Teaching is Learning

Do you really want to learn something quickly? Try teaching it to someone else. Consulting work often puts you in the position of augmenting the expertise you may have in a one particular area with deep knowledge of a subject matter you may be relatively new to working in. Our team is often in the position of building applications in the cloud to support all different types of organizational requirements from inspections and facilities management to capital planning and portfolio management.

Over time we have developed expertise in a variety of different types of systems but their is always a new wrinkle or new angle. For clients, who are pinning the modernization of an application whose business rules and execution they depend on, it can be nerve wracking if you are stammering through the basics of their business.

I never try to pretend I know more than I do, but I do try to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can so I can be more effective and put the clients mind at ease. One trick I’ve learned over time is to teach the client’s business to someone on staff prior to a project kickoff. You may wonder how much benefit you can get from one person who is admittedly not an expert teaching another who knows nothing about a subject. 

In my experience the act of attempting to teach someone else forces you down a deeper learning path. The simple act of thinking through how to teach something to someone forces you to find ways to map the new material to the world you know so you can express it to someone else. It forces you to begin to chunk and categorize the information as well as making it easier to identify gaps in your own understanding.

It usually takes me a couple of attempts to complete my teaching assignment with a colleague, but at the end I inevitably find myself with a deeper understanding of the subject matter and a deeper confidence in speaking about it. At the end of the day this better understanding not only puts the clients mind at ease but it positions me to be better prepared to service their requirements.

So if you really want learn something fast…maybe you should start by figuring out how to teach it to someone else.

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Mark Hammer

1) Very nice post, and chock full of truth. When I used to teach university, I would remind my students that “You didn’t go to the whiz in high school for help – that person became a whiz *because* you went to them for explanations.”

2) A substantial chunk of what we know, and what forms our individual expertise, is often tacit knowledge, rather than something we learned formally from structured lists of principles. As such, as much as we may use it expertly, it is not structured or codified in our own minds. Teaching others forces us to formalize it, and transform it from an amorphous cloud of knowledge into “mental bulleted points”.

3) Usually, when we think of job-shadowing, we think of it in terms of a new person being on-boarded – often by someone about to leave or retire. – and as an efficient means for the new person to come up to speed. BUt maybe job-shadowing can be JUST as useful a learning experience for the person being shadowed, as they crystallize and convey how they do their job and balance off priorities to someone else.

4) It’s an entirely different topic of discussion, but I bristle at the notion of enrichment or “gifted” programs in schools that separate more advanced students from others. If we were truly interested in their intellectual advancement, we would keep them in regular programs and have them help their fellow students. They’d get more out of it.