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A 300-Year-Old Lesson That Still Works Today

Every now and again, I come across a learning tip that, although small and seemingly insignificant, changes the whole way I train.

This happened to me recently when I took a new look at a rhyming couplet on teaching that was written over 300 years ago by Alexander Pope, the English essayist and writer. Pope's couplet is:

"Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And things unknown propos’d as things forgot."

I'd seen this many times before but never realised the significance of what he was saying.

For a start, look at the first line, advising us trainers and teachers to teach people as if you weren't teaching them. I know it sounds a bit dumb, but when you think about it, there is a lot of wisdom in there. That's because when you train adults, most people don't like the idea that: a. they're back at school, b. you know more than them; and c. they're being told they're stupid.

But teach them as if you weren't and you can get rid of these barriers. Teach them as if they're not stupid, not at school, and know as much as if not more than you and there's a better chance they'll learn.

So, how to do it?

Well, that's in the second line. Teach them as if they already knew the topic or skill but had simply forgotten. Brilliant! Now you're no longer telling them, just helping them to remember something they already know or can do. They'll thank you for helping them, not despise you for being better than them.

Of course, Pope isn't suggesting that you should accept that people know things when they don't. He's simply suggesting that you should pretend they do. It's all about attitude, yours and theirs. When you shift attitudes that block the learning process, barriers come down and people can open up to learning in a safe and adventurous way.

And that's the basis for learning that sticks.

Alexander Pope's

Here's a picture of Alexander Pope painted by Godfrey Kneller around 1716 (public domain). Find out more about Pope here.