A thought on teaching and learning

I’ve been wondering lately which is better.

Is it better to teach something in a simple way that’s only about 75% correct, or in a more complex way that’s 100% correct? I’ve decided that it’s actually better to be simple and somewhat wrong. Here’s why.

When you try to teach something 100% right, you end up layering on the details before the foundation has set. It’s like painting a room. Done correctly, you apply a base primer coat or two, letting it dry, before applying a coat of paint. You let that dry and apply another coat of paint. If you decided to paint every coat at once, you end up with a smeared mess.

Learning has always been somewhat algorithmic to me. It goes something like this.

  1. Learn a few facts about something.
  2. Go do that something assuming that those few facts make up 100% of everything I need to know about that something.
  3. Eventually stumble upon an occurrence that either (a) contradicts one of the facts or (b) can’t be understood by simply knowing those facts.
  4. Learn new fact(s) that make that occurrence make sense.
  5. Go to 2.

In this way, I always assume I know everything about that something. Wow, what a great feeling! So, I march forward, proud and confident about the fact that I’m equipped with everything I need to know. Once, I hit a stumbling block (a contradiction to my thought process), I can undo or add the bits of information I need to get past that block. Then, I keep marching forward proudly.

When I learn the “don’t let the paint dry” way, I’m at the mercy of everything I’ve been able to digest. I’m more cautious and defensive. When I hit a stumbling block, I’m not surprised, and I’m also sure that it’s something I should’ve known but I can’t seem to recall. It’s harder for me to continue forward as I hit more and more stumbling blocks. Ultimately, I will get there, but it will probably take longer and I won’t feel nearly as productive.

So, I think that’s the way we should teach. Teach the basics. Even if it’s an over-exaggeration or over-simplification of the real truth. Let people figure out that some of the truths you say aren’t 100% correct. In fact, the real learning is figuring out what’s incorrect (or not complete) about your bucket of wisdom. Then, after a while, teach ’em some more.