A Model for Teaching (and Learning)

Even if you’re not a professional educator, sometimes you must teach others. Perhaps someone has joined your team and needs inducting into your project, or a child asks you about the meaning of some obscure term, or you’re called on to tell an audience about your company. Whatever the case, many of us often find ourselves having to introduce others to ideas that are new to them.

Over time, I’ve found a pattern for teaching that works well for me. It consists of four steps:

  1. Contextualize
  2. Draw out distinctions
  3. Explore implications
  4. Make it actionable

1. Contextualize

The first step in the process is making the information relatable to your audience. Why should they care? Why does it matter to their particular situations? This calls for identifying (and clearly expressing) a problem that your audience is grappling with that arises from the issue you’re trying to teach.

Contextualizing the subject builds interest. People will latch on to the subject if they understand how paying attention will benefit them. They’ll be more receptive to the message, and thinking about how they can apply it to their own lives. Of course, this implies that you understand the needs of the audience. It’s a good place to start.

2. Draw out distinctions

Once the relevance of the subject is clear, your audience will be wondering what you’re talking about. They’ll inevitably compare the ideas you’re presenting with other things they’re familiar with. (“You only understand something relative to something you already understand.” — Richard Saul Wurman.) Thus, the next step in the process is drawing the boundaries around the subject: what it is and what it isn’t. This calls for clarifying distinctions.

Most subjects have a particular set of concepts that define what the subject is about. It often manifests as pairs of opposites. For example, when I introduce the subject of systems, I talk about static and dynamic systems, open and closed systems, reductionism and holism, inside and outside system boundaries, generals and particulars, etc. These are all important distinctions that help sketch out what systems are about.

3. Explore the implications

The set of distinctions you’ve drawn out is unique and defines the boundaries of the subject. However, it can still come across as quite abstract. The distinctions you’ve drawn have real-world implications, but often it’s not obvious what they are. Your job is to make the implications clear, to make them tangible by exploring their implications. Often this is the bulk of the material of the course/presentation/talk.

I talk about exploring the implications because at its most effective this part of the process takes the form of question-and-answer sessions where you and the person(s) you’re teaching poke at the subject together. As the teacher (or facilitator, if you prefer) you aim to elucidate known connections and perhaps discover new ones.

4. Make it actionable

While knowledge for knowledge’s sake is good, actionable knowledge is better. We learn most effectively not just by activating our nervous systems, but our whole bodies: that’s why the adage directs us to tell, show, do, apply. (Tell and show are meant for the instructor, and do and apply are meant for the student.) Thus, we should create opportunities for the people we’re addressing to practice what we’re teaching them. (In the case of the systems course, we spend a lot of time creating systems models. There is craft even in a subject as abstract as systems.)

While the first three steps of this model are sequential, the fourth should be present throughout the process. The sooner you can get people making things with the information you’re imparting, the better. Also, exploring the implications of the subject changes participants’ understanding of their context, so eventually you’re called to do a fresh round of contextualization.

This four-step model is useful whether you’re teaching a subject or learning it. If you’re learning rather than teaching, the four steps serve as goals. For example, if you’re embarking on learning a new programming language on your own, the first step would be to understand how it’s relevant to you. The more relevant it is, the more excited you’ll be about the process. Once thus engaged, you can look for the significant distinctions that set this programming language apart from others. After that, you’d explore the implications, get into the details. And of course, you should aim to be creating code throughout the process; seeing how the concepts you’re learning affect the outcomes of your programs.

The point of teaching (and learning) is helping people—including yourself—make better decisions. This calls for making the information relevant and actionable. I’m always looking for better ways of doing so, but this four-step model is often my starting point.