the transmission of expertise

I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about many different aspects of teaching, and one that I’ve written about before at various times is the distance between the teacher and the student. This is the phenomenon that arises between a teacher, particularly a good reflective teacher, continuing to develop their expertise from session to session, from year to year, and the beginning student, who is always coming in at the same point of having a lack of knowledge of the subject.

The challenge here for the teacher is not only the expected challenges of their own professional development, for instance the good or best use of new and changing technology and keeping in touch with advances in their discipline, but also the recognition of this distance and the development of techniques for bridging this increasing distance.

So one very important question is, what are some techniques we can use to bridge this increasing distance. This question has a number of different aspects, and what I would like to explore here is the aspect of impersonal transmission of developed expertise.

What I mean by this is the transmission through books or other media where the teacher is not face to face with their students.

I have written one textbook so far in my days, and it was a rewarding but not easy task. Writing a textbook requires the author to digest the discipline area, decide what to include and what to leave out, but then to structure the material in a way where the reader has what they need in the book, without having the recourse of asking the teacher directly.

And it’s this last point that I think makes writing a textbook a particularly difficult way of transmitting expertise. One thing I know, just from the experience of having read through many textbooks, is that not all authors feel the same way as I do on this point, and as strongly as I hold this view, I don’t feel that it’s appropriate for me to impose my view upon others. Perhaps though I can try to persuade, and perhaps this is a first step along that road.

When I write, just from the experience of having read through many textbooks, I had in mind mathematics textbooks, but if I take a step back and take the wider view, this also applies to aikido and poker textbooks that I’ve read over the years.

Over the weekend, we did some cleaning out of the far corners of the loft, and one of the things I came across was a box of poker books. One interesting common feature of many of these books is that they are less, here is how to play poker, and more, here is how I play poker. A similar issue arises for aikido manuals; here the issue has the additional facet that aikido is fundamentally a physical discipline, and it’s not clear how valuable a printed textbook, as opposed to a video manual, can be.

This for me is an interesting point. My path through to hyperbolic geometry, for instance, is a very personal path. It is not a path that anyone else will walk, and I don’t think there would be any value in writing a textbook that follows my particular path to understanding hyperbolic geometry.

For me, one of the most valuable aspects of a textbook is not the author’s path through the subject. For me, the most valuable aspect of a textbook is to set down a single or set of fundamental principles, a framework or skeleton to provide for the reader, to give them some structure for learning the discipline.

And yes, I’m aware that textbooks are almost never written to be self contained, but rather are written to provide an experienced professional to use to use with a group of beginners or novices or others. But even here, given that experienced professional lead a skeleton or set of principles to use is in itself useful, and is the value that the author brings, rather than developing a handbook or compendium of what’s known about the discipline.

Having reread what I’ve written above, I can see that I’m struggling with some ideas that have been bouncing around inside my skull for a while. They have come out now, as we have reached the end of the teaching semester and the time has come to look back over the semester and reflect on what to keep and what to change come future semesters. I’m sure this is a topic I’ll come back to, especially if I decide to take on the possibility facing me of writing another textbook.

~ by Jim Anderson on 12 January 2020.

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