THE BASIC TRUTH: Even though we look at things, there are many we do not see
IF you want to learn, teach. Various people have put it in various ways, but it is an adage as old as the hills. But if you don't know, how do you teach? Well, consider.
There is a street you've walked through the first time last week when you were looking for a shop window.
You went down that way again yesterday and saw things that you did not see before: a turning into a narrow alley, a house that has no windows.
But how could you have missed that the first time you were there?
Our mind works in mysterious ways but even though we look at things, there are still many that we do not see.
Some say that we see things in real focus only in that spot directly in front of our eyes, some say that when we venture into unfamiliar areas our mind wants to know the generalities before looking into particulars.
You'll find that last observation to be true when you're reading a book, not necessarily a heavy tract but even a novel.
Your second reading of the book will show you things you did not see before; a third will give you a more complete picture.
Some will even recommend a fourth to give you that complete mastery.
What's that got to do with teaching then?
Well, to teach, you have to know. And the experience of teachers is that they learn a bit more when they revise a subject to impart to other people.
That's the basic truth then: you cannot teach what you do not know, and to know, you must look up the subject, and the more you look it up, the more you'll see, windowless houses and blind alleys.
Those who teach other people how to think do recommend this thoroughness with a subject, and approaching a subject with a view to teaching yourself the nitty gritty is a good way of absorbing what there is to know.
People like Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, make this distinction between feeling that you know a subject and really knowing how.
Markman calls it the illusion of explanatory depth, which is what most students carry into the examination hall.
People approach a subject or re-read a book to assure themselves of a certain familiarity with the topic at hand but neglect another important aspect of knowing, and that is the understanding of how something works or how it got there.
We often ask of each other, "Are you familiar with the subject?" as opposed to "Do you know?".
In trying to understand, we are often deluded by the illusion of explanatory depth, only to be disappointed by closer examination when we realise that there are gaps still.
So, teachers are at an advantage because they have to approach a subject with thoroughness, or they often discover gaps in their own knowledge when they are teaching other people.
This, says Markman and many others before him, is the best approach to learning, to learn with a view to teaching, even -- especially -- yourself.
When attending a talk, reading a new subject, pondering problems, always approach with the mind of a teacher, acquiring the depth that you would need if you were to explain it again to yourself, or to other people.
"Before I started teaching, I did not believe that I would be the one learning. Three weeks into it, I can already say that teaching has been incredibly beneficial to how I practise law," says Randall Ryder, a consumer rights attorney and lawyering skills trainer in Minnesota in an article on teaching.
It is a statement that many teachers will identify with. It is the bonus in the work of a teacher.
Acquiring causal knowledge in depth is what Professor Markman, who is also a marketing teacher, urges his students to do.
When someone makes a suggestion or proposes an idea, ask him or her how the idea came to be, he says in his book, Smart Thinking. By looking at it again this way, the idea may develop further and beget new ideas.
Markman also has another suggestion about looking at things. Look specifically rather than abstractly. If you look at a house from a distance, you are looking at it abstractly, but when you move in close you'll see it specifically, in greater detail -- how it is structured, what kind of windows and pillars and which architectural genre.
Looking at a clock is different from looking at it closely to examine the clockwork and the cog wheels.
The latter is looking specifically which is real, not cursory knowledge. If one looks at a clockwork with a view to assembling the pieces again if it were disassembled, then that's teaching oneself the know-how. The person did not know it before but he taught himself to know.
This engaged way of learning awakens many deep faculties because trying to grasp the subject intelligently is like looking at the parts one by one and accounting for them as if you are writing an inventory.
Wan A. Hulaimi | email@example.com is based in UK New Straits Times Columnist 20 January 2013