Why “For Example” Is A Bad Way Of Explaining Things
What Makes Good Teachers Bad Teachers & How To Do It Right
When our math teacher in high school introduced a new topic, what happened next would always follow the same pattern:
- She explains the Pythagorean theorem.
- Nobody gets it.
- She makes an example.
- Some people get it.
- The rest of the class goes “Can you make another example? Pleeeeeeeaaaaase?”
Steps 3–5 of the pattern would then repeat until the majority of the class understood the new concept and the “More examples!” screams slowly died down. Then we moved on.
Since I was often part of the group who got the gist the first go around, I’d be bored for the remainder of the lesson, waiting for everyone else to get the joke so we could continue. In the meantime, instead of listening, I tried to come up with more of my own examples.
I didn’t know it back then, but as it turns out, I was doing something right.
When I started to blog, I just began to type. I had no idea what I was going to say. All I knew was: “I have to say something.”
Ask most writers about their first few pieces and they’ll tell you they’re embarrassed by them. Looking back on my first post now, I honestly have to say: I’m not. Sure, it’s not my best work, but I still like it way better than some of the things I’ve written afterwards.
Some time ago, I realized why that is: it was unencumbered. Uninfluenced by the plethora of bullshit writing advice that floats through the endless vastnesses of the web. Later, as I started to learn more about writing as a craft, I began to take other people’s writing advice.
One particular piece of advice I really took to heart was this one:
“Use ‘for example’ a lot.”
If you’ve read more than two posts of mine, you know this is true. I loooooooove giving examples. A quick Google search reveals I’ve used the phrase in 303 out of 371 posts on Four Minute Books. That’s over 80%.
Considering how much time I’ve spent sitting in classrooms and coming up with them, that’s unsurprising. But this is:
“For example” is a terrible way of explaining things.
When you use “for example” to make something clearer to another person, you’re not really doing them a favor. The reason for this is very similar to what makes the difference between a good writer and a great one:
You don’t become a great writer by taking writing advice. You become a great writer by reading writers you admire, thinking about why you admire them, and then emulating them.
One of the writers I aspire to is Tim Urban from Wait But Why. And it was reading the last post in his 4-part series about Elon Musk, called The Cook and the Chef, which nudged me towards this insight.
To understand it, let’s return to the classroom from earlier.
Why Good Teachers Are Bad Teachers
Our math teacher was a pushover. Sadly, she was about as authoritative as a sponge. As a consequence, she also gave in to our every request, 100% of the time. When we asked her for more examples, she gave us more examples.
Of course not all of our teachers did this, especially the older ones. A physics teacher, who was about to retire in a few years, would pretty much not give a damn. He’d just explain, maybe give a use case, then move on.
The general consensus among our class was the following: he sucked and she was awesome. To us, those teachers, who gave us more examples, felt like they did a better job at explaining.
Interestingly, when I asked some of my classmates which teacher they learned from the most years later, many of them referred to the physics teacher. Nobody said our math teacher’s name.
That’s because giving us many examples taught us, well, many examples.
What it didn’t teach us was how to think about the underlying mechanism and come to our own conclusions.
The Wait But Why post about Musk compares two ways of reasoning to make decisions. One is reasoning by analogy, where you base your conclusion on what’s been done before and what others tell you. That’s the default mode most people make decisions by. The alternative, which few people (including Elon Musk) use, is to reason from first principles: you look at the fundamentals of what you know is true and then choose what to do, no matter what the rest of the world thinks about it, or whether it’s a proven course of action.
The same is true about learning. You can learn by analogy, or you can learn from “first experiences.”
When I was dreaming up my own examples in class, I was subconsciously learning to apply the principle at hand. After all, if I could come up with my own, specific use cases, I could transfer the idea to pretty much anything. Instead of building up an inventory of examples, I made my own experiences and learned from those.
What our “good” math teacher did, was to show us that (13+7)²=169+2*13*7+49.
What our physics teacher would’ve taught us is that (a+b)²=a²+2*ab+b².
One you can memorize and hope it’ll appear exactly the same in the test. The other you can use for life.
The less examples our physics teacher made, the more he helped us to actually learn something, because he forced us to think about what was going on.
Circling back to writing, the more examples a writer gives you while explaining, the easier it might be for you to remember the lesson. However, it’ll be harder to apply it in practice, because all you know is that one specific example.
Unless you’re writing an instruction manual for assembling a wardrobe or maintaining a complex piece of machinery, doling out specific A -> B cases of what you’re trying to teach won’t do much good.
That’s why “for example” is probably the most popular phrase in the ever-growing world of “how-to” posts (this blog being no exclusion).
But as a writer, my goal isn’t to tell you what to do. You and I are different. What has worked for me might not work for you. I want to make you think, so you can decide what to do yourself.
So no more examples.
“For Example” Is A GREAT Way Of Learning Things
As bad as “for example” is a tool to explain things, it remains a good way of learning things — as long as you come up with your own examples.
Remembering examples other people give you is the equivalent of taking on an opinion, simply because it’s handed to you. It’s easier, quicker and it feels like progress.
But when you come up with your own examples, you’re forming your first experiences with a new idea. Better yet, once you can come up with multiple examples that fit the rule and make sense, you know you’ve really understood the underlying concept.
This leaves us with two takeaways:
- Don’t use “for example” to explain things to others. If anything, force people to come up with their own, for example by letting them fill in the blank: “For example _____________________.” See what I did there? 😉
- The next time you see “for example” somewhere, don’t just read on after seeing the example. Take a second to pause and think of another one on your own.