Is it possible to learn how to teach?


FINALLY, the time has come: You have to teach. There’s just one catch: How do you do it? Even more important, how do you do it well?

It doesn’t matter whether you are a graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, or faculty member: Good teaching practices are important. Why? The obvious answer is that good teaching practices are important when you teach.


The less obvious answer is that good teaching practices are important any time you deliver a presentation to an audience. By learning how to teach–by developing good teaching practices–you may be acting in the best interests of your academic career.

I devote considerable energy to my pursuit of good teaching practices. I must admit, however, that I do this not because I want to better my presentations but because I have a great deal of fun: People who are passionate about education tend to be terrific people.

Teaching and Research: Different Cultures, Different Skills

In debates about the primary mission of colleges and universities–is it teaching or is it research?–you are likely to hear that researchers make good teachers. Often, this supposition is used to justify active research by an institution’s faculty. Consider this example taken from a 1992 newspaper editorial written by Marshall Kaplan, then dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver:

[Faculty members] who engage in research and publication … are better equipped to translate ideas to students and to help students develop meaningful cognitive skills.

George Gershwin provides the ideal rebuttal for comments like this: It ain’t necessarily so!

Who promotes the naïve claim that researchers make good teachers? Researchers or administrators who fail to appreciate what teaching and learning truly involve.

Contrary to popular belief, teaching and learning embody concepts and practices that differ from those inherent to scientific research. As a result, most scientists are unfamiliar with teaching strategies that can increase meaningful learning. If you want firsthand evidence of this phenomenon, study the delivery mechanics of the next scientific speaker you listen to. If the speaker shows a pure data graphic and then proceeds to talk about the graphic, the speaker is unaware that most people are poor auditory learners.

Academic scientists fall into one of two groups: Those who can, do research. Those who can do more, teach.

The first group is huge; the second group–the one with good teaching practices–is tiny.

When scientists do research, what do they do? You know the routine: They develop a testable idea–it helps if this idea is spiffy enough to be funded–about how some system works, they design an experiment to explore that idea, they collect and analyze data from the experiment, and they publish their results and conclusions. In order to succeed at scientific discovery, scientists must:

  • know their discipline,
  • be skilled at experimental techniques, and
  • understand statistical concepts and principles.

When teachers teach, what do they do? They help a learner learn. It sounds so simple! But in order to succeed at teaching, teachers must:

  • connect with the learner,
  • make learning relevant to the learner,
  • help the learner relate new knowledge to what the learner already knows,
  • help the learner learn how to apply new knowledge to a new context, and
  • integrate teaching strategies with learning processes.

Most scientists know little about techniques and strategies that will help produce these good teaching practices. Nevertheless, most of these scientists can learn how to teach.

How Do You Learn How to Teach?

You’re convinced: Scientists, simply by virtue of their nature and their profession, are not born teachers. Still, if you have to teach, you may as well teach well. That may sound good, but the question remains, how do you develop good teaching practices?

Ironically, most of us never get a formal opportunity to learn how to teach. But then again, how hard can it be? We went to school, so we know how to teach, right? Wrong. Here are four possible avenues to learn how to teach.

  • Contact an Office of Education.An Office of Education is a great place to begin. To locate one, contact your scientific society or the Dean’s Office at your institution. The Office of Education may offer seminars or workshops related to teaching and learning, it may maintain a listserv devoted to issues in education, or it may provide faculty consultants that can give comments and suggestions about your teaching.
  • Talk teaching with your colleagues.Identify colleagues–they may be in other departments–who truly care, and with whom you can talk, about teaching practices. Then pick their brains for ideas. No matter how experienced they are, they will also benefit from talking with you.
  • Observe your colleagues teach.The presentation can be on any topic, in any format, to any audience. What matters is the selection of the content and whether it has been tailored to the audience and to the presentation objectives. Think too about the conceptual organization of the presentation. An effective teacher will use a framework something like this:
    The problem: This is the thing we want to talk about.
    The context: Why do we even care about this?
    The setup: This is what we’re going to do.
    The message: Now we’re doing it.
    The wrap-up: This is what we did, and this is what it means.
    Because learning is active–a learner must choose to learn–an effective teacher will also engage the audience in the presentation.
  • Connect with schoolteachers and schoolchildren.Since 1993, I have performed an activity that has given ~1400 children a chance to participate in the process of scientific inquiry and to discover the wonder of real hearts and lungs. In the process, I have learned from the children–kindergartners through high school students–as well as their teachers. It takes skill to translate a scientific concept into language a child can understand; if you can do this with children, you can do this with your dissertation committee or your colleagues.
    How do you connect with teachers and their students? Here are two suggestions. First, call the principals of a few nearby schools, tell them who you are, that you want to learn how to teach, and ask for the names of the school’s two or three top teachers. Next, call the teachers, tell them the principal suggested that you talk with them and that you want to learn how to teach. Ask if you can observe in their classroom. Offer to develop a 10- to 15-minute lesson for the class; do this in collaboration with the teacher. Ask the teacher for feedback on your lesson and performance. Second, contact the program staff of Science-By-Mail, a hands-on program designed to give students in grades 4 through 9 the opportunity to correspond with scientists. The staff may be able to give you names of teachers in your area; their e-mail address is (Mention this article.)
    The only way to learn how to teach is to do it and get feedback from accomplished teachers. If you want to explore other education resources, then visit a Web site maintained by the Individual Development and Educational Assessment Center at Kansas State University.
    Remember that you can learn how to teach from any outstanding teacher. Often, exceptional teachers of science are elementary school teachers. These teachers may have no formal training in science, but they model enthusiasm and curiosity, and they model the ability to tell their students, “I don’t know. How can we find out?” In essence, they model the process of scientific inquiry.

Some Words of Warning

I must warn you, however, that the obvious pursuit of learning how to teach can jeopardize your academic career. Does this mean you abandon your efforts to learn how to teach? No. It means you pursue excellence in teaching with your eyes open.

Many scientists–one of them might be your mentor–believe you can’t possibly be committed to research if you also happen to be passionate about teaching. This is silly.

Avoid these people: Not only are they shortsighted, but they also know nothing useful about education. If some of these people have the power to influence your academic progress, impress them instead with the caliber of your scientific presentations. These people may not know why they find your presentations so compelling. You will know it’s because you know how to teach.

Why You Want to Learn How to Teach

One of the cornerstones of science is the ability to communicate. One of the cornerstones of communication is the ability to teach. When you learn how to teach, you improve your ability to communicate the science you do. Anytime you deliver a presentation to an audience–the presentation can be to your department or to your national scientific society–you have an opportunity to make a powerful impression. You want to make the most of the opportunity. It is because of this that learning how to teach may be in the best interests of your academic career.