Marks of a Great Teacher: Understanding
by R.C. Sproul
The K-I-S-S principle is frequently requested in a learning environment. The acrostic stands for “Keep it simple, stupid.” It seems we are a people who loathe difficult study. We want easy answers and we want them quickly. Mastery of a subject, however, requires years of diligent labor and study. But once the teacher has mastered his material, how does he transmit it to his students?
Certain assumptions are made in the classroom. The first is that the teacher knows more about the subject than the student. It is, in general, a safe assumption. The second assumption is that the teacher cannot communicate his mastery of the subject all at once. To educate (as the Latin root suggests), we must lead students “out of” ignorance into knowledge. That knowledge moves in increments, from the simple to complex.
The great teacher helps his students gain understanding. This may be the most vital and most difficult task of teaching. Students often complain that the teacher speaks “over-the-heads” of the students. What does this mean? It means that the student does not understand what is being taught. It may indicate that the student is lazy and is unwilling to be stretched intellectually. It could also mean that the teacher doesn’t understand what he is teaching.
Often times our educational process is a failure with respect to learning. The syndrome goes something like this: A student attends college classes, takes copious notes, memorizes the notes, and makes an A in the course. Then he graduates from college and follows the same procedure in graduate school. Now he becomes a teacher and he has a great store of information about which he has been tested yet has little understanding. Information has been transferred but never processed or digested by the inquiring mind. This teacher now goes in the classroom where he gives lectures from his notes and text books. He allows little time for questions (he fears questions he may not be able to answer). He continues the vicious syndrome of his own education with his students and the game goes on.
A great teacher can simplify without distortion. This is the supreme test of understanding. If I truly understand something, I ought to be able to communicate it to others. There is a vast chasm that separates the simple from the simplistic. Jesus, the greatest teacher ever, taught in simple terms. But He was never simplistic. To oversimplify is to distort the truth. The great teacher can express the profound by the simple, without distortion. To do that requires a deep level of understanding. The great teacher imparts understanding, not merely information. To do that the teacher must understand the material being taught.