An Intuition On Why Teaching Is Hard

There are some things that are very difficult to teach. For example, nobody has really figured out how to teach programming yet. Many people are pretty good at teaching calculus, but nobody has a 100% success rate, and it’s never easy. Etc, etc.

Some things are not difficult to teach, of course: it is relatively easy to teach someone facts: water weighs 1 g/ml, John Lennon was born in 1940, the sky is blue.

What’s the difference? Well, I think the major difference is that teaching static facts is easy, while teaching things that require some sort of integration is hard. For example, teaching someone the straightforward formula: \frac{d}{dx}x^{n} = nx^{n-1} is actually not very hard, assuming they have a decent understand of algebra. Getting someone to understand what the derivative is, in a general sense, is very hard. Similarly, we have things like Codecademy, which do the equivalent of teaching you formulae and no integration, because it’s not hard to tell someone to copy some text, but it is hard to teach someone how to write programs.

The intuition I had about this the other day is that you cannot transfer knowledge via language; you can only transfer serialized forms of knowledge. Facts like “John Lennon was born in 1940” serialize very well. Integrations between ideas, understanding processes, etc – these things serialize poorly. Have you ever tried to get directions from someone who has lived in the same place their whole life? Their brain understands the terrain at too deep a level to serialize it, and since they rarely need to communicate that issue in language, they have no intermediate forms to serialize for you. They literally cannot advise you as well as someone who is still learning the territory, because that person still has ready access to all the serialized forms of knowledge (“go a mile down First street”, etc).


This might be obvious or well-known, but I thought it was interesting, anyway!

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