Lessons in Teaching & Learning – Why Intelligence Isn’t Enough

In my time at Atomic Object, I’ve had the opportunity to teach and mentor a number of apprentices. These teaching experiences have given me an idea on what attributes make up a good teacher and student. However, I had never formalized or put into words what these attributes are until I listened to Education and the Internet and How Children Succeed from EconTalk.

Good Teachers

Adaptive Teaching – A teacher should not only reflect on whether their de-facto teaching style is effective, but also take the time to adapt to students based on the students’ individual characteristics and learning styles. This is a difficult but important aspect of educating. People are highly dynamic, and no two people are the same. It is naïve to think one particular style of teaching will work with everyone.

High Standards – Having exacting standards shows the student that you expect a lot out of them because you respect their intelligence and ability to learn new and difficult concepts. From my experience as a student and teacher, I’ve observed that students will adapt to whatever standards are set by the teacher (see Parkinson’s Law). While they may get a sort-of “shallow” satisfaction out of an easy “A,” they probably didn’t walk away feeling like they learned something new.

Respect – This is a subtle but important part of being a good teacher. At Atomic Object, we show respect by putting apprentices on real projects and expecting them to contribute. In contrast to some other companies, we don’t give them a slew of remedial tasks or turn them into our own personal assistant. Humility is certainly an important aspect of being a good student, but there are more productive ways of teaching humility other than showing them who is boss.

Good Students

Grit and Determination – These are extraordinarily important and undervalued aspects of being a good student. I’ve had apprentices with a wide range of cognitive intelligence. However, the apprentices that stood out to me were the ones that never gave up, wouldn’t let you solve the problem for them, and spent time outside of work (on their own) to figure it out because they cared deeply about understanding the problem. More importantly, this is a trait that is hard, perhaps impossible, to teach someone.

Conscientiousness – A good student is not only willing to do what is right but to also do it well, even if the task or problem isn’t enjoyable or optimal for their skill set. This shows me, as a teacher, that they have a great deal of character and have a desire to see those around them succeed as well.

Cognitive Ability – A student’s natural ability to think critically, solve problems, and memorize subject matter certainly has an affect on what their “mental upper bound” is. However, a student that has superior cognitive skills but lacks conscientiousness and grit is less likely to succeed than a student who has slightly less cognitive skill but is conscientious and determined.


A good student, in my opinion, possesses determination, conscientiousness, and above-average cognitive skills. If a student possesses these qualities they’ll probably succeed in spite of poor teaching. However, a good teacher can facilitate and improve the growth of a student by being adaptive, setting high standards, and showing respect towards their students.