Learning By Teaching

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“No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.” – Peter Drucker

In my late 20’s I was a consultant at KPMG. Early in my career, I focused internally on delivering training to our offices in South Africa. For three weeks every month, I was on the road teaching the fundamentals of auditing to fresh-faced associates.

When I first started doing it I was petrified someone would know more than me about the subject. My wife Jill (who also did this in the U.S. where we’d later meet) would joke that everyone knew more than me. She may well be right, but I know one thing for certain: I learned something new in every single one of those training sessions and became a better teacher because of it.

I went on to teach partners of the firm, consult for clients here in the U.S. on learning, and eventually start my own company focused on helping other companies learn better.

I realized through experience that if a company has a mindset of “each one, teach one”, it forges an unbeatable advantage over competitors.

It’s also the best way to fully expand the Circle of Learning.

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The Best Way To Learn Anything

Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize-winning physicist. Outside the world of physics, he is perhaps best known for his ability to explain complex topics in simple ways.

Richard Feynman teaching in a classroom
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He developed a four-step method for learning – the Feynman Technique.

  1. Study – pick a topic you want to learn and study as much as you can on it.
  2. Teach – simplify as far as possible— pretend you’re explaining to a 12-year-old.
  3. Reflect – whenever you get stuck, go back to the source material until you have a complete, simple explanation.
  4. Refine – test your explanation on others, pay attention to what questions they ask, and where they get confused. Use this knowledge to simplify further and create analogies.

I’m using this exact technique with this post, actually. Writing is teaching on paper. I research a topic, write an initial draft, edit and revise until it makes simple sense, and then hit publish. The feedback I get helps me write better material week by week, refining my ideas on learning culture as we learn together.

“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” – Mortimer Adler

Why the Feynman Technique Works

There are two primary reasons why this method works so well:

  1. Cohesive Units – in order to explain anything effectively, you can’t rely on only understanding how things work by themselves. You have to see the bigger picture and how everything works together as a cohesive unit. It’s by seeing how all the pieces fit together that you develop deep knowledge.
  2. Spotlight On Ignorance – testing your explanation by teaching others is crucial to this process. The feedback you get leaves you nowhere to hide. You have to confront the why’s and how’s that you might otherwise gloss over (because they’re too difficult to grasp).

Teaching is Leading

I want to return to the point I made earlier: if a company has a mindset of “each one, teach one”, it forges an unbeatable advantage over competitors.

We take this seriously at Curious Lion.

In the link above I describe our Learning Architect Office Hours. Teaching and learning in these weekly sessions makes me a better leader.

I’m constantly reminded by my own team about why we do what we do. Together, we clarify and refine our purpose as a company. For new people joining the company, it gives them a chance to learn “the why”, reducing the need for someone to tell them what to do.

I learn from my team every single day, which grounds me in humility and continuous learning and leaves me full of energy for the rest of the day and motivation for the rest of the week: every time I teach, I’m inspired to learn more and do better.

“When one teaches, two learn.” – Robert Heinlein

Teaching each other makes our daily work more effective. We’ve co-created major parts of our client methodology in these sessions. Putting it into practice then improves our ability to teach it to each other and our future clients.

Finally, at Curious Lion we believe that collectively, your people have the answers to your biggest challenges within them. Teaching is about helping those we work with—and ultimately ourselves—to see that potential within.

“The job of an educator is to teach students to see vitality in themselves.” – Joseph Campbell

brown wooden blocks on white table
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Image courtesy of unsplash.com

Learning to teach effectively is essential to the effectiveness of leadership.

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