You Never Really Learn Something Until You Teach It
As software developers we spend a large amount of time learning. There is always a new framework or technology to learn. It can seem impossible to keep up with everything when there is something new every day. So, it should be no surprise to you that learning quickly and gaining a deeper understanding of what you learn is very important.
And that is exactly why–if you are not doing so already–you need to incorporate teaching into your learning.
Why teaching is such an effective learning tool
When we learn something, most of us learn it in bits and pieces. Typically, if you read a book, you'll find the material in that book organized in a sensible way. The same goes for others mediums like video or online courses. But, unfortunately, the material doesn't go into your head in the same way.
What happens instead is that you absorb information in jumbled bits and pieces. You learn something, but don't completely “get it” until you learn something else later on. The earlier topic becomes more clear, but the way that data is structured in your mind is not very well organized–regardless of how organized the source of that information was.
Even now, as I write this blog post, I am struggling with taking the jumbled mess of information I have in my head about how teaching helps you learn and figuring out how to present it in an organized way. I know what I want to say, but I don't yet know how to say it. Only the process of putting my thoughts on paper will force me to reorganize them; to sort them out and make sense of them.
When you try to teach something to someone else, you have to go through this process in your own mind. You have to take that mess of data, sort it out, repackage it and organize it in a way that someone else can understand. This process forces you to reorganize the way that data is stored in your own head.
Also, as part of this process, you'll inevitably find gaps in your own understanding of whatever subject you are trying to teach. When we learn something we have a tendency to gloss over many things we think we understand. You might be able to solve a math problem in a mechanical way, and the steps you use to solve the math problem might be sufficient for what you are trying to do, but just knowing how to solve a problem doesn't mean you understand how to solve a problem. Knowledge is temporary. It is easily lost. Understanding is much more permanent. It is rare that we forget something we understand thoroughly.
When we are trying to explain something to someone else, we are forced to ask ourselves the most important question in leaning… in gaining true understanding… “why.” When we have to answer the question “why,” superficial understanding won't do. We have to know something deeply in order to not just say how, but why.
That means we have to explore a subject deeply ourselves. Sometimes this involves just sitting and thinking about it clearly before you try to explain it to someone else. Sometimes just the act of writing, speaking or drawing something causes you to make connections you didn't make before, instantly deepening your knowledge. (Ever had one of those moments when you explained something to someone else and you suddenly realized that before you tried to explain it you didn't really understand it yourself, but now you magically do?) And, sometimes, you have to go back to the drawing board and do more research to fill in those gaps in your own knowledge you just uncovered when you tried to explain it to someone else.
Becoming a teacher
So, you perhaps you agree with me so far, but you've got one problem–you're not a teacher. Well, I have good news for you. We are all teachers. Teaching doesn't have to be some formal thing where you have books and a classroom. Teaching is simply repackaging information in a way that someone else can understand. The most effective teaching takes place when you can explain something to someone in terms of something else they already understand.
(Want a great book on the subject that might make your brain hurt? Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. An excellent book by Douglas Hofstadter, author of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Both books are extremely difficult reads, but very rewarding.)
As human beings, we do this all the time. Whenever we communicate with someone else and tell them about something we learned or explain how to do something, we are teaching. Of course, the more you do it, the better you get at it, and adding a little more formalization to your practice doesn't hurt, but at heart, you–yes, you–are a teacher.
One of the best ways to start teaching–that may even benefit your career–is to start a blog. Many developers I talk to assume that they have to already be experts at something in order to blog about it. The truth is, you only have to be one step ahead of someone for them to learn from you. So, don't be afraid to blog about what you are learning as you are learning it. There will always be someone out there who could benefit from your knowledge–even if you consider yourself a beginner.
And don't worry about blogging for someone else–at least not at first. Just blog for yourself. The act of taking your thoughts and putting them into words will gain you the benefits of increasing your own understanding and reorganizing thoughts in your mind.
I won't pretend the process isn't painful. When you first start writing, it doesn't usually come easily. But, don't worry too much about quality. Worry about communicating your ideas. With time, you'll eventually get better and you'll find the process of converting the ideas in your head to words becomes easier and easier.
Of course, creating a blog isn't the only way to start teaching. You can simply have a conversation with a friend, a coworker, or even your spouse about what you are learning. Just make sure you express what you are learning externally in one form or another if you really want to gain a deep understanding of the subject.
You can also record videos or screencasts, speak on a subject or even give a presentation at work. Whatever you do, make sure that teaching is part of your learning process.