by Jim Kouzes
co-author, The Leadership Challenge
I needed a job. It was the summer of 1969, and I’d just returned to the United States after spending two years serving in Eskisehir, Turkey, with the Peace Corps. I was 24, still full of 60’s passion to make a difference, but out of work. I’d taught English as a second language, and I’d grown to love learners and learning. Before college I’d toyed with becoming a football player, a minister, an architect, and a Foreign Service officer. But a persistent voice inside kept calling me to teach, and by the time I’d completed my Peace Corps service as a teacher of English as a second language, I was certain I belonged in the classroom.
My initial search for a teaching job proved fruitless. While I’d been a secondary teacher for two years, no school system in the U.S. would accept that experience in lieu of an official credential. Consequently, I turned my attention to finding a community service job in one of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty programs.
With the help of my dad—a dedicated career civil servant—I got an interview with the Community Action Program Training Institute. They were in need of some young, eager, and inexpensive talent to provide management and interpersonal skills training to employees of the newly formed Community Action Agencies. I got a job with the southwestern region, riding the circuit throughout Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico spreading the gospel and building the skills of effective human relations.
I didn’t know much about management back then—except for what my dad told us over the dinner table—but I had had the opportunity to experience some of the best interpersonal skills training in the world. While preparing for the Peace Corps I had been through some sensitivity groups led by faculty from the National Training Laboratories (NTL)—the pioneer of T-Groups. They played a major role in the Peace Corp’s cross-cultural training, and I’d had the benefit of being exposed to their methods as early as 1969. I was hungry to do some of that myself.
Whatever my new colleagues and I lacked in practical experience we made up for in energy, enthusiasm, and a strong desire to serve others. Our new employer was also wise enough to understand how important it was to invest in offering its new recruits some world-class training. They had hired the very best to put us through the paces. It wasn’t long before I was hooked and began the lifelong adventure that has been my career and my calling.
I was fortunate very early on to meet some of the most seasoned professionals in the business. One of them was Fred Margolis. Fred was a student of Malcolm Knowles, the father of the theory and method of adult learning known as andragogy. Fred was a master, and he taught me a lesson in the early 1970s that has shaped everything I’ve done as an educator since then.
I was doing some work in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area—the region in which I spent my youth—and after a day of training, Fred and I met for dinner at an Italian restaurant. During the meal Fred asked me the following question: "Jim, what’s the best way to learn something?"
Since I’d been extensively involved in experiential learning, I confidently told Fred the obvious: “The best way to learn something is to experience it yourself.”
“No,” Fred responded. “The best way to learn something is to teach it to somebody else!"
Boing! That was one of those moments when your brain does a double-take, and you realize you’ve just heard something extremely profound and a whole new world is about to unfold. What I learned from Fred that day—and I continue to learn every day I am with a group—is that the act of teaching is an act of learning. The deepest kind of learning.
You’ve probably felt the impact of this yourself whenever you’ve been asked to teach others—whether you’re a subject matter expert or a novice. The moment you’re asked to teach you start to think, study, worry, and prepare. In the process, you become consumed by learning. You know you’re on the line. You are going to have to perform live in front of others, and you better know your stuff. You’ve got to learn at a deeper level. Peter Drucker reveals that this is one of the five leadership lessons he learned from one of his mentors early in his career. “People learn the most,” Drucker observed, “when teaching others. My third employer was the youngest of three senior partners of a bank…. Once a week or so he would sit down with me and talk about the way he saw the world….. In the end, I think he learned more than I did from our little talks.”
That lesson—we learn best when we teach someone else—has shaped my style more significantly than any other lesson on learning. It inspires me daily to find new ways for people to teach each other. Even if I’m asked to give a lecture on one of my recent books, I always try to provide an opportunity for participants to become the teachers. When they put themselves out there as role models or subject matter experts—as someone who's a credible source of information—I know and they know they’ve got to reach inside a lot deeper than if I just ask them to take part in a simulation. I do that, too, but it’s the teaching they do afterward that’s the most important part of the experience. That’s when you know you’ve internalized it, made it a part of you. And when you’ve internalized it, you can externalize it; you can teach it to others.
The richness in this lesson has led me to also realize that master teachers and learners are master storytellers. Life is like a slide show. All we know about each other are the pictures we show and the stories we tell. All the rest remains hidden. The more effectively I enable participants to reach inside and reveal something they’ve learned from their own experiences, the more effectively I teach. The more capable I am at finding and telling my own story, the more authentically I learn. Learning and teaching, teaching and learning. What a joyous adventure it’s been, and continues to be!
It seems to me there are only two reasons great teachers know more than their students. One, they’ve dedicated themselves to learning. Two, they love what they’re learning. Come to think of it, maybe that’s just one reason.
Jim Kouzes is the co-author with Barry Z. Posner of the award-winning books, The Leadership Challenge (3rd edition, 2002, Jossey-Bass), Credibility (Jossey-Bass, 1993 & 2003) and, Encouraging the Heart (Jossey-Bass, 1999 & 2003). Jim and Barry also are the developers of the highly acclaimed series of 360-degree assessment instruments, The Leadership Practices Inventory.
Read more about Jim and Barry.
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