Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Teaching

There is a reason that it’s hard to teach people things.

First off, learning is an associative and connecting process, which means the thing that makes you “get it” will be based on stuff you’ve learned and experienced in the past. Sometimes when I write ideas down, I find my explanations spiraling out of control. The reason for this is the ideas have come from all the random stuff I have learned, the philosophies and attitudes I developed by being me all my life. To explain exactly why I think about things the way I do, I want to go and explain all the ideas that came before it. That’s one of the reasons my posts can run long and rambly.

It’s also one of the reasons it’s tough to be a great teacher. Being a good teacher just means understanding the way you learn things, so you can explain that process to other people. But if you and I learn differently, that means I might not be able to teach you anything. I would have to teach you based on how you learn and retain things. So a good teacher can be good at what he or she does, but can only reach certain people.

If I imagined the hypothetical best teacher, the one who could communicate the most information the most effectively, it would be somebody who understands the many ways people can learn. It would be somebody who takes the time to learn how you learn, somebody who speaks your personal language when talking to you and explaining things. This would let that great teacher reach anybody. But it would mean that before they taught you anything, they would have to learn a lot about you.

I think this would be very difficult; though I try to be a good teacher whenever I explain things, I doubt that I am a great one. I console myself by telling myself that I doubt there are many out there.

Another reason it’s hard to teach is because a lot of learning is based on curiosity and drive, a desire to know, to acquire. The hunger to learn means the willingness to actively seek new information and associations. It means asking questions to yourself and to the world, constantly. Does this fit, what can I do here, how do these relate, do these apply to each other, things like that. It’s really hard to make things stick without those questions, without that drive; this is extra true if you aren’t the person doing the learning, but trying to transfer knowledge to somebody else.

You might think, “well if having curiosity and drive and passion is a prerequisite for learning, then that means if you want to teach somebody who doesn’t have those:

1) you must teach them the curiosity, drive, and passion, or
2) you can’t teach them, stop trying.”

I dislike impossible problems, so “can’t” is a very irritating word for me to think in this case. But it is very difficult to teach somebody who appears unmotivated.

I think a big part of being a good teacher is not telling people things, but asking them questions that trigger their curiosity and motivation. Again, it means understanding the person you are trying to teach. Why? Because if you just present knowledge and leave it lying around, it will collect dust. If you try and force knowledge, people tend to reject it.  his is another reason that it’s tough to teach people things, and why a good student-teacher relationship involves trust. A student has to trust that whatever process you put them through will actually lead them somewhere.

We have a fondness for getting information directly and wanting quick answers, but we’ve also got lots of little mechanisms in our head that value things more the harder we work for them. Some of that is we just don’t want to think that we wasted a lot of time and energy chasing something useless, so we naturally want to value things we spend more time and resources on. But it’s also because those difficulties and experiences create more associations, more understanding, more connections in our heads that anchor the lessons and information. Even though we think we want things straight up, it actually doesn’t benefit us that much unless we immediately start using and applying that information. Information is a social creature that needs the company of its own kind, and withers in isolation.

Information doesn’t just mean facts, but it also means emotions. It means “pieces of the world you live in,” including your perceptions and feelings. Relating and fitting the different parts of your world together is how you learn things and how things stay learned. It’s part of the reason that random events remind us of random facts and trigger chance memories. The more connected a new piece of information becomes, the more it cements in your mind.

This is why teaching is so often done with stories, analogies, and examples. You create images, you imagine sounds, you generate emotional responses to ideas so that the ideas have more to connect with. We use rhymes to remember things; the rhyme creates a pattern, anchoring an idea to words that are already anchored to each other. It strengthens the connected associative net.

If you want to teach somebody something, you need to find something that they will anchor your idea to, and communicate the new fact or idea in a way that communicates this anchor. The flipside is that if you have a teacher who fails to do this, but you want to learn and apply the ideas they are teaching, then you should make it your mission to search for anchors and applications on your own. Having a poor teacher is no excuse for being a poor student. If you understand what a good teacher needs to do, then it’s very possible for you to apply those principles independently. It’s hard but worthwhile, because not everybody with the knowledge you want is interested in sharing it well.

I guess it also should be said that being good at teaching and being a good teacher are separate things. I imagine that there are people with incredible skills when it comes to analogy, phrasing, and anchoring, but they teach things which are false, incomplete, or damaging. I would say that people who excellently convey false information are not good teachers, but good persuaders. They can make things stick, they can make things sound good, they can make things relatable, and they can make you want to remember them. Yet their teachings don’t have to be true or accurate for this to happen. This is scary, because information does not stick based on how true it is, but how well it connects to the other information in our head. True-seeming is not the same as true, though it would be nice if we came with built-in lie detectors.

I guess there’s a warning here, which is that there’s a danger in being too skilled at teaching, persuading, communicating, and storytelling. Having people tell you that something is “so true” doesn’t mean you actually told them something true, it just means you successfully connected to whatever is in their head. If you’re very good at doing so, then--if you are interested in using your powers for good, anyhow--then you must always be scrutinizing yourself. Being a good communicator can trigger feedback loops where people reinforce your faulty ideas by affirming them, cementing them with in your head, and encouraging you to stick to them. If you can’t scrutinize yourself enough, you need people around that will do it for you.

Done rambling for the day. Thanks for reading.

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