One of the greatest things that you can do for another human being is to teach them. We tend to overload the word “teacher” in modern society, equating it with formal educational settings like primary school or university, but the fact is that anyone can be a teacher. Anyone can share what they know! Of course, like almost any other activity, teaching is better when you’re good at it, right? And you can be good at it. In this series of “Being a Teacher” posts, I’m going to help you learn a bit about how you—and other humans—learn, so that you can be a better teacher.
Oh, and let’s set aside this Imposter Syndrome-driven notion of “I don’t have anything to teach.” Frankly, that’s a lie and you’re underselling yourself if you believe it. You’re a human being who’s old enough to operate the Internet and subscribe to this newletter; you’ve got plenty to teach. Maybe stop looking up at the people who taught you, and look instead for people who need what you know.
Throughout your life, I’m guessing you’ve had a variety of different teachers who used a variety of different teaching techniques. At the time you were being taught, you were doubtless focused on the material, and not the teaching style; that’s understandable. But now, go back in your mind a bit. Close your eye—no wait, don’t close your eyes unless you’ve got your computer reading this aloud to you! Just go back and think about some of the most effective teachers you had.
One teaching technique is to just lecture and expect your learners to pick up what you’re laying down. Basically, it’s all about memorization. This is actually a crappy way to learn—horribly inefficient and amongst the least effective techniques I could mention. Go back to when you were 9 or 10 and learning your multiplication tables: that was fun, right? It may have worked, but it took a lot of flash cards and repetition—very ineffective. Most adults wouldn’t put up with it. So that tells us that just telling people things isn’t terribly effective.
Ever tell a child not to touch the hot pot on the stove? Yeah. Lecturing isn’t a great teaching mechanism.
Experience is awesome, though. Once that kid touches the pot—they’re unlikely to do it too many more times, right?
So the best teaching is about facilitating experiences.
Imagine that I asked you to drop the engine out of a car. Very few folks reading this newsletter could probably do so right away. Now suppose I explained it to you in detail—you probably still wouldn’t be comfortable. Now suppose I stood you in front of the car, stood right next to you, opened up a service manual, and helped you get started. I’d stand there the whole time, and when you got stuck, I’d help you find the right bit of the service manual to in-stick you. It’d take us a while, but we’d get that engine out—and you’d be confident that you could do it again on your own, or at least you’d get further without help the next time.
In that scenario, I was facilitating an experience for you. I wasn’t telling you how to do the task; instead, I was helping you find the right bits of reference material to help you succeed on your own. I was watching, perhaps keeping you from making any catastrophic mistakes, but largely letting you muddle through.
That kind of teaching is called constructivism, and it was first described in the early 1900s. It’s a way for learners to create—to construct—their own “mental model” of whatever they’re learning. It’s especially effective with adults for two reasons:
One, adults already have vast, mature mental models. Constructivism doesn’t try to change the way you think or behave, but rather lets you incorporate new experiences and abilities into your existing model.
Two, adults get super scared of failing, even in “safe” environments like a classroom or lab. Having a facilitator nearby can help elevate that fear, letting the learning happen.
Notably, the facilitator never provided answers. But they also don’t just chuck the learner into the documentation and tell them to hope for the best. The facilitator helps explain the documentation or other materials, answering questions and using analogies to help the learner integrate the new information into their existing understanding of the world.
So: Go forth and be a teacher. Be a facilitator. See if you can use this approach with a coworker or a family member this week, and see how it works.