The idea of learning through teaching is nothing new. We find the idea in an old Latin proverb, docendo discimus (by teaching, we learn), possibly handed down to us from Seneca the Younger. The premise is simple: being able to explain what we know turns that knowledge from passive into active smarts.
We might also argue that the skill of teaching is facilitating learning, rather than bound to the actual content of that learning. It’s not necessarily about what you know, but how well you can explain (and re-explain) material – even new material. In this light, a natural next question is: can we teach without being experts in that content already? And are there learning benefits for us in doing so?
The Primary Languages model rolled out in many UK schools is a great example of learn-while-teaching. Many teachers are not language specialists, but rather using teaching materials that allow them to stay one step ahead of the students.
The very best materials, like Linguascope‘s elementary resources, are packaged like ready-made lesson plans, which can be reviewed before class and form a roadmap for the teacher. Great teaching in this context is the skill of presenting, explaining and reviewing content, even if you’re just a few steps ahead of your class.
In the classroom setting, learning through teaching can be just as powerful between peers. Students may be tasked with learning material in order to teach it to other students, either contemporaries or those in lower year groups. The resulting ‘altered expectations‘ – the knowledge that you’ll have to teach the material you’re learning to others – transform motivations and sharpen focus on really understanding. Also dubbed the ‘protégé effect‘, educational scientists have noted how preparation to teach results in students spending longer on material. One study provides empirical evidence for this ‘teaching expectancy‘ effect.
The idea has achieved some institutional acceptance already; educationalist Jean-Pol Martin has helped to instill the Learning by Teaching (Lernen durch Lehren) model as a popular method in German schools. The modern ‘flipped classroom‘ also has elements of student-turned-self-teacher, too, reversing traditional roles.
Build teaching into your own learning
So, teaching as learning has a long pedigree, and already has some good traction in the real world. But what lessons can we take from this for our own language learning?
Bug friends and family
Share with friends and family what you’re learning. They don’t ‘do’ languages? Then break it down as simply as possible. Tell them about a quirk of your target language that you find unusual. Think you’ll bore them to tears? Then find some way to make it interesting to them. The more challenging, the harder you’ll have to think – and the more that material will stick.
To get the interest of family and friends, I’ve actively looked for things that will make them laugh in the past. Never underestimate the power of humour in learning! Funny-sounding words (Fahrt in German is always a good one), weird idioms (tomar el pelo – literally ‘pulling the hair’ for ‘pulling someone’s leg’ in Spanish) and other oddities speak to the imaginations of the most reluctant listeners. “You’ll never guess what the word for ‘swimming pool’ is in French…”
Find a learn-and-teach partner
You can go beyond sharing humorous factoids and foibles. Find a fully-fledged language partner – someone who is as motivated as you to learn the language – and devise a schedule where you take turns in teaching vocabulary or grammar points each week. You’ll be activating those ‘teaching expectancy’ effects that worked so well in the classroom studies above.
Create resources for other learners
A revision technique I learnt as a student was to condense important points into simple explanations for others. If you can explain something complicated in a new, simpler way, then it’s a good sign that you really understand it.
Something I’ve been doing recently is to revisit my Castilian by creating Spanish revision videos for beginners. It’s been a form of revision for me, activating old knowledge bases that were starting to fade through lack of use. And because of the interconnected nature of knowledge (the neural networks of our brains), switching on a few buried memories triggers and refreshed many more connected informational blobs.
It’s easy to find a platform to share your homemade revision resources these days. Starting a YouTube channel or a Facebook group could be the perfect platform for your own learning through teaching.
Teaching is connecting
At the heart of it, learning through teaching embodies what languages are all about: making connections, building bridges. Try working some of these ideas into your own learning, and enjoy the social splashback!