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15 Sep

Teaching: Soulcraft or Salescraft?

"Teachers will soon be celebrities."

In early 2012, Miten Sampat wrote a prescient piece about how the best teachers teaching online were soon going to be nothing short of celebrities. To quote Miten himself:

"The best teachers of any, and every subject in the world have a massive opportunity to reach each and every student interested in learning from them, through the use of simple broadcasting tools. This will give rise to a new class of celebrities, teachers!

Teachers are no longer required to restrict themselves to teaching primarily at elite institutions to have a great impact on society, but rather aim to reach a global audience with their product. This also changes the fundamental economics of education and the opportunity for outstanding compensation for outstanding educators!"

In 2022, one can hardly disagree with this analysis and how it has panned out over the years. Not only do we have teachers who broadcast to millions of students at once, we also have many individual creators who, first, having amassed a sizeable distribution, went on to launch their own niche courses. And the past decade has been nothing short of a decentralized learning experience around what makes online learning tick — how it changes the teacher-student dynamic, and how teachers will need to evolve in order to keep up with the subtleties and nuances of online learning.

And one major learning seems to stand out amongst all online educators who have managed to achieve outlier success in creating, delivering, and monetizing online courses:

Teaching is now very intricately entwined with delivering entertainment value.

And perhaps, this has always been the case.

Think about who your favorite teachers in school were. They were most likely ones who didn't use a textbook to teach; they were ones with all the interesting stories that helped you contextualize all the concepts you were learning and ground them into the real world. They were fun to talk to, fun to ask questions to, and fun to think along with.

But has it all been hunky dory? Not quite. Scale comes with its own evils.

"Super scale comes with super standardization. Common cold virus spreads faster as it’s super light. In an attention deficit and hyper connected world, nuance is a luxury."

— Kunal Shah (Founder – CRED, Freecharge)

Online platforms brought scale, but along with them, they brought algorithms: algorithms that weren't intelligent enough to account all the nuance involved in learning or what makes good content, good. In fact, they were simple enough to be exploited by content creators who now had to appease the algorithm in order to make content creation a sustainable and lucrative business model.

As a result, we got loud thumbnails and clickbait.

We got snappy 6-second cuts that launched us into a vicious downward spiral of ever-decreasing attention spans.

We got entertainers and storytellers masquerading as experts.

And it is good to remember that all this is simply natural: content is a domain where extreme power laws apply. It doesn't even abide by the 80:20 rule; it actually has its own, more extreme, 99:1 rule — where only the top 0.1% of creators achieve massive success and benefit from winner-take-all effects.

Consequently, these creators have to be entertainers and salespersons first — people who are not just good at teaching but also good at storytelling, delivery, and keeping their viewers' attention. And the ones who are successful in this process become nothing short of celebrities, being chased by EdTech platforms and forced to not just exclusively teach for them, but also to work as salespersons with monthly sales quotas to meet.

A recent Ken article talks about this in-depth:

As dreary as this sounds, it is easy to see what may have gotten us to this point, and why online education seemed to work so well for so many in the first place.

Sarah Chappel, in her essay Teaching That Sells, writes:

"Every program I create and every dollar I make is tied to the desires and dreams of people around the world. Part of my job is to convince them that I can help make those dreams reality.

This is magnified by the intimacy in the online course space: instead of just reading a book or even listening to a podcast, you can learn from someone who actually responds to your Twitter messages, and might even give you personal feedback on your work.

For customers, the lack of formal training almost feels like a selling point. This creator is just like you! They did it, and you can too!

In fact, this is a primary way that courses are sold. The relatability of creators is used to shorten the gap between student and teacher, and what a given course will make possible. Customers feel more like they can actually achieve their goals because the teacher appears to be in a similar milieu. The proximity actually increases desire.

I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing. The gatekeeping of education is counter to the spirit of learning, and if we can increase the feeling of accessibility by learning from someone just a few steps ahead on the path, there may be a very real experience of reduced risk and impostor syndrome for a student."

We first had the MOOC revolution, with platforms like Udemy and Coursera offering budget-friendly niche courses for anyone wishing to upskill themselves in a particular skill.

And while these courses were tactical and actionable, the way they were structured and delivered failed to address and build upon was the inherent motivation of the student to learn. As a result, they saw completion rates lower than 5% and eventually failed to be a good source of learning for anyone who wanted more than simple tactical instruction.

"MOOCs convey “knowledge transfer,” but not necessarily higher-order skills. Since MOOC content is pre-recorded, it’s one-directional, meaning there’s no opportunity to ask questions in real time. This hinders the format from teaching anything that requires more feedback, discussion, or hands-on practice. Thus, MOOCs are great for subjects that are primarily “knowledge transfer,” such as how to sort data in Excel or other such skills. But they’re not great for higher-order skills—those that require analysis, evaluation, synthesis, judgment, and creativity. Continuing with the Excel example, a higher-order version might involve how to segment the data strategically to look for patterns and arrive at a recommendation."

In Online Ed, Content Is No Longer King—Cohorts Are

Cohort-Based-Courses (CBCs) came in to fill in this gap created by MOOCs. The MOOC experiment helped content creators and teachers realize what elements of interaction were crucial to learning but were currently missing. The newer CBC models aimed to fill in a lot of these gaps, at the expense of being able to prove that they were capable of scaling beyond the first few cohorts. Being a service-heavy model that was more intimate and personalized, investors had their doubts around founders and creators being able to scale such a model.

While this remains to be seen, it once again brings us to the fundamental opposition between scale and quality instruction. We might have the Grant Sandersons and the Michael Stevens of the world, but the generic aspect of this kind of instruction at scale means that it doesn't often translate to real-world, tangible outcomes.

This makes me think that there's a larger — and dare I say, essential — discussion around the art and craft of teaching that needs to be had here.

A good teacher is one who learns together with you.

Legendary physicist and teacher Richard Feynman has a beautiful quote about how teaching and thinking are fundamentally intertwined pursuits that feed each other, instead of being separate vocations.

"I don't believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don't have any ideas and I'm not getting anywhere I can say to myself, 'At least I'm living; at least I'm doing something; I am making some contribution' — it's just psychological.

When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don't get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there's not enough real activity and challenge: You're not in contact with the experimental guys. You don't have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you've got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it's the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer period of time when not much is coming to you. You're not getting any ideas, and if you're doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can't even say 'I'm teaching my class.'

If you're teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn't do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can't think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you're rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.

The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I've thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn't do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It's not so easy to remind yourself of these things.

So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don't have to teach. Never."

Good teachers are living representations of the reasoning and learning process.

They crave good questions. The best students will challenge their teachers and the best teachers will welcome those challenges as learning opportunities. It's a two-way process where the student isn't being taught how to fish; rather, she's being taught how to teach herself how to fish.

And this can only happen when expertise and know-how are always prioritized as the primary skill — not entertainment or sales ability. Because a teacher is a good learner and practitioner, first and foremost. She's good at noticing her confusion with a concept or an idea which helps her notice her students' confusion later on.

And this is why teaching is at odds with scalability:

It is not mere transfer of information. It is an initiation into a way of observing the world; it is an intiation into a style of inquiry and thinking. And that needs personal contact.

I would go as far as to say that a teacher cannot have their primary aim be to teach, let alone to sell. Their primary aim must be to master their domain. And it is in this process of mastering a domain themselves that they will find teaching to be a fertile source of new perspectives, questions, and ways of looking at things — all supplied by the sincere student.

If a teacher spots their student making a mistake and they don't just see it as an opportunity to fix that mistake but an opportunity to learn instead, both the teacher and the student move together closer to a richer understanding of the domain being explored. What is happening is both teacher and student are forging themselves in a journey to understand the domain better; the instruction and the learning are almost incidental — a side-effect of trying to get closer to the truth.

I'm reminded of this quote by Peter Drucker, who makes the distinction between a teacher and a pedagogue:

"Miss Sophy had charisma; Miss Elsa had method. Miss Sophy gave enlightenment; Miss Elsa gave skills. Miss Sophy conveyed vision, Miss Elsa guided learning. Miss Sophy was a teacher, Miss Elsa was a pedagogue. This distinction would not have surprised Socrates, or indeed any of the ancient Greeks. Socrates is traditionally called a great teacher. He himself would have resented this as an insult. He never spoke of himself as a teacher. He was a "pedagogue" — a guide to the learner. The Socratic method is not a teaching method, it is a learning method. It is programmed learning. Indeed Socrates' criticism of the Sophists was precisely that they emphasized teaching and that they believed that one teaches a subject. This he thought idle and vanity. The teacher teaches learning; the student learns the subject. Learning is fruitful; teaching is pretentious and a fraud."

Having said this, here's a prediction about how the world of education is going to evolve in the coming decades.

(These are just my personal observations, please take them with a pinch of salt. I might be wrong.)

We will see the educational landscape split between three different subsets.

At one extreme, we will have the celebrity teachers teaching millions of students — serving as a fantastic introduction into a domain and helping students develop the inherent curiosity and motivation to explore that domain in depth.

Then in the middle, we will have a huge valley of educational models resembling the traditional classroom model but augmented by technology. This education will help youngsters quickly upskill themselves to working proficiency in a domain of their choice. In terms of skill on a 1-10 scale, imagine taking someone from a 5 or 6 out of 10 to an 8 out of 10. Clarity-building will be a crucial service these EdTech businesses will offer, if they're to be any good.

And then at the other extreme, we will have 1:1 professional coaching from top practitioners and operators from a domain — teaching those who want to move beyond playbooks and write their own. This will resemble a personal coach or a master-apprentice model of instruction, where more tacit know-how and specific knowledge can osmote from teacher to student. People who wish to move from an 8 to a 9.5 will choose 1:1 instruction that is more contextualized, more qualitative, and more intimate. As this model is fundamentally unscalable, this mode of instruction will only be available to the most serious individuals who are also willing to spend a serious amount on their learning.

Parting thoughts

We are currently at a junction in history where the riches and revenues of scale are tempting, but they might be fundamentally at odds with the soulcraft that is teaching.

As a business, one wants the former, but as a consumer, you should demand the latter.

As to how to best balance quality instruction with profitable scale? We are still figuring it out.

But a man can dream.

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