The Truth About Telling
Why You Can’t Become an Expert Based on Someone Else’s Experience
If it were possible to learn complex skills from the experiences of others, I would, among other things, be able to cook. But I can’t. I tried some years ago to learn by purchasing cookbooks written by some of my favorite chefs and reading them closely. As I read the recipes, I would envision myself as the chef, smoothly orchestrating the activities that would result in a perfect soufflé, risotto, or maki roll. When I tried to actually cook the dishes, however, I suddenly became aware of the limitations of my ability to make the judgments that sounded so simple when the chef described them. When was a potato slice “semi-translucent”? What did it mean for a mixture to “look like wet sand”? How exactly could I tell when an orange sauce was “70% caramelized”? I was very bad at applying such descriptions to the reality in front of me, and the result showed in my generally inedible cooking. No matter how much I read about cooking, I did not learn to do it myself.
The problem is that the real experience of cooking depends upon a constant stream of observations and judgments that are difficult to convey in words or even pictures. To cook well, you need to be able to sense the physical states of ingredients that are being sliced, diced, kneaded, pressed, mixed, coated, strained, whipped, creamed, blanched, steamed, smoked, fried, boiled, broiled and so on, and decide exactly when it is the right time to take the next step in the recipe. The way chefs observe and think about these things, however, is often inaccessible to the novice due to the novice’s lack of experience. A chef friend of mine once explained to me that the shrimp in a particular dish were done cooking when “they’re that perfect pearly-white color.” With her experience, she was able to operationalize this description, but I was only able to apply it in retrospect, when the shrimp had turned a decidedly un-pearly brownish color.
In a similar vein, I attended a race driving school where the instructor said that at a particular spot on the race course the car should be “right on the edge of losing traction.” Since he no doubt had a broad range of experience with race cars losing traction, this probably seemed perfectly clear to him, but for those of us whose experience with traction loss was confined to accidentally chirping the tires in the mall parking lot, this was again less than evocative until it was a little too late. (The problem with such descriptions was so obvious that another instructor made a joke out of it, giving us the following general technique for entering corners: “Wait until you are sure you are going to crash, count to three, and then hit the brakes.”)
This same problem, in different degrees, crops up no matter what you are trying to learn. To do something properly you have to make a series of judgments, and experts make these judgments in ways that are different from and superior to what the novice is able to do. The ways in which they do that are often difficult or impossible to articulate in any simple way.
There is another issue with learning from stories. This one is illustrated by the curious fact that I have been driven from a particular hotel in New Delhi to the NIIT office nearby a minimum of fifty times, yet I still could not hope to find my way myself without resorting to Google Maps. That may or may not seem surprising, but contrast it with the fact after driving myself to the Atlanta office in a rental car exactly once I learned to reliably navigate between the airport, hotel, and the office without aids. Why the profound difference?
The fact is that driving somewhere and being driven somewhere are vastly different experiences. In driving myself, I had to make decisions about which way to go, which forced me to think about the world in a very particular way, a way oriented towards noting useful features that marked the places where I need to turn, and misleading features that threatened to lead me astray. In being driven, on the other hand, since I had no responsibility for finding the route, I did not bother thinking about any of these things. My memory of driving in Atlanta encompasses a lot of information like, “The first time I saw that sign for GA 400 I thought it was my exit and I got off at the wrong place,” while my memory of driving in Delhi comprises a lot of information like, “One time I drove by this building and I saw a monkey on the roof of a parked car out front.”
In a similar way, when you hear a story about how something was done, you aren’t forced to make the decisions that the protagonists in the story made. You can read stories about historical figures—Caesar, Jefferson, Gandhi, or whomever—and get many details about what they went through, but you will never have anything remotely like the experience of trying to grapple with the challenges they faced, which helps to explain why so many people are able to read about such people without acquiring any noticeable tendency to behave anything like them.
Traditional teaching is fundamentally the attempt to share lessons drawn from the experiences of others. But, because hearing about an experience is nothing like living through it, students do not acquire the judgmental skills needed think the way the teacher would about a problem, and therefore make correct decisions about how to address it.
To do better as teachers, we have to learn restraint in the face of what, for most of us, is a strangely horrifying, almost painful experience: watching someone struggle with a task that we are good at. For some reason—some combination of ego, impatience, and empathy—it is almost irresistible for most of us to seize control of the task in this situation—often by literally, physically, grabbing whatever is being worked on—and carry on in “let me show you” mode. This is the point where everything starts to go wrong, education-wise. To do better, as teachers, we have to learn to restrain ourselves at these moments, and recognize that learning will take some time and a lot of failed attempts.