Teach Like You Don’t Know

I’m learning again; two years ago I was learning carpentry and two years before that I was learning mechanics. Now I’m learning to code.

I’m in a bootcamp program for ruby development, where I’m constantly aware of the fact that all the knowledge I need is surrounding me. The only problem is that it’s stuck in other people’s heads.

Our computers transfer whole projects back and forth in a matter of seconds, while we struggle to transfer relatively small chunks of information. Why is human knowledge so hard to exchange? All of my teachers have been students before. They’ve all been through the process of digesting and storing the exact information I want.

Unfortunately, we can’t get brain transfusions, so we have to teach and learn the hard way. I’m not here to offer solutions, but as a serial beginner I’ll try to articulate a subtle problem; how teachers can’t relate to their students because they know too much.

The Teacher’s Frustration

When you come on the scene as the wise and benevolent teacher, no matter how much empathy you put into your lesson you can’t get your students to stop overcomplicating things. As the lesson plan appears to you, every idea flows logically from the first principle to the moment of understanding. Still, they don’t get it so you go back and articulate everything more carefully. And once again, somehow your students are flopping around like fish in an uncharted desert. Now you’re baffled at how they managed to dress themselves and get all the way to the office.

The Student’s Frustration

Students are forgetful because they’re not sure what to remember. They overcomplicate things because they don’t know what’s important and what’s extra. They don’t know what they are going to need later.  They can’t even ask the questions they need answered. They don’t know what they’re confused about or why, they just know they’re confused. You, as a teacher, have the daunting task of getting inside your students’ heads, even when they can’t get inside their own.

The Teaching Fallacy

Some teachers try to help by repeating themselves and slowing down. But I think the problem goes beyond students having overcrowded memories. Teachers are there to connect information.

Don’t get trapped thinking that the difficulty is in articulating your knowledge or the efficiency of how you develop the web of ideas. It’s not about accuracy, its about your students’ psychology and what makes sense to them. That’s a lot harder.

You would think that since you have been a student and survived you would be able to recognize their misconceptions and guide them to enlightenment. But even if you could remember what it was like to be a student, that moment for you was characterized by a similar hit-and-run-don’t-leave-a-calling-card confusion.

Everybody gets hit by the bus, everybody gets knocked out, everybody survives, but nobody remembers what they got hit by.

So you can’t tell them what to watch out for. Teachers can’t understand their students’ confusion even though they once experienced the exact same confusion!

Teachers know too much. You’re looking at the stack of questions backwards. You start with all the answers in order so from your perspective every answer fits like a key to unlock the next question. This is a problem because you can’t see any other interpretations of your lesson. There are always other interpretations. Ideas live in a landscape of peripheral information and loose ends and red herrings. Your students follow the idea as you lead them along. At any given moment they only have part of the idea and a lot of hard-to-articulate plausible misinterpretations about where its headed.

Good Teachers

Good teachers can spot when a student’s misinterpretation is a plausible misinterpretation and not a synapse misfiring. Not even good teachers, however, can see the plausible misinterpretations before they happen. Melding minds like that would require superhuman empathy.

The best you can do is try to draw out why your student is still confused.  Focus more on the question than on the answer. Maybe your students are reluctant to let go of their plausible misinterpretations when you lay the truth on them. Or maybe you only answered part of the question they had.

The only way to make your students see the answers you want them to see is to kill all the zombie answers. The best teachers I’ve had took out the zombies after they attacked. Imagine if you could get them before they started chomping on your students’ brains.

So try to teach from your students’ perspectives. Teach like you don’t know.

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8 thoughts on “Teach Like You Don’t Know

  1. I like “Teach like you don’t know.” One of my methods is that you try to answer the question you are posing; if anything, it helps you formulate your question better.

  2. It is hard to go back to the state when you were learning (Teach like you don’t know). I tutor finance and accounting for a living and these subjects drive many adult learners crazy. My approach is to start asking questions from the basic to identify where the student is stuck. The address that issue first. then continue….

  3. Thoughtful post!My favorite line: “Focus more on the question than on the answer.” Sometimes leaders and managers jump to quickly to solve problems when they surface in their organizations. If we walk more slowly to solve a problem we may discover problems that solve us! Problems and questions are windows in to the ‘system’ whether it is one brain or an organization. Great read Mr. Rawls! Thank you!

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