I'm curious if there's been anyone who's really good at research but also really bad at teaching - for example traditionally, Nobel Prize winners are required to give a public lecture related to the topic that won them the prize. For the hypothetical winner, nobody would look forward to the lecture (or the requirement is even waived entirely).

I'm asking this because I've attended many lectures given by well-known researchers and somehow they're all surprisingly good. Some are better than others, of course, but nobody is so bad that people fall asleep during the lecture (which I've seen happen in high school). It makes sense that there is some level of self-selection, because universities would not hire really bad teachers, but presumably research output is also valuable, and one does not have to be at a university to perform research.

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    I'm not comfortable naming names - for obvious reasons - but yes. Very much yes. Jan 13 '20 at 1:16
  • Oh right. I didn't consider that when asking the question ...
    – Allure
    Jan 13 '20 at 1:19
  • Consider asking something more concrete on History.SE, like which Nobel winner had the worst reputation for pedagogy.... Jan 13 '20 at 1:58
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is open ended. Jan 13 '20 at 2:07
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    “ It makes sense that there is some level of self-selection, because universities would not hire really bad teachers...” - You don’t really believe this, do you? Because in my experience this falls into the “obviously false” category.
    – user109454
    Jan 13 '20 at 2:29

If you ask are there "any" then the answer is clearly yes. But, like anything else, skills are learned. I turned out to be a good teacher, beloved by my students (mostly - some exceptions). But I started out as a terrible teacher with really poor ideas about how people learn.

If you don't do something (a lot) you aren't going to get very good at it. Being a "natural" researcher doesn't just happen either. But if you are allowed to spend all of your time on research and no one ever requires that you do any effective teaching, then you probably won't get good at it.

Some brilliant people make too many assumptions about others. If I have deep insight into some topic, I might, falsely, assume that my students do too. In particular, I might forget how long and hard it was for me to develop that insight.

But if your students turn out to be "just like you" then you can probably reach them ok. If you learned easily thorough lecture and you can lecture with some logic and completeness, then people like you will probably do ok. But, not all students are the same.

Your experience of hearing "good" lectures in public settings is, a lot, due to the fact that your general educational experiences are probably a lot like those of the speaker. And if they are established and experienced, then they probably have a lot of experience getting through to people like you. But maybe not so much in a class of beginning undergraduates.

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    I don’t believe that being an accomplished researcher is in any way correlated with being an excellent teacher. On the other hand, I strongly believe that being an excellent teacher is correlated with spending some time actually thinking about pedagogy.
    – user109454
    Jan 13 '20 at 2:38

I'm asking this because I've attended many lectures given by well-known researchers and somehow they're all surprisingly good.

While I can't identify any academics that are good researchers and poor teachers, I will note that there is good reason to think that good research and good teaching would be (at least weakly) positively correlated, and therefore it should not be surprising that most well-known researchers are also good teachers. Moreover, there is a self-selection effect in academia, whereby the most highly successful researchers often have the ability to negotiate away some or all of their teaching duties, and so those that remain as teachers tend to be the ones who are good at it (at least by self-perception). (Note that there is quite a bit of meta-analysis on this subject in the education literature; see e.g., Hattie and Marsh 1996; Zaman 2004; Elken and Wollsheid 2016.)

In my experience, the main three elements that good teaching requires are: (1) having a comprehensive understanding of a subject from first principles; (2) the ability to be able to build the material up slowly and patiently, with respect for audience context and existing knowledge; and (3) the ability to anticipate and address common areas of confusion, misunderstanding, and other pitfalls. Most of the best researchers have at least the first of these three traits, which already gives them the baseline requirement to be excellent teachers. Also, most well-known researchers are highly experienced academics, so they have probably also taught a lot of courses, and have built up a good knowledge of how to go about explaining the basics, and anticipating the common confusions, misunderstandings and pitfalls.

In theory, it is possible that becoming an expert researcher on the "cutting edge" of a field could harm one's ability to be able to remember the common confusions that one suffered from as a novice, or harm one's patience in dealing with these confusions. However, in practice, most academics do enough teaching from time-to-time that they maintain their ability to slowly and patiently explain material, and anticipate and address misunderstandings. For those who do not have the patience and inclination to explain the basics in their subject, if they are successful academic researchers, then they have probably negotiated their way out of teaching duties, and thereby self-selected out of the teaching pool.

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