Blunt and Clear

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Either you popularize your point bluntly and clearly, Bryan Caplan says, or you fail to popularize it. He cites the following passage from educational psychologist Douglas Detterman, quoted in Robert Haskell’s Transfer of Learning:

I thought it was important to make things as hard as possible for students so they would discover the principles for themselves.  I thought the discovery of principles was a fundamental skill that students needed to learn and transfer to new situations.

Now I view education, even graduate education, as the learning of information.  I try to make it as easy for students as possible.  Where before I was ambiguous about what a good paper was, I now provide examples of the best papers from past classes.  Before, I expected students to infer the general conclusion from specific examples.  Now I provide the general conclusion and support it with specific examples.

In general, I subscribe to the principle that you should teach people exactly what you want them to learn in a situation as close as possible to the one in which the learning will be applied.  I don’t count on transfer and I don’t try to promote it except by explicitly pointing out where taught skills may be applied.


  1. Doctor Pat says:

    If I had a teacher who tried to make everything difficult and wouldn’t even be clear about what a good paper was… I would hate him.

    Now that I think about it, maybe I did…

  2. Doctor Pat says:

    On the other hand, I’ve never found Tyler Cowen to be difficult to follow at all.

  3. Alrenous says:

    One of my profs openly espoused and practised the make-it-hard strategy.

    He ‘taught’ quantum mechanics. Cuz you know what QM really lacks is a dose of artificial difficulty. He was widely hated. Though one guy ‘rose’ to the challenge — I’m told his eyes actually bled a little in one class.

    Look, if you want people to learn discovery, then teach discovery. Don’t expect pupils to discover discovery on their own. The tiny bandwidth of speaking and writing makes teaching difficult enough without intentionally making it harder.

  4. Johnny Abacus says:

    There is a difference between making things hard just to make things hard (or because the teacher is bad at teaching), and making things hard as a byproduct of another goal (for example, expecting independent discovery of fundamental principles, as in the article).

    This is the best example of a good “hard” teacher that I’ve come across. Not for everyone, but I’d love to take classes from him.

  5. Isegoria says:

    There’s some evidence, as odd as it sounds, that simply making things harder to learn improves learning. For instance, using a hard-to-read font improves readers’ retention.

    Similarly, easy-to-follow science videos fail to teach anything.

    That said, I love that example from Rory Miller that you cited. I suspect the challenge is matching the assignment to the students — who are not at all on the same level.

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