The Protégé Effect: Learn By Teaching
Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )
If you want to learn better, become a teacher.
Learning by teaching, or what is sometimes termed “The Protégé Effect” is an effective strategy to enhance learning. When learners take on the role of teacher, experience and research shows that the learner becomes more motivated and understands the material better. In a foundational paper on the topic in the Journal of Educational Psychology, John Bargh and Yaacov Schul outline the mechanisms that can account for these cognitive benefits. One important factor is that when someone learns something in order to teach it, the way they experience the material is deepened. Their thinking becomes more organized, they look for relationships between ideas, and actively think about the best way to communicate it to others.
The time had finally come for the Children of Israel to be freed from slavery. In this pivotal moment, Moshe gathers the people to deliver important instructions related to the rituals they will perform before they are redeemed and the rituals for commemorating this momentous occasion in the future. In framing his teaching, Moshe could have spoken about several directly relevant topics particular to that moment. He could have decried the evil of slavery or underscored the responsibilities of freedom. He could have created continuity by connecting the present to the tradition of the Children of Israel’s ancestors or prepared them for future challenges and tribulations. Instead, Moshe spoke about children and education. In that moment, in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ words, “the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators.”
In a passage that set the stage for the rabbinic conceptualization of the “Four Sons” from the Hagaddah, Moshe prepares the Children of Israel for the questions their children will ask in the future regarding these commandments: “And when your children say to you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’” (Shemot 12:26); “On that day tell your son…” (Shemot 13:8); “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’” (Shemot 13:14). Moshe’s broad message is critical and explains the “why” of education. Education is an essential pillar of Jewish life. Teaching our children is foundational to freedom. Again, in Rabbi Sacks’ profound words, Moshe “realized that a people achieves immortality not by building temples or mausoleums, but by engraving their values on the hearts of their children, and they on theirs, and so on until the end of time.”
Yet, embedded in the narrative is not just the essential “why” of education, but also a strategy for “how” to be an effective educator. What’s striking is not just that Moshe tells the Children of Israel to think about how they will communicate and explain the experience to future generations, but just as remarkable is the timing of when he tells them. This was not done as a reflective debrief after the performance of the mitzvot. Rather, this was conveyed before they even performed the original rituals themselves.
Moshe was intimating that the initial experience of each person should be infused with the knowledge that they will eventually communicate this experience to their children. Everything should be learned with an eye for how it will be taught in the future. While in the moment they were merely learners, Moshe helped transform the Children of Israel’s own learning experience, by charging them from the outset with being teachers.
Even if you are not a formal educator, try to become a teacher. The next time you learn something, think about how you could communicate the idea effectively to someone else. Not only because we are a nation of educators, but because by teaching, you will learn better.