Learn more quickly by becoming the teacher, despite it being out of your comfort zone
Each of us has our own preferred way of learning new things. Some like to be taught the theory before putting it into practice. Others prefer to figure things out on their own via trial, error, and exploration.
In my own case, I learn best when I’m pushed outside of my comfort zone, current skills, and understanding—when I’m tested. I realised this many years back during a sales training course in the technique of SPIN selling.
At the time, I was working for a small software consultancy. With little aptitude or appetite for a career in software development, I wondered whether sales might suit me better. It turned out that I was terrible at that too, but I digress.
The course was attended by salespeople from diverse industries and with various levels of prior experience. I recall one of the attendees who was everything I pictured when thinking of a salesman — smartly dressed, charismatic, and a manner that exuded confidence and trustworthiness. I was immediately jealous and felt daunted to be paired with him during the course.
As we prepared for another role-playing exercise he must have sensed my anxiety, and offered reassurance that the role-plays weren’t intended to humiliate the delegates. Instead, the sessions were a proven way of reinforcing the course material. As he put it, new ideas are best learned through a specific process:
Learn one. Do one. Teach one.
This sequence is intended to progressively enforce and test understanding.
- We learn the thing first by reading about it, watching someone else do it, or by being told about it.
- Then we do the thing, using the skill or applying the knowledge in practice — for real or in a role-play.
- Finally, we teach the thing to someone else to reinforce it in our own minds and to test our understanding.
It seems like a sound principle. I’ve since used it each time I try to learn something new — in fact, it’s become my instinctive way to learn new things. When I’m told something or try to learn through experimentation, I’m usually left with gaps in my knowledge. When I add the step of sharing new ideas with others as a means of engraining and testing my understanding, it reinforces the learning.
While listening to a recent episode of the Jordan B. Peterson Podcast featuring author, Mark Manson, I encountered the idea of proximal development. It’s a framework that helps explain the science behind ‘Learn one, Do one, Teach one’ and illustrates why it works as well as it does.
With a basic understanding, it becomes easy to see how the principle can be used to boost our ability to learn new concepts and to embed the knowledge. I want to share my interpretation of how it works with an example of how I’ve used it in my own personal growth.