Teaching knowledge: reflections from a student

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Feb 26, 2017

Almost two weeks ago now, we had a reading week for WSET, so no trekking down to London for classes. This past week, I was sidelined with a stomach complaint, so also no trip to London. Both of these, however, left me time to sit back and reflect on larger issues. (Despite that, it took me ages to get this post to what I consider an acceptable condition – hence the silence on the blog. I’m still not as happy as I’d like to be with this post, but I did want to get something up.) One of these is the difference between knowing about something and being able to teach about it. Yes, it’s an old topic for students everywhere, and if we are honest and care about our students, those of us involved in education. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
We all know, I’m sure, of teachers / lecturers / whatevers who may know their material, but don’t really have much clue to impart the knowledge. If we grant that I (sort of) knew what I was talking about in terms of subject material at the start of my teaching career, I’d firmly include myself. That was a full quarter of a century ago, but I still feel bad for the students of my first few years, until I found my feet teaching-wise. (That may sounds a bit vain. I’ve had enough feedback from students, and unprompted comments from colleagues about my teaching to feel confident that I’ve finally learned how to do it. But it takes time.)

I bring this up to establish my credentials, as it were, and to highlight the last WSET class I attended, a few weeks ago. It was a good day. We had three different instructors. They all had different styles, but importantly, they could all convey their knowledge, and often their passion. Two covered wine stuff (to use a technical phrase) and the other covered exam prep. The last admittedly seems to me a bit hard for anyone to get excited about. One member of the class said of the instructor: I like him. He reminds me of a sleepy puppy. But a sleepy puppy who would gently nudge and explain, I’d add. In other words, I’m not complaining about sleepy puppies. You can be extremely laid back, and yet effective. Enthusiasm can manifest itself as quiet confidence and guidance, not just excited hand waving.

Before I go further, let me say I do understand that there is a syllabus that needs to be covered, and it needs to cover enough of the same material across the world for people to take the same exam. It’s clearly not the same as teaching a classroom of 25 or even a lecture hall of 100. There isn’t as much flexibility as university lecturers (for instance) have.
With that in mind, I think back to not only the last time I was in class, but the other instructors I had the earlier this year and during first semester of the diploma, who also stood out for me. One thing they all had in common: They either modified the standard WSET powerpoint, or they didn’t use it at all. They used a flip chart, or the whiteboard to make points. One brought in a relief map of the area we were talking about, to make the influence of geography that much clearer. Yet others had slightly flippant styles, but flippancy that was backed up and justified by a strong understanding.

Why does this matter? It’s simple, really. Enthusiasm rubs off. It’s remembered, and it sinks in. Straight lecturing is, pedagogically, a bad thing. It’s one of the least effective ways of conveying information. When someone can convey their passion or excitement for a topic, it helps. I’ve talked to enough students to know how much this matters. Oh, So-and-So, they’ll say. They know the material, but their lectures are dull. Or, conversely, at the end of their time at university, they recall that first-year lecturer whose enthusiasm was evident. It isn’t just the lecturer, but the material they were teaching, that remains.

WSET instructors seem to spend all of their time teaching to the exam. That’s understandable. But, I’d make a suggestion, based on what I’ve been saying: If any WSET admin / office people are reading this: encourage your instructors to deviate from the syllabus. And if any instructors are reading this: deviate from the syllabus. You’ll still be teaching to the exam, but in a more comprehensive way. That’s my final, and perhaps, key point here. The best instructors didn’t just give us facts to regurgitate. They gave us an understanding of why the facts are what they are. That, to me at least, is the important part of any education. Facts you can look up. Understanding you can’t. In other words: WSET: less facts, more understanding, please.

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