Saturday, June 11, 2011

Learning 5/5 Teach It

This week, I've got a theme: Learning. There are five steps in the process of truly learning something and I'll be discussing one each day.
Choose to Learn | Don't Take Notes | Try it Out | Play with Alternatives | Teach It

Teach It (Part 5 of 5)
My evidence for the necessity of this final step is purely empirical, but I've so much of it that I am nonetheless confident. Why there are two always, a master and a student? Because you cannot be a master without a student. Er, because you cannot a master be, a student without?

It's funny, when we are taught in school that a blacksmith must start as an apprentice and work his way to journeyman before he can graduate to being a master blacksmith himself, it's obvious why the apprentice is taking on this arduous task despite the relative shame of being somebody's lesser for a decade or so (at least, that's how I imagine most Americans feel about it), but we don't really think about the master's motivation. Is she in it for the free labor or the pride of having a voluntary subordinate? Probably, but perhaps the larger motivation is that taking on and training an apprentice is the final requirement in becoming a master of the art, both in social perception and in practice.

If you've ever taught anything or even given a simple presentation, you have experienced the moment when you go to explain how something works and realize that you never consciously understood why it works that way. If you know your stuff, it is often at that very moment that you think about the why and put words to the answer. Suddenly, an invisible detail you never knew you were missing reveals itself to you and you see how it binds everything else together. What you thought was 20/20 vision on the subject snaps into new clarity and you have learned the final lesson that leads to actual mastery, the one that no one could have taught you.

A huge factor in learning is perspective and technique. Because humans are so unique and individual, it's incredibly common for two different people to hear the same sentence completely differently. If there are multiple ways to parse the sentence, someone will interpret it differently than you. This is at least as true in learning. Add to that the fact that some folks are visual learners, while others are physical learners and still others are auditory learners and you come back to the old advice that you must teach something three times before your class can all get it.

These differences come back at you while teaching. If you say something one way and a student doesn't get it, another who did might restate the same idea another way; a way that you would never have thought of your own. That adds perspective to your understanding, which is the same vital breadth that I discussed in part 4.

Have you ever been taught something by someone who doesn't understand it terribly well themselves? Perhaps you had a substitute teacher for Physics one day, or perhaps a friend who learned schoolyard Magic tried to teach you the game. It becomes very obvious very fast when this person doesn't really know what they're talking about.

When my friends are I learning a new board game for the first time, one player will read the rules to the others. Despite the fact that everyone is reading or hearing the same words, invariably, the listeners tune out and only the reader (provided they were paying attention and not simply droning out words on a page) is the only one who actually knows how to play. We'll then ask them and they'll restate the rules in their own words, finally getting through to us. I believe these phenomena are connected; we can tell by the delivery whether our teacher understands the subject and it is much more difficult to learn when they don't.

That's not to say that a pair or group of people can't learn a subject together profitably. Since one person will grok certain concepts faster and another others, they can explain those ideas to each other in a different way and both will ultimately pick up the larger body of information faster. Part of this is that you are basically introducing teaching into the early learning process as each participant must explain their learning (both the stuff they got right and wrong) in real-time. It's also fine that you will be offering incorrect understanding sometimes, since your fellow students will be able to correct you as it is offered (hopefully). Certainly, without proper source material or empirical research it is possible for a group to build upon misconceptions until they come to a completely incorrect conclusion. See, the Middle Ages. See also, Fox News.

It is this very method of collaborative learning that Goblin Artisans is all about. Regardless of how long we've been designing, none of us are expert enough to truly teach the subject, and so we rely on each other to call out the mistakes we make, figuring out better methods and noting pitfalls as we go.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this series.

    I think the anecdotes are good, and if you could tell them like a story it would be better. (Like how the guy sounded when he was reading the rules for others, etc.)

    To nitpick, while not taking notes might be good advice, it doesn't feel like a step in a 5-step process. The point is actively thinking about what you're learning, but not taking notes is only part of that and only applies to classroom learning.

    I agree that every time I taught something I learned a lot. I was an avid poster on the WotC Limited forums and made quite a few posts along the way that makes me cringe now. That process really raised my limited skills.