Qualities of Effective Teaching / Learning

I wish I could say I’ve had a truly amazing teacher in my lifetime, but sadly I don’t think I have.

I’ve certainly enjoyed classes here and there, but my professors and high school teachers never seemed to have the right tools or incentives to genuinely care about the quality of my education.

Most of my university professors had no formal teaching training and the majority were hired primarily to do research. A special few of my public school teachers had great compassion for their students, but didn’t have the resources or time to individually cater to students.

I also found that the pressure of school led students to purely gamify school performance. I rarely felt incentivized to enjoy a course’s content and found myself almost always aggressively optimizing for grades.

Now, it would be a real mockery to call myself a teacher, but teaching is one of the core things that I do for Peak Frameworks.

In fact, the competitive advantage of my product is largely predicated on the idea that I can teach concepts in a more efficient and understandable way.

So, having coached and tutored over thousands of people in some form or another, I would say the following elements are most crucial for effective teaching (and learning):

  1. Invoking a Sense of Play
  2. Using an Appropriate Scope and Format
  3. Exercising Patience and Spaced Repetition

Invoking a Sense of Play

A mind-blowing realization for me is that we as humans are most authentically motivated when we are playing.

When we’re having fun and are engaged with what we are doing, we are more likely to produce high quality output.

I read a very neat book about motivation in organizations called Primed to Perform, which articulates the importance of play when we work.

You’re most likely to lose weight—or succeed in any other endeavor—when your motive is play. Play occurs when you’re engaging in an activity simply because you enjoy doing it. The work itself is its own reward. Scientists describe this motive as “intrinsic.”

Play at work should not be confused with your people playing Ping-Pong or foosball in the break room. For your people to feel play at work, the motive must be fueled by the work itself, not the distraction. Because the play motive is created by the work itself, play is the most direct and most powerful driver of high performance.

Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor (just read the first third of the book)

The book uses a holistic metric for motivation called “Total Motivation” or ToMo, with the most powerful factor being “Play”.

Teachers can try to invoke a sense of play by assigning students open-ended projects or allowing them to find solutions via experiment. When we’re curious and tinkering with ideas just for the sake of it, it’s very easy to start playing and stumble into a flow state.

I often think about how very much I love making beats and producing music. But I never really had that spark of enjoying music until adulthood, despite doing pouring hours and hours into learning piano as a kid. And I don’t think it’s because the two fundamental processes are that different, but rather how I was exposed to them.

When you ask a kid to do scales and play Moonlight Sonata forty times per week, it’s very unlikely they’ll ever invoke a sense of play. You’re essentially asking a kid to do rote practice while depriving them of creativity and exploration.

But if you ask a kid to try to and figure out the chords from a pop song they like, they’ll be forced to experiment and figure out for themselves which approaches work. They’ll make mistakes and maybe have to Google around for what the solution is.

Now, not everything can be super loose and open-ended, but peppering in creative projects and using case studies without clear answers can improve someone’s engagement level.

Appropriate Scope and Format

Most finance people I worked with were very smart, but weren’t great at simply explaining concepts. My bosses often used complicated mental models and encumbered their explanations with jargon and information that I didn’t need to know as a lowly peon. I rarely left my superior’s desk with a precise understanding of what to do and how to accomplish it.

A great teacher will build a tailored curriculum that explains concepts to the exact depth that the student needs to know. Great teachers prepare their student for the exact problems on the test, the exact questions in the interview, and the exact issues faced on the job.

A teacher can ensure they’re teaching from an appropriate scope by listening to a student’s feedback and making frequent adjustments to the underlying material.

The format in which a student receives information has a huge impact on how likely they are to absorb the content. Reactive teaching formats (like tutoring) dramatically increase the chance that a student is learning an appropriate scope and at an appropriate rate.

This highly anecdotal chart maps out my perception of different learning formats, charting the quality of learning experience against the relevance of scope.

I know everyone learns slightly differently, but this is generally what I’ve experienced in both formal and informal settings.

This does of course vary significantly depending on the subject matter, as mathematics and rule-based topics tend to require more repetition. To give a sour example, my business school taught statistics using a small number of text-based case studies, which I can only assume is the result of institutionalized arrogance.

I personally learn the best by watching concise video tutorials, studying precedent examples, and receiving expert feedback (which is what I structure my courses around).

I like these the best because they can be taught in an interactive fashion and I’ve found that the quality of content has been highest in these formats. I’ve probably learned slightly more from YouTube than I did from university.

Exercising Patience and Spacing Repetition

The last thing I try to be mindful of as a teacher is the weaknesses of human memory.

Lots of people (including myself) have really bad short-term memory and won’t fully absorb a concept the first time, even if it’s explained perfectly.

As a teacher, you need to frequently re-introduce and re-define topics in order for a student to really get it. You also need to give a student enough supplemental resources so they can easily reference what they just learned.

Repetition and long-term memory are closely intertwined, so teachers need to provide sufficient opportunities for students to test their knowledge.

How do you remember better? Repeated exposure to information in specifically timed intervals provides the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain. …Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid it can be. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.

Brain Rules by John Medina

Some topics simply take a long time to fully digest and must be revisited repeatedly.

In the unofficial Daft Punk documentary, it’s mentioned how Daft Punk would painstakingly re-read the manuals of their synthesizers “once per month” to make sure they fully knew the machines they worked with.

Great Teachers are Extremely Rare

I recognize that under these requirements, it’s virtually impossible for any public school teacher or professor to be truly great. Most of these principles require some kind of direct feedback loop from the student, which is very hard to do if you’re managing more than five to ten students.

I actually think where these principles are more easily applicable are in our own learning and craftsmanship.