Why Some Experts Make Lousy Teachers – The Cure for Expertitis

Updated: February 13, 2013

Gary Korisko

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Expertise and teaching often don't go well together. I know that sounds wrong, but hear me out.

Have you ever been in the position of teaching a topic that you have a lot of experience in to someone who is brand new to it?

If so - have you ever noticed your pupil looking at you with a facial expression like they're a three-year-old trying to solve the Pythagorean Theorem? You know that look.

It's like that thing your dog does when you talk to him where he stares you down and cocks his head to one side. He's trying to understand, but it's just not sinking in. As a teacher, it's incredibly frustrating - and a colossal waste of time.

You've likely been on the other side of that scenario too. When you are the totally green noob learning something new from an expert. You're excited and enthusiastic about learning a new subject or skill - and the teacher arrives. In a matter of minutes this egghead has reduced your confidence to rubble by spouting off volumes of statistics, and industry jargon in what might have just as well been in the Klingon language.

You feel stupid, deflated, and de-motivated.

It's an all too common scenario, but one that is easily fixed.

The truth is that more often than not, it's not an issue of a lousy teacher - or a student who is incapable of learning. The real problem is a perspective problem that I call Expertitis.

The Downside To Expert Status

There are a lot of benefits to being an expert, and there are more than a few downsides as well. One of the most common downsides is the naturally occurring condition Expertitis.

When you have spent years becoming an expert at every aspect of a subject, the basics become automatic for you. Through repetition, the basics become so deeply engrained in your mind that you don't even think about them anymore. Instead, you focus your attention on the high level details that are more pertinent in your everyday expert world.

A Sports Analogy

For instance, let's say you know absolutely nothing about American football, but you really want to learn. If you were to ask an 8 year veteran of the National Football League to explain it, you might come away with the impression that it's way too complex to follow.

Why? Because a NFL veteran with that much expert knowledge of the game might want to talk to you about things like audibles, formation shifts, "Mike" linebackers, and cover two vs. man to man coverage. But you're starting at ground zero and all you want to know is why the guy in the stripes threw that yellow rag at the big man in the blue helmet. You want to know why sometimes the team keeps running plays and other times they kick it away. Or why the guys on one side of the ball can grab people with their hands but the guys on the other side can't.

That is Expertitis. There's a huge experience gap there. And the natural human tendency is for neither party to recognize exactly how vast that gap really is.

There's a reason I single out the expert in the name of the condition Expertitis.

Because the liability of recognizing and fixing the problem lies squarely on the shoulders of the expert.

Only the expert in this scenario has the ability to see both the beginner and the expert side and bring the two together so some real learning can take place.

How To Cure Expertitis

Since the expert knows both sides of the equation, it is up to them as the teacher to shake off Expertitis by intentionally shifting their perspective.

Whether the teaching takes place in a classroom, a boardroom, or on your blog, it's vital that you avoid Expertitis, make a sincere connection with your audience, and establish your credibility as an authority on your subject.

Here are 10 Expertitis-curing principles every expert should keep in mind when teaching.

1: Don't Try To Impress With Your Expertise

This is mainly an ego-driven issue. You don't need to impress anyone. Let that go. If you find yourself in the position of teaching someone else, you are already in a position of authority. There's no need to waste their time and yours by trying to prove it over and over again.

2: Remember Where You Started: Practice Empathy

Empathy is the ability not only to intellectually understand where someone else is coming from but to emotionally relate to their situation as well. Remember that you were once inexperienced, too. Reach back to the "old you" and remember how it felt to be starting from scratch. Teach to that person.

3: Start At The Beginning

When you're teaching people who are less skilled than you, start at step 1 - not step 3, step 19, or step 57. Remember that because of your expertise, what seems simple or obvious to you is not necessarily simple or obvious to those who you're trying to teach.

4: Remove Fear And Embarrassment

Early on you need to let your students know that it's ok to be new. Tell them what your expectations are for them, sure. But you also need to let them know you want them to ask questions and ask for clarification if something doesn't make sense. Inexperienced people tend to hold back questions for fear of looking stupid. Make sure they know you want their questions and you won't think they're stupid for asking.

5: Brevity Is Your Friend

This is a tough one for experts. When you know a lot about a topic that you're passionate about, it's easy to drone on and on about minutia and lose people's attention in the process.

To keep students on track, focus on key concepts and direct them toward the details. Don't jam too much into one lesson. Digestible bite-sized pieces are always better than information overload.

6: Use Common Words/Vocabulary

To reiterate point #1 - your position as a teacher is not your opportunity to display your amazing vocabulary. A real teacher's goal is to connect - not impress. Use common words. Students will almost never stop you and say, "Umm, I don't know what that word means. Can you define it?"

Don't put them in that embarrassing situation. If you do use more complex words or industry jargon, define them without being asked to. It makes for much better learning.

7: Reiterate Important Points - Repetition

Repetition, repetition, repetition. Teach, summarize, reiterate. It's as true in teaching as it is in advertising. It's all about the number of impressions you make on people's mind. If it's important, say it again. And again.

8: Integrate Material For Different Learning Types

There are three primary types of learners: Auditory learners, visual learners, and kinesthetic (also called tactile) learners. Basically that means some people learn better hearing new information, some learn better seeing it, and some learn best when they can get their hands on it and manipulate it.

To get through to them all, integrate all three styles into your lessons. Include the written word, charts, or videos for the visual learners, lectures and audio recordings for auditory learners, and hands-on exercises for those kinesthetic learners. Incorporating all three styles will benefit all your students.

9: Ask Checking Questions

As you teach new people, stop often and ask for feedback. Say, "Is this all making sense so far? Do we need to review anything up to his point?" This serves two purposes: it's a litmus test for you to evaluate yourself as well as your students and it encourages interaction.

10: Be Accessible & Approachable - Provide Support

"The lesson is over. Get out." We've all had that teacher. That teacher sucked, right? Most likely a teacher with that attitude had a captive audience full of subordinates who had no choice but to put up with it.

That is not the case now, is it? This is the real world and people expect some sincere engagement from their experts. Make sure you provide it. Be there for your students after the lesson. Let them know you want to hear their questions and you sincerely want to help.

Only You Can Prevent Expertitis

Look at most text books, training materials, and even much of the educational material available online. Unfortunately, Expertitis is rampant.

Put these 10 principles in play when you are teaching new people and suddenly it will seem like you've stumbled into a nest of brilliant students. The real difference, of course, will be that you have become a much better teacher!

Have you been on either end of the Expertitis experience? How do you learn best? What are your best tips for teaching others?

Share your thoughts in the comments section!

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