Teaching skills

My first experience teaching a class in anything was in my early 20s conducting a philosophy tutorial. The tutorial system of teaching philosophy derived from the days of the university as an elite institution for the upper classes in which a handful of students wearing tweed jackets would sit in leather armchairs, drink brandy and discuss a book set by the professor … or something like that.

The only difference is that in my tutorial class the lecturer set a series of discussion questions that I read out, the tutorial had 15-20 students who were hardly from upper class backgrounds, and there were also no leather armchairs, cigars or brandy on hand. No surprise the discussion wasn’t very lively. This system of teaching may have worked in a different world, but it hardly transferred over seamlessly to the modern university. That was the first time that the question ‘Is there a method to teaching?’ entered my mind.

Over 20 years later I am an experienced teacher and have spent over 20 years thinking about and experimenting with teaching methods. Obviously not everything we learn is the result of systematic teaching. Many things are learned incidentally or informally. But in a complex and globalised world it is increasingly the case that we want to learn a skill and the only way to do so is to undertake a systematic program of instruction of some sort. Here are some basic elements that I believe should be present in any such program:


Any systematic program of instruction should specify what specific set of skills or competence it is aimed at achieving and to what degree of competency. Is it designed for beginners to teach basic competency or to teach high level or expert performance? What specifically will you be able to do or to do better? It is a problem when the goals are either not specified or are not about learning a skill (eg., “Take this dancing class to have fun and get fit”), are specified in terms of goals that are very general (eg., “Learn how to dance the tango”), and so are not measurable, so you have no way of telling whether you are progressing toward the specified goal.


Any systematic program of instruction should be specific to some level, at least in terms such as Beginner, Proficient, Advanced. Lumping beginners and experienced dancers in the same class or workshop is going to reduce the value of that class to both. It can only be either too difficult for the novices, or  too easy for the proficient learners.


The material or content being taught needs to be simplified by being divided up into smaller bits that the learner can cope with (see Cognitive Load).


The learner needs some cues that help to perform the task or movement correctly, not just what to do, but how to do it.


While there will be some need for a drill type instruction where the teacher models a movement and the student performs it, most of the learning should take place in the form of some sort of interactive task, where the learner is interacting with other learners or some material, or both. Simply repeating what the teacher does is not interactive, although it may be necessary for the teacher to model the performance of the task at the outset.


Students need feedback about their performance either from a teacher or by comparing their performance to some idealised model. The difference between the student’s performance and the model will inform the student where they need to focus to improve.

SSDP: Slow Spaced Deliberate Practice

Improvement in any skill requires practice which is repeated, spaced, slow and focused. That means that many regular short practice sessions are better than few long practice sessions (eg., 20 minutes three times a week is better than 60 minutes practice once a week). The way the brain is designed we learn better with regular spaced out repetitions. However, when we practice it is better to practice slowly and with our attention completely focused on the task. When you practice it is better not to think about your goal and focus on slowly and deliberately practicing the skill. The mistake is to become distracted especially by the image of the goal and to start practicing too fast. That is, in practicing we should practice the movements more slowly than we would want to perform them and to focus completely on the movement we are learning.

Simple and Progressive

The course of instruction should be progressive, so that there is a relatively linear progress, and it should not be over complicated. Both of these aspects are necessary for getting motivated, and maintaining and increasing motivation, and avoiding losing motivation. A program that is not progressive will soon become too easy and repetitive and therefore boring. We should always be challenged by doing something more difficult as this is motivating. On the other hand, a program which is overly complicated will not be motivating. It should cover just the essential elements that are necessary to progress. A simple program is less likely to be abandoned and to distract the learner into thinking about things which are extraneous to the core goal of the program.


A program of instruction that does not contain these elements is unlikely to lead to any sort of improvement or to be good for motivation. Of course, the content of the teaching is very important and needs to be matched to the goals. If you (or your students) find yourself not progressing or losing motivation it may be useful to ask which of the elements above are not executed adequately or are missing from the program altogether.