those who can, teach.  those who can’t teach, just do.

I would like to do something strikingly unoriginal and take issue with George Bernhard Shaw.  Specifically, I would like to take issue with Shaw’s quote that ‘He who can, does.  He who cannot, teaches.’  To be fair, I have not gone back and researched the context of Shaw’s quote.  Perhaps he was being sarcastic and didn’t mean what we have all taken the quote to mean.  And it is a quote that many of us have extended, so for instance ‘Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.  Those who can’t teach, administrate.’ and so on and so forth.

As faithful readers will know, I think a lot about my teaching, both my teaching of mathematics and my teaching of aikido.  This includes not only teaching in the class room, but also such things as public lectures at the Cafe Scientifique and my attempts to explain bits and pieces of mathematics to friends and colleagues over coffee, not always successfully.

Great teaching is hard.   Inspiring and engaging people, particularly with difficult things, is hard, and many things are difficult the first time we encounter them.  And sometimes the second.  And sometimes the third.   Almost everyone has their story of the great teacher that inspired them, opened a window onto another world that they then assisted in the exploration thereof.  And almost everyone has their story of the bad teacher that shut that window and destroyed their interest in the topic.  As a teacher of mathematics, I have heard more stories of bad mathematics teachers than I can count.

But I don’t think teaching as such has to be hard.   Structuring the material, developing exercises to engage the students, creating the path for the students to take in engaging with the material and then working with the students as they walk that path, these are all things that anyone can learn.  Anyone can be a competent teacher.

But I do strongly feel that there is one thing that any competent teacher needs, whether or not they are a great teacher, and this is a sense of reflection.  This gets back to the main point of discussion in the language of mastery versus the understanding of the student.  As we as teachers explore topics and subjects in greater and greater depth, we increase the distance between ourselves and our students, who are new each year.  

There is also a major difference between being good at something and being good at teaching that something.   And in fact, the better we are at something, the harder it becomes to teach that thing.  This is something that I encounter when talking to people about mathematics.  There are things in mathematics that I don’t remember struggling with, and these are the ones that become difficult to explain.  That I sometimes find difficult to explain.  This is a reflection, I think, of the fact that I never had to pull them apart when I was learning them, and so I don’t know off hand how to pull them apart for someone else.

Or perhaps it’s just been long enough ago that I don’t remember that first pulling of things apart, and so I have to do that over again.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.  It is the things we know best that are the most difficult to teach. 

And so this is why I would like to recast Shaw’s quote.  I think it is easier to be good at something than it is to be good at teaching that something to others.  And so I think it’s those who can, who can do the teaching, whereas those who can’t teach, just do the things to do.  But beyond that, I think that it’s not entirely appropriate to refer to those who can’t teach, because I don’t feel there is anyone who can’t teach.  Yes, there are some who don’t teach well, but perhaps somewhat controversially, I think that someone saying they can’t teach is a choice they’re making.

~ by Jim Anderson on 2 April 2017.

2 Responses to “those who can, teach.  those who can’t teach, just do.”

  1. Isn’t there a third part to that? ‘Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.’ Or is that just from my husband’s college days? He loved teaching, so much that when National Curriculum came in, he bailed out. He said he signed up for child-cenred learning, not accountant-centred learning. His first boss (primary school) was a hard-bitten Liverpudlian who called the lesson plans the ‘weekly liar’ and said: have them as a backup, but if little Cedric came in with a butterfly, go with the butterfly because you could bend all your lessons to fit and get maths, writing, science and art with an added dose of enthusiasm.

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