Can You Teach What You Know?

by | June 30, 2021

graphic of two knights in front of a castle with a dragon

Do you know what 36+18 equals? Can you solve it?

This isn’t a trick question; the answer is in fact 54.

Now, how would you tell someone to solve that math problem? How would you tell someone to solve it if they had never done addition at that level before?

I found myself in a similar situation recently when I was with a friend’s five year old daughter. They were on their school issued laptop eagerly explaining the fantasy adventure game they were playing which was basically one part World of Warcraft and one part math practice.

I consider myself pretty tech savvy, but I had never felt as old as I did in that moment when a Kindergartener was explaining concepts such as “logging on” and sending their classmates “friend requests.” When I was her age, I was doing basic math sheets with a pencil. And here was a child navigating the World Wide Web in a way that is both engaging and educational.

After the introduction to this game world, I was shown the “store” where you can get various things for your avatar such as apparel, wands, and pets, the basics, of course, for a fantasy universe. Some of the items required “scrolls” to purchase which you could get by completing quests and finding them around a castle.

We went inside a castle and were promptly confronted by a monster! It was quite scary but I was reassured that she would be able to defeat it. In a turn based battle style similar to the Pokémon games I played growing up, it was time to select a spell to cast. After selecting the right spell (a feat in itself to know what type of spells are strong against each type of creature), a math problem had to be solved. If the problem wasn’t successfully solved, the spell would not cast and the monster would be victorious.

I’m sure you can guess which math problem was shown on the screen.

That’s right, it was 36+18.

As her mother had explained, the difficulty had been ramping up because they had completed some problems successfully so the addition got more complex.

I was at a loss because I clearly knew how to solve it but I knew my approach of “just doing it” wasn’t going to be particularly helpful. I also had a fear of scaring a child into hating math at a young age!

I then spent a little over twenty minutes between that problem and a couple of other similar addition problems explaining how the ‘ones’ get added and then the ‘tens’ plus any tens that got carried over. I pointed out a number line on the screen and even drew one out as a reference to leave behind.


Explaining What I Know

I may have spent so much time engrossed in discussing addition with a five year old, that after it was done, I promptly rushed home to make my next meeting, barely having enough time to do anything else that I put my entire bag in the fridge with leftovers from lunch because there was no time to take them out beforehand.

Was this excessive? Yes. However I didn’t want to leave the problem unsolved, essentially saying, “I have to head out but good luck with those monsters!”

In the end, the monster was defeated, the scrolls obtained, and I’m sure our Fields Medal will be in the mail any day now for us to share.

Later that evening, I found myself continuing to process what had happened earlier in the day. It took me longer than I expected to explain the concepts needed to solve the math problem and cast the spell successfully.

At the same time, however, it felt familiar and I was unsure why until the epiphany hit me. As someone operating a small business, I often am in the role of having to explain concepts that I may take for granted but others may be learning for the first time. Similarly, when it comes to learning something new, I am often in the role of the “Kindergartener.” You can’t learn if you aren’t willing to be a bit vulnerable in that sense.

One topic area where I find myself frequently learning about is related to typography and graphic design in marketing. Making things look pretty and engaging is something I didn’t completely grasp the importance of until I asked my wife and business partner, Priscilla, to explain why it took so long to create ads and social media images. While I understood that it would have been too extreme to get the message across with Times New Roman on a plain white background (like some things I had created earlier), when she went through and showed me why she moved a letter 4 pixels up or why she chose a specific color, everything clicked. I was the “Kindergartner” and she had to teach me something that came naturally to her. She had to find a way of explaining what was going on in terms I would connect with. I don’t necessarily need to be the number one artist in the world but learning about basic principles of fonts or image placement has helped me when I’ve needed to create some content for use in other projects. I would not have been able to do this without opening myself up to any learning that needed to take place.


Bringing It Together

There’s an adage that often comes to mind when teaching is brought up which has had its meaning twisted through the years from a George Bernard Shaw play. However, I much prefer Aristotle’s quote where he says, “Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

Can you truly say that you have mastered something if you are unable to explain it? What started as a simple math problem, led me to rediscover the lesson that one should always brush up on one’s pedagogy.

This type of problem solving approach isn’t necessarily new. In fact, I am a big believer in the “Rubber Duck Approach” to debugging. However, since helping a kindergartener cast a spell to defeat a monster and having Priscilla breakdown the use of marketing design to me, I’ve found myself taking a step back more often and explaining what I’m doing out loud so that I can see if it still makes sense. One recent example is in regards to blockchain technologies and cryptocurrency. As mentioned in my last blog post, I started to learn more about those types of disruptive technologies but in just two short months I know much more now than I did when I started and have already reevaluated whether it makes sense to continue to do things a certain way.


Applying It To Your Small Business

Have you ever had a realization about how to do something while explaining something to someone in your small business? A common occurrence can actually be when onboarding an employee. Sometimes something can be done the “wrong way” but the fresh perspective a new employee provides can actually lead to discovering a better way to do things. Experiences like these can make you think about what you can transform about your business and get you out of being stuck in autopilot.

We often don’t start by following best practices but we can certainly aspire to get there! By starting from square one, it’s a helpful check to see if you should mix things up. In some cases like the math problem, it does. In some, you might be surprised what assumptions you were taking for granted and how the act of “teaching” makes you realize that there is a better way.

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