If you want to Learn something, Teach it


So, you want to learn something.

  • Korean
  • Web design
  • Exercise techniques
  • Diets and nutrition

Reading about those things is a good start, but that’s not nearly enough. Lots of people are walking around with heads full of knowledge and lifestyles that say they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Practice is the next step in learning. Put your behavior where your brain is. Practice what you preach. Without practicing what you’ve learned, or read about, nothing in your life really changes. You don’t get thinner, you can’t program computers, and you still can’t communicate in Korean. Practice will get you working with what you’re learning – getting your hands dirty with it and using it. NOW you’re learning.

But Teaching what you’re learning is the clearest path toward mastery. Now, you’re no longer just practicing. You’re no longer playing around with these new ideas. Now, you have to figure out a way to communicate them with other people. And how exactly are you going to do that? Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”


That’s quite true. If you can’t effectively communicate and transfer knowledge to others with less understanding than yourself, then you obviously don’t fully understand the concepts either. (i.e. if you can’t teach it, you don’t really know it)

However, I would also venture to say that: if you want to know it, put yourself in (at least) a minor role to teach it. Here’s why:

How Teaching helps you Learn

I majored in Computer Science in university. C++ and Java programming (among other things). If you asked me to remember those languages now, I couldn’t – though I would remember most of the concepts like good syntax, structure, commenting of code, and how code works. I can also read code and understand what it does though I can’t necessarily write things myself.

I came to Korea with NO knowledge of English education, nor education in general. I had no teaching techniques, no classroom management techniques, and no remembrance of the basics of grammar (like what’s the difference between an adjective and an adverb?). Yet now I’m teaching university students these very things. How?

1. Teaching forces you to Study

When I stepped into my first classroom, I was totally clueless, but I quickly learned the ropes of handling kids (it was a kindergarten). Like they say, “there’s no better way to learn how to swim than by falling in.” I fell in and had to either flop and flounder or drown. I didn’t drown.

When I got my first “real” teaching job at a hagwon (and had actual “books” to teach from), I got in and prepared for class in advance by reading the book (something I’d never done in university). I discovered that books are written in such a way as to be stand-alone teachers. Even if there is no physical teacher present, you can learn a lot from a book. Class prep helped me solidify concepts about grammar structures and helped me learn how to communicate those to my students.

But that still wasn’t enough. At some point, I felt like I needed to understand MORE about what I was doing. So I went online and got a 120-hour TEFL Certification. That helped me understand more of the educational parts of ESL (like Teacher Talking Time and Student Talking Time and lesson introductions, bodies, and conclusions).

In order to be prepared for my classes (and to keep my job), I studied hard, took notes, and learned about how to teach.

2. Teaching forces you to “Explain Simply”

Going into a middle school classroom and trying to explain advanced concepts to kids is tough. You have to simplify everything.

I once heard a quote that relates to this: “Imagine you’re explaining something to a visitor from another planet who has absolutely no knowledge of any technical terms or high-level concepts. Now, try explaining those things to him.” Or another: “Try explaining in layman’s terms so that a true ‘layman’ (like an uneducated farmer) would be able to understand it.”

If you can communicate the secrets of Cold Fusion to a room full of wheat farmers, there’s a good chance you know all the ins-and-outs of everything related to it (so that you can communicate “simply”).

3. Teaching forces you to keep a Learning Schedule

There’s nothing more frustrating to students than a teacher who is unprepared. With this website and the Korean classes that my wife does, it’s my responsibility to come up with all the vocabulary lists and the grammar review papers each week. (Anyway, I’m also going through the books and studying them, so I keep a running list of the vocabulary covered in each book.)

This responsibility forces me to keep up with my own study – because as my wife goes through the classes, new materials need to continuously be prepared. And I can’t prepare what I don’t personally study.

Basically, teaching forces you to keep up with your own students.

If you really want to Learn something, don’t JUST teach THAT something

Going back to the list at the top of the page, let’s say you want to learn:

  • Korean
  • Web design
  • Exercise techniques
  • Diets and nutrition

Or, let’s say your job is “English Teacher” (as many expats in Korea are). To improve in BOTH your Learning AND your Teaching, don’t JUST teach that one thing. Teach its opposite, or teach a related subject matter as well. Why? Because then you’ll more fully understand YOUR subject matter from all angles.

Nothing has been more beneficial to my Korean study than teaching English. And nothing has been more beneficial to my English teaching than studying Korean. Learning about grammar in one language helps you learn it better in another language. Teaching study tips for one language helps you incorporate them better for another language.

The same would be true for the other subjects as well:

  • If you want to learn Korean, teach English
  • If you want to learn good Web design, teach about bad design (so both you and your students understand the difference)
  • If you want to learn exercise techniques, teach nutrition (the two are related)
  • If you want to learn about nutrition, teach about agriculture and food processing

Basically, the best way to learn anything is:

  1. To practice it yourself
  2. To teach it to someone else
  3. To understand it from all angles

Happy Studies! Happy Teaching! What are you currently “learning by teaching”?

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