Why Teaching Just Might Be The Best Tool For Learning

Published on
July 2, 2020
Updated on
April 24, 2023
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Alastair Budge

Here's our guide on how to apply some of the principles of teaching to help you improve your learning approach. Using the principles of teaching can take your retention from 5% to 90%. It's every smart language learner's secret weapon.

Why Teaching Just Might Be The Best Tool For Learning
Table of contents

Albert Einstein sure got it right when he said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” In order to teach others, you need to first learn for yourself. But what exactly is learning?

Within the field of educational psychology, the term ‘learning’ generally refers to a step-by-step process in which an individual experiences permanent, lasting changes in knowledge, behaviors, or ways of processing the world. 

Teaching, consequently, is defined as the art and science of helping others grow in their knowledge and understanding.

What’s interesting is the fact that students who spend time teaching what they’ve learned usually go on to show better understanding and knowledge retention than students who simply spend the same time re-studying. 

That’s why we’ve decided to first explore the idea behind the Learning Retention Pyramid followed by a few popular effects and techniques centered around the teaching/ learning relationship . 

The Learning Pyramid

The Learning Pyramid dates back to the 1960s when the National Training Laboratories Institute hypothesised that teaching information to others would be the most effective method for learning it yourself. Their research centered on the belief that people more effectively retain, or store information in their long-term memory, if they actively do something rather than just passively engaging. 

In fact, according to the original model, students will on average retain 90 percent of what they learn if they immediately apply that new knowledge by teaching others. Compared with only 5 percent average retention for listening to lectures and 50% for engaging in discussion, it really makes you wonder at the efficacy of prevailing classroom teaching methods. 

As a teacher, you’re constantly gaining verbal and nonverbal feedback from students. This gives you the chance to revisit what you’ve learned and gain new perspectives that encourage continuous learning. You’re better able to recognise gaps in your knowledge and perform further research to fill them.

However, if the idea of standing in front of a crowded classroom or even meeting one on one with the goal of bestowing knowledge makes you shudder, fear not. The Learning Pyramid shows that even without the 'teaching' element, you can get to 75% on your own by simply practicing. It’s nice to know you have the ability to almost triple the amount you retain through active activities.

Plus you can (and should) get creative with your approach to learning. The fact of the matter is: you learn more effectively whenever  you’re interested in a topic. For example, if you’re an English learner, the practice of listening to engaging English podcasts can teach you so much more than just English

But what exactly is responsible for teachers being able to better understand and recall what they’ve learned?

The Testing Effect

Perhaps it’s a manifestation of the popularised “testing effect.” 

In keeping with the logic of Einstein’s previous quote, in 1620, the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, ‘If you read a piece of text through twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it ten times while attempting to recite from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails.’

Bacon backed Aristotelian ideas and argued for an empirical and inductive approach, which just so happened to be the foundation of modern scientific inquiry. 

The idea behind the testing effect is that by testing your memory, you assess what you know and also enhance the likelihood of later retention. So much so that several studies have shown that participants recall significantly more learned information by testing themselves as opposed using the same amount of time to study. 

It’s proposed that testing somehow works differently in the brain than studying because the testing process requires your brain to remember information on cue. Testing calls for the organisation and creation of connections that brains can later tap into in order to get points across. It calls for active engagement. 

This explanation of active vs. passive language learning does a great job of delineating the two approaches and explaining why active learning practices are well worth the effort.

The Protégé Effect

Speaking of effects, the Protégé Effect is another observed psychological phenomenon where teaching, pretending to teach, or even just preparing to teach information helps to better absorb information.

It proposes that there are inherent differences between how we learn information when we’re learning for ourselves versus how we internalise things when we expect to teach others. In addition to the previously mentioned broadened perspectives brought on by educating others, it’s believed that the act of teaching may lead to:

  • Increased metacognition - this refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Put simply, when people are actively thinking about their learning process, they tend to learn more.
  • Increased use of effective learning strategies - in order to better explain things to others, teachers often become pros at efficiently organising material and seeking out key pieces of information to convey.
  • Increased motivation to learn - people will oftentimes make a greater effort to learn for those they teach, than they do for themselves.
  • Increased feelings of competence and autonomy - the role of a teacher, rather than that of the student, seems to sometimes have a positive empowering effect.

The great news is that these benefits are in no way limited to academic settings. Studies show that preparing to teach can also improve motor learning and enhance information processing needed to perform physical tasks, e.g. demonstrating how to perform a certain swimming stroke.  

The idea is to first learn, examine your own understanding and then teach it to someone else. Through this process, you should find that you understand the subject much better and far more clearly. The following outlined technique does a great job at breaking this down to a science. 

The Feynman Technique

Physicist Richard Feynman developed a technique of conveying information using concise thoughts and simple language. Feynman understood that knowing the name and general details of something was a far cry from actually understanding it.

As such, the Feynman Technique encouraged:

  1. Identifying a subject

First, jot down everything you know about the topic. Each time you run into new sources of information, add them to the note as plain and simply as possible.

  1. Preparing to teach it to a child

Next, anyone who has ever attempted to teach a new topic or subject  to a child knows that it forces you to frame things in as easily digestible a manner as possible. Children won’t understand fancy jargon and complex terminology. So you have to use simple language. This forces you to grasp concepts on a deeper fundamental level.

Brevity is also key because children’s attention spans tend to be fleeting. In order to reach new heights in learning, work on getting your points across quickly, clearly and creatively. Only by breaking down your levels of understanding are you able to fill all the gaps.

  1. Highlighting gaps in your explanation

Whenever you find yourself struggling to convey a thought, it’s probably an indication that there’s room for improvement in your learning. In order to fill the gaps, start by asking yourself, ‘what am I missing?’

Highlighting knowledge gaps will help you collect and organise your subject notes into a cohesive story. Draw upon your source material whenever you’re at a loss for words. If you don’t know something, research it and fill in the blanks.

  1. Reviewing and simplifying further

Finally, attempt to tell your story by sharing the most vital pieces of your knowledge about the topic. Practice reading out loud and (like with the Protégé Effect) pretend you’re addressing a classroom of students. 

Use analogies and simple sentences to strengthen mutual understanding. And be on the lookout for any stumbles that might indicate the need for additional research and refining.

To illustrate this point, the following sentence was written by Feynman and encapsulates the power of his technique. He takes a complex question about the foundational existence of our universe and translates it into a single easily understood explanation.

“All things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”

The main takeaway of this technique is to teach yourself to get to the point with as little fanfare as possible. 

How It Can Apply to English Learning and Teaching

So there you have it. An overview of some of the most popular theories advancing teaching as the best tool for learning. But since the purpose of this blog is to focus on English learning for curious minds, something would be amiss if we didn’t find a way to  also connect teaching with language learning. 

The premise is that teaching makes you a better learner, but in many ways learning a new language can also make you a better teacher. Learning a second language is a humbling experience that can greatly inform your communication skills and give you an idea how best to overcome these language acquisition struggles and challenges. 

In addition to being able to empathise with learners, you’ll be able to see first-hand what kinds of teaching techniques and activities work best. By figuring out what material helped you improve, you’ll be able to creatively repurpose for use with your own own students - whether real or pretend (hip hip hooray for the Protégé Effect again!) 

You can also end up learning a lot about your own native tongue by studying and teaching English. It’s inevitable that you’ll try to compare, translate and relate everything you learn at the beginning. This exploration into the nuances can in turn help strengthen your teaching abilities by improving your understanding of the building blocks of your language!

Finally, if you’re looking for ways to actively practice your language learning and teaching, maybe Daniel’s experience starting a podcast will inspire you. He shared that: 

‘Producing a podcast would enable me to talk about a thing I love, which is learning languages, and at the same time I would improve my English and be able to share my knowledge with other language learners.
The main idea was to keep myself engaged, also in terms of accountability. Just the idea that somebody could be listening to an episode of my fluent podcast made me eager to pronounce the words correctly and sound as "natural" as possible.’

Talk about a win-win 🎉!

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