the next article, I’ll share why it is important for an instructor to maintain a connection with each student, and how to bring about a meaningful connection.