When one teaches, two learn.
— Robert Heinlein
If you really want to learn something you already know more deeply, there is no better way than trying to teach it to someone else. People in the Learning Sciences who study how we come to know what we know say that knowledge is socially constructed. We learn things only through interactions with other people. Think about it. Are there any things you’ve learned that don’t involve other people somehow? Books, television, computers, video games, even when done in a solitary manner are still a kind of interaction with the people who created what you’re exploring. In my own experience, I’ve learned a lot from Nature, but that learning required an introduction and a set of skills my dad taught me, so again there is social interaction in learning, but a little more indirect.
The point is that when we interact with others, we learn. We learn about them and about ourselves. The best way to get a firmer grip on how well you know something is to try explaining it to someone else in a way that they can understand. Even better is when you’re in a group that asks you questions and pushes and probes at your understanding. You may think you have perfect understanding within your own mind, but if that can’t be articulated in some way, including the doing of the thing, then you don’t really know it. People who write books are painfully aware of this. An idea for a book might pop into your head and seem fully formed, but the actual process of doing the book creates something that is usually quite different from the original idea.
Teaching is a great way for you to take your understanding to a deeper level. By teaching I don’t mean standing up in front of a class expounding your knowledge, though this is one form of it. Teaching is just as effective (and perhaps more effective) if you’re talking with a friend, trying to tell her about how to make a trumpet embouchure, or telling another friend how he can take a deeper breath, or teaching a younger brother or sister about how to make a sound on your instrument. You don’t have to be an expert by any means. If you know a little more than the person you’re with, you have an opportunity to teach. We teach each other all the time, and if we’re paying attention, we learn things all the time. By putting your understanding into words, and backing up those words by demonstration, and by paying attention to whether the person you’re teaching is “getting it,” you’re also beefing up your own understanding in an important way. Can you teach what you know to someone else? Give it a try!
Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.