In the medical field, skill acquisition involves three steps: seeing, doing and teaching (a.k.a. see one, do one, teach one). In other fields, the third step is often left out, and over time people recycle through the first two steps as they deepen their knowledge. However, when learning, and especially when we’re somewhere between beginner and proficient, we could do well to follow this three step prescription.
Teaching brings a new dimension to learning because it requires one to think from different perspectives. While actively teaching we receive questions we had not thought of; questions based upon different viewpoints than our own. While explaining answers, we’re forced to break out of our existing thought channels, or mental comfort zone, in order to bring across concepts. While in the process of articulation, we can discover something new by applying concepts in new ways, such new analogies or real world applications.
I was recently asked to give a lunch & learn, a common practice at Atomic Object, on a topic I recently discovered and had some experience with. Although my experience was light, I felt confident I knew the topic well enough to present it. I created a slide deck and began practicing the presentation, but quickly found myself struggling while articulating a few portions of the topic. Each practice run felt choppy, and worse, very different from the prior run. I quickly realized I didn’t know the topic quite as well as I thought.
So I changed gears, switching my mindset from that of presenter, to that of teacher. I started to explain the “hows” and “whys” differently, and after about an hour, I had it. I was consistent and fluid. My knowledge of the topic grew. I did not spend that hour “studying” the topic at hand, instead I spent that hour figuring out “how to teach” the topic at hand. In this particular case, preparation pushed my thought boundaries.
The concept of learning by teaching is especially important in learning organizations, where learning and growth occurs as a team. Don’t wait until you’re an expert or feel you have deep knowledge of a subject before teaching. Start as soon as you can, and as others start to learn, they’ll in turn teach you, and the entire organization will grow synergistically, from its multiple viewpoints, backgrounds, and experiences. For organizations with a great culture and A players, you’ll gain competitive advantage from your unique, organically grown knowledge base.
I’ve told folks many times over the years, “If you can’t teach it, you don’t know it”. Yes, that’s a little harsh, but there’s truth to it. Take some time, give lunch & learns, set aside the last 15 minutes of a meeting, or just sit down with a colleague and “teach”. One way or another, find a way to teach.