Why Experts Don’t Make Good Teachers.

Via Jeremy McCarthy
on Oct 23, 2012
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Beautiful fingers on the frets
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Fiona in Eden via Compfight

We naturally assume that those with the greatest amount of expertise would make the best teachers.

We hold this assumption across a variety of disciplines including guitar, language, sports, yoga, fitness, arts and almost any other domain you can think of.

It seems only natural for beginners to turn to experts for instruction because they make things look so effortless. A new book, Maximum Brainpower, by Shlomo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway, explains how experience and repetition leads to this kind of automatic expertise. Experience provides a historical database for the brain to draw from, allowing it to quickly find a response to any familiar situation without even entering into consciousness.

So while a beginner guitarist might feel the sweat bead up on his or her brow, using every ounce of mental attention possible to will his hand to contort into what seems like the most unnatural position possible, the virtuoso is hardly aware of his hand at all, while it lithely glides from one chord to the next as if on autopilot.

But Breznitz and Hemingway warn us that this same automaticity that allows the experts to perform great things so effortlessly might actually prevent them from being good teachers. The problem with experts is “they have no idea how they do what they do.”

I was thinking about this earlier this week when my friend Karen posted this on Facebook:

“Did yoga….the back went out again. Does this mean….yoga is hazardous to my health? Everyone always talks about how much help they get from it…but I get dizzy, fall over, turn red & boom!…..down for the count for days. Sounds sexy doesn’t it?”

Then in the comments she mentioned how this happens regularly when she tries to start yoga, and she was ashamed to admit this because her yoga friends on Facebook (like me) would see it.

But I told her not to feel any shame. The shame should be felt by the yoga instructor who had failed this new student. The reality is most yoga instructors have no clue how to teach a beginner.

Many of the yogis who read this will nod their head in agreement, thinking I am not talking about them, only those other yoga instructors that are truly clueless.

“I always take the time at the beginning of class to identify the beginners,” they will say.

“And I always advise them to go at their own pace or take Child’s Pose should any posture become too intense.”

But this message is for all the experts, the gurus, the maestros who know their craft so well as to have become (perhaps too) comfortable with their mastery. For it is you, oh thoughtful yogi, most rooted in your experience, who is most likely to fail your beginner students.

Advising a beginner to go at their own pace is not enough. They don’t know what their pace should be. They don’t know how much intensity they should experience, and a typical one-hour class is simply too much for the uninitiated to handle.

Unfortunately, most experts will not recognize the errors of their ways.  Breznitz and Hemingway say that the greatest challenge of expertise is that the easy answers become so readily available that they lose a certain amount of openness and creativity. They suggest a few ways to avoid this trap:

  1. Challenge your assumptions: Continually question where your expertise might be a crutch. As a teacher, where might you be losing touch with your beginners?
  2. Ask for outside perspective: Question people with less expertise to be sure you are seeing how things look from a different point of view.
  3. Hold your experience loosely: Learning is important. But so is the ability to “unlearn.” Breznitz and Hemingway say, “having experience is far less important than being able to abandon experience when circumstances require it.”

As another blogger said, “you’re a better teacher if you were (and perhaps are) completely baffled by the subject you’re supposed to be teaching.”

A new student becomes a regular student when they feel safe and they feel progress. The success of the teacher may have less to do with the expertise of the instructor, and more with their ability to let it go. Good teaching requires a beginner’s mind.

References and recommended reading:

Breznitz, S. & Hemingway, C. (2012). Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom.  Ballantine Books.

Suzuki, S. (1973). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Weatherhill.

by Jeremy McCarthy

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Editor: Brianna Bemel


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About Jeremy McCarthy

Jeremy McCarthy is the Director of Global Spa Operations and Development at Starwood Hotels and Resorts. He is a regular contributing author for several spa industry books and magazines, and hosts a blog at psychologyofwellbeing.com. He holds a master degree in Applied Positive Psychology from University of Pennsylvania and is applying positive psychology to the customer experience in spas and hospitality. He teaches a course in Positive Leadership for Spas and Hospitality for the UC Irvine Spa and Hospitality Management program.


10 Responses to “Why Experts Don’t Make Good Teachers.”

  1. @undefined says:

    Thanks for posting this. I will gladly take a look at the way I teach.

  2. Vision_Quest2 says:

    And to help bust apart the 10,000 hours myth, because you know you want to … http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/geniuses

    I realize this does not give me an excuse to slack off; but, rather, more incentive to go easy on myself, within limits – and not self-mortifyingly beat myself up for slip-ups or slack-offs …

    Which is hard to do in what is (in its more mainstream tradition-based manifestations) a self-mortifying art like yoga …

  3. bflatbrad says:

    Great article !

  4. michelle says:

    i really enjoyed that, thanks 😉

  5. greateacher says:

    I do nto think that because a person is an expert at something he/she will be a good teacher. I am confounded by your generalized assertion," we naturally assume..". I dont think all we's naturally think so. i am an educator. I know that some experts are great teachers and some simply ar enot. I am nto the only educator with this knowledge.

    Sorry, but I also take issue with " the reality is that most yoga teachers dont have a clue how to teach to a beginner". Again a broadly painted generalization. Many yoga teachers do know how to teach beginners. Students who ar enew have responsibility to research, pick beginning classes and talk to their instructors. I am nto so sur ethe shame belongs to the yoga teacher.. none of us knows what or how your FB friend hurt her back. Did she talk to the teacher, modify when given instruction or even!! take a rest when feeling over taxed ? Responsibility lies in both camps and hearts.

  6. […] are mixing esoteric, Ayurvedic and Sanskrit yogic terms with western scientific terminology and they do not really have the slightest clue what they are talking about. I am lucky that I have really good teachers both in the West and in the East and I have also been […]

  7. Heather says:

    Definitely right about that…re: everyone has to take responsibility for their own actions. Often (not only beginners) students really want to do more than they are capable. As a teacher it is a tough call to hold someone back a bit or rather advise that they are better off staying within their current capacity. I am convinced 80 per cent of injuries in yoga are due to the aggression of the student. And because many teachers may wish to please their students they find it difficult to simply say "no".

    As for assuming that most teachers don't know how to approach beginners. It is a bit general, but there is some value in that statement. An important pt. missed here is that teaching beginner's is a real gem. I mean, how lovely to really teach someone not spoiled by all the yoga stuff going on today, not spoiled by expectation or ambition. A true beginner is like a fresh plate….open, easy to be with, no attitude, etc….I have felt the more challenging students to teach were those with tons of experiences, many understandings of yoga, learning from all kinds of teachers. I say this because there is such a strong tendency to compare (which gets in the way of learning).

    Perhaps a more fitting statement could be, 'Most teachers don't know how teach advanced students or seasoned practitioners".

  8. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Intermediates who are exceptionally flexible for their strength and concentration/"body awareness" levels and or general common sense, are probably the most difficult to teach.

    I say that not as a teacher, but as a disaffected student who practices yoga only at home. But I have had almost my share of classes in current commercialized yoga culture.

    Won't quite say it stinks on ice, but the attitude of the teachers – the pushing part, the bullying part, most of the time came first. Because I am not an overambitious student.

    I was/am that advanced beginner student in their intermediate and so-called "All Levels" class.

    I have, at times, done heavy research on asana on the internet ON MY OWN. I also have "virtually compared notes" with others on Yelp (which, as you know, is the closest thing commercialized yoga has to Consumer Reports).
    Even with (somewhat widely employed) level deflation, so as to attract more advanced students, and to generate the antithesis of aparigrapha in anybody else (remember commercialized yoga is part of consumer culture), I was in classes too strong for frequent attendance – even at the so-called "Level 1". But I was hoping for osmotic learning, which I did get and have been grateful for.

    Glad to be out of the "rat race" of commercialized yoga.

  9. greateacher says:

    Well, instead of making a mis-statement.. then the writer could say.. the point missed.. a good beginner teacher is a real gem.. and expand on that.

    I am unclear on your last staement.. it does nto make grammatical sense.

  10. […] Why Experts Don’t Make Good Teachers. […]