Before you teach again, read this

If you’re going to teach, you have to understand how people learn. But do you really know how we learn?

I am by no means an expert, but I’ve been obsessed with this question since 2010, so here are a few things I know.

Four principles of learning:

1. Practice at the edge

The edge is the Goldilocks zone of what you need to learn: things that are not too easy, and not too hard.

Your neurons grow fastest when you work at the edge of your abilities, and this is how you get the most dramatic improvement. As Daniel Coyle says, “skill” is just wrapping your neurons in insulation (called myelin), like how we wrap wires in plastic so they work better.

You get to the edge by finding the gaps in the map of your understanding. You are like a hiker walking through a forest. Everything is fine until, all of a sudden, you stumble, and – boom – you’re at the edge of a cliff. What do you do? You turn around and figure out what tripped you.

A math example:

Say a student is working on a set of practice problems in math. They were easily solving the straightforward calculation questions, so you push them to a word problem. They hesitate. They aren’t sure where to begin. Good! You’ve found a gap in the map.

Now you could get them to do ten word problems for practice, but a more efficient use of their limited time and attention would be to keep them at the edge.

Have them practice setting up the word problems, until they start to understand how word problems work. They don’t have to solve, because we know they’re already proficient at doing the math. The math isn’t the hardest part; it’s making the plan of what math they need to do that tripped them up.

An art example:

If you’re an artist, and every time you sketch a face you struggle the most with the eyes, practice drawing eyes. Don’t waste time sketching out the ears and the nose and the lips. You’re already good at those. Practice eyes for a while, until you’re as good as you want to be. Then go back to drawing faces, and figure out the next thing that needs to level up. 

A nautical example:

You are the tide coming in. You slowly push up the lowest boat, until it’s not the lowest anymore. Then you work on the next lowest, and the next, until eventually, all the boats are sky high.

2. Keep practicing at the edge even though it sucks

Practicing at the edge is hard. No one likes doing things they’re bad at. You’re going to need to push your students to the edge. They need a coach, and that’s you.

You, as their teacher-coach, have to curate their learning. Match what they need to learn with what they are working on.

3. Correct your mistakes immediately

As soon as you find the gap in understanding, repair it. You (or a student you know) will want to just plow ahead and continue doing the stuff you are already good at, but that is a waste of time. You are already good at it!
Move on.

4. Make as many mistakes as possible

If someone is better than you at something, it’s likely they’ve failed at it more times than you have.

Seth Godin

You have to find your mistakes, and deal with them. That’s how you stop making mistakes and actually get better.

How to find the edge

Here are three learning strategies that will help you find the edge, and keep you there:

1. Explain it to a 6-year-old

Start trying to explain a concept or a process to a child (a real child, or one you are imagining). If you can’t simplify something, you don’t really know it. When you start saying a lot of umms and glossing over important details, you’ve found an edge. This is an aspect you need to learn more about. Fix the gap, and then try again.

2. Quiz and recall

The more you’re quizzed on something, the better you remember it, even if you don’t study. It’s called spaced repetition.

Make a list of questions, and try to do them. If you can’t easily give an answer, go relearn it.

If you’re a teacher, give students formative quizzes often. Force their brains to dig and try to remember something just at the edge of their memories.

You know the pain you feel when trying to remember something you don’t quite remember? That’s the feeling of the myelin growing on your neurons. Let it grow.

3. Make metaphors and analogies

Your brain is a series of connections. We don’t store learning as lists. We store it as a web of facts and examples and details and random things we are reminded of.

Connect what you are learning to something you know well. What does it remind you of? Try to make an analogy for each concept.


Here are some people that really know what they’re talking about:

Scott H. Young, master of learning. Read this free e-book for a lot more strategies than I can even list.

Tim Ferris, accelerated learning guru. Listen to him explain the art and science of learning anything faster.

And here’s an entire free, online course specifically for youth on how to learn.