He emphasizes that people who know a lot aren’t necessarily great teachers; to teach well you need a different type of knowledge, knowledge not just of complex ideas, but also of how to communicate those ideas. That’s commonly called pedagogical content knowledge and it’s old stuff to K-12 educators. Teachers spend a great deal of time thinking about how to communicate what they know to someone who knows much less.
Grant points out (rightly, I think) that some college instructors spend little time thinking about it. He cites data showing that those who know more about their content area are likely to be even worse in communicating what they know. This is commonly called the curse of knowledge; as your knowledge gets more and more advanced, it becomes harder and harder to remember what it’s like to be a novice; you can't take their perspective as well when teaching. For example, some experiments show that children more successfully learn from other children who are just kind of coping with a skill than from a child who has mastered it.
Grant proposes three principles by which college students might choose instructors:
- Following the curse of knowledge, he suggests taking courses from people who have more recently learned themselves, such as graduate students, rather than more experienced faculty.
- In addition, he suggests that people who had to work really hard to get to where they are will better understand the struggle of learning. (As opposed to someone with a natural talent for the field who picked it up easily.)
- Students should focus on how well someone communicates, not just on how well they know. (As measured, I guess, by their prominence in their field.)
I see real problems with this advice.
First, it predicts an inverse correlation between instructional quality and research productivity. Measures of both constructs are controversial, but when researchers have tried, the correlation is no different than zero (see here and here). Being a great (or indifferent) researcher predicts nothing about the quality of your teaching.
Second, picking instructors based on their inexperience ignores the fact that factors other than the curse of knowledge contribute to teaching effectiveness. Most instructors improve with experience as they gain feedback on their teaching. Grant seems to predict that instructors, on average, become less and less effective as they grow more distant from their initial training. We know that’s not true of K-12 educators, and for the same reason, I doubt it’s true for college instructors.
Third, two out of the three principles Grant suggests aren’t really practical for students. #1 rests on information that a student can’t access: how will a student know if an instructor worked hard to get where they are? And #3 sounds a lot like “pick a good teacher.”
I’ll try to do better. Here’s my advice.
- Attend a college where undergraduate education is the primary concern. If you get into MIT or Harvard, congratulations! But you should know that the criterion for being allowed to teach there is not excellence in teaching. Grant’s absolutely right about that.
What he doesn’t mention is that good teaching is the key criterion for employment at most colleges. You just haven’t heard of most of them because prestige comes from faculty scholarship and research dollars. Attend a small college and you’ll get more attention from faculty who care about and focus their energy on teaching.
There are trade-offs, however, notably in the opportunities for proactive, self-starting students. When I taught at Williams College, my Introduction to Cognitive Psychology class had about 25 students (at UVa I teach 350) and in my lab I mentored only undergraduates--I didn’t have to divide my attention with graduate students. Sounds great, but if you were a Williams student interested in cognitive psychology I was it. At UVa you can study cognition and education with me…or the epigenetics of cognition with Jess Connelly, or social aspects of cognition with Jamie Morris, or memory with Chad Dodson, or perception with Dennis Proffit, or cognition in the elderly with Tim Salthouse, or computational modelling, cognition and the brain with Per Sederberg or Nicole Long. (I have more good things to say about the undergraduate experience at UVa, but I'll save them for another time.)
- Students don’t take every college course for the same reason, or at least they shouldn’t. Grant points to “learning” as the reason to take courses, but students take some courses for the experience, and the possibility of kindling interest or even passion, like the senior engineer taking an art history course, or the psychology major taking an environmental science course. They don't care if they master this introductory content, or even if they remember details a year later, and I get that.
Student course evaluations don’t measure teaching quality very well, but they probably do measure how much people like the way the professor teaches. So when “fun and interest” are the right criteria, it makes sense to take a course that your peers have said is fun and interesting.
- For other courses, mastering content is essential, as when the second year psychology student takes their first course in statistics and methods. They will call on this content in future courses, so it must be mastered and the entertaining professor may or may not get them there. I think about the best one can do is to ask more senior students who have taken follow up courses whether they felt well prepared by the instructor.