Habits Of Two Outstanding Teachers

Rhett Allain

Rhett Allain is on a tear lately. His summer thing is to apply skeptical physics to YouTube clips of highly improbable projectile motion — a rare jumping elephant, the longest waterslide ever, etc. He runs them through Tracker, his Swiss Army knife for video analysis, and subjects them to lengthy scrutiny with models and diagrams. I can only skim his posts but I have a stupid grin on my face the entire time because here’s the thing:

He has to know.

It’s impossible not to see his insatiable curiosity between the lines. Physics isn’t his day job. It’s how he understands life and resolves its questions. You can ask Rhett to stop wondering about the elephant’s parabolic fit as easily as you can ask him to stop eating.

Students pick up on that vibe. They buzz to it like bugs to a glowing lamppost. The teacher and the student listen to different music and wear different clothes and worry about different problems but curiosity unites them. That shared curiosity transcends their differences and goes a long way to define a classroom culture. It also has a funny way of assassinating the question, “how much credit is this worth?”

To whatever extent our personality traits should motivate student learning, Rhett has something to which we should all aspire.

Mike Konczal

Let me get it straight that, vocationally speaking, Mike Konczal isn’t a teacher. He is a financial engineer in San Francisco and at one point during the recession I subscribed to his blog. Some of his writing gets into quantitative models that are too far above my dusty mathematics bachelor’s degree but I never miss a post. He is an expert after David Foster Wallace’s own definition, which is the only kind of expertise that matters to me as a classroom teacher:

DFW: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius—which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise.

Konczal wrote a post at The Atlantic called How Health Insurance Is Like Zombie Insurance that contextualized both a) rescission and b) credit default swaps — two complicated, nuanced, easily misunderstood concepts — within a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. It’s awesome, clear, expert-level writing.

Allain and Konczal approach the same masterful teaching technique from opposite angles. Allain uses the simple and the fun to motivate the complicated — waterslides and elephants inspiring pages of physical analysis. Konczal uses the simple and the fun — his zombie apocalypse — to explain the complicated. You get the sense from his writing that if zombies didn’t work for you he could dip into his sack of metaphors and pull out something from pop culture, athletics, cooking, or whatever you needed.

Both teachers are dazzling in their own ways. I would buy a ticket to their live shows, easy.

About 
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.

9 Comments

  1. I love how you’ve described the strengths of these two people and connected the dots as to why they’re good teachers.

  2. Great post. I teach at tertiary level, and it has never crossed my mind that the when we require students to write papers we do so with the expectation they are written in “scientific publication” language, essentially steering them away from communication outside their area of expertise. Will discuss this with my colleagues. Perhaps building into the written/oral assignments a different modality of expression might go a long way in enhancing communication between, as you exemplify, medics and their patients. Food for thought.

  3. @Fabiana, it’s interesting to me that both examples of transcendent expertise DFW cites are oral — IT tech to computer user, oncologist to patient. My experience is that it’s far harder to write colloquially than it is to speak colloquially, which leads to me to believe there are two levels of transcendent expertise here.

  4. @Dan Indeed. Yet at university we teach them both an oral and written language that is only relevant within their area of expertise. In fact, I would say we discourage not using such oral or written language. So you could say we fail no matter which way you look at it. I had really not thought of this. And, if I were to go a step further, with the success of open access publishing, shouldn’t we also be considering modifying our ‘in house’ language when we write articles? What is the point of putting things out there if our language in essence continues to make the work inaccessible?

  5. Elizabeth Lyon

    August 9, 2009 - 8:30 am -

    Dan,
    Know that the delight with which you observe Rhett Allain and Mike Konczall translate their passions into an clarified language of understandability is the same delight with which many of us read your blog posts. Thank you!!