Does older equal wiser?

Whether people see themselves as religious, spiritual or neither, many believe in natural talent – that some of us are born with certain gifts which we are then easily able to hone into a higher level of skill.  Some of those things are physical abilities, some are more academic.  It’s often regarded that, if you are an absolute expert on a certain topic, or that you have great ability in terms of a physical skill, then you are also able to easily pass these attributes on to others – that you will be a good teacher (I’m going to stick with the term “teacher” throughout this post for the sake of simplicity, but please recognise that I mean this in terms of coaching both academic, emotional and physical skills) as well.

The critical point that most people miss is that, in order to be able to impart knowledge (and/or skills), one must also be the master of two incredibly difficult additional skills: communication and relationship-building.  For me, these are the “X factor” of skills – you’ve either got it or you haven’t.  Of course, delivery is a teachable skill, but one which is distinctly different from communication.  One can be taught to enunciate, engage or entertain (to an extent).  But I don’t think that charisma and empathy are trainable.

So, which is more important: expertise or personal social skills?  My opinion is that it’s the latter.  Many of us are blessed with the ability to read – to study, to gain basic knowledge.  Fewer possess the gift of imparting it.  Anyone who has attended several schools throughout their life will have experienced a wide variety of teachers.  Which ones did you learn the most from: those who were book-smart, or those who had the power to tap into the learning style of each individual in the room, and ensure that they weren’t just able to regurgitate the information, but could understand it in their own terms?

Hopefully, that’s one issue explained (if I have communicated it accurately!) – my stance on the ability to teach.  The next element I want to discuss is progression and hierarchy.  Because, believe it or not, the two things are linked.

Something which frustrated me about many companies I have worked for is box-ticking.  Our society is built on our understanding of hierarchies, as they provide a natural chain of command: an army of people paddling away at the bottom, supporting the minorities who direct operations from the top.  We are taught, as juniors, that we too can make it to the lofty pinnacle, if we make our way up the pyramid, step by step, paying our dues at each level.

But what if that doesn’t suit us?  What if we get stuck, marooned on the side of the pyramid?  Do we abandon ship, jumping off in the belief that this particular pyramid isn’t for us?  Or do we paddle on, mistakenly believing that our debt of time will have been paid and our chance to advance will be given?  For me, this logic regarding upwards progression is flawed.  I don’t think people should make it to the top because they are good enough at every level, or because they can jump through hoops.  And the top isn’t for everyone.  We are all different.  Some people belong in the middle and are content there.  However some people belong at the top, but can’t get there because they are stuck in the middle.  But convention dictates that skipping levels is not allowed.  So what’s a person to do?

It’s time to marry my concepts.  Whilst I believe that the ability to communicate with and relate to all kinds of people is vital to one’s success as a teacher, I also believe that not everyone is suited to every level of a job.  For me, time spent doing an activity does not equal the ability to teach it at an advanced level.  Similarly, being at a junior level within a job does not mean that you are suited only to junior tasks – or, to return to the teaching-specific case, that your inexperience relative to others doesn’t mean that you are only suited to and should only practice your teaching on beginners.

Now I’m going to get personal, sticking my head above the parapet and preparing myself for cries of “that’s so arrogant!”, but it’s okay, I’m ready.  Because I also know I’m right.  Next month, I’ll have been riding for 23 years (I’m still getting used to being old enough to be able to say that).  I’m not an expert.  Although it is only ever a small percentage of people who experience an elite level of their chosen field (not to mention success within it), I still would not consider myself an expert.  I recognise that, despite my years of involvement, I still have an almost infinite amount to learn.  But I’m also not a beginner rider.  I am a beginner riding teacher.  I have taught many other things (some more successfully than others – texting will always elude my Grandma; remembering to charge her mobile phone will almost always escape my Mum, though we have seen improvements in her ability to purchase milk on command).  Does it follow that, because I am a novice teacher, I should be good at teaching beginners?

Actually, the more you think about it, the more absurd it seems.  I was four when I learned how to get on a pony.   At the same age, I learned to balance in the saddle, make a pony speed up and slow down, ask him to turn.  I have no idea about the language which was used, the way in which that was all explained.  I do those things unconsciously (I often say that I ride better than I walk), those actions are much like inhaling and exhaling to me – repetition has bred an inexplicable familiarity.  Fundamentally, I can also be pretty impatient.  So when a new student can’t read my mind and know that, by standing on a horse’s off side, holding the reins and the stirrup and raising an eyebrow, I am waiting for them to put their left foot in the stirrup and swing gently into the saddle, I can get a little short.

I’m possibly being a little hard on myself.  With a bit of thought, I’m perfectly capable of talking someone through the basics.  What I’m not so hot at is explaining it repeatedly until it sinks in for each person.  Because I know it already.  Why am I having to tell them over and over again?  Why have they not absorbed that information (oh.  Maybe I didn’t use the right words…)?

What I’m getting at is: does the above make me a useless teacher for all students of riding?  I know that the answer is “no”.  Because last summer, I taught somewhere between 80 and 100 kids of varying abilities and skill levels.  Some of them improved, some of them didn’t.  The kids, horses and I will not have been the only three variables in that circumstance.  But we’re a good percentage of it.  The fact that I saw some improvement means that I know I can do it.

Here’s the rest of what I know: I’m good at explaining complex concepts.  I’m strong where my students are engaged and enthusiastic.  I like to receive detailed feedback (which probably means that I like to teach good communicators – or those whose delivery I am able to coach).

I know I’m not alone in preferring to teach the more exciting stuff, things which involve more than the basics of steering, speeding up and slowing down.  That said, if someone’s excited by simply being able to make a horse step forwards, and I get them to that point, that can be highly satisfying for me.  But generally, why play to your weaknesses for the sake of “fairness” amongst a team?  What’s wrong with setting yourself up for success and satisfaction?

Admitting that you’re not the best person for the job – yet, given that the person asking for your help may one day be ready for it – and pointing someone in the direction of another person who is able to help them, is often the best thing to do for yourself and the student.  You will stay sane, they will stay enthusiastic, the world will be a happier place.

This is far from the only area in life where society gets it wrong, but it’s one which I have identified already and hope to continue to challenge.  If I refuse to teach you, it’s not because you can’t do it, or because I don’t want you to do it.  It’s because we can’t do it…yet.  You can do it with someone else’s help.  And when you and I are ready for each other, it’ll be brilliant.

Over to you – do you agree with my assessments of teachers, hierarchies or the link between the two?  What works best in your experience?

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One thought on “Does older equal wiser?

  1. My thoughts. . . well, there are some instructors who are highly skilled/intelligent in their area of expertise, but they might not be effective communicators. For example, in swing dancing, I’ve had lessons with world-class dancers/instructors who are AMAZING to watch dance, but very ineffective using language to explain how to dance. Just because he/she can demonstrate how to do a move, doesn’t mean he/she can teach me how to do the same.

    Also, there are some people in the educational world who believe that newer learners are better teachers. The theory is that someone who has freshly acquired a new skill (how to solve a certain type of math problem, for example) will be able to better explain to a learner how to do the same thing, as opposed to a seasoned instructor who might take for granted the complexity or not be able to make the steps easy to understand.

    There is a very cool group of high school students near San Francisco (I think) who’ve started a tutorial website where students get to teach other students. Club Academia. Check them out. http://clubacademia.org/
    For this reason, in my classroom I enjoy having my 7th graders “become experts” on a subject and then teach their classmates. Mostly recently they did this with a “Teach Africa” presentation where they taught each other about Songhai and Ghana. By the way, kids pay closer attention to their peers teaching them than they do to me.
    One last thought, I remember from my teacher training in grad school: one of the most important factors in getting students to want to learn is for them to feel like the teacher likes him or her. Our band teacher has over 300 students and he stands outside his door for every class period and says the name of each child as he or she enters. Kids in the music program love going to that class and they perform very well. Our orchestra concerts (of 11-13 year olds) sound almost professional.

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