Educating for Non-Educators: Strategies for Teaching Success

Teaching is a complex craft to which many brave, caring souls have dedicated their entire careers. Teaching is also something that we all have to do at one point or another, regardless of our profession. Whether it’s training a new hire how to work the cash register, explaining to your colleague how you solved a problem on a past project, or giving a presentation, we all fill the role of educator at one point or another. Some people are better at it than others; sometimes those who have the most knowledge of a subject can struggle to explain that information in a digestible way. However, I believe anyone can be a more effective teacher or communicator by taking a student-centric approach.

I have always relished the challenge of distilling a complex idea and translating it to others in an accessible way; for whatever reason, I find it fun. While I have no training in formal education or educational theory, I have regularly taught informal classes at a local media nonprofit in my free time and that experience has helped me to solidify some of my thoughts on this topic. Here are some of my tips for the next time you find yourself having to play teacher.

Get Basic
First, establish a baseline to set the scene.
Always begin at the beginning and zoom out as far as necessary to properly introduce your topic from a 20,000-mile view. You don’t want to dwell too long on this step but at the same time, you should not be afraid of insulting anyone’s intelligence by beginning with information that could be easily presumed or taken as a given. Starting with high-level information will help to alleviate intimidation, align everyone’s focus, and ensure that all the wheels are on before moving forward.

Concepts Before Steps
Explain the whys before the hows and circle back to these throughout.
As the proverb goes, you want to teach your audience how to fish, not hand them a fish. A step-by-step checklist will probably not result in true understanding, so zoom in from your 20,000-mile introduction to, say, a 50-mile view. You want your audience to grasp any important concepts—the problem(s) that you’re solving and the result(s) you’re aiming for—before you get into the steps. This information will provide a skeleton for your lesson that can be referenced throughout your lesson.

Filter Out the Noise
Separate the fundamentals from the bells and whistles.
Simplicity is key, no matter what you’re teaching. Don’t try to explain everything you know about a topic all at once. Rather, determine what the most essential information is and prioritize it above more advanced material. It’s much easier to revisit an established topic and say, “Remember when we learned how to do X? Well, you can use a similar process to do Y and Z” than it is to explain X,Y and Z all at once. Some things may just be best left off the menu altogether or saved for a later date.

Baby Steps Into the Elevator
Organize your thoughts so that each new point builds upon the previous one.
Break your topic down into bite-size bits and always put one foot in front of the other. Create a hierarchy of information that continuously builds the foundation for future topics. This can also be helpful in the previous step of filtering out the noise—if an early step isn’t relevant to any end goals, it’s probably extraneous information.

Stay On the Path
Get to the end of one topic before you deviate.
Questions and comments are an important part of the learning experience. However, interjections can also make sticking to your outline or lesson plan more difficult. When you’re presenting or leading a discussion, you need to maintain focus. Be critical and determine what is relevant to the topic at hand and what will be covered in another section. Anticipate questions and if necessary, be prepared to say “Hold that thought. We’re going to get to that later.”

Anticipate the Pitfalls
Identify potential points of confusion or particular difficulty and get ahead of them.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t yet know what you know. Determine what will be most challenging or least intuitive and flag these things for them as you go with a quick disclaimer; then explain why it’s going to be so tricky. Learning something new can be intimidating and frustrating. A little commiseration and solidarity from the instructor can go a long way towards making the process seem more manageable.

Hammer It Home
Repeat yourself. Repeat yourself. Repeat yourself. Repeat yourself.
No one will be hanging on your every word as you talk. Rather, they will be wrestling with new ideas internally, taking notes, or trying out a task on their own. Don’t ever worry that you will bore your audience by repeating something, especially if the information is process-oriented or requires memorization. Each time you repeat something, you reduce the very real possibility that it will be overlooked.

Talk Is Cheap
Always have a visual and let the student drive.
There are many different learning styles. Some people are visual learners; some are experiential learners; some need to read to comprehend, etc. Most of us are probably a mix of these, but few of us can recall information effectively by listening alone. Always diversify the formats with which you present information. This gives your audience something to fall back on if they miss something or get confused. Hands-on experiences are infinitely more beneficial than observational ones, so let the student drive whenever possible.