“You can’t teach someone something unless they already almost know it.” – unknown

Consider this for a minute. What do you do when you want to teach some concept that seems beyond the grasp of someone’s current understanding? They can’t see this new truth in terms of their existing knowledge. While realizing this may be frustrating, it provides valuable insights into creating a teaching strategy.

Years ago, I was in a situation where I had to teach advanced concepts to people and had no idea how to do it. It felt like what I wanted to teach was buried under several concepts they needed to know first. While reflecting on this, a flash of insight from the game of pickup sticks occurred to me.

When I was a kid, my older brothers always beat me at the game of pickup sticks. I always went after the high-scoring sticks at the bottom of the pile because I could get more points. It occurred to me this was like me now trying to teach the concept I wanted to convey before having someone learn all of the ideas on which it is based.

I noticed that when you take off the top stick in pickup sticks, easy to do, another stick becomes on top. Removing this one is also easy. It occurred to me that these “easy to remove sticks” were like the concepts people already almost knew. Therefore, an effective strategy to teach a difficult concept would be to walk through those things people already knew until I got to the one I was trying to teach them.

I call this “the pickup sticks model of curriculum building.” Consider a concept you want to teach to someone. Consider the ideas needed to understand this new concept you want them to learn. Instead of talking about this concept itself, consider what steps are required to go from where they are to what you’d like them to understand.  Formulate 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 complex concepts. If there is disagreement about any one idea it is much easier to discuss one by itself than the entire set. This approach can make a daunting task manageable.

Agile pick up sticks

When considering what the pick up sticks are for Agile, consider the two endpoints -“what do we want them to know?” and “what do they already almost know.” Here’s an example:

  • end goal (bottom stick): overloading people causes delays
  • what they already almost know (top stick): interruptions in workflow causes waste

Most people already almost know that delays in workflow cause waste. Just ask them “what happens when work is interrupted?” They’ll likely answer “multi-tasking” which everyone knows is bad.  Ask them if something else happens? They may see that this causes them to delay giving things to others which may cause multi-tasking for them. Ask “what other side effects may happen.” Point out that slowing down the completion of work, in particular, validating work, means we will detect errors late. This is especially bad for software developers who now will take more time to find errors when detected.

Now we can move on to what causes these delays? What has us put work down? It’s pretty clear that the multi-tasking we can see is being caused by working on too many things.  A summary might be that multi-tasking is what is easily seen. But it’s a symptom of working on too many things, and it is correlated with work waiting to be done which causes waste.


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