If You Want to Learn, Teach

TeachYou may have come across a version of George Bernard Shaw’s original quote, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” It was originally intended as a criticism of the teaching profession as a whole, however today it is more often used as a derogatory observation of a person’s actual skill or proficiency, the implication being they have chosen to teach something because they are not good enough to be successful at actually doing it. Of all the reasons someone may decide to teach something, this is perhaps the most misguided and nonsensical. The ability to teach – to convey knowledge, impart experience, demonstrate a skill and guide another’s growth – is invaluable: our world, our species, would not be as developed as it is today without those who have chosen to teach others. While it is easy to understand this in terms of the student learning from the teacher, one way that I’ve discovered and come to appreciate the importance of teaching is the amount of learning that the teacher gets from the student.

I’ve become a teacher in a variety of roles. As a physiotherapist, I teach people ways to maximise their functional abilities and avoid injuries. As a guest lecturer and non-fiction writer, I teach students about engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples using the principles of cultural safety. In martial arts I’ve taught people forms and self-defence. Even as a father, a friend, a mentor, or a blogger, I ‘teach’ others by sharing my knowledge, understanding, ideas, experience and skills. Over the years I’ve developed a strong affinity for teaching, much of which stems from how teaching advances my development. When I teach, I’m every bit as much a student as those who I’m teaching. I learn something from every teaching experience I undertake, and so I develop my own abilities further. For me, there are three main ways this occurs:

1. Teaching Tests What I Know

I know how to perform safe manual handling, how to engage with someone whilst being culturally sensitive, and how to perform a Tai Chi or Qigong set. I feel confident saying I know how to do these things, because if asked to do them, I know I can. Teaching someone else how to do them, however, takes me beyond simply knowing how to do something. It tests whether I really understand what it is I’m doing, and it does this with a simple, single word question: why?

‘Why?’ is a fantastic question, however it’s one we tend to stop asking ourselves once we think we know something. The moment a student asks you ‘why’, you immediately discover your own level of knowledge and understanding about something. This is reflected in your ability to provide a meaningful answer. It does not mean you must have an answer; in fact, as intimidating as it might sound, it can actually be a very positive thing if you don’t, because it enables you to recognise your own limitations, and offers you an opportunity to develop yourself further. When I first started teaching, I dreaded being asked questions – especially, “why?” – because I lacked confidence in my ability to answer them. Now I relish them. I seek them out and encourage people to ask me questions, because it’s a great way to check what I know, and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know. It both enables me to expand my understanding (see 2.) and identifies opportunities for me to learn more (see 3.)

2. Teaching Expands My Understanding

One of the great things about teaching something is that students will always think of something you haven’t thought of. This usually presents itself in the form of a question that you weren’t expecting, and commonly starts with, “why does…”, “what if…”, or “how can…”. Often they will come from a perspective that I had not previously considered. This is of tremendous benefit as it requires me to think outside of my own box, and expand my own viewpoint. It gives me a new way to apply my knowledge or skill, and tests whether my ability is at a level where I can do this successfully (see 1.), or whether I need to learn more in order to be able to do so (see 3.) Either way, my understanding expands, and my development continues.

3. Teaching Encourages My Learning

There is a saying, “you don’t know what you don’t know”, and this becomes quite apparent when you try to teach something (see 1.). When I first started teaching, I felt that as a teacher, I needed to know everything about whatever it was I was trying to teach. This was both positive and negative: it encouraged me to learn more about the things I was going to teach, but it also made me anxious about whether I knew enough to be able to teach. Over time, I’ve learned that it’s okay not to know things, and that when it comes down to it, I can’t always know what I don’t know. However, revealing the limitations in my knowledge and understanding gives me the opportunity to learn and improve myself. In many ways, it actually directs my learning more efficiently than simply trying to learn everything about something could ever do. This is because it allows me to take what I already know, and then selectively seek out what I would like to know in order to increase my understanding of something. In this way, teaching enables me to identify gaps in my knowledge or understanding in ways that other strategies, like self-reflection, for example, could never do. In this way, teaching and learning become an endless cycle: the more I learn, the better my ability to teach becomes; the more I teach, the better I can identify opportunities to learn more; and round and round it goes.

Whatever your field of interest, if you want to improve your knowledge, understanding, and ability, I encourage you to try teaching it to others. Develop a course, present a seminar, start an online discussion, or just try to explain it to someone else. You might be amazed at what you learn from it.

Do you teach something? What do you get from teaching? How do you find it benefits you? Please feel free to add your thoughts to the comments below.

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