teaching through collaboration

from evy's notebook

Some of my favorite learning experiences have been when collaborating with someone who knows more about what we're working on. I find it easier to get questions answered, to learn things I wouldn't have thought to ask about, to focus on aspects of the work that interest me, and to make satisfying progress.

Recently I've been spending more time at my job collaborating with software engineers who can learn things from me. I've been reflecting on what successful collaborative learning experiences I've had, and here are three strategies I want to bring to my teaching:

gather context

Even within a simple task, there is often a large variety of things someone can learn. I've found it helpful to ask people about their goals. Why are they working on this task? How do they feel about it? What things about it are most interesting to them? What would help them feel more comfortable doing a similar task in the future?

Through gathering context, I can better personalize the focus of the information I share and the skills we work on as we collaborate.

have them try

I may have more familiarity with the steps to accomplish a task, and be able to do them faster, but giving someone else the chance to work through the steps themselves helps them better remember how to do it again next time. Instead of grabbing the mouse to click through a confusing interface, I do my best to describe the process to the person I'm working with. Instead of looking up something myself real quick, I try to encourage them to search for an answer.

explain why

It's easy to say "just do X", "now click on Y", "type out Z", but even if someone is taking the actions themselves, they'll likely have a lot of trouble reproducing those steps if they don't know why they're doing them. Each time I make a decision to guide work on a collaborative task, I ask myself if sharing the thought process behind the decision would further the goals of the person I'm working with.

A lot of learning involves building intuition for what to do in various situations, and part of explaining why is explaining why I know how to do something. Sometimes the reason is "I encountered this situation before and asked someone else". Sometimes it's "I saw something similar and I'm mimicking how that one is built". Teaching how to learn can often be one of the most impactful kinds of teaching, since it enables people to learn even more on their own.

I also like to encourage people to ask me why we're doing something or why I knew what to do, especially in moments when they're particularly curious.


I believe that people learn best when they are engaged with what they're learning. This can look like many different things, but one of my favorite ways to learn is when someone works directly with me, tailors the experience to my learning goals, lets me try things out, and provides context about what's going on -- and I strive to incorporate these strategies when I teach.