Teaching and Managing – it’s not about the data, stupid!

The other day if found via the interesting “Seth’s blog” this talk by Eric Mazur about how a teacher found out he sucked at teaching – and how he approached the problem.

See below for download links1.

I find this very inspiring on so many levels. First of all about how he approaches the issue. To search hard data on such vague topic like teaching is not obvious tough, but worth the effort.

Also the huge difference between information vs. understanding is stunning. We commonly equal them (“knows a lot” equals smart) – but they seem nearly unrelated principles. Something I never really noticed research about – I’ll come back to that on later posts.

But when he was describing the symptoms of bad teachings though, it got me flashbacks to another situation: Company meetings. The similarities are stunning. Especially the sentence that just as from the teacher also came always from our bosses “do you have any questions?”. With the same reaction… silence.
And equally despite that, the information that management wanted to transfer did often not get through. After a while the bosses would demand that the employees take notes. Which did not help at all.
That would frustrate both sides. With the management rolling their eyes about the stupidity of the employees. “If they didn’t get it, why didn’t they ask?”.
I never felt that was fair – but I had no answers either. This video explains a lot: Teaching just as business meetings are about transfer of understanding. And: If it doesn’t click its usually the teachers fault, not the students one. So yeah, your employees are usually not idiots.

The “bad version” of teaching was prepared by hiding information until the class started. The teacher did that intuitively so he actually has something to say. He then just reads through it – while speaking among the students was a nuisance. And then he asks “any questions?”.

Before company meetings any news or updates were kept internal to management, until it was shared in the session. Intuitively so, because when spreading the information beforehand it would be a wasted meeting, right? The employees have to stay silent and wait for the “any questions?” closure.

In both cases the data might have transfered, the understanding did not.

And just as the problem is the same – so is in my opinion the solution: Make the information early and easily accessible. It is not about the data! It’s about the understanding!
Secondly – allow the employees to talk to each other. This is in this case even feared by management. A misconception – but it highlights one difference: Especially in these American schools the pupils are the client – they pay, and they can demand good lectures. In a business the management pays – they demand effective work. And if the employees handle their stuff among themselves, the management feels obsolete.
A total misconception – but a common one. I’m talking about several game companies I’ve worked at – it is a familiar theme. I would be curious if other people have the same or different experiences.

The good thing is that more and more modern companies actually start to understand that this thinking is outdated. The bad news is: many didn’t get it yet. And the underlying undemocratic nature of businesses will make it hard to change the roots of the problem.

It also shows something managers, just as the teachers, often are not aware of: they are to a degree in another world – with another perspective. Peers are much more able to understand each others situation. That could scare you – but you could as well use it to your advantage.

  1. In case this video is removed (like sadly many of Mazur’s other lectures), here is a small download link (186 MB) , and a bigger one (343 MB) ↩︎