THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 19, Fall 2000

William A. McEachern, Editor

The Natural

Is Larry Bird a good basketball coach? John Wooden, the revered former coach of UCLA, suggested in a TV interview during last June's NBA finals that great players are rarely great teachers. He said they can't understand why the things that came naturally to them do not come naturally to lesser mortals.

Using that logic, one might argue that great economists are not necessarily great teachers. Some to whom the discipline comes naturally may have difficulty explaining things to those less gifted. These naturals may also be less patient with those who don't get it the first or second time around. Some of us may be better teachers precisely because we had to struggle a bit to sort things out. We may remember what gave us trouble and point out such pitfalls to our students.

On a slightly different point, the most polished classroom presentation is not necessarily the most effective. For example, most of us have taught the same course in back-to-back classes. During the first class, we usually work out any bugs in the presentation, making for a smoother second class. But it has been my experience that students seem to learn more from the first class, where I may need to slow down or even stop to work through some complication.

Put another way, when the material becomes second nature to me, my teaching goes on automatic pilot and may become less effective because the pace or the sequencing does not offer students enough time to absorb points or to reflect on the material. In fact, the more natural the material is to me, the instructor, the less I need to think during the presentation. In such instances, class could degenerate into the perfunctory transfer of information from my notes to the student's notes, without passing through the minds of either.

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