Learning through Teaching

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth learning can be taught.” – Oscar Wilde

Russell L. Ackoff tells a wonderful story in the podcast for the book he wrote with Daniel Greenberg “Turning Learning Right Side Up:”

After lecturing to undergraduates at a major university, I was accosted by a student who had attended the lecture. After some complimentary remarks, he asked, “How long ago did you teach your first class?”

I responded, “In September of 1941.”

“Wow!” The student said. “You mean to say you have been teaching for more than 60 years?”


“When did you last teach a course in a subject that existed when you were a student?”

This difficult question required some thought. After a pause, I said, “September of 1951.”

“Wow! You mean to say that everything you have taught in more than 50 years was not taught to you; you had to learn on your own?”


“You must be a pretty good learner.”

I modestly agreed.

The student then said, “What a shame you’re not that good a teacher.”

The story shows that the skill required to become a college professor is the ability to learn, not the ability to teach. But Ackoff is making the deeper point that most of our learning comes outside of formal education. Even teachers learned most of what they teach outside of formal education.

But we also learn by teaching, and so one of the best ways to teach is to turn students into teachers. Teaching produces learning by not only forcing the teacher to learn the material himself or herself, but also by forcing the teacher to, as Ackoff says, “figure out how to link their frame of reference to the worldview of the person receiving the explanation, so that the explanation can make sense to that person, too.” The explainer must circle around the topic to understand it, and its value, from different perspectives, and thus get underneath it in a way that produces a deeper understanding for themselves.

I require all of my students to produce a digital teaching module on a class topic. The students use wikis, videos, VoiceThread, narrated PowerPoint, and other tools to deliver the content. They also must incorporate an assessment such as an online quiz or game. The result is a much deeper understanding of the material themselves, as well as pride in producing a result that is public and could help others to learn as well.

Consider the ways that you can turn your students into teachers, and thus learners.

As usual, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage in the comments section of the blog.

Podcast on Russell L. Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg’s book “Turning Learning Right Side Up.” Access it here »

“New Technology Supporting Informal Learning,” Stephen Downes looks at social networks as a means of fostering informal learning. Download the PDF here »

“Project Based Learning Explained” Excellent Common Craft video. Watch the video here »

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