ELI5: Explain like I’m 5.Why Everyone Should Learn to Be a Teacher

Let me be clear. I don’t mean ‘teacher’ as in the common notion of a career in which your primary responsibility is to spread certain knowledge to those who don’t have it. I mean ‘teacher’ — as in somebody who has learned something and can break that complex subject down into simpler layers that another human can process. Notice the emphasis on human.

Can Somebody Please Teach Me to Engineer?

I am a Software Engineer, but not because I was good at programming or working with computers growing up. In my earlier years, I was actually more interested in literature, writing, and journalism. Before I got my B.S. in Computer Science, I thought of myself as a humanist — and I still do. When I was 13 years old, I read an article online about how somebody managed to hack an iPod to get custom applications running that weren’t supported by Apple. At the time, I didn’t actually care about making my own applications. I just wanted to figure out how I could play the video game Doom on my 1st generation iPod Nano.

Doom running on a 5th Generation iPod.

And after following some online tutorials, and several failures later, I managed to succeed in getting custom softwares iPodLinux and RockBox running on my iPod Nano. Being able to show my friends that I could play Doom on an iPod Nano was so cool to me — that is, until the novelty eventually wore off.

Tux, the Linux mascot, holding his iPod running iPodLinux

And although I ended up learning a little bit about how the software worked from various online communities, I was fascinated with the technology and wanted to learn more. And that fascination blossomed further, as I began to take interest in Linux, operating systems, and programming. But it wasn’t until my second semester in college that I actually wrote my first program or really began to understand how computers worked. Admittedly, I never really knew where to start learning. I didn’t really have friends interested in programming, and the amount of learning seemed overwhelming. That was, until I took CSCI101: Introduction to Computer Science.

Wow, I’m Actually Learning Something!

The professor, as well as the course book, took away my anxiety about learning a new subject. The class enabled us to:

  • Learn the course material from our textbook
  • In peer groups, discuss what we have learned and clarify misunderstandings.
  • Learn real-life applications of the material.

It was especially helpful that some of the more complex ideas were explained to me using visual and auditory cues along with analogies to things that most people are already familiar with. Since neither the professor nor the students could always afford the time to sit down and talk one-on-one about some of the more confusing subjects, being able to simultaneously teach in 3 different ways helps to reinforce the material for a class full of students who all learn differently.

ELI5: Explain Like I’m 5.

source: https://xkcd.com/1364/

Reflecting back on my college days, there is a reason why I struggled to learn certain subjects where others excelled. Some students understand the rambles and colloquialisms and terminology of a particular subject because they’ve been exposed to that domain for years. Those who are new to the domain often end up alienated because the professor makes the assumption that the students have somewhat similar backgrounds on the subject — after all, why would they all be taking the same course if they didn’t?

Well, it’s because some people, such as myself, are interested in learning a subject that they really don’t know much about. Just because I’m passionate about learning a subject doesn’t mean that I’m already knowledgeable in that subject. So for anybody out there who has to be a mentor to somebody else, here is my suggestion. And if you’re already doing this, then you have my sincere gratitude!

ELI5. Explain like I’m 5. Not literally, but hopefully you understand the gist of the phrase. When you are trying to teach a complex subject to a young child, their brains haven’t fully developed and they’re still learning how to learn (as ironic as that is). So instead of immediately explaining with the vast knowledge that you have, you should be more considerate towards the domain of the child — a much smaller subset of your own knowledge. When you teach somebody else a new subject, ask yourself questions such as:

  • Is this person a visual learner? Auditory learner? Hands-on learner? Perhaps a combination of the three?
  • What knowledge can I assume they already have about this subject?
  • What external knowledge do they currently have that I can leverage or analogize to teach them more about this subject?
  • What assumptions might they make based on information that I provide, and how can I prevent misleading assumptions?
Some people are more left-brained (organized, systematic), some are right-brained (creative, intuitive). By discovering how different people learn, we can become more effective in teaching one another.

When you utilize this same simple strategy to teaching somebody else a subject of any various complexity, you will find that they can actually help you teach them. In this process, you are learning more about the individual’s knowledge and how they learn, and then delivering your knowledge in a way that best suites their domain.

It’s especially tough when you have a class full of students who learn different and have different levels of knowledge, but coming up with a teaching strategy to cover those areas can be simplified by considering the questions listed earlier.

This is the process that I use to teach, and the same process I prefer when someone is going to teach me. It allows for a more collaborative experience. For me, it’s fun getting to learn a bit more about somebody else in the process. And it helps us synergize and become more productive in the workplace when we can both be on the same page.

Sure, I can teach another software engineer about some programming principles in more complicated terminology, but only when I know that they are okay with learning in that domain. So next time you ask somebody to teach you something new? ELI5. And the next time you’re going to teach somebody else something new?


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