Teaching to learn

Perhaps the best way to learn isn’t to simply read, or practice, something again and again. It’s to teach. If you can teach someone how to do it, it means you’ve learned it.

Teaching is actually a two-way street, the student gets to learn something new and the teacher gets to try something new. When you teach someone, you have to articulate it in a way that’s easy to understand. You have to demonstrate it in a way that’s easy to imitate. You have to show it in a way that causes the student to develop their own eureka moment.

Teaching lets you explore the material in a completely different light. You play with the ideas, stretch it, bend it, try to break it, and chew on it until you get something that’s easy to understand, or until you understand it yourself. Then, you teach it.

It causes you to work a lot harder at the material and you will learn a lot more than if you were to simply read, regurgitate, repeat. And let’s be honest, that’s how most of us learn. Read, regurgitate, repeat. The more you play with the material, the more you understand the ideas and concepts behind it, and the stronger the impression it leaves in your mind.

It takes time, it’s hard work, but that’s how to properly learn something, by being able to teach it to someone else in simple terms. As Richard Feynman once said:

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

I was going to use the “If you can’t explain something to a first year student, then you haven’t really understood it.” quote but turns out, it’s unsourced and likely a derivative of the above exchange.

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What is education?

We all know the drill, study hard, get good grades, go to a good college or university, get a degree and viola. That’s our current system of education. Work hard, get a piece of paper, and you get to go places.

But so far, is it working? What does that piece of paper actually mean? It means you’ve paid the money. You’ve gone through the process and you’ve been recognized or accreditated. It’s also a requirement if you want to apply for jobs, employment visas, and whatnot.

That paper doesn’t necessarily mean you’re competent. It doesn’t necessarily mean you know what to do, it doesn’t necessarily mean you now have valuable skills other people would pay for. It just means you’ve paid the money and gone through the process.

Companies hire people based on these papers and what do they do? They train them again. Most companies have these ‘graduate development programs’ where they train university graduates, with either company courses or on-the-job training, so they actually know how to do their job.

What the heck did we spend all that time and money in university for? Just to get a foot in the door? Just to get filtered out so companies will actually consider hiring us? Unemployment rates are climbing year after year and we now have more degree holders than ever. What does that tell you?

That our current education system doesn’t work? Our system for ranking and assessing students are mostly based on tests and what do these tests test them on? Memorizing facts that can easily be looked up online? Solving difficult math equations that serve no real purpose in everyday life?

We don’t teach our students on useful real-life skills like basic survival skills, how to cook, managing our finance, understanding social situations, understand cognitive biases, proper time management skills, how to make decisions, how to negotiate, how to learn new skills, or even how to earn a living. Why? Because these skills can’t be tested, they have no right answer.

But those are the skills that are highly valuable in the society we live in, yet we don’t teach them in formal education. Instead, we teach history, plant reproductive system, Faraday’s law, river formations, calculus, and so on. Not that there’s no value in learning such topics, they just aren’t as useful. Do you still remember those topics, much less apply them at all?

What exactly is our education system for? I don’t think we’re getting what we want out of it. The next question is, can we change it?

The illusion of knowing

Ever experienced the illusion of knowing? It’s a weird phenomenon. You feel like you understand something, like you intuitively know it, but in reality you don’t.

This is the pitfall of a great teacher. A great teacher can explain a complex concept in a simple and easy to understand manner. Her students would feel like they intuitively grasped what she is talking about.

The sad part is, she’s only giving her students the illusion of understanding. They would feel like they know all there is to know, only to find out they don’t when doing their worksheets and exercises.

To truly understand something, it is extremely important to consolidate what we learned and put it into practice.

A truly great teacher wouldn’t simply explain everything to her students, she would probe her students and get them to think. She would guide them and let them teach themselves.

Knowledge gained through struggle is worth more than knowledge idly gained.