In 1970, psychologists and psychiatrists were invited to a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” The lecture, supposedly given by Dr Myron L. Fox, a graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a student of the great John van Neumann, was actually given by an actor who knew nothing about either Game Theory or Physical Education.The audience of MDs and PhDs were in fact unwitting subjects in a study conducted by Donald Naftulin, John Ware, and Frank Donnelly on ‘educational seduction’. They were divided into two groups; one group was given a lecture by an actual scientist about something relevant and interesting, the other group listened to Dr Fox pedal his nonsense. In the first experiment, Dr Fox was instructed to lecture in as boring a monotone as he could manage. The two groups were then tested on how much they had retained and, surprise surprise, the group lectured by the scientist had learned more.

In a second experiment, Dr Fox went to town, using the full range of his thespian skills; he had his audience laughing, concentrating and nodding along. Even though the content of the lecture was absolute pap, filled with what Deborah Merritt describes as, “double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements,”  students rated the lecture as just as interesting and valid as that given by a genuine expert. This phenomenon – that a charismatic speaker could fool a knowledgeable into believing any old rubbish was in fact meaningful and worthwhile – became known as the Dr Fox Effect.

Dr Fox bamboozled three separate audiences of professional and graduate students. Merritt, in a critique of student surveys used to evaluate lecturers said, “Despite the emptiness of his lecture, fifty-five psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, graduate students, and other professionals produced evaluations of Dr. Fox that were overwhelmingly positive. … The disturbing feature of the Dr. Fox study, as the experimenters noted, is that Fox’s nonverbal behaviors so completely masked a meaningless, jargon-filled, and confused presentation.”

Now, although other researchers have confirmed the existence of the Dr Fox Effect it appears that although people in the audience rate a good speaker in a positively, regardless of what they say, little actual learning take place unless the speaker possesses considerable subject knowledge. Psychologists Eyal Peer and Elisha Babad replicated the original study in 2012 but added an additional question to the questionnaire people who attended the lecture were given. The question asked whether audience members felt they’d actually learned anything. The results were interesting: even students those who evaluated Dr. Fox as a highly effective speaker were aware that they had learned nothing from the lecture.

So, what does this tell us about effective teaching in schools? There’s a commonly held belief in education that a good teacher can teach anything well (an assumption I critique in this post) and that subject knowledge, whilst not without value, is clearly less important than the pedagogic skills of the teacher. The argument suggests that it is much better for teachers to focus on acquiring and practising generic teaching skills than on developing subject knowledge.

Although students may well enjoy engaging lessons and motivating speakers, these things don’t actually seem to make a lot of difference to learning. In the Sutton Trust report What Makes Great Teaching, Rob Coe and colleagues identify the six most important and best evidenced qualities that underpin great teaching and, top of their list, is (pedagogical) content knowledge:

The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

This isn’t to say that teaching skills are unimportant, but there is evidence that such skills may be innate. Strauss, Ziv and Stein have found that five-year-olds already have pretty well-developed teaching skills and routinely demonstrate what they want other children to do, give specific directions and verbal explanations, ask questions to check understanding, explicitly talk about the teaching skills they use and are responsive to the needs of those being taught. This isn’t to say that these skills can’t be further honed, but it does suggest that we may be spending too much time teaching teachers to do things they’ve been able to do since early childhood.

If we value ‘pedagogy’ over subject knowledge we may be falling victim to the Dr Fox Effect. Of course an effective, charismatic speaker is preferable to a tedious old windbag, but if teachers aren’t genuine experts in their subjects, students won’t learn much of value.