I Teach, So I Learn

“If you light a lamp for someone it will also brighten your own path.” ~Buddhist Proverb

Let me tell you a story from my highschool days. In 11th grade, I chose chemistry class, simply because I had to chose two out of chemistry, biology, and physics and I couldn’t stand the physics teacher… So I found myself learning about molecules and reactives, without any particular interest in the topic.

Luckily for me, school chemistry builds on a set of relatively easy, logical models. Something I could handle well, so I got things right in the first exam. Afterwards, some classmates asked me to explain things to them and I unexpectedly stumbled into my first teaching experience.

“If you teach what you learn, it will stick with you for longer.” ~Stephen Covey

Apparently, I did a decent enough job, because the others kept asking me about the next topics as well. I had not understood these new topics at the time I was asked, but it felt good to be asked, so I tried to explain them anyways… And, miraculously, it worked!

While explaining to others, I taught myself as well. So well, in fact, that I didn’t need to study much for the following exams. And since I always understood thing a little better then those who had asked me for an explanation (amplified by me explaining most things to multiple classmates), I became one of the best students in my chemistry class.

Now I don’t tell you this to boast with my chemistry skills. I’m no chemist. Never was nor ever will be. And I forgot most of what I knew back then. However, what stuck with me is how well I learned through teaching.

“A lot of a time when I write things on my website it’s because I start off not really understanding something and I write the article in order to make myself understand it.” ~Martin Fowler

Of course, I didn’t always get things right the first time around, but, peculiarly, that didn’t matter much. Either me or the others would eventually notice and then we would rethink things and either ended up getting it right ourselves or knowing the right questions to ask in class.

Since I was dealing with unfamiliar subjects, I never felt bad admitting I had been wrong. And since we mostly ended up getting it right in the end, nobody bothered. I thank that the essential point here is that I had genuinely interested listeners who gave me feedback on my thinking, so that I could improve it. That is what happens, with a bit of luck, when you spit out what’s spinning around in your head.

It took me a while to understand that what I did in chemistry class was teaching and that I had used it as my learning method. But since then, I use this trick whenever I can. I give talks at conferences about topics that I find interesting, but often are just outside my area of expertise. I organize events like my Legacy-Code Retreat or my Mob Programming with Students, not because I’m some guru, but because I’m interested in the topic and I want to learn about it. And, ultimately, I became Let’s Developer and write this blog, because I want to study and practice software development methods.

Preparing a talk or a screencast (i.e., an explanation to a whole group of people) or an event (which requires me to explain to others what they should do) makes me learn quickly. And the feedback I receive from my audience multiplies this effect. So I soon become the “expert” one might expect me to be in the first place.

“I find that people prefer to learn [techniques] through the perspective of a coach, rather than as a team member. I mean that most people prefer to learn the techniques because they intend to coach the people around them, even though they tend to coach themselves most.” ~Joe Rainsberger

Teaching does not only help me to learn things quickly. Taking the role of a teacher or coach also helps me overcome situations where I’ve been stuck. After all, it is much easier to assist others with their problems than to face one’s own, even if these others have the same or very similar problems.

Now you might think me a fraud or selfish, but as long as everybody wins, I don’t see why I should feel bad about it. In fact, I think that you should go share your ideas and thoughts with others too, to learn from explaining and from the feedback. This may well uncover interesting ideas and unravel some knots in your thinking, as long as you remember to genuinely listen to and react on the feedback you receive.

What do you think?

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