December 27, 2002
The Charlton contrast

"Those who can do, those who can't teach" – right? Only partly right. Partly very wrong.

There are many different ways of teaching, many different ideas wrapped up in the word. I did an interesting little teaching stint recently, in a teacher training college. An academic friend of mine couldn't teach his class in politics, or philosophy, or whatever it was, and he needed me to fill in for him. My friend had in mind that I might like to dose these students with yet more of the political opinions that both I and my friend shared, but since these students were all of them intending to become teachers of one kind or another I decided we'd have a discussion about all the different meanings in the idea of teaching. "I agree with him about politics etc., so let's take that as given, shall we? Let's talk about what teaching means." It went well. We had nearly two hours to fill, and let me tell you, we had no problem whatsoever filling the time. (It may even have been more persuasive politically. After all, the customers found it interesting and illuminating and thought-provoking and fun, or so they all said.)

Here, for example, are two very different meanings to teaching, at opposite ends of one particular scale. At one end there's teaching by example. And at the other end there's being technically rather poor at whatever it is, but, for this reason, being all the more effective at helping the students battle with their technical deficiencies and in general sympathising with them in their struggles.

Consider two great English footballers: the Charlton brothers, Bobby and Jackie. (Both of them played in England's World Cup winning team of 1966.)

There's no doubt about which was the more expert ball-player. Bobby by a mile. Bobby was the crowd-pleaser. It was Bobby's dazzling moves that caught the eye. If you wanted to know what scaling the heights of footballing skill looked like, then look no further. Feast your eyes on Bobby Charlton. And teaching by example is one very important way to teach. People like Bobby Charlton show you things that you might otherwise have assumed to be utterly impossible. That's definitely part of great teaching.

But now consider Jackie. Jackie Charlton wasn't as technically expert as his brother, but he was determined to succeed, and he did. When on the pitch he didn't look like the intellectual type, more the thug defender type, but Jackie Charlton made it as a footballer essentially by thinking about how to be as good a footballer as he could manage. He filled the gap between himself and his brother with brainpower. What for Bobby was more instinctive, for Jackie was much more self-conscious and decided-upon and then self-imposed. If you aren't fast, think about where to be in the first place. In general, it would seem, football defenders have to be brainier than attackers, because although attackers can often work wonders with sheer instinct, defenders must be more disciplined, and, for example, more aware of where all the other defenders are, and where the attackers are, and what they're all doing. Learning to defend is a much more intellectual process than learning to attack. No matter how instinctively talented you are as a defender, you have to think about it a lot.

And who do you suppose became the better footballing teacher? Was it the inspired Bobby or the cerebral, hard-working Jackie? No contest. Bobby never made it as a manager. The lesser players he had in his charge couldn't do what he had been able to do, and he couldn't tell them about how to do it. He just did it - why couldn't they? Well, they just couldn't, or not without some guidance. For Jackie on the other hand, moving from thinking about and guiding his own footballing efforts to becoming a thinker about and a guide for the efforts of others, that is to say a manager (which is what they call a teacher in football), was a seamless process. He certainly had to think like fury when he started out as a manager, but by then this was a totally natural habit for him. Jackie has had a highly distinguished career as a manager, culminating in a spell managing the Irish national side in the World Cup, with great success and to great national acclaim.

Bobby Charlton has whiled away his time as a talent scout (he could spot it even if he couldn't teach it), and, more depressingly, on the Aging Celebrity circuit. By most standards he's had a good life, but by his own standards it must have been a bit of a let-down.

Now I quite agree that as a definition of averageness, being a so-so member of a World Cup winning football team is decidedly imperfect. We should all be so average. Nevertheless, there is a moral here for all those "average" teachers, putting up with the jibes of their more "successful" contemporaries. Can't do anything, can he? - he's a teacher. Couldn't cut it in the "real world"? Well those could be just the things that make some teachers such good teachers. They can sympathise with their struggling pupils because they can remember what it was like when they were struggling, because they still are struggling. They can help baffled adolescents navigate through their exams and their lives, because it's all they can do to manage such things for themselves, right now.

Good education can't only be done by the Jackie Charltons, the humble tryers, the cloggers. You need the living proof of what is possible that only the Bobby Charltons can show you to really inspire the best of the next generation to scale the heights. But the cloggers have their place. Those who can't do can often be just the can-do teachers that you sometimes need.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:13 PM
Category: How to teach