Those who can, both do and teach

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” (George Bernard Shaw)

“Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them how to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime” (Lao Tzu)

I’ve been troubled for years by the false division between teaching and doing, expressed by a character in George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 play, Man and Superman.  More than 100 years later, the denigrating, first epigraph (above) still gets flung at teachers of all vocational backgrounds, including me.  Shaw’s character argues that teaching is a role taken up by people who fail in the “doing” of their field of vocation.  But is that always and only true?

As an English as a Second Language teacher (ESL), I teach immigrant newcomers and entrepreneurs to our country the language skills they need to succeed; this is “doing.” I am teaching them a language of international education, commerce and industry.  I earlier succeeded at content writing and editing and I continue to engage in those activities;  however, I have found that my local market better understands and appreciates the legitimacy of teaching. And when I teach, I serve my community in a shorter cycle of time than I can when I write and edit documents for businesses, non-profits and entrepreneurs. Sometimes the latter take months or longer to be digested. 

In a recent posting on, blogger “Strontium” argues that “most of our greatest doers have been great teachers,” such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky (to name a few). In modern times, these teachers and their followers show us that teaching is “the premiere avenue to funding, equipment, and access . . . . [to] the cutting edge of most disciplines.” So it is a false binary to position “teaching” against “doing” (i.e. research, experimentation, publication, etc.). They are more interconnected processes than that.

But many good teachers are not famous like these folk. As I found when returning to facilitating a class on blogging for the digiSMART program of the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship on August 31st, a deep understanding of the subject matter and not any high ranking or certification is necessary in a teacher who wants to cultivate (or “facilitate”) learning in students.

For instance, Customs and Excise expert and Praxis alumnus, Barry Frain, asked off-the-cuff why it’s necessary to end a blog posting with a Call-to-Action (CTA). Having lived and breathed blogging and article writing for the past 11 years (and so having some understanding of the process), I could immediately refer him to the reality that readers tend to read (especially online) documents passively. For that reason, bloggers can address their readers in the second person, and may engage their attention consciously, by urging them to take action (CTA).  Action by prospects is needed if a blogger’s posting is to gain any traction.

The “action” (of the CTA) might be simply to make the reader think more about the content of the posting, to make a change in the way they conduct their business communication, or, after consideration, to contact the blogger to purchase their product or service.

But teaching well can still involve close study and certification that are a form of “doing” or engaging in one’s field. For instance, I am certified in ESL from Tefl.Org  (Scotland), and in literacy language teaching from the Canadian Centre of Language Benchmarks (CCLB). In a few months’ time, I’ll complete a third certification, in the niche of Business English as a Second Language. A teacher’s learning and ongoing training/studying is never done; when education occurs well, there is no barrier between teaching and doing.

Teachers have tended to be undervalued in the Western Hemisphere, due to funding cuts and the focus of our broken system on what Strontium calls “workers, and not thinkers.” Teachers have simultaneously tended to be underpaid and overworked. And the teaching profession has sometimes been taken up by practitioners who don’t have the stamina or interest to stay connected as  “doers” in their specific fields.

While I’m not at all interested in asserting another false binary, such as between Western versus Eastern philosophies, when grappling with (or hearing) the denigrating epigraph from Shaw’s play, we might consider the proverb of Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu.

Tzu says that the purpose of teaching a learner is to instill in them the will and capability to solve problems on their own: “Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them how to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

When a teacher or facilitator rightly and capably does that work of instilling capacity, of making the learner learn independence (which should be the goal of any study), in my view the false separation Shaw refers to, between teaching and doing, dissolves.

And now it’s your turn: Do you as a learner or a teacher find Shaw’s statement true or false? How do you define good teaching, if not as a process of instilling independent capacity? Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.