The relationship between teacher and student, or mentor and mentee, is a special one. Well, at least it’s supposed to be. All teachers and mentors do their best to pass on their knowledge, wisdom, and expertise to the next generation of thinkers and doers. But, many pupils end up moving on from the learning phase of their lives feeling like they haven’t been given all the tools they need to find success.
So what’s the best way to prepare students and mentees to be successful and experts in their own right? Is it meticulous memorization and testing? Daily lectures and stringent note-taking?
According to a new study from Northwestern University, the most important aspect of being a good teacher or mentor isn’t related to spouting off facts or nuggets of information at all. Instead, researchers say pupils go on to be successful most often when their mentors impart tacit knowledge onto them.
Tacit knowledge, often referred to as implicit knowledge, is the type of understanding that is largely impossible to convey to another person through simple speech or writing. Examples of tacit knowledge include how to ride a bike, speak a language, or play guitar. No one is going to learn how to play the guitar by listening to a lecture on chords or taking notes on picking techniques.
So, it seems teaching is most effective when it isn’t so much centered on teaching, but doing. Researchers say that pupils taught by their teachers and mentors to think independently, communicate their opinions clearly, and figure problems out for themselves end up being the most successful in life.
“Communicating codified knowledge is relatively straightforward,” says corresponding author Brian Uzzi in a university release. “It’s written down in books and presentations. But it’s the unwritten knowledge we intuitively convey through our interactions and demonstrations with students that makes a real difference for mentees.”
This study is especially noteworthy given the current focus on remote learning and education these days. COVID-19 has forced everyone’s hand in this regard, but the study’s authors still say that online education offers little opportunity for tacit learning.
“Face-to-face interaction is essential. When we teach by doing, we are conveying tacit knowledge we don’t even realize we have,” Uzzi, the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and co-director of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, explains. “If we limit the face-to-face channel by which tacit knowledge is communicated, we potentially slow down the pace of learning and scientific breakthroughs, and that will affect us all.”
Based on the researchers’ calculations, students and mentees who have mentors that frequently provide tacit knowledge are two to four times more successful than their similarly smart peers assigned to mentors who usually stick to drier learning techniques like dictation and notes.
In all, data on 40,000 scientists who had published 1.2 million papers on subjects like chemistry, math, and biomedicine between 1960-2017 were analyzed for this research. Additional data sources were then used to match up those scientists with their mentors or advisors from their days spent in school.
Common sense dictates that more successful advisors would attract smarter or more talented pupils. So, to account for this possible inconsistency, researchers grouped mentors with similar reputations and resources together and compared their students’ performances collectively.
Even after accounting for all that, the researchers’ analysis still revealed that pupils who learned under mentors who had shown a tendency toward innovation, focusing on new research topics, and independent thought reached the highest levels of success themselves.
“Success” for this study was determined by whether or not a protégé went on to achieve a scientific prize in their career, become elected to the National Academy of Sciences, or reach the top 25% of citations within their given field.
Furthermore, despite the popular cultural stereotype that protégés usually go on to continue their mentor’s work, this study found that the most successful students forge a unique path for themselves by focusing on new research topics.
The full study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.