We’re hard-wired to learn from our interactions with others. Not only do we get information from listening to other people, we also learn a lot from teaching. According to Rolf Ploetzner, and his co authors on the paper Learning by Explaining to Oneself and to Others, “In research on collaborative problem solving and learning, it has repeatedly been demonstrated that teaching frequently leads to more complete and presumably better organized knowledge.”
The beneficial effect of teaching on learning activity is widely studied, and there’s no need to be a professional teacher to learn from the experience of teaching. Researchers point to teachers’ improvement in critical thinking as well as information recall and the ability to apply information effectively. So it’s worth asking, what happens when we teach?
Learning and Teaching
There are a number of factors that influence learning behavior while teaching, and even beforehand.
Expecting to Teach
A person learning new material, with the expectation of teaching it in the future, has a clear mission in mind. This expectation actually changes their approach to learning.
According to author Anny Murphy Paul, “Students enlisted to tutor others… work harder to understand the material.” The need to enlighten others becomes a tangible goal, which motivates individuals expecting to teach to put more effort into their own learning. Not only do teachers-to-be feel responsible, and work harder, researchers also found that the work pays off. Student tutors score higher on tests than students learning for their own benefit.
Effort isn’t everything. Teachers also need to perform by expressing their knowledge publicly. It may be that expecting to teach makes us more attentive to how we develop our understanding of material, because we need to feel comfortable presenting in front of others.
John Nestojko, a researcher in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, says, “participants expecting to teach put themselves into the mindset of a teacher, leading them to adopt certain effective strategies used by teachers when preparing to teach.” In a study, Nestojko and colleagues also found that expectation makes us consider which information is most crucial, “when compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organized their recall more effectively, and they had better memory for especially important information.”
If a teacher-to-be expects to help others understand material, in addition to knowing it for themselves, he or she needs to identify which details are crucial to convey.
This brings us to the next factor, explicit focus. A person asked to teach, is likely to also have a topic. Importantly, having a topic to teach effectively focuses learning on particular features of material.
In a study with two groups of children, researchers asked one group to explain a complicated toy, and the other group to observe it. The researchers found that the two groups focused on different features. The children asked to explain, “were better at re-creating [the toy] and not being distracted by ornamental gears, and they were better able to transfer what they had learned about how gears work to new tasks.”
The need to explain helps us to focus on elements that are useful to our own learning, and ignore less important elements.
The act of explaining is a big factor in learning. Both self-explanation and explaining to others can be learning experiences.
Simply hearing oneself speak improves understanding. Sarah D. Sparks, writing for Education Week, says, “students who can verbally explain why they arrived at a particular answer have proved in prior studies to be more able to catch their own incorrect assumptions and generalize what they learn to other subjects.”
Rolf Ploetzner and colleagues describe the process in a more technical way, “during the construction of self-explanations, learning seems to take place due to the identification of missing knowledge which would be required in order to complete the self-explanations. Such identified knowledge gaps might subsequently be filled by taking advantage of deductive and/or inductive learning mechanisms.”
Engaging with Others
Explaining to others has additional bonuses, which come from collaboration. Again according to the Ploetzner, “providing explanations to each other involves forms of collaborative learning. When two individuals collaborate, they often have to justify themselves to each other, to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it.” Engaging with others while teaching makes it necessary to consider whether our explanations make sense, and gives additional feedback.
The engagement that occurs during teaching can broaden our minds and make us more understanding. This applies in academic, as well as work, settings. In a series of interviews held with 20 managers about their learning stories Claudio G. Cortese found that, “all those interviewed gave accounts of the learning potential that was acquired when they took on the role of teachers within their organization.”
Cortese points out:
Observation, listening and experimentation were the most common processes in facilitating learning during the course of teaching. The great learning potential inherent in teaching would appear to be generated as the result of a particular aspect of the teaching process itself: the encounter with diversity, which on the one hand tends to increase reflexivity while on the other hand tends to break down resistance to change. In this sense, the learning process that emerges during the course of teaching is of an intrinsically social nature…. Teaching also proved to be an important opportunity for recognizing one’s own ignorance and thereby rendering oneself open to the possibility of learning.
As a final point, explanation is also a way to practice material. According to Maryellen Weimer, of Faculty Focus, participating in explanations “gives students the opportunity to practice using the language of the discipline.”
A Few Hypotheses
We’ve pointed out factors which may bolster learning when teaching, including: expectation and explicit focus beforehand, as well as explanation, social engagement, and practice during teaching.
Norene Wiesen also describes a few succinct hypotheses on how explaining your thinking helps you to learn:
- It translates explicit knowledge into implicit know-how.
- It integrates new information with prior belief.
- It helps learners identify and fix knowledge gaps.
- It resolves potential inconsistencies.
- It engages learners in deeper processing.
- It reinforces the use of successful strategies over unsuccessful alternatives
Many institutions have already caught on. For example, the University of Pennsylvania developed a “cascading mentoring” program. University students teach high school students computer science, and the high schoolers then teach middle school students.
Since it’s inception, the Exploratorium — a hands-on science museum Âfounded by physicist and educator, Frank Oppenheimer — has run a high school Explainer Program. Explainers help visitors engage with exhibits. According to the Exploratorium website, “[they] can authentically model learning in the museum because they are constantly engaged in learning themselves.”
A major aim is also, “to provide training in communication, inquiry-based learning, and leadership, and to deepen the science knowledge of the Explainers themselves. The training enables the Explainers to serve the visitors well and provides them with valuable knowledge and skills that they can use in their education or careers beyond the Exploratorium.”
Engineers and computer scientists are ready to take advantage of teaching as well. Researchers at Stanford and Vanderbilt universities collaborated to develop “Betty Brain.” Betty Brain is a “teachable agent”, a computer character that acts like a student learning. According to a study conducted by the researchers, “students engaged in instructing her spent more time going over the material and learned it more thoroughly.”
There’s also another tool out for learners looking to teach. Process Pad is a platform developed as Stanford University to help students capture their thoughts and externalize how they arrive at an answer.
Being open to new information and changing our own presumptions is crucial while teaching. This helps us to learn by allowing us to adapt our understanding.
Importantly, resistance to changing our beliefs can actually hinder learning. Sarah D. Sparks says, “students asked to explain something that seems inconsistent with a previous rule or belief can end up learning less, if they discount the new information.”
This can happen because explaining makes people look for patterns. Researchers Joseph Jay Williams and Bob Rehder report, “explaining can help learning when reliable patterns are present, but actually impairs learning when patterns are misleading.”
Sarah D. Sparks also notes that, “elementary students who inaccurately interpret one pattern and then are given a single anomaly tend to ‘explain it away’ and believe their mistaken interpretation more strongly. When they are given multiple exceptions to explain, it becomes easier for them to recognize their mistakes.” Watch out for exceptions and evidence that contradictions your assumptions.
Not all material has clear patterns, and it’s worth considering the material itself. According to Williams and Rehder “A category-learning experiment demonstrates that explanation can enhance or impair learning depending on whether these constraints match the structure of the material being learned.”
Even with the lack of a pattern, the researchers found that people try to create one simply to satisfy prompts, “a prompt to explain could have made participants attend more to their errors, justify individual categorizations by appeal to the salient and objective color features, or increased motivation to find a reliable basis for categorization.” It’s important to be aware of how you focus your attention when explaining.Â
Putting Teaching to Use
Tips to use learning through teaching to your advantage:
- Build the expectation of teaching into your learning.Promise to teach material to someone before you learn about it, or make a lesson plan as though you were going to teach someone.Â
Try to have these questions in mind while preparing: How do you know that? When would you use that? How could you come up with that in the first place?
- Practice explaining out loud to someone else.Try explaining a concept, a process, or a theory you know well to someone. This helps you to order your ideas. You’re also likely to learn from their comments, or identify areas where you can learn more.
Bonus: try to explain your subject to someone who knows the material even better, and get feedback.Â
- Use other ways to practice explaining.
Self-explanation: When trying to learn material, try to explain what you know out loud. Try to explain how something new fits into your current understanding.
Explaining to a tool: Write your explanations down instead of saying them aloud. Use a computer or write on paper and pretend you’re writing the explanation to someone you know. The act of writing by hand can actually help in thinking through ideas. Bonus: invite someone to read it and comment.
- Have someone ask you questions about a topic, try to answer them based on what you know.If you don’t know the answer, be open about it and ask the questions yourself. Perhaps you’re missing something and they’re showing you. Be open to being wrong and uncovering new information.
- Play sharing games.One way to do this is called “Pair-Share”. Pair up and talk with a peer about a question or idea after everyone has had a moment to think or write about it.
Another game to play is “Save the Last Word”. This is a small group discussion lasting 20-30 minutes. It’s “designed to help participants pull the main ideas out of a text, listen to one another, and build on one another’s ideas.”
Read a text in advance and choose a sentence or passage that you consider important or striking. After you’ve Â read the passage, the other participants each have one minute to respond. Then, you get “the last word.” Take 2-3 minutes to explain why you chose the passage and to connect your thinking to that of your fellow participants.
- Finally, offer to tutor someone in a subject.This will require you to think through what they need to know, how to help them understand it, and to structure the material.