Share |

Steven Pinker on Teaching

A must read piece for all teachers and students. Apart from the small excerpt there is a weblink there as well.

Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, on what makes a great teacher (from

Q: You have won several teaching awards during your career. What makes a great teacher?

A: Foremost is passion for the subject matter. Studies of teaching effectiveness all show that enthusiasm is a major contributor. Also important is an ability to overcome professional narcissism, namely a focus on the methods, buzzwords, and cliques of your academic specialty, rather than a focus on the subject matter, the actual content. I don’t think of what I’m teaching my students as “psychology.” I think of it as teaching them “how the mind works.” They’re not the same thing. Psychology is an academic guild, and I could certainly spend a lot of time talking about schools of psychology, the history of psychology, methods in psychology, theories in psychology, and so on. But that would be about my clique, how my buddies and I spend our days, how I earn my paycheck, what peer group I want to impress. What students are interested in is not an academic field but a set of phenomena in the world — in this case the workings of the human mind. Sometimes academics seem not to appreciate the difference.


A third ingredient of good teaching is overcoming “the curse of knowledge”: the inability to know what it’s like not to know something that you do know. That is a lifelong challenge. It’s a challenge in writing, and it’s a challenge in teaching, which is why I see a lot of synergy between the two. Often an idea in one of my books will have originated from the classroom, or vice versa, because the audience is the same: smart people who are intellectually curious enough to have bought the book or signed up for the course but who are just not as knowledgeable about a particular topic as I am. The obvious solution is to “imagine the reader over your shoulder” or “to put yourself in your students’ shoes.” That’s a good start, but it’s not enough, because the curse of knowledge prevents us from fully appreciating what it’s like to be a student or a reader. That’s why writers need editors: The editors force them to realize that what’s obvious to them isn’t obvious to everyone else. And it’s why teachers need feedback, either from seeing the version of your content that comes back at you in exams, or in conversations with students during office hours, or in discussion sessions. Another important solution is being prepared to revise. Most of the work of writing is in the revising. During the first pass of the writing process, it’s hard enough to come up with ideas that are worth sharing. To simultaneously concentrate on the form, on the felicity of expression, is too much for our thimble-sized minds to handle. You have to break it into two distinct stages: Come up with the ideas, and polish the prose. This may sound banal, but I find that it comes as a revelation to people who ask about my writing process. It’s why in my SLS 20 class, the assignment for the second term paper is to revise the first term paper. That’s my way to impress on students that the quality comes in the revision