Before we get behind this learning technique, in what scientists have dubbed the “protégé effect”, hear my stories about S and P. I owe it to them to impart this knowledge.
S is a friend and an outdoor instructor. He spends a lot of time conducting rock climbing and kayaking courses outside his full-time job. In my earlier days as a novice climber, I was fortunate to learn under his guidance. Once, I asked if it ever bothered him that he was investing more time in helping others improve their skills than his own training.
“The best way to learn is to teach,” he said, sharing that the more he teaches, the more he learns. In teaching individuals of varying learning abilities, behaviours, and motor skills, his understanding of textbook concepts broadens beyond the “what” to the “how” and “why”.
As he adapts his teaching approaches to the requirements and physical talents of his students, he learns from them at the same time, uncovering new insights and techniques that help to hone his skills, benefitting his progress in the sport.
P was my mentor at work. When he told me that I was assigned to lead a department I was unfamiliar with, I remember telling him that I was afraid that there was nothing the team can learn from me.
P said, “You’ll learn as you lead.” At that time, the company was going through transformation. With the changes, we all had to learn. Team leaders were the first to undergo training, with the mandate to impart the new concepts to their team members. Department heads were as new to the information and processes as the rest of the employees, with a little head start in the learning journey.
It turned out that P was right. Leadership is not an overnight process, and it involves people. In the same vein, learning is a journey and is made better with interaction. I was motivated to learn and determined not to fail myself and the team. I made sure that I understood the concepts enough to be able to teach them. I also considered the various learning abilities of my team members, ensuring that I was prepared with different angles to explain the new knowledge so that they too can learn effectively. Most importantly, the more experienced I was in the leadership role and being looked upon to provide guidance, the more confident I was.
Looking back, I sometimes wondered if it was all part of P’s plan in honing my leadership skills, throwing me into the deep end and having to learn to swim. I was lucky to have the benefit of being able to teach to facilitate my learning. The better I learn, the better I teach, and the better the team learns, with this coming back to me in a full circle, motivating me to be a subject matter expert and a befitting leader to the team.
Teach to Facilitate Learning: The Protégé Effect
“Docendo discimus”, said the Roman philosopher Seneca, meaning that “by teaching, we learn”.
A curious mind led me to research this old wisdom, discovering that there is indeed a term to such a psychological phenomenon, known as the protégé effect, where teaching, pretending to teach, or preparing to teach information to others helps a person learn that information.
The idea is to first learn, examine your own understanding, then teach it to someone else. Through this process, you will find that you have a deeper understanding of the subject from different perspectives. Beyond academic information, the protégé effect also applies to motor learning and everyday general knowledge processing.
Studies have shown that learning-by-teaching encourages metacognitive processing and the use of effective learning strategies. When the learning process is externally directed to support the learning of another, first-hand learners spend more time examining their understanding and revising their thinking.
The protégé effect also increases the motivation to learn and invoke a sense of responsibility. That was what mustered my determination in not wanting to let myself and the team down.
Applying Learning-By-Teaching Techniques
To take advantage of the protégé effect, the next time you are learning something new, learn it as if you are to teach it to someone else, or even better—practice teaching for real. Having an actual audience helps, making the process interactive. You can also expect questions, challenging your understanding of the topic.
As a tutor or teacher, you can consider the concept of peer instruction to have your students teach other students. There is also a benefit for those on the receiving end of peer teaching, where students are found to learn better, especially when the “teacher” is someone they are close to in terms of social and cognitive distance.
No One to Teach? Teach a Rubber Duck
Another technique I stumbled upon is the Rubber Duck Debugging. It is a popular method used by programmers to debug code, where they will carry around a rubber duck and get down to debugging by forcing themselves to explain the program, line-by-line, to the duck. In the process of teaching a rubber duck, it encourages subject evaluation from different perspectives, and eventually, the solution will present itself.
When applying this technique to improve your learning, you can recruit a rubber duck (or any sounding board of your choice) as your “student”. The idea is to explain what you have learnt to your sounding board, forcing you to pay attention to the details and commit them to memory. Put this to the test, and do not be embarrassed to speak out loud. From this exercise, you can observe your understanding and knowledge retention of the subject. If you realise that your explanations to your rubber friend are lacking, go back to revision.
At The End of the Day
Perhaps it is an evening of reminiscence, as I recall the words of an acquaintance, “I always make it a point to walk away learning something from every person I share an experience.” As such, here is what I have to share.
- When a teaching opportunity arises, take it on. Do not be selfish in teaching—because it is enriching, and you can benefit from learning from your students.
- When you are assigned to teach, do not doubt yourself for one second. Learning with the knowledge of having to teach will motivate you to be a subject matter expert in no time.
- The goal is to learn. Whether you have an audience to teach or only have a rubber duck as your student, whichever learning-by-teaching technique you choose comes down to your style and resources.
For my work, I often use the rubber duck to help me get out of writer’s block, refocus, and come back to what I want to communicate. I also read aloud what I have written to check if the sentences flow smoothly and are grammatically correct. Best of all, my rubber duck does not judge me or tell me that I am taking up too much of its time.