Karol Jan Borowiecki (Department of Economics, University of Southern Denmark)
Nick Ford (Department of Economic History, Lund University)
Maria Marchenko (Department of Economics, Vienna University of Economics and Business)
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All of us have had teachers who we can recall decades later. Many of us have struggled with a concept right up until the right teacher at the right time comes with the right explanation that makes the pieces fall into place. Teachers can have a profound effect on their students, both through the knowledge they share and the sparks of inspiration they provide.
This effect is especially true in creative fields, where promising new talents are shaped and motivated by established figures. As an example of this, we focus our research on music composers. Throughout history, composers have learnt from other composers, and these relationships are well documented in historical sources.
Our analysis is enabled by a novel dataset that covers teacher–student pairs spanning a period from the fourteenth to the twenty-first century. Our data include 17,433 composers, who together form 36,927 unique teacher–student pairs. (Any given composer may be a student or teacher of more than one composer.) We measure quality transmission between composers using the length of biographies recorded in Grove Music Online — a professionally edited and respectable encyclopaedia of music. All else being equal, a longer biography of an individual composer implies a higher ‘quality’.
We find a significant correlation between teacher quality and student quality. Moreover, we find this effect is persistent over successive generations, that is, from teacher to student to student’s student and so on. The effect of quality transmission is amplified by similarities between teacher and student, for example, whether they come from the same country.
What success sounds like
One does not need to be a music aficionado to recognise several of the names who appear in our dataset. Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky are among the top tier as far as biography lengths go. But the effects we observe are not just limited to the best of the best.
As Figure 1 illustrates, there is a significant correlation between teacher quality and student quality. Given that students can have multiple teachers, we measure teacher effects in two ways. The left-hand panel of the figure shows the average effect of each student’s teachers (as measured by their biography word counts). The right-hand panel charts the maximum effect given by the highest quality teacher for each student. Regardless of which effect we are looking at, we find that a one per cent increase in the length of the average/maximum teacher’s biography is associated with an average 0.1 per cent increase in the length of a student’s biography.
Of course, multiple factors could play a role in influencing the observed positive relationship between teacher quality and student quality. In our econometric analysis, we regress teacher quality on student quality while controlling for a range of other factors that might influence quality transmission. In particular, teachers and students are not randomly paired, hence we control for time periods, and places of birth and death. We also control for the number of teachers a student has. Accounting for these factors results in somewhat lower magnitudes compared to the simple graphical analysis presented in Figure 1: With all controls applied, we find that a one per cent increase in teacher quality is associated with an increase in student quality around 0.03 per cent. Nevertheless, the effect of teacher quality on student quality remains strong and significant.
The lingering echoes of quality
Our dataset also allows us to examine the persistence of quality transmission across multiple generations of students, that is, from teacher to student, to student’s student, and so on. As one example, the longest generational chain we identify spans 21 generations and includes 10,321 individual composers (Figure 2).
A key finding from our analysis is that quality transmission persists across several generations. While the effect unsurprisingly diminishes from generation to generation, we find in the most robust estimations a positive effect of teacher quality on up to the eighth generation of student. That is, a high-quality teacher matters not only for the direct student, but also has cascading effects as that teacher’s knowledge and skills are passed on.
Figure 2: Descendants of Jean Mouton
Caption: The figure illustrates the distribution of composers by birth year across the longest generational chain in our dataset. The darker coloured points indicate composers with higher word counts (with a recorded maximum of 42,011 words).
While we find evidence of quality transmission among music composers, less clear are the precise mechanisms at play. Our data do not allow us to determine precisely what quality-related attributes teachers pass on to their students. One channel is skills-related: Students may learn more or better from accomplished composers. But a range of other possibilities are relevant to consider as well, such as reputational effects from being associated with a top composer, and better access to influential networks. We offer no definitive conclusions here, though we note that the effects of teacher quality are not exclusively driven by the top tier of composers.
Our results provide relevant insights for understanding the determinants of creativity, and provide a distinct perspective on broader questions of teacher quality and educational attainment. But perhaps the most important message is for aspiring composers: Find yourself a good teacher! Quality matters.