Life Imitates Code. Essays by Ka Wai CheungEssays by Ka Wai Cheung from around the web.

Teaching ● December 2010

Time your details

For baseball fans, think about the first time you learned about the infield-fly rule. I’ve been following baseball for almost a quarter-century (God, I’m young) and I still have to remind myself of when the infield-fly rule goes into effect.

Now, think about how confusing it would be to explain the infield-fly rule to a newbie just after he learned how baseball “outs” work. It’s much easier to see why such a rule exists after you’ve become familiar with the dimensions of the field, the “out” rules, and base-running strategy.

When you teach, don’t start with the goal to teach everything 100% correctly. Any advanced concept is inherently difficult to understand. That’s what makes it advanced. It’s full of nuances, exceptions, and special cases that don’t always fit into a nicely-wrapped unified theory.

But, when you learn something new, that’s exactly what you want. You need hard-and-fast truths because they are the scaffolds that help you build your confidence with any new subject.

So, when you’re the expert, let go of the intricate details of your domain, at first. Let go of the “except when” and “but not if”s – they aren’t that important right now.

When you pare down a complex topic into a less-than-perfect, but finite, set of rules, it gives someone new a chance to build a solid foundation of understanding in their mind. When you teach subtleties too early, before people have time to soak in the general concepts, people get unnerved. It’s hard to digest both rules and exceptions to the rules at the same time. Exceptions to the rule only make sense when you understand why the rule is there in the first place.

And so what if the understanding isn’t 100% correct immediately? A solid foundation of understanding — even what’s not the full story — is motivating. When the newbie stumbles into the problem because of his lack of full knowledge of a domain, he’ll be that much more prepared to understand the new knowledge.

Originally published Dec 23, 2010 at We Are Mammoth. Go to the next essay in Teaching, “Finding those “clear glue” moments”.