Bryan Caplan  

The Return of the Voice of Cold, Hard Truth to All Would-Be Educators

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More golden advice from Douglas Detterman:
[I]f you want people to learn something, teach it to them.  Don't teach them something else and expect them to figure out what you really want them to do.
From "The Case for the Prosecution: Transfer as Epiphenomenon" in Transfer on Trial.



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Jared writes:

Again, amen.

Ben writes:
It's this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.
- Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

At least intuitively, there seems to be something quite wrong with the Detterman quote. What do you do when there isn't a well-established procedure for completing the task you're trying to teach? You can teach existing economic theory very directly. But how do you teach someone to imagine new economic theory?

Secret Admirer writes:

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Floccina writes:

We have focused a lot of effort on teaching people more. The results have been little gain. Perhaps we should focus for a while on teaching more useful knowledge and skills.

drobviousso writes:

Ben - My reading of the quote is more like "Don't teach teenagers Latin and expect them to master logic. Teach them logic."

Daublin writes:

Ben, fair enough, but how do you teach those more intangible skills?

There seems to be a common misunderstanding about what Bryan and Detterman are getting at. They aren't saying to only teach extremely mechanical skills. They're saying to be explicit about what you are teaching, and then teach that directly.

There's a potent fantasy that many new teachers hold that their brand of teaching somehow transcends ordinary description as transferring a measurable skill. Those guys are really irritating to talk to. The worse they do, the more they think it shows their inner genius. They're *trying* to be confusing. See, it's a feature!

Ben writes:

I can imagine a teacher arguing as follows:

I'm trying to teach students to think creatively, among other things. As such, I will sometimes exclude key information from lectures and problem sets, thereby challenging students to use their imagination in addressing problems. I'm also going to throw a bunch of random factoids from other disciplines into lectures, as an attempt to joggle students minds and inspire them to be more creative. I'll also at times behave like a complete lunatic.

I think that Detterman and Caplan would call this a bad teaching philosophy, but I'm not persuaded to agree (though maybe I would be if I read Detterman's book). This teacher is attempting to directly teach creativity by indirectly teaching a subject matter. That seems entirely reasonable.

blink writes:

If he is right, where does it lead? It seems that nearly all content taught after elementary school is typically justified on instrumental grounds: "You may never need to conjugate Latin verbs, factor quadratic polynomials, or recall the dates and heroes from wars X, Y, and Z or books A, B, and C... but you should nevertheless learn these things for these other reasons..." Should we cease teaching all of these topics? Perhaps fundamentally rethinking curriculum is required, but we should at least be clear about where the argument leads.

Bryan Willman writes:

A possibly relevent observation from the world of software user interface design.

There are some people who understand particular things "deeply" - have some kind of mental model of what is going on, and/or can develop that model.

Other people have understandings of software systems (and one imagines other things) that are shallow. Meaning, the entity is a strict black box, and if the all the controls are not EXACTLY where expected and do not do EXACTLY what is expected, they are lost.

Probably all of us have shallow understandings of some things, since we all have finite minds.

What always amazed me is that for certain things, some people have *deliberate* shallow understandings. That is, they don't know how something works, and *they are hostile to learning about it*. So either make it route and simple or they will just ignore it.

What does that have to do with "transfer"?

It suggests that transfer can only work when the model and context people are trying to transfer is acceptable to the student. Student's who are for whatever reason uninterested in or hostile to formal logic will likely refuse to absorb it regardless of whether the class is in latin or formal logic or boolean algebra.

mike writes:

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