What criteria do you use to determine if somebody is faking their skills as a teacher?

You can’t rely on awards or certifications. Sure, these things can help. But they’re not completely accurate. When you ask a question, how do you know that you’re getting the very best answer? And when somebody explains how to do something, how do you know if the explanation is good?

There’s two aspects of this.

The first thing to consider is if an instructor knows the material directly. Has the instructor done this sort of work before? Experience plays a big part but you also need to consider the quality of the experience.

I see this all the time on resumes where a person will claim maybe ten years of experience. Is that ten years of continuous improvement and skill development? Or is it one year that’s been repeated ten times. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing bad about becoming the best, most highly qualified person in a narrow range of skills. Bruce Lee once said that he had no fear for somebody who practiced ten thousand kicks once. But that he feared the person who had practiced one kick ten thousand times. In this case, doing the same thing over and over actually makes a person better. But what people sometimes put on their resume is when they’ve been coasting for the last nine years and stopped improving a long time ago. That’s when one year of experience repeated ten times stops being a good thing.

The next thing to consider is the teaching skills of an instructor. Just because a person knows something doesn’t mean that person knows it well enough to teach it to you. It’s said that one of the best ways to learn something is to try teaching it. I face this problem all the time because I taught myself how to program, I never went through a traditional computer science curriculum. There’s a lot of details that I’ve managed to avoid over the years with no problems. Anytime I needed that detail when working on a project, I would look up the information as needed. Teaching requires more preparation. Especially when trying to anticipate questions. That’s when the learning really begins.

Listen to the full episode for an example that demonstrates what I think is the best way to judge a person’s teaching skills. You can also read the full transcript below.

Transcript

You can’t rely on awards or certifications. Sure, these things can help. But they’re not completely accurate. When you ask a question, how do you know that you’re getting the very best answer? And when somebody explains how to do something, how do you know if the explanation is good?

There’s two aspects of this. The first thing to consider is if an instructor knows the material directly. Has the instructor done this sort of work before? Experience plays a big part but you also need to consider the quality of the experience.

I see this all the time on resumes where a person will claim maybe ten years of experience. Is that 10 years of continuous improvement and skill development? Or is it 1 year that’s been repeated 10 times. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing bad about becoming the best, most highly qualified person in a narrow range of skills.

Bruce Lee once said that he had no fear for somebody who practiced 10 thousand kicks once. But that he feared the person who had practiced 1 kick 10 thousand times. In this case, doing the same thing over and over actually makes a person better. But what people sometimes put on their resume is when they’ve been coasting for the last nine years and stopped improving a long time ago. That’s when 1 year of experience repeated ten times stops being a good thing.

Somebody who has no clue what they’re doing will not make a good teacher. Even if that person has the best curriculum and the best certifications. Because the moment you have a question that falls outside the material, the instructor won’t understand. The instructor also won’t be able to tell you stories and won’t be able to relate concepts together. You can look for these as a sign that an instructor really does know the material.

The next thing to consider is the teaching skills of an instructor. Just because a person knows something doesn’t mean that person knows it well enough to teach it to you.

It’s said that one of the best ways to learn something is to try teaching it.

I face this problem all the time because I taught myself how to program, I never went through a traditional computer science curriculum. There’s a lot of details that I’ve managed to avoid over the years with no problems. Anytime I needed that detail when working on a project, I would look up the information as needed. Teaching requires more preparation. Especially when trying to anticipate questions. That’s when the learning really begins.

Beyond just the personal knowledge of the instructor, how well does the instructor listen to your questions? How well does the instructor judge the overall understanding within a class to know when to speed up and when to try another example? We don’t always hit home runs with our examples. This doesn’t apply as much to recorded sessions. But you can still listen to the flow. Are there places where the instructor goes into extra detail? Or does the instructor charge along without looking back.

For a recorded lesson, how well does the instructor anticipate your questions? Do you finish with a sense of completion or do you have more questions than when you began?

I mentioned stories earlier and want to relate something that I read recently as a way to demonstrate what I think is the best way to judge an instructor’s skill.

Some instructors will make things overly complicated. Maybe it helps hide their own ability or maybe they just didn’t organize their thoughts very well. Some things really are complicated. There’s no way to avoid it. But it shouldn’t be more complicated and at the same time, it shouldn’t be over simplified either. Too simple, and you’ll have more questions later when you start thinking about the details. Too complicated, and you’ll get lost and maybe give up.

Look for explanations that make sense, that you can understand with examples, and that don’t add extra details that don’t belong.

There was a question on a popular forum asking about pointers that I read recently. The number one answer came from a university professor currently working for a tech company. Good credentials. I was looking forward to reading the answer.

It started off well but mentioned that if you go further with pointers, you’ll sometimes find another pointer called next. I found the shift unexpected and the only explanation for why, said this was a linked list. It’s good to avoid side tangents but I don’t think it helps to skip over major topics.

Ignoring that for a moment, the answer then took another unexpected turn when the professor said that sometimes there would be a next pointer as well as a previous pointer. Okay, that’s true, but the real problem that I noticed was when the professor claimed that you don’t need to remember two pointers. That you can get the same results by remembering just one pointer, either previous or next. All you have to do is exclusive-or the two pointers and then remember a single pointer and the result of the exclusive-or operation.

This is adding extra complexity for no good reason. Let me explain it like this. Let’s say that you need to remember two numbers from zero to ten. Pick any two numbers in that range. Now what if I told you that you can remember both numbers by just remembering one of them? All you have to do is remember one of the numbers and then subtract your other number from the first and remember this result instead. You still have to remember your first number and the result of the subtraction.

Does this seem like a good thing to do? What do you gain from doing this? These are the types of questions you can ask yourself when listening to or reading an answer.

In this case, sure, you only have to remember one pointer but you also have to remember another number that might as well be a pointer. Only you can’t use it directly. You first have to reverse the exclusive-or operation. Just like when trying to get back your second number you have to do another subtraction. It would be a lot easier to just remember the two numbers directly. Just like it’s a lot easier to just remember the two pointers directly.

The only thing the pointer explanation did was make the answer sound a lot more complicated than needed. Look for answers and designs that are as simple as possible that you really understand. That’s how you can tell if you have a good teacher.

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