Atomic Culture Pairs – Teaching to Learn


When a new employee starts at AO, they’re given a Culture Pair. My pair, Lisa, has been with me each step of the way, teaching me about Atomic culture and process. Lisa was new herself two years ago. Her Culture Pair was Brittany, and Brittany’s pair was Patrick, and on, and on (I may start referring to Patrick as my great-grandpair from here on out).

There are many ways to learn on the job. So why does AO insist on Culture Pairs? Just because one of our values is “Teach and Learn”?

While it’s great that I always have someone to turn to with questions, the set-up isn’t just good for me, it’s good for Lisa too. As my pair, Lisa’s responsibility for being a productive Atom didn’t end with her learning her own job, and then successfully doing it. Her responsibility now is to teach the process of AO’s culture to me. In doing so, the inner workings of AO are being set to her heart.

Learning, arguably, doesn’t end after you’ve figured out how to do something yourself. True learning comes when you teach what you know to someone else because in order to teach something well, you have to care about it yourself. Lisa has answered plenty of questions about the inner workings of AO that I’ve needed to learn. Because of the learning pair set-up, not only have I started on the path of learning how AO works, Lisa’s knowledge and confidence in what she knows has been solidified.

See. Do. Teach.

While spending time with my father-in-law over Memorial Day weekend, he brought up the “see one, do one, teach one” learning philosophy. Known mostly as a medical school teaching method for learning how to perform surgeries, a student learns by first watching the procedure, then executing the procedure, and finally by teaching the procedure to someone else.

While I can’t say that I would be excited about being the patient during the second medical stage, I find the whole practice to be an insightful reflection of the way we learn. The See-Do-Teach learning philosophy requires more than book knowledge or even hands-on experience. Teaching the process to someone else is a necessary step too.

The same philosophy seems to be true at Atomic Object. One of our core values is Teach and Learn. Notice here, it’s not just, “Learn new and interesting things.” Teaching is necessarily related to the value of learning.

Head. Hands. Heart.

Why are these three steps of learning necessary, and why is teaching part of the learning process? To help clarify, I think it helps to see things with a “head, hands, heart” mentality. How does “see, do, teach” connect to “head, hands, heart”?

  1. See = Head — cognitive understanding, critical thinking
  2. Do = Hands — learning by doing, getting a feel for how things actually work
  3. Teach = Heart — affective/emotive, caring about the results, valuing the outcome, feeling that the process and goals are important, experiencing a personal connection

Effective teaching produces knowledge, but unless that knowledge is put into practice, a new employee will never fully understand what they’ve learned, nor will they know how to apply it. They will only make the effort to fully understand and put into practice what they learned if they own it. If they feel that it is truly important to them and something that they care about.

Owning It

The final step in the learning process is really the most important. Teaching could be thought of as the opposite of learning, but it is more accurately the compliment. Teaching completes one’s learning. And, in addition to committing a new skill to heart, teaching demands a certain level of vulnerability. When you teach, you articulate the things you had only previously managed internally, and you become vulnerable to the criticisms of your audience.

It then follows that a teacher needs to practice humility. If a teacher discovers that their lessons are flawed in some way, a good teacher adapts to be more accurate and effective. A good teacher learns, and then has an even better understanding the next time they apply their knowledge by themselves, or share it with someone else.

Teaching not only completes one’s own understanding, but it promotes understanding and learning in general. When I hoard my knowledge, I’m not protecting valuable secrets. I’m being a miser, preventing the collective knowledge of those around me from growing. On a grand scale, I am keeping humanity from excelling. This is why teaching can be seen as a work of the heart. It requires moving toward other people for their benefit.

The “see, do, teach” paradigm is a constant at AO. It’s more than just a new employee thing. “See, do, teach” applies to Spin. It applies to pair programming. It applies to our lives outside of AO, making us better members of society.

So, next time you embark on a journey to learn something new, don’t forget that a complete understanding takes three parts, the most often overlooked of which is to teach. You don’t have to be an expert to teach. You just have to be willing to put into words the things you know. Be open to criticism (some of the biggest critics are themselves too afraid to share their own knowledge – we call them cynics), be willing to be wrong, and be open to refining your teachings as you learn more. And with it will come the movement of knowledge from your head and your hands to your heart.