My daughter was busily sketching out a test for me in the backseat this morning when I recalled something that had occurred to me a long time ago.  Though a cliché, the adage goes like this: ‘teaching is the best form of learning.’  

I had actually failed my daughter’s first math test. The third question was what was 1,111,111,111,111,111,111… for an entire line plus 9,999,999,999… for an entire line, plus 1,010,101,010…for an entire line, just to give you a flavor of that. Perhaps a more clever math mind would have figured it out, but compounded by the commas being… creatively placed, my answer was deemed incorrect, and combined with my total failure on the “fake math” section on the back (still not entirely sure what that meant), I was given an F minus. My reward was meant to be an even more difficult test. However, more half-jokingly, I complained that there were no directions given on the test and that total failure wasn’t always a student’s mantle alone. The tiny gears in her mind begin to spin, as her eyes stared out the window.

All the way to school, which is 30 minutes away for us, she sketched out the second version. This time it included directions and the difficulty level was far more appropriate. It also offered charm and flair, a secret message decoded, read, “Turn the page over for more questions, after you finish this one, of course!”

An innocuous episode perhaps, but it got me thinking the amount of critical thinking that went into improving the second version of the quiz. She had to consider the appropriate difficulty level for the “student,” the experience of taking the quiz (I had complained about not getting enough time to complete the first version), the confidence of the student, and the connection between the directions and the actual questions– all in addition to the content of the quiz itself, which included a word puzzle with vowels and some basic math equations. In other words, there were a number of so-called “soft skills” that were required as well. And perhaps the king of all: empathy.

I recalled quickly that there is a 90% retention rate on material that a student must “teach,” versus a 5% retention rate on lecture or video… 5!!

This does sync with my own experience in education. I didn’t really, intentionally know how to write until I taught others how to write. I only accidentally lucked into good writing in high school and college years, finding clarity only when it emanated naturally from my mind. Clarity was never an intentional purpose: a “reader-based” orientation versus a “writer-based” orientation. When I began to tutor writing to those who had little experience and even less motivation, suddenly I needed to focus on the understanding of my audience in explanation. When they asked questions about writing, I needed to know how to answer them or risk looking like a fool. This fear forced me to develop a more three-dimensional understanding of writing, versus to linear thinking of “let’s get this done to produce something of quality that gets a good grade.”

If you crunch the above numbers, exercises in positioning student as ‘teacher’ are 20 times more valuable than lecturing on proper technique. That is why I will always seek to make the student the teacher, or at the very least, make them the navigator of his or her own educational experience. If I’m lecturing at them, they might as well look out the window, because they will learn more from watching raindrops disappearing on the window than what I’m hollering.