3 Things to Remember When Teaching a Friend

teachingknitting
One knitter teaching another, CC BY-SA moonrat42

As geeks, we love to share our passions. We want others to love the things that we love, and we get excited when they do. It’s part of what defines being a geek. But let’s be honest. A lot of us really, really suck at it when it’s time to teach a friend, especially if it’s a new skill. The result sounds like this:

“Could you actually show me instead of just doing it for me?”
“NOOOO, you have to slow down! What was that?”
[insert sound of things being smashed in anger]

Teaching is its own skill. That’s why we give people college degrees in it and put them in charge of educating our children. Here are three things that are easy to forget when you try to teach someone something you’re already good at:

Recognize and appreciate their learning styles

My husband gets frustrated with me when I ask him for written information, which he reads to me, and then I take the paper or book and read it again myself. I simply process information better visually. Other people–and I’m pretty sure said husband is one of them–are better auditory learners. If you’re trying to teach an auditory-learning friend a new skill over IM, you’re going to have a bad time. She’s going to have a really bad time.

Suit the method to the learner. Simply ask what’s the easiest way. Get together in person if you can. Use video chat, instant messaging, emails, photos, scans of drawings–whatever it takes to get the job done for the learner, not for you.

Show; don’t do

This to me is the most important one. Once you’ve told someone everything you can tell them about how to do something, all that’s left is simply to do it. The learner. Not you. It’s so tempting to grab the knitting needles and cast on for her or the keyboard to fix an error for her or the controller and play through that hard level for her. But then how is she going to cast on the next project? Fix the error and what if it happens again after you leave? Defeat the boss on the next level?

Yes, you can do it faster, and that seems simpler. But then your protégé has learned nothing, and that defeats the whole point. You can demonstrate when it’s necessary, but let the learner do it for herself.

Dock your mock

Friends tease each other in a friendly fashion. But think about how it feels when you’re trying to learn something new, especially something you’ve wanted to understand for a long time. And then think about how different the “friendly” teasing feels when you’ve finally made progress. When you say, “I hope you’re not put in charge of food after the zombie apocalypse, because we’re all going to starve!” might be just the moment when your brown-thumbed friend was feeling really proud of the single tomato sprouting in his otherwise dead garden. Rein it in.

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By day, Ruth works to make open source software communities better. The rest of the time, she makes things, which means her husband and kids know to watch out for stray sewing pins and to ask before eating anything made of fondant.