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A Master Without a Masters

A couple of years ago, I was interning with a startup called Cookifi. Three mornings a week, I'd board a bus bound for HSR Layout to go to the office. One day, the bus simply failed to turn up, and I ended up sharing a cab with one of my stranded co-passengers. His name was Ravitej, and he worked in a software company. He didn't have a Ph.D. in anything, but he taught me more during a one-hour cab ride than some of my computer science teachers have taught me during entire semesters.

A few years before that, I played video games online with a guy named Luke. Luke was 20 years old at the time, and he worked in a hardware store. He didn't have an MIT education or even, come to that, a masters degree. What he did have, however, was an incredible understanding of vector calculus - incredible enough that his explanations even made sense to me at the age of 14. My "highly qualified" 10th-grade math teacher, on the other hand, couldn't suitably teach me basic trigonometry.

The upshot of all this is that you don't necessarily have to have good qualifications to be a good teacher. Now, don't get me wrong, if you received a doctorate from Stanford and can explain differential equations to a 10th-grader, I'll be first in line to sign up for your class. The thing is, though, I think it's extremely important that a teacher be able to teach well. To me, where they received their degree should be secondary to that.

As a rule, though, I think receiving a high degree of education tends to make it harder to teach well. The reason I say this is because of how someone actually becomes a "doctor of" this or a "master of" that. People acquire degrees by going to university, right? Now, university, to my mind, works great if you want to design airplanes or build websites, but not so much if you want to go out and educate. Mainly, this is because a university education will usually involve learning a lot of "jargon" - technical terms for the things you're learning about. When you go out and try to teach someone what you know, you're going to use the same jargon, and your students are going to have to learn that jargon, too. Basically, you end up wasting a lot of time explaining terms that you could probably have done just as well without knowing.

The other problem with spending 8 years of your life learning about something is that it takes all the romance out of it. For instance, what 11th-grader is actually going to be engaged if you tell him that you'll be teaching him "differentiation"?  What if, instead, you told him what exactly differentiation was? What if you told him that most modern AI uses it to learn, that it's a technique so powerful that Isaac Newton, the man behind the Law of Gravity, invented it and then kept it secret for 20 years? I'd care a lot more for calculus if I'd known any of those things last year, I can promise you that.

A lot of less-qualified teachers tend to know the syllabus they're teaching in great detail and the subject itself only at a general level. Usually, this would be a disadvantage - none of us want a teacher who can't answer our questions, after all. In a school setting, though, I think this is hugely helpful. A teacher who doesn't have an intimate knowledge of subject will tell a student as much as they need to know to be able to make sense of a concept. A teacher who spent a decade of their lives studying something, on the other hand, is more likely to launch into an in-depth explanation, often further confusing the asker. Not all teachers are like this, of course - I'm sure there are plenty of teachers out there who know their subjects inside out but will still tell you exactly enough to make sure you're thorough with your syllabus content.

All I'm trying to say is that whether or not someone has a Ph.D. is no way to judge their teaching ability. Here's hoping fewer schools turn teachers away just because they didn't want to write a research thesis.


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