Learning To Teach

Something I've wanted to get better at has been teaching software development. Learning is a general interest to me, and learning how to accelerate the learning of others is a natural expression of that interest.

Often, I approach new subjects by studying them for a while and then talking about them with others in a way where I try to paraphrase my own understanding of the subject at hand. This is similar to the Feynman Technique. In this technique, you pick a subject to study, get into it, and then try to express your knowledge of the subject by e.g. attempting to teach it to someone else. Then you try to simplify and optimize your explanation of the subject and try to catch any blanks you have in your own understanding.

The technique itself does not necessarily guarantee that you are able to teach someone else about a new subject you've been learning. After all, the concern is not in whether the person, if they are real and not imaginary, you were explaining the subject to understood it, but whether you understood what you were explaining to them. So, being a good learner is a distinctly different thing from being a good teacher. For example, Niels Bohr, Noble prize winner and one of the most important physicists of the 20th century who contributed to the atomic model and to quantum physics, was an advocate of simplifying complex concepts and thus making science accessible to the lay people on the conceptual level. At the same time however, he was notorious for being a very chaotic lecturer and poor in explaining his own ideas. So it's quite clear that neither the will to be a good teacher nor the ability to learn fast correlate directly with being a good teacher.

One way how I try to improve as a teacher is this blog. When I look at my texts in retrospect, I can see that there's still quite a bit to go in making myself clear enough. The balance of images to text, knowing when you've condensed too little and when too much, are all something I'm still in the process of learning. In a way, this text, too, is an attempt at making my own flaws clearer to me and setting out a roadmap of sorts in things I should improve in.

I've also tried to pay some special attention at work in coaching the more junior guys in some important computer science topics, such as the basics of SSL and public-key cryptography. I think I've been doing decent-enough work in that. Another thing I'm doing is trying to be very open with my personal web projects. I find that web projects can be decently easy to get into; there's always some low-hanging fruits to fix in them and setting the projects up for contribution is often not at all difficult. But my main challenge there seems to be the ability - or the lack of it - of conveying project purposes and aims effectively. I don't want to simply be able to lay down a sheet of facts about a project, I want to convey the idea of what the project could be, what it could do, what sort of problems it solves and what the technical challenges or beautiful technical solutions are.

Personally what I find myself appreciating the most in great teachers is not necessarily in how well they convey facts. Rather, it's in how much they inspire. How they inspire their pupils to become curious and more willing to learn. The motivated mind is much, much better at learning than a mind struggling to pay attention to begin with. One good example of what I mean might be Viktor Frankl's lectures (link to a 5 min YouTube snippet). It's not that Frankl is explaining anything very arcane, it's how excited Frankl is about it. He makes me want to understand his metaphors and makes me want to understand his thinking. That's what makes him a great lecturer. And that's what I want to be able to do, too. I want to make people understand not that what is, but what can be done and I want them to get excited about those prospects and look into learning more about them.

One last thing that I'd like to do for a while is participating in programming workshops or even after-school clubs, teaching teens and kids about programming. My spouse works as an assistant teacher so maybe I can utilize her as a link. I'm not very natural with kids, so her being around would also be an asset in that regard. All in all though, that's just yet another cool thing to overcome and learn more about!

Jalmari Ikävalko

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