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The Importance of Communication – Teaching

It’s been about 15 years since I last stepped foot in a Dojang (Korean for school or training studio), but there was a time that I was very active in that world. Taekwondo practitioners start at what most people know as a white belt, which is known as 8th gup, or 8th level, within the Kukkiwon (the governing body for WTF, or Olympic Style, Taekwondo around the world). Gup levels drop in numbers as you progress, with 1st gup being a red or brown belt depending on the Dojang that you train at, and is the rank you hold just before you get your black belt.

As I was moving toward my green belt as a beginner student (6th gup), there was a particular kick that I was struggling to learn called Dollyeo Chagi, or Turning Roundhouse Kick. It looks something like this:

I must’ve sprained my ankle 5 or 6 times trying to learn that kick! It wasn’t until one of my instructors took me aside and started to break the kick down into its individual parts that it finally clicked, and I never sprained my ankle doing that kick again. This one lesson laid the foundation of how I learned from then on.

Later on, as I began to help out as an assistant instructor, then as an instructor, and finally a senior instructor, I continued to refine how I myself taught others how to do the Dollyeo Chagi technique, along with the other techniques that I was teaching. I broke down each technique into the smallest parts possible. And if my students weren’t understanding how I was teaching them, we’d work together to try and refine how I was teaching the technique.

Fast forward to my time as a professional software engineer with years in the field. During my time with one of my previous positions, I was honored to be involved with our internship program for the 3 summers I was there. The first time, I was not directly involved but helped out where I could. The second year I was on a team working with them, and the third year I effectively led the project.

In all 3 years that I was involved with the internship program, I was thrilled to watch the team learning, engaging, and providing ideas and questions along the way. The interns were excited and soaked up everything that we threw at them like a sponge. And each year, I learned more and more about what it meant to be a good teacher in the corporate world. I genuinely feel like I learned as much from them as they learned from us. My final year there, I was honored to teach two courses to our interns: one on SOLID design patterns, and the other on effective resumes and interviewing techniques. I blogged about these here.

So where am I at with all this, and where do I hope to take you, the reader? During my time as a Taekwondo instructor, leading various brown-bags, working with the interns, and even from being a father, I’ve essentially lived by the following creed when it comes to passing along knowledge:

A good instructor will always strive to make those that they teach be better at the point that the student is at than the instructor was when they themselves were at that point.

Whether you’re teaching a martial art or software engineering, you should always try to make your students better than you were. This is a sign that you’ve continued to learn, and that you’ve found effective ways to convey that knowledge to your juniors. If you enjoy teaching as much as I do, it’s an amazing feeling to watch those you’re working with having the material “click”. In this post, my goal will be to convey what I’ve learned working with kids and adults, students and fellow work colleagues, and hopefully help others to become effective communicators of knowledge.

Breaking Down Information

When teaching, it’s important to break down the information that you’re trying to share into the smallest bits possible that still make sense. As mentioned above, I learned the Dollyeo Chagi technique by breaking down the process and then broke it down further still when I taught it to my own students. I would have them practice the 1 step, turning and looking over your shoulder, for about 5 minutes. Then we’d add in the next step, which included step 1, but then added bringing the non-kicking leg rapidly around, pivoting on the ball of the foot. We’d do that for 5 more minutes, then move on to step 3, which is finally delivering the kick. Only when I felt like they could do all 3 steps individually would I then ask them to start to try and do all 3 of them as a fluid movement. It didn’t click for them all at the same time, of course, but by teaching them this way, I was able to get my own students to learn this technique far faster than I’d learned it.

When teaching a technical aspect, you should strive to work in a similar way. It may feel like it’s taking longer, which it might up front. However, over the long run, your students will understand the material more fully, and will likely pick up the subject as a whole faster.

Let’s say that you’re trying to teach Angular 7. If you start off by trying to teach them concepts like modules, services, webpack (made worse by the fact that you have to eject before you can even use webpack directly), etc., you’re likely going to lose the majority of your students. Instead, start off simple. Have them get the ng tool installed, show them how to spin up the basic starter app, and how to use the tool to launch the application. You’d then move next into explaining components since that’s the core concept of Angular. Ease them forward, step by step.

Providing Examples

Examples go a long way in helping students learn. Be prepared when teaching concepts with good examples of the concept that you’re trying to teach. With the Dollyeo Chagi, I would perform the technique on a heavy bag, first by doing it slowly, then speeding it up, until I was showing it at full speed. I would then ask if there were any questions, or if the students were ready to try it for themselves.

When teaching software engineering, if you’re trying to teach the SOLID programming principles, for example, and you’re working specifically with the Single Responsibility Principle, provide the students with an example of code that violates this principle, then show them an updated version of this same code that honors Single Responsibility. Take the time to explain why the latter is the better example of code, and let them ask questions if there’s any doubt.

Understanding the Student

Take the time to learn about each of your students as much as possible. How do they best learn? How skilled are they already with the general areas that you’re trying to teach? How open are they to learning? It’s important to know your students as early as possible, as it will afford you the best ability to adjust to their individual personalities and learning styles.

When teaching martial arts, your students will most likely be of varying age. Some will be physically fit, while others will have not worked out or stretched in a while. Flexibility will vary, as will strength, speed, and balance. And some students will pick up techniques very quickly, while others will struggle. Each technique also vary’s between the students. You may find that student A picks up a technique almost immediately, while student B struggles. However, when teaching another technique, it is absolutely possible that the situation will reverse itself, and this time, student B is the one that is able to learn the technique quickest.

This holds true of probably all forms of education. Algebra, chemistry, cooking, automotive work, music, and so forth. It’s critical when teaching that you take the time to understand your students, and where their strengths lie. This is not always easy, of course. You may only have a few minutes available, such as when your teaching venue is a seminar. But you can still ask questions of your audience, of your “students”, to get some vision into where they’re generally at. But always try to get to know your students as much as possible, given the venue within which you’re teaching, and adjust where it makes sense to what you learn of them.

Taking Feedback

Finally, be ready, and quite frankly hungry, to take feedback on your performance as an instructor, ESPECIALLY the negative feedback. It’s always nice to hear “Hey, great job!” of course. However, you need to be willing to learn where your own faults and strengths are so that you can become a more effective teacher. If you don’t learn from your students, then it’s difficult, if not impossible, to judge whether you’ve brought your students ahead of where you were at when you were where they are.

As a martial arts instructor, I always invited students to chat with me after class to let me know what they liked or didn’t like about a class. I wanted to know. If I did something wrong, or if they had ideas on how I might teach something better, I’d never get these unique viewpoints if they weren’t brought to my attention. My students always knew that they could talk to me, and I’d never judge them negatively for doing so. They knew that I wanted to know. What worked? What didn’t? Any ideas? That’s how I grew as an instructor.

When I’ve been to technical conferences, most of the folks teaching sessions would ask for feedback as well. No one assumed that they “knew it all”. We ALL have things to learn, and this feedback is critical. And when I’ve taught sessions, it was no different. I welcome and ask for feedback. Always welcome and ask for feedback so that you can grow as well.

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