Learn Faster Through Teaching

Leading people through change requires ceaseless learning and teaching. Change puts in stark relief just what you don't know. At the same time, change demands new perspectives, skills, and habits from your teams. 

Consequently, leaders are put in a position where they must teach their colleagues concepts they themselves are just learning. 

Cue avoidance. Cue imposter syndrome.

But it doesn't have to feel awkward or unattractive. In fact, learning and teaching a concept at the same time is one of the fastest and most effective ways to retain knowledge and make it practical. Doing it in the open can also foster an organizational culture of curiosity and self-led learning which is absolutely essential to thriving amidst change.

There was no better learner and teacher than Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize Winning Physicist. In fact, the method of learning a new topic through teaching is well known as the Feynman Technique. Richard Feynman not only succeeded in significantly advancing his field, he was a beloved teacher and his lectures are the stuff of legend because he honed his understanding of physics by rigorously exploring how to teach it.

The Feynman Technique is as powerful as it is simple:

  1. Start with a single, addressable concept, and not a general field. You'll fail if you start too broadly or try to conquer an entire subject matter with one go. 
  2. Write down a plain english description of the concept as best as you can. Imagine that you're trying to teach it to someone wholly new to the concept. 
  3. Review your description and look for any areas where you felt uncomfortable, where you relied on referencing another concept (that your audience wouldn't necessarily know), or where you used technical jargon. Go back to the source material, re-read, and re-learn it.
  4. Now repeat Step Two.
  5. Review your description again and look for places where you lazily paraphrased the material or were needlessly wordy. Simplify and clarify.
  6. Lastly, find a compelling analogy to make the concept even more approachable and understandable. This is the hardest step because it truly tests your grasp of the concept. As an example, here's Richard Feynman explaining how we perceive "hot" and "cold."

Try it for yourself. Take a concept you're learning or even one you feel confident in and run the steps. You'll be surprised how quickly this method exposes areas where you still need to learn. And later, you'll be amazed how easy it is to teach the concept to others.

Effective leaders must steer into the uncomfortable feelings of teaching people things they themselves are just learning. Many of us hesitate to learn skills as we climb the ladder because we might be seen as ignorant or unexperienced, but the worst leader is a leader who thinks they are done learning.

 
 

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