Learn by teaching

Kari and I had dinner last night with some good friends who have just opened their new dojo in John’s Landing, Portland. Along with the beer and wine, we had lots of philosophical discussions, because that’s how Tony is. He’s fully immersed in this philosophy and is happiest sharing this love with people he cares about. It’s part of what makes him such a great teacher.

And that is part of what I wanted to talk about today. He said something in passing that really embodies an ethos that I believe is critical to truly learning a concept. He was talking about the learning progression in martial arts and laughed a little at the modern standardized belt ranking system. He explained how the traditional ranking system wasn’t about external recognition and focused instead on personal development and character building.

I probably have some of the details a little off (wine, remember), but one would start out as a beginner, then be accepted into a school, become an apprentice teacher, and finally achieve the status of teacher and beyond. One could not advance without becoming a teacher! Teaching others and passing on the knowledge you’ve learned is built directly into the value system. Even the honorific Sensei translates literally into “one who has gone before.”2

The word Sensei translates literally into “one who has gone before.”

Teaching others forces us to come up with the language to describe the amorphous concepts that we may only have the most tenous grasp on. It forces us to internalize the understanding so that we may answer the questions of another learner and to think of words to describe in ways that others might be able to receive it. This is something that I can personally attest to, as I’ve achieved much of my Puppet expertise via teaching others and working with others in the field to help them solve their problems.

Often while running my classes I will pair people up to help one another. I most often do this as a way of evening out the class experiences so that nobody is left behind or is bored at the pace. I think that I might formalize this practice into labs and exercises across all deliveries of our courseware and give all the students of my materials the opportunity to both learn and teach the concepts.

You may be reading this thinking, “well that’s all great and dandy for teachers, but what the hell does it have to do with me?”

I suggest that you take this approach and work it into your own life. Become a mentor for the [fucking] new guy at work and help him or her to learn the tools of your trade. Run a few tutorial sessions at your local Linux|Python|Drupal|etc. Users Group. Pick up a new knitting technique and share it in your weekly circle. Read a difficult novel and share it at your book club. Volunteer at your local after school program and help kids learn skills needed in preparation for their careers.

Besides the personal enrichment you’ll achieve, this will solidify your own knowledge and expertise at an amazing rate.