Why do I teach?

I was speaking with Ben Allen today and the conversation led me to an interesting thought. If you’d asked me yesterday why I teach, I’d have said it was because I like helping people get better, I like talking, and I really enjoy it.

Today though, I gave that question a little more thought…

I have an insatiable desire to learn things. All The Things™. This does’t just apply to things within my own field, either — I’d be just as interested in having a day-long tutorial on flower arranging as on something technical.

But on reflection, learning a thing isn’t enough. When something I learn excites me — and that’s almost everything — I want to teach others about it. I’m pretty sure this is a learned behaviour, and that it does two things:

  1. It forces me to solidify my thoughts on the subject and by considering how I can best help others understand it, I often make new connections with existing knowledge. It also forces me to learn the details. (I learned more about the inner workings of the Ruby programming language while designing a 5-day course for beginners than I did in the previous 8 years writing it almost daily.)
  2. Having knowledge in my head isn’t particularly useful unless I apply it regularly. If I were to learn flower-arranging, I’d probably use it once a year. If I were to be hit by a bus, the effort of learning it would be wasted. But if I can teach three other people about it (who get some satisfaction), the effort was worthwhile. It had an effect beyond just me.

I also realised I’ve designed very few lessons or courses which didn’t require significant learning on my part. I either had to learn a whole new subject (usually one close to something I knew), or had to go back to basics and learn the fundamentals in absolute detail — which is hard when the knowledge or skill has become second-nature (see Stage 5 from The Brothers Dreyfus). The few lessons I’ve designed which didn’t require learning have not been very good.

In addition, the knowledge that I’ll inevitably learn stuff by building material is a powerful motivator to keep doing so, rather than lapse into the comfortable role of a trainer who’s built his material and lives only to deliver it.