Want to Learn Faster? Subtract the Teacher


I love this girl.

She’s six years old, her name is Dachiya Atkinson, and she can absolutely destroy a dance floor.

What I like even more is the space in which she’s developed her talent — which, as it happens, is the opposite of the way we teach most skills.

Let me explain. When it comes to teaching, our instinct often leads us to add a bunch of stuff. Like coaches. Practice drills. Words of advice. Trophies and ribbons. As parents and teachers, we have an irresistible urge to help, to get involved.

But that’s not how Dachiya built her skills. She did it using three simple elements:

  • 1) Skilled performers to stare at
  • 2) Sense of fun
  • 3) Intense, repeatable competition

We see the same ingredients built into other talent-development spaces, whether it’s kids memorizing the digits of pi or a top soccer team practicing or a Little League team that won a championship while playing without a coach.

They succeed because they are finding a way to avoid the complication and static and to tap into the underrated power of clarity, competition, and ownership. They’re finding a way do the toughest thing: to be simple.

If you want to create a learning space, ask yourself these three questions:

  • What’s the simplest, most fun game that can be played?
  • How can you “fill the windshields” of the kids with top performers so they can learn directly, via mimicry?
  • How can you remove coaches and teachers from the space, and give it completely to the learners?

If you want to share any stories or ideas for achieving this, I’d love to hear them.

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11 Responses to “Want to Learn Faster? Subtract the Teacher”

  1. Clark says:

    Check out IKKOS.

  2. Rich Kent says:

    Dan, the title of this post made me twinge…. Perhaps we could “subtract” the ineffective teacher or coach, the one who speaks too much or inhibits a learner’s inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit. But the notion of subtracting the effective teacher seems counterintuitive and, well, wrongheaded. Effective teachers and coaches inspire students’ growth while responding to their needs with encouragement, suggestions, and appropriate lessons or training sessions. What we’re talking about is the effective classroom or coaching practice… both of these arenas thrive in the hands of a knowledgeable teacher-coach. And that little dancer… she had teachers.

  3. Heike Larson says:

    We see peer-led learning like this happen in mixed-age Montessori preschool and elementary classrooms all the time!

    The 3-year-olds often wander around, and spend a lot of time observing the 5- or 6-year-olds. Most learning in Montessori preschool happens with very visual, hands-on materials, without many words, so it’s easy for a younger child to just absorb what an older child is doing. The teacher’s role is to just make an introduction between the child and a learning activity: she demonstrates how to match cards, or solve the Trinomial Cube, or trace a puzzle map shape, then turns the activity over to the cild. Most learning happens when the child works, alone or in a freely chosen group of friends, with the materials. And because the materials typically contain a “control of error”, the children can self-check their work, and don’t need to rely on a teacher to correct them to practice a skill correctly. Plus, there are always the classroom “elders” to turn to for help!

    Here’s an article that explains with a lot of photos how this self-directed learning with the Montessori materials works: http://www.leportschools.com/blog/montessori-materials-and-the-3-year-cycle-of-primary/

  4. djcoyle says:

    Hey Rich, Good point. I’m a big fan of teachers, just not the meddlesome type!

  5. Rich Kent says:

    “I’m a big fan of teachers, just not the meddlesome type!” I figured. Thanks.

  6. Walter says:

    I played a very high level of soccer growing up (was actually a call up for the U19 Canadian team). You can imagine the coaches, trainers and highly qulified people that have taught me the game, yet the funnest times ive had was me and my buddy’s playing a 6 vs 6 game of soccer with no teachers, trainers and supervision. We’d play in a small space either on grass or even cement, with no throw ins, or free kicks. A lot of “soccer yard moves” and freedom to learn and make mistakes. At times in the winter we’d even play with a tennis ball after removing the snow on a cemented area. At times we’ve play outdoors in a fenced in tennis court with no tennis net in the way. Freedom, fun, creativity, trying new moves, making mistakes, with no coach screaming to pass the ball or tell us what to do next. Id say i learned 50% of my moves and creativity with those games growing up. How i miss those times! LOL!

  7. I thought provoking post as usual. But it seems to me the real distinction is not between having a teacher and not having a teacher, but between having a good or a bad teacher.

    Which reminds me of an old story.

    A famous jazz trumpeter, I think it was Fats Domino, was once interviewed by a journalist who noted that he had never had formal instruction.

    The interviewer asked, ‘Do you think that a teacher would have restricted your creativity?’ The jazzman replied, ‘No, not a good one’.

  8. Jim Hardy says:

    I suspect most of us who are working to get better, believe that we are not the ones who suppress learning! I am thinking about it.

    I am not allowed to coach the kids until Summer. I supervise an Open Gym twice a week where the kids lead the activity. And they play and have fun and I see skill level improving with experience. The opportunity to improve skills makes me twinge! And I don’t see coaches as unnecessary.

    But I see them teaching themselves how to solve problems and play the game. They are learning a lot of things that I cant do for them.

    I want to incorporate more self directed time to play in my practices.

  9. Andrea Waldo says:

    I’m a horseback riding instructor and I constantly encourage my students to “stare” at great riders. However, I have to point out what to stare at about them, because even the best have bad habits, and the most noticeable thing they do might not be what makes the picture effective. As my students develop a more solid base of knowledge, I have to tell them less and less and they start to notice for themselves. But the base is critical.

  10. Wesley Watts says:

    Skateboarding is a prime example of this.

    1) Skateboarding is pure, creative and straight up fun.

    2) You have people to watch that are absolute masters skateboarding.
    The technology in videography today allows you to slow the video down to desired level, to STARE at professionals do something.

    3) You get the quickest, most vivid feedback to analyze the mistake and move on. (i.e. concrete to the face doesn’t lie, try again.) What didn’t work? Watch someone else, correct it, try again.

    *You can practice it completely by yourself, it’s just you and the board. If you become disconnected, concrete will correct that very quickly.

    Thank you for this blog!
    anything is possible!

  11. Anastace says:

    I loved this article! So impressed to see someone daring to say this… A story to back this up– [while I did have 15 years of piano lessons]
    This is exactly the way I’ve learned to sing- by singing along with Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Toni Braxton, and the likes, doing my absolute best to match them… Never mind how many times I’d rewind things… 🙂
    But it’s sooooo easy to learn when you have high admiration of experts and do it for the pure pleasure of learning. There’s got to be more implementation of this…

    I think you’re right on with this post!

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