Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Ask HN: What do you think makes a good teacher?
19 points by grosales on Aug 14, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments
I just want to know what your opinions on this topic is. I have often heard that many hackers are good teachers so I believe that a good teacher should be passionate about his/her subject.

I'm a student, and most of the teachers I deal with at college are horrible. I won't go into things like passion and knowledge, just plain hard facts about what I want in most teachers.

1. Don't tell. Anyone can stand in front of a class and tell students stuff they don't know. A good teacher will always start with a problem, encourage students to suggest their own solutions and then proceed to tell the class the actual solution. Most good teachers I have encountered use a variation of this method to teach. It not only works well, it gives students a sense of accomplishment.

2. Let students come to their own conclusions about the subject material before you correct them. College students are not stupid. I've seen that the worst teacher will always tell students to "slow down for a moment" just so he can meticulously read through his shrink-wrapped bullet points. Boredom ensues.

3. Ask. Ask many questions. Heck, teach entire chapters as a series of questions.

EDIT: spelling, grammar, lameness.

It depends entirely on how many people you're teaching. If you're sitting in a lecture hall full of 250 students, asking continual questions is just not going to get any response. No-one wants to embarass themselves in front of an audience that large. You'll just slow down the lecture while you pause and listen to a stony 10 second silence every couple of minutes. I've had lecturers do this, and it's extremely frustrating.

Personally, I don't mind lecturers "telling" the answers straight away. Obviously give motivation and lead into it rather than just delivering it with no introduction, but I've found a lot of problems are simply too large or too non-obvious to take a straw poll from the class.

The best teachers I've had have been:

(i) Really bloody good at their subject. My probability lecturer (the Field's medallist Tim Gowers), when presenting the proof of Stirling's approximation, said something along the lines of "now, the normal method for proving this bit is a bit complicated, and on my cycle in this morning I thought 'There must be an easier way', when the following struck me. Now, I've never written this down before, so hopefully it works...", and of course laid out a simplification of a famous proof that worked perfectly. Inspirational. (See http://gowers.wordpress.com/2008/02/01/removing-the-magic-fr...)

(ii) Incredible elucidators. The ability to take a complex concept and pick exactly the right words or metaphors to explain it is a powerful ability.

I feel these criteria are far more important than asking the audience questions. You need both -- I've been taught by plenty of talented mathematicians who had no idea how to teach, and certainly a handful of great teachers who simply didn't have the aptitude to really grasp the more complex topics.

Agree. Asking questions in a class of 250 students is counter productive. But, here in India, it's against regulations in many colleges to have classes larger than 60 students. So, perspective :)

taught 300 students in Kabul, Afghanistan at one go (English Class) - what we did was we had PowerPoint, we had a microphone (connected to a mixer and JBL speakers) - and everyone had a sheet so they can follow the lessons, even had think-pair-share (using the PowerPoint as prompts) - had 5 of these classes going at the same time in Kabul University and 1 at the Kabul Polytechnic simultaneously. So you could ask 300 students all at the same time if you set it up properly :)

Judah Schwartz, my physics professor at MIT, used to end each lecture by saying "Comments? Questions? Puzzles?"

Usually there would be dead silence from the class.

And then he would say "I don't believe you." And he waited for someone to ask a question.

As an IT educator and professional for 10+ years, this is actually right up my alley. I've developed both courses for students of IT and music as well as several "Train the Trainer" courses.

One thing I will do is to address the term "good teacher". A good teacher is very different from a "great teacher." I'll simply address good teachers in my post.

I do chuckle a bit when I read the replies that say, "This - you have to do this to be a good teacher." It's all so subjective. I've seen good teachers who were not great enthusiasts, good teachers who didn't give a #### about their students, and good teachers who lived and breathed the technology, loved their students, and were good people.

In my opinion being a good teacher requires wanting to be a good teacher, practicing the techniques of educating the age group you are teaching (there are massive differences in teaching each age group), and knowing the topic at hand.

If you actually care about the people you are educating, that is bonus but there are plenty of good teachers who, at the end of the day, couldn't care less about this group of students or whether they "get it". To give you an example, some of the great teachers know that they are great teachers and know that simply taking a class with them is an honor and they take the attitude, "If you're taking my class and you don't get it, then something is wrong with you - not my fault. <hundreds/thousands> have taken this class and gotten tons out of it and if you don't, too bad."

Just because you are an enthusiast means nothing - I've seen good teachers who barely know the topic. What they are good at, though, is simplifying complex topics and helping students understand the topics. The good teacher does not have to be a guru (and for many people, the more they know, the less of a good teacher they become because they lose the ability to make it understandable for the student).

As for passion, passion makes it easier for the student, sure, but it isn't a requirement to be a good teacher. I've seen lots of good teachers who learn a subject just so they can keep a job. They don't give a ### about that subject but, because they want to be good teachers and they work hard at it, they are good at teaching that topic. Would it be better if they were passionate about it? Absolutely.

All in all, I think it's a combination of several things to be a good teacher but passion and guru-ness aren't in that set. I think the want to be a good teacher is paramount and, along with that want, is a work ethic that drives you to become and remain a good teacher. Anything above and beyond that only makes you better.

A good teacher provides the circumstances for students to teach themselves, and guides them in the right direction when they need it. I know I learn much better when I figure something out for myself than when someone just tells it to me straight.

The Socratic method was a good idea.

Being able to relate with the student.

For instance after I learn a language and am trying to teach someone else the language I just can't see why the person is having trouble learning a certain concept of the language. It all seems so simple to me since I've already learned this language and it's hard for me to be able to empathize with the learner.

This is the key in my opinion. Just to elaborate a bit: you can think of knowledge as a mental structure. The good/great teachers are able to empathize with the students position of not having any of that knowledge, and can effectively build up the entire structure to make what they learned meaningful. The poor teachers just teach the final layer and wonder why people aren't getting it.

Couldn't agree more. Great teachers, at least in my opinion, easily recognize all the common pitfalls where people get stuck and help them accordingly.

I like a teacher that understands a huge amount about the subject and has enough control of the subject matter that they can tie in other material.

The teachers I learned the most from knew so much about the subject that they could explain things very simply. An example being in high school calculus - the teacher had a masters in pure math and was able to explain things in such a way that made everything seem simple.

Recently I started watching http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/hs/geb/VideoLectures/ after seeing it linked here on HN. During the first lecture the instructor takes several tangents, and those tangents help clarify the subject matter to such an extent that I would say that is what makes him a good teacher.

Definitely agree, but I've had lecturers who take this too far. My intro. quantum physics professor was a brilliant and accomplished researcher at the bleeding edge of this field whose most basic concepts were deeply mysterious to us students. We appreciated the passion and keep knowledge that informed each of his tangents, but they were pretty impenetrable and very frequently distracted from the material at hand. I left the class thinking he was a brilliant man but fairly poor teacher. Then I had had him the next semester in thermodynamics and he turned out to be great! Certainly he had plenty of knowledge of the field, but he kept the class somewhere within the scope of the syllabus and relayed the foundations to us much more carefully. He focused on teaching, not the material itself.

The GEB lectures you linked are an interesting example in themselves. The early tangents that the teachers launch into on their own are certainly helpful, especially in such a free-form class. But student questions and tangents soon dominate that class too, to the point that I found it quite unbearable. When there is interesting material to be discussed they continually relapse into tired speculations of the "well maybe the universe is just a giant computer simulation" sort. The last lecture in particular is completely dominated, and in my opinion ruined, by questions from the most persistent student. A teacher needs to take charge and keep the class on track. Perhaps in a real class Justin would have.

I like what mathematician Israel M. Gelfand says about the role of a teacher: "Students have no shortcomings, they have only peculiarities. The job of a teacher is to turn these peculiarities into advantages."

The objective measure of a teacher's success must be what the class ended up learning regardless of what was or wasn't taught and all other random factors involved.

With that definition in mind, as a former pure math student, the best teaches I had were those who were

- oddly enough, good story tellers! By which I mean, they sounded very much interested in what they were telling me. Their narratives always had at least a few mini-mysteries going on just like in a good story. They used one thing leading to another kind of explanations rather than stating unrelated facts one after the other. The narratives always seemed to have a underlying theme even when that theme was sort of irrelevant to the lesson at hand.

- did not answer my question unless they properly understood what I was asking and why I was asking it. I hate it when I ask X and the teacher answers Y. The good teachers always went to great lengths to understand my questions.

- good mentors and guides and could help your career along if you deserved it. the best ones would go out of the way to make the system reward the deserving.

I think those were the two crucial factors. I have had awesome teachers on all sides of the arrogance, style, humourous, lenience, liberal, demanding, thorough/good enough at the subject matter, popular, good natured/asshole spectra.

Ummm... Not all the good teachers did this, but I very much liked the ones who actually tested what I had learnt rather than whether I was paying attention in the class or taking good notes or pretty much was even present in the class or not.

From what I've seen, good teachers are those who A) earn the respect of their students, and B) understand that different people learn differently.

Respect is important because no student will be engaged in a class with a teacher of whom he has a low opinion. At best the student will ignore the teacher and turn to an alternate, respected, source - ie textbook. At worst, the student will entirely disengage from the subject. To earn respect, I would suggest first that the teacher respect the student. A student who is respected will find class more enjoyable and engaging, knowing his ideas mean something.

Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences states that there are ~8 different types of intelligences. A student who is exceptional in one of them will learn best in that one - and will usually be more interested in information reaching him through it. Out of the blue, it occurred to me that a file format analogy lends itself perfectly to the situation. A program may be able to open files of several formats, but it is built around one. This format will generally produce the best results for the program, even if it can interact competently with several other formats. Think excel (because I've had to deal with it recently). You can work with CSV files, certainly, but you can do much more with xls files. So teach your material in different formats. Have the content available in both visual and auditory formats as a default, but whenever possible (and you really want to reach for these!) make it available in kinesthetic, verbal, musical, and social formats as well. (I've missed a couple of Gardner's intelligences. But you get the idea.)

Teaching to multiple intelligences will also increase students' respect for you. If you help them to understand something (by teaching it in a format that naturally makes more sense to them), they will A) realize that you know what you're talking about, and B) see that you are a better teacher, likely to teach them more stuff.

I don't mean to imply that everyone is naturally interested in learning everything, and it is only the format of the data that is interfering -- but how much more enjoyable is working with a dataset if you don't have to write a parser for the input format? ;)

listening is, I think, the most important.

My reasoning is simple. I had a lot of ok teachers who never listened to what the students had to say: the ones that could sit and discuss a subject with us might have had less technical knowledge but we definitely learned a lot more, as a class, with them. I wouldnt be surprised if they probably learnt stuff from us too.

Passion - yeh agreed. Though on the other hand the best teacher we had was borderline manic depressive but was great because he took nothing seriously (and got so bored of the work he taught us lots of cool things: so perhaps that counts as passion for some of the subject :D)

While I sometimes hated the teachers that operated this way in retrospect I think the ones with the highest expectations were the best teachers. I say that with one exception, if you're going to have high expectations you best not be dry/boring/lazy about teaching the subject at hand. The best teachers know their shit, but also have the empathy and personal skills to use well placed analogies to "bring it down to our level". Perhaps this boils down to just having a sense of humor.

Strict, High Standards, Understanding/Human.

This is an interesting question. Great teachers seems to be universally great across almost all students. So finding what makes them great and spotting it early (and eventually teaching it) would be great for the society.

I really enjoyed the bill gates Ted talk where he talks about this topic and (remember?) malaria.


starts at 8:06 (before that it's about malaria)

I've always found that you can draw a box with four squares. On the top are "can explain material to moms" "can't explain material to moms". On the side are "clear communicator" and "unclear communicator".

The intersection of "can explain to moms" and "clear communicator" is what makes a good teacher for me.

In school some TA's could explain to moms but were unclear communicators so they didn't make good teachers.

In my work there are fantastic communicators in the sales team, but their grasp of the subject matter is such that they throw around lots of industry vocabulary but wouldn't be able to explain it to moms. This makes them bad teachers.

Great teachers/professors always had both great communication and a mastery of the subject. From my time at MIT the perfect example of this type of teacher/professors was Walter Lewin for 8.01 classical physics.

I highly recommend watching his lectures at http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Physics/8-01Physics-IFall1999/Cour... (the picture of him on the website says it all.)

edit: grammar.

The ability to bring out the very best in their student(s) through whatever means. This goes for any mentor, coach, sifu, guru, etc.

The OP sparked a story that Teddy Atlas (boxing trainer for Mike Tyson, Michael Moore, Golden Gloves champ) once told at a book signing.

While training Michael Moore, he had to gain a certain amount of trust / respect from him. One particular instance that stood out in his memory was Michael's fondness of going to the shooting range and firing guns. Teddy never fired a gun in his life but accompanied him to the range.

At the range, Moore and some of his friends shot at the targets and eventually started to egg Teddy on. Teddy finally gave in, took the gun, walked right up to the target, and shot at the bulls-eye at point blank range.

He then turned to Moore and said "THAT's how I fire a gun".

Teddy told the audience he could remember a shift in Moore's behavior and demeanor when he later trained him - looser, more accepting of Atlas's advice. Teddy did what he had to do to bring the better boxer out of Moore.

Moral of the story - go shoot guns with your students :)

I believe a good teacher is one who adapts their teaching styles to both meet individual student's learning styles as well as expose them to other learning styles in order to broaden their learning abilities. A good teacher tells their students what they are doing and why, so that the student is more involved with the process and sees where the teacher is coming from. A good teacher does not believe that notes are effective for all students, same with daily work, or tests. A good teacher uses pretests to decide what subtopics they need to focus on or skip, as well as to track individual students progress. A good teacher does their best to get students invested in the learning process.

I believe that a good teacher, first and foremost, should be very disciplined. In other words, authoritative and able, but not strict and overbearing. The teacher must disciplined enough to be able to keep students under control/on task and not let a class degenerate into a mob of individuals dallying on irrelevant topics. The teacher must be disciplined enough to be interesting in order to keep students' attention and keep them happy. The teacher must be disciplined enough to keep each student enjoyably 'actively participating' in the class.

Most importantly, the teacher should be disciplined enough to 'sharpen his/her saw', to be constantly, incessantly learning more of his/her art.

1) The teacher needs a thorough understanding of the topic being taught. I regularly use the reverse of this as a litmus while mastering a topic: I did not understand it deeply enough if I can't explain it to a complete layman so they can understand it.

2) Having a full duplex interaction. Talking AT people will make them only bored, but not smart. Watch for reactions, ask questions to force the student to explore the topic being discussed. If they can't answer, try to find out where their train of thought stalled, and elaborate. Of course this doesn't work very well in larger groups of students.

Usually, neither circumstances (smart teacher, small group of students) are given in compulsory education.

The best college professors I have had were working professionals who taught on the side or people who otherwise still had some hands-on experience with the subject they were teaching. There's a reason we have the cynical expression "It's academic" as a means to dismiss something as irrelevant to the real world. I generally hate wasting my time on "Ivory Tower"/"It's nice In Theory" type of learning. That stuff not only doesn't prepare you for the real world, it's counterproductive because it's got you thinking stuff that doesn't really work and spending time on stuff that doesn't really work...etc.

* Try to be engaging. * Share with the class, not speak down. * Know how to steer the entire class / period / lecture * Confidence * Not re-reading what is in the book / on slides. * Most of the time should be welcoming of questions. * Should be respected by his class. If they are not, I think it makes it harder for them to be a good teacher and for people to see them as a good teacher. Everybody has there own unique role in helping a teacher be good, great or bad.

A good teacher is one who can perceive where the student already is (what skills or interests he or she is bringing into the classroom) and can then lay out paths from that point to whatever the goal of the class is.

A mediocre teacher knows what he or she wants to teach but doesn't make that connection with the individual students. The result is someone who teaches a curriculum, not a person.

A good teacher betters the student's ability to learn by themselves.

This involves a great many things, and sadly is contrary to the way 90% of teachers - not just the pros - are taught to imply knowledge.

That's it, and it's applicable to every situation, from Kindergarten to a personal mentor. Almost all the other comments here voice preferred methods of achieving that objective, but the objective remains.

The best teachers teach humility toward the subject matter.

For technology in particular, there is always so much more to learn that by not having humility there is no incentive to want to learn, which is arguably the strongest point to make. Teaching is not one-way. Students have to want to learn just as much as teachers want to teach.

I had a science teacher that would always find news articles related to what we were talking about in class. It was really great to see how this weird crap we talked about in class was actually being used in the real world, and how people were still studying things we didn't even know about it.

- passionate about his/her subject - caring about the people he/she teaches to

I think a good teacher has the goal to make a student better than the teacher, in whatever ways the student will reach this stage.

"A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary" -- Thomas Carruthers

Belief that your students can learn to excel, with enough disciplined effort.

Coupled with the ability to convince them of the same thing

Good students. ;)

Depends also on where you teach - in front of a class? In a video lecture? One to one? It is certainly a skill to get a mob of teenagers listen to you for +30 minutes without anyone involved dying (in one way or the other).

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact