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Inspiring Peak Performance

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What Does It Mean To "Teach"?
I remember cramming for early college exams with vague fondness. Somehow pizza and a large social group facilitated recovery from skipped classes, partially completed homework still in my binder and chapters unread. A few short hours with more disciplined classmates and my previously tidy short-term memory was chock full of facts, figures, and quotes-all prepped for regurgitation.
If I was careful to hold my head steady so nothing spilled out and lucky enough that the professor asked the right questions, I survived most tests. The process was like wringing a dripping sponge until there was nothing left but a dry, thirsty vessel. Retesting shows most students suffer a significant drop in recall after a few short days and weeks. As a freshman, I was fortunate enough to remove the clutter quickly so I could focus on the important things like basketball, guitar, and social studies (i.e. activities). (I am blessed to have married Mary after my junior year. As a married man I made the Dean's list; almost too late to renovate my average, but not quite.)
The point is how do we know when people learn something new? A colleague and I recently had some dialogue about what it means to teach. Excerpts from the Encarta definitions are instructive:
1. To impart knowledge or skill to somebody by instruction or example
2. To give lessons in or provide information about a subject
I have changed my life by the first and slept through the second. What is the difference? The word ‘impart' has connotations of a connection: to give and get; to pass and catch; to send and receive. The first definition requires a passionate teacher and a willing, hungry student. There is a relationship. The second definition focuses only on the outgoing side. The first requires learning, to internalize the knowledge. One definition is teacher-focused; the other is student-focused.

Testing is a necessary evil in education because we need some means to measure progress in the short-term. The time frame is the problem because humans are endowed with short-term memories. This allows learning to be faked. Sadly, many of our public elementary, junior high and high schools, judged and funded by scores, teach to the test. There is tremendous pressure to squeeze kids through the system, whether they are ready to advance or not.

Over time, the only true measure of learning is if a person thinks differently, behaves differently, or has a new, demonstrable skill. In an organizational context the only way to be sure head knowledge is internalized is to engineer opportunities for its use. Here is a useful question to ask yourself:

Now that we have instructed them, what do we have for them to do with their new knowledge?

This requires leaders to think beyond the scope of curriculums and syllabi. Training is important, yes, but only through experience will knowledge stick. Job-sharing, stretch assignments, special projects, and carefully planned, escalating responsibilities are the only way to ensure continuous learning. This is hard work that requires intense thought. The reward is an upward, virtuous spiral of growth where students become the master.

What does it mean to teach, to truly teach? It means to lovingly share so another person learns and grows.