There is no such thing as a naturally gifted teacher. Similarly, there is no such thing as a naturally gifted researcher. Both of these endeavours require effort, thought, persistence, resilience, and a belief that we can grow and transform as scholars, as individuals and as citizens. You don’t wake up one day in graduate school and miraculously become a productive researcher, nor do you step into your first class as an instructor and automatically know what you are doing. And yet, the myth of the naturally gifted teacher persists.
Why do we insist on taking a fixed mindset with teaching, even when we believe in a growth mindset for learning? Why do we believe that we can help our students master difficult concepts over time with effort and careful training, but fail to devote the same attention to developing our teaching capacities? Why are we so invested in perpetuating a myth of the naturally gifted teacher when it contradicts the foundational mission of a university, which is to learn more than we already know?
It is time to disabuse ourselves of the belief that there is a naturally gifted teacher. It serves no one well and erases the messy journeys and contested conceptual terrains essential to the processes of building new knowledge.
First, though, what do people usually mean when they say someone is a naturally gifted teacher? I have most often heard the term used to describe someone full of charisma who is capable of holding the attention of students in large lecture halls. This persona is often bound up with the mildly derogatory “sage on the stage” moniker with its undertones of monologic self-indulgence. The “guide on the side” model is often proposed as a countermeasure because it is more “learner-centred.”
When interrogating this myth of the naturally gifted teacher, what starts to emerge is how definitions of teaching excellence are both reductive and disparaging. This myth does double damage: first, it erases spaces for teachers who deploy different styles, demeanours, pedagogical philosophies and mindsets to learning and teaching. Second, praise for performing well in the classroom can, in certain contexts, become a backhanded compliment.
Furthermore, when we perpetuate the myth of the naturally gifted teacher, we overestimate the value of innate talent and underestimate the value of discipline, energy and effort. What appears to be effortless and “natural” to others might in fact be the product of deliberate practice. Baldassare Castiglione, a 16th-century Italian courtier, theorizes this concept – he calls it sprezzatura – in The Book of the Courtier. He urges courtiers to devote countless hours to study and practice but then “make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”
Research on the science of expertise reinforces Castiglione’s early modern approach to cultivating a growth mindset. “Expert performers” (people who are the best in their field and have reached levels of high performance) need what Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool call “deliberate practice.” In their book Peak: How All of Us Can Achieve Extraordinary Things, they argue that “learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it.” In other words, people don’t have a fixed amount of potential to develop but rather we all have the ability to create our own potential.
Professors who’ve been teaching for 30 years are not necessarily better in the classroom just because they’ve clocked thousands of hours. While one might assume that they would improve with practice over time, Ericsson and Pool argue that “automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.” Expert performers focus on specific, targeted goals, push themselves outside their comfort zones, are consistent and persistent, seek feedback, and take time to recover from the intensity of deliberate practice.
So what does a growth mindset about teaching look like? The first step is to understand teaching as a process of learning, as a scholarly practice of open inquiry. If we treat teaching in the same way we approach research, we can start with a question, read everything around that particular topic, design methodologies for exploring the guiding question, gather information, synthesize it, and hopefully contribute something new to the field. We are hardwired to do this in our disciplines and it is time we do the same for our teaching. There is no such thing as a naturally gifted teacher; we all have the ability to create our own potential as learners and as educators. How liberating.