Investing in others is investing in yourself

“Teaching is the highest form of understanding.”
– Aristotle

tutorSometimes Charlie, who is two years older than Will, comes and helps out at our U11 soccer practice, just as he did this evening. Eleven year old son Will often finds his brother’s presence annoying and intrusive at his practice, but the other kids really like it.

Charlie uses his bigger size, speed and ball-handling skills in a helpful and instructive way. He never tries to score a goal and instead uses his experience and skill to distribute the ball around the field to the younger players. But here’s the thing: I’ve been thinking this isn’t just a charitable exercise for Charlie. I think he may get just as much out of this mentoring opportunity as the younger players. He gets an opportunity to teach, and in the process develops his own skill and confidence.

Often kids who perform below their peers are presented with remedial learning materials that meet their level. So, for example, if a sixth grade child is doing fourth grade level math, they may be asked to work on fourth grade math until they elevate their skills to meet their classmates. It can be humiliating and discouraging to be identified and asked to do remedial work.

But there are other ways to enhance learning in students – by asking them to help others. And interestingly, sometimes being a tutor to another can be a more effective learning tool than being tutored.

Once upon a time (in 1970), two researchers at Stanford tried something a little different. They took two groups of sixth graders. One half were high-performing readers, the other half low performing readers when compared to their sixth-grade peers. The researchers asked both groups to participate in sessions tutoring kindergarten kids with their reading.

All kindergartners who received the tutoring learned reading skills faster than their peers who did not receive tutoring, and later performed better in reading exercises. It made almost no difference to the learner whether their sixth-grade tutor was one of the high-performing students or not. Also, all kindergartners reported looking forward to their sessions with their sixth grade tutors, and described the sessions as fun and enjoyable.

How talented the 12-year-old sixth grader was at reading had almost no effect on how well the five-year-old kindergartner learned from them. All kindergartners improved equally well by having a sixth grade tutor. The better sixth grade students did not necessarily make better tutors.

But here is the real surprise: While the high-performing sixth graders who participated in the tutoring program did enjoy the program and reported a positive experience, those lower-performing sixth graders who engaged in tutoring showed a much higher increase in social attitude, school attendance, and self-esteem. In other words, the tutoring exercise had the greatest positive social impact on the lower-performing sixth grade students – precisely those least likely to be chosen as tutors, but had zero impact on the quality of the tutoring itself. The lower academic-achieving sixth graders were just as effective as their top-performing peers at being tutors to kindergartners.

When we participate in teaching, coaching and mentoring activities, often we gain the opportunity to learn as well. And as this small experiment demonstrates, often those with less mastery are the ones with the highest benefit when they reach out and take the chance to be a coach or mentor to another.

A word of caution of course…if you have never gone ice-climbing, you probably aren’t suited to teach it. But just because you believe you aren’t talented or expert at something, doesn’t mean you don’t qualify as a coach or tutor to another who is much less experienced. And in teaching, you may make the greatest leaps in learning.