Why Learning Through Teaching or Debate Is Better

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Extended Mind" by Annie Murphy Paul. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Can learning through teaching or debate help you to learn more effectively? Why do these methods help to enhance your thinking?

According to science writer Annie Murphy Paul, thinking in a way that suits your brain’s biology helps you to tap into your full cognitive potential. Learning through teaching or debate is one way Paul claims you can understand complex ideas more thoroughly.

Keep reading to learn why Paul argues that learning through teaching or debate is most effective.

Why Thinking With Others Is Important

In The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul explains that thinking with other people activates more complex parts of the brain than thinking alone, resulting in greater understanding, memory, and insight. Paul claims that learning through teaching or debate is one way you can use your social environment to enhance your cognition. She also states that ideally, you should set an alternating schedule in which you budget time to think alone as well as think with others.

In this article, we’ll explain Paul’s argument for learning through teaching or debate and why she says it’s an important tool for enhancing cognition.

(Shortform note: In Deep Work, Cal Newport offers several schedules you can use to balance thinking in solitude and engaging with others: With the “bimodal” schedule, you set aside several days, weeks, or months at a time to do nothing but engage in deep solitary work, and then you engage with the world when you get back. With the “rhythmic” schedule, you block out several hours every day to do deep work, and you make it a daily habit. With the “journalistic” schedule, you make it a habit to engage in deep solitary work every time you get a few minutes to yourself.)

Learning Through Teaching

One way you can use social interaction to enhance understanding is by teaching someone else—Paul argues that you can often learn more by teaching than by receiving personal instruction. The social and emotional pressure that you feel when preparing to teach someone else powerfully motivates you to comprehend the material. Additionally, by considering how best to explain the material, you prompt yourself to synthesize a more refined understanding of the topic. Teaching someone face-to-face is ideal since you’re motivated by the satisfaction of watching your students benefit from your work. However, you get some cognitive benefits by recording yourself for others to watch later, too.

(Shortform note: This understanding of “learning through teaching” has valuable implications for management. In a workplace setting, you can accelerate skill acquisition by establishing a program for peer learning—in other words, by teaching your employees to teach each other how to improve their work. Set up opportunities for co-workers to share knowledge face-to-face. These could be one-on-one mentorship sessions or weekly meetings in which team members take turns presenting their knowledge regarding a specific, ongoing project.)

Learning Through Debate

Aside from learning through teaching, another way you can increase the quality of your thought using others is through debate. Paul explains that we’re much better at spotting other people’s errors than our own. If there are any logical flaws in your thought process, your debate partner is more likely than you to notice and correct them.

Additionally, you’re more motivated to refine your thinking and find more evidence to back up your claims when you know you’ll be defending your stance. For these reasons, constructive debate leads to more logically sound thinking on both sides.

Rules for Having the Most Constructive Debates

Framing a discussion as a debate improves both sides’ thinking; however, it also risks provoking unconstructive emotions. In a debate, both sides are tempted to achieve the satisfaction of winning, which may lead to bad-faith arguments and an unwillingness to compromise.

To hold the most constructive, productive debates possible, consider following “Rapoport’s rules”: a set of self-imposed rules for debate with roots in the psychology research of Carl Rogers. Rapoport’s rules aim to criticize an opponent’s argument while maintaining respect for them and finding mutually beneficial solutions to whatever you’re debating.

Rapoport’s rules, as articulated by philosopher Daniel Dennett, are:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they’re not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you’ve learned from your target.

4. Only then can you say a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Why Learning Through Teaching or Debate Is Better

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  • Why you don't need to withdraw into your mind to achieve optimal cognition
  • Cognitive strategies and habits that will help you better understand complex ideas
  • How gesturing with your hands helps you think better

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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