Walking Your Talk: When Does an Instructor Need to DO the Thing They TEACH About?


Consider the following scenarios:

  • The English teacher who makes spelling mistakes when writing comments on student papers
  • The religious leader who is caught violating their own religion in a sex scandal
  • The NFL football coach who can’t play the linebacker position
  • The math teacher who uses a calculator to solve the manual arithmetic problems that they give to students
  • The author of a book on business ethics who plagiarizes content
  • The Olympic figure skating coach who has never qualified for the Olympics themselves
  • The psychologist who is bipolar

Sometimes we expect our instructors (teachers, coaches, mentors, leaders, etc.) to demonstrate mastery of the lessons they instruct.

Other times we don’t.

But what is the pattern?  When and where does the instructor’s credibility with the learner depend on their ability to perform the lesson themselves, at a reasonably high level of competency?  When do we want our teachers to be able to do the things they’re teaching us, at the same (or higher) level than they are asking of us?

Those Who Know, Do…

Certainly, there’s a big difference between knowing how to do something vs. knowing how to teach it. Even still, knowing how to do the thing you teach — and being able to doing well — seems to be more important in some cases, less so in others.

For example, most people are not disappointed when they notice that a professional sports coach lacks the physical (Psychomotor Domain) skills of the athletes they instruct — once you get into college-level or higher this is in fact the norm, the reverse being the exception.  Such a coach can hold the esteem of those who they instruct, even though the coach is a low-performing practitioner of the sport.

Conversely, many a religious adherent has been massively disappointed and turned off from a religious teacher (and even the whole system of thought they represented) when it emerges that the instructor was low-performing practitioners of what they preached (Affective Domain). Unfortunately, this too may be the norm, rather than the exception.

As for some of the other scenarios above, especially those in the Cognitive Domain— the English teacher, the math teacher — and even the psychologist (with their blend of Cognitive, Affective and various Verbal lessons)  — your view may differ depending on your own values related to those subjects and/or the particulars of the scenarios that you could imagine

What about a presentation skills trainer who makes poor eye contact?  How about the management consultant guru who can’t manage others well?  Or the motivational speaker who is depressed?

En casa de herrero, cuchillo de palo

I’ve been noodling over this one for a while, since, as a guy who instructs in the open-ended space of “soft skills” (mostly some variation on Communication and Personal Effectiveness), the idea of a perfect performance is elusive and in most cases, impossible. Sometimes I see it as an unforgiving high-stakes challenge and sometimes it’s the best part of my job.

Last September, I reached out to the Hive Mind, aka the Facebook Peanut Gallery, and put this question to my friends:

Dan Spira wants to know: When do you think it’s okay for a teacher/coach to NOT demonstrate mastery in the area being learned? (“not walking the talk”)

..or if you think the exceptions outnumber the “rule,” then flip the question: When do you think it IS required?

I was surprised by the overall response which seemed to indicate that “walking the talk” is seldom required by an instructor.  Yeah, it probably had to do with the way I axed the question, so I held onto the Peanut Gallery’s responses and noodled over it some more.

Let’s look at what they said  (to preserve the full peanuty flavor of the gallery, I’ve  left the comments unedited and have highlighted some key noodle strands in bold)

Elana: First, a question…Is “liking” your own post a ploy to draw reader attention and get them to click and comment? If so, brilliant…

Elana: Now, my answer…in a situation when the student has a fear of failing that is inhibiting their performance. In such a situation, the teacher demonstrating less than perfect performance can free the student to try, despite the fear of failure.

Dan: iPhone touchscreens are so sensitive… but then, instructors — like watercolor artists — must embrace and work with the “accidents” that happen…  🙂

Aliza: If they’re reasonably advanced, and are teaching beginners (esp. young children), it probably wouldn’t matter.  And, I suspect there are some people who have an “eye” for when people are doing something perfectly and can explain how to do something very well, but just don’t have the skills to do themselves at a really high level— but can guide and motivate others to surpass them.

Gil: I remember a class in college about the physics of bomb making…  (you said “demonstrate” mastery).

Dan: Y’all have touched on three key elements to consider:  Who is the instructor, who is the learner, and what is the subject.  Also interesting to consider which are the situations which require the instructor to be a role model, and to what extent. Spiritual guides? Personal (fitness + diet) trainers?

Aliza: I suspect you don’t need to be a world-class athlete to coach, even at the high level, if you’re an expert coach. Then again, I did attend a really good professional development course taught by a former olympic figure skater (silver medalist, no less). I would say there’s another element to consider: how you define “mastery”? To teach engineering at University of NothingImportant would likely require a different skill level than at MIT or Waterloo or professional development at Google/Boeing/Apple…. for that, you probably do need to function at that high level. PS I know a couple of engineers who’d LOVE a “physics of bomb making” course. And one of them lives in a rural area. In fact, I think I have heard of tales of things he’s done along those lines… e.g. the “how fast can you light a BBQ” challenge

Gil: I guess those who teach about life after death should not have too much mastery either?

Avi: ‎@ Elana – once again, I know why I married you (your first post, more so). @ Dan – you know that you can “unlike” to undue you “accidental” “like”.  Therefore, I call bs on your “iphone touchscreen malfunction”

Gil: My father told me when he taking a class in ethics in college his professor said: “I am a professor of ethics.  Down the hall is a professor of electrical engineering. I do not expect him to be a conductor of electricity.  Do not expect the same from me.”

Dan: ‎@Avi — if I unliked then I wouldn’t be embracing the accident…

Dan:  (@Gil) ‎”Do as I say… not as I do.”    It’s an academia thing.

Dan: (@Avi) Do as I like, not as I unlike…

Dan: ‎@Aliza — you touched on a big factor there: the cultural expectations of the learners. In my job, different clients have different needs as far as the age/personality/professional experience/pedigree of the trainer… and almost all of ’em become much more open to learning after we drop the names of the other clients we work with. My current belief on these questions is that IDEALLY all learners would take the Ben Zoma attitude of “learn from everyone,” so the instructor’s mastery SHOULD be irrelevant…  but reality dictates otherwise… especially in those lessons which involve the Affective Domain (attitudes, values) it’s hard to inspire people if you aren’t inspired yourself.

Dan: Qualification: By “inspire” I don’t mean being inspired by the Cognitive domain, ie. inspired by a person’s subject knowledge, intellect or analytical ability.  The university professor who teaches Ethics as a subject is working primarily in the Cognitive domain.  (Mind you, most lessons have an Affective domain component, whether by design or not. In the above example, the Affective message may have been about the value of being non-judgmental and pragmatic.)

Dan: (That is an awesome quote from the prof, btw… am totally stealing it without attribution)

In addition to the above-mentioned factors, perhaps part of the understanding the pattern is the extent to which we expect that the instructor try to practice that which they teach to the best of their ability, within reason?

We expect that the teacher of a moral virtue (kindness, patience, modesty, charity, ethics etc.) try to express that virtue within the means/constraints that they personally have…  but we don’t expect that the football coach try to develop, say, their ability to run a blitz against a 300-pound defensive lineman. In a similar vein, we may feel unforgiving to an English teacher who is sloppy with their spelling when writing comments to students… after all, there is an Affective message about being careful and diligent in the lesson that they teach, and we may believe it’s reasonable for them to exercise such care and diligence when writing comments in the instructional setting.

In the psychotherapeutic domain the question about what we expect from our “instructor” gets very complicated: On the one hand, we’d be glad to know that our therapist has suffered (or continues to suffer) through some of the challenges we ourselves face… but on the other hand, we’re looking to them for guidance and we may not like to find out that they themselves are lost in the woods. Does a “failure to master the lesson” in this case serve as a qualifier or a disqualifier, from our point of view?

I’m circling back to some of the Peanut Gallery comments, above.  Perhaps it does mostly depend on the who the learner is and what their cultural expectations are.

One person I talked to about this subject took the idea of learner expectation and reversed it: It’s about the instructor’s conceit, i.e., whether or not they represent that they’re a more competent practitioner than they actually are.   This distinction sheds light on some of the more ambiguous examples above.  We’re more forgiving if the instructor says “don’t expect me to be perfect.”  However, if the instructor puts on airs, acts with arrogance, and/or behaves in a highly judgmental manner to us learners, then they run the risk of losing their credibility with us the moment they slip up.

Fat Doctors Don’t Fit

Finally, as an instructor, being good at the thing that you teach may give you the confidence and insight to be able to teach it well… particularly in those lessons that require persistence and dedication on the part of the learner.

A recent study showed that overweight doctors are less likely to give patients advice around diet and exercise.  Apparently, if you don’t think you’d make a good role model, you don’t make a good role model.

So we’re back to square one, now?

If we want to instruct others to improve their performance, we need to teach and lead as good role models of that performance…

..as good, unpretentious role models…

..role models who don’t overstate (and possibly downplay) just how awesome they are at what they do…

..and who are passionate about improving every day.

Yeah, I’d like to have a coach and mentor like that.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on February 15, 2012, in Instructional Design, Learning, Management, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Post-script / Recap: Three additional thoughts on factors that can cause learners to focus on whether the instructor makes any “mistakes,” rather than on their own learning.

    1) Conveying Confidence
    2) Judging
    3) Demonstrating

    Conveying confidence is that fine between overselling and underselling our abilitiy… ie, not being too down on ourselves and also not building a brittle facade of bluster… learners can smell insecurity. A self-conscious instructor will distract them from the experience they wanted and shift their focus onto the instructor’s ability. Hence the instructor’s best bet is to represent their own ability in a reasonably accurate manner — either slightly understated or overstated depending on the cultural norms and extroversion levels of the group.

    Judging is a powerful instructional strategy, but it can backfire. The instructor’s positional power relative to the learner causes the learner to consciously or unconsciously want a favorable judgement from the instructor. The instructor can therefore use signals (eye contact, body language, words, praise, prizes, punishments) to signal their approval/disapproval. The more an instructor does this, however, the more likely the learner will start focusing on the instructor’s own performance. It’s called reciprocity, baby.

    Demonstrating how to do something is a great way to teach it. If this instructional strategy is used, the instructor needs to be a fluid performer.

    In summary, the attitude of the instructor (confident) and the instructional strategies they use (judging and demonstrating) are additional factors that may determine how competent the instructor needs to be in the activity, in order to teach it while maintaining credibility with the learner.

  1. Pingback: Unhappy Truths: Giving Advice Hurts Everyone | Meme Menagerie

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