The Pickup Sticks Model of Teaching a Concept

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Approaches to Teaching Something

There are two approaches one can take when trying to teach someone something complicated. One is to try to directly teach the complicated subject. Most people find this overwhelming and end up understanding little. Another approach is to acknowledge the truth of the  maxim that “you can only teach someone something that they already almost know.”

The question, of course, is “what do they already almost know?” To discover this requires understanding what makes one person more competent than another. We often talk about one person having more experience, but that’s akin to saying “birds migrate because of instinct.” Notice that that doesn’t really tell you anything, however. Although it does sound like it does, “instinct” is still a black box.

I have found a useful way to look at the problem of competence is not by what people do but by what people look at.  I call these distinctions – that is, the noted difference between two things. For example, an expert carpenter notices things like the size and direction of the grain in the wood whereas an amateur likely only notices the grain.  There are other aspect to grain that they will see that, again, the amateur does not.

How you solve problems if related to how you see the problems. But you see the problems through a set of distinctions that you’ve learned are important to attend to, and a set to not attend to.

The pickup sticks method of training

The Pickup Stick Model of Teaching a Concept
When I was a kid, my brothers always beat me at the game of pickup sticks. I was always tempted to go after the high scoring sticks that were buried in the pile because I could get more points. This is like going after the concept you want to teach directly before all of the distinctions on which it is based are stated. A better strategy is to remove the stick on top (the distinction already almost known). And then to focus on the next new stick “on top” (a new distinction is now already almost known).
Consider a concept you want to teach to someone. Think of the distinctions you use to understand this concept. Now, instead of talking about the concept itself, consider which distinctions from this set the person you are talking to already knows. Review them, confirm that they do. Now, consider a step-by-step path from what they know, to the concept you want to teach by presenting these distinctions.
Take this approach when teaching difficult concepts. If there is disagreement about any one distinction it is much easier to discuss one by itself than the entire set. This approach makes a daunting task manageable.

This chapter was an excerpt from FLEX for the Disciplined Agilist: FLow for Enterprise Transformation (online book). It has been edited to fit into the Disciplined Agile Value Stream Consultant workshop. The Table of Contents for the book is here.