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Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn

By William Y. Yao, Contributing Opinion Writer
William Y. Yao '22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

Phone, wallet, keys, mask.

The short mental checklist I use before leaving Kirkland every morning is a tad longer these days than it used to be. I rush through Harvard Yard to class sipping my tea, and just before entering the building I deftly slip on my surgical mask. We’ve all become proficient in donning and doffing this newest wardrobe piece. Had you shown me my current collection of face masks a few years ago, I would have theorized that my future self decided on medical school.

I arrive in the seminar room and take one last glance at my notes before approaching the podium. It's my turn to present on this week’s topic. I begin by greeting my classmates with a smile, which I hope they will be able to perceive. I’m delighted to be greeted with a handful of smiles in return. Just above the horizons of the masks, their eyes smile back.

This past year, I’ve sported more masks, and in greater variety, than I thought possible in one hundred lifetimes. From the classic light blue, to my current go-to, a pink and navy floral print version. They’re an essential item in our daily lives now and a novel opportunity for creativity. Squished among the copious old receipts and candy wrappers that have perpetually resided in my pant back-pockets, my masks seem to have gained mainstay membership there as well. Like fitting my arms through a t-shirt, I rarely think twice about looping the elastic around my ears and pulling the wire over my nose. I’ve taught myself to incorporate this new maneuver into my everyday routine.

Of course, physicians like Atul Gawande have been wearing surgical masks for a long time. Gawande is a Harvard professor and a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In his memoir “Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science,” he peers back on his early years as a surgical resident and, in turn, lets us peer into a profession that, from the outside, seems a bit magical and enigmatic.

It is clear that the stories printed on the pages are imprinted in his mind. Through his journey of teaching and learning, Gawande stitches together some of the most salient lessons from his training as a surgeon: acknowledging and embracing uncertainty, understanding the imperfections of the people and the practice of medicine, all the while highlighting a new perspective on how truly extraordinary the whole endeavor really is. He reminisces on these years of surgical training, and from his reflection on this formative time in his education, I can’t help but ponder the focal points of my own educational journey.

I think I’ve learned many new things since coming to Harvard. In the sciences, in the humanities, and in what lies between. I’ve come across ideas that I simply couldn’t have even fathomed just a few years ago, but that now define the way I think. In learning, the unexpected becomes indispensable, the novel becomes normal. But what I’ve learned the most about is in fact something that I’ve been familiar with for my entire life. I’ve learned the most about myself. About how I learn.

I’ve found that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Teaching gives me an opportunity to recollect and analyze how I first went from unknowing to knowing. It’s an opportunity not only to communicate an idea to someone else, but to communicate it more clearly to myself. Teaching reinforces not only what I’ve learned, but how I learned it.

I’m convinced that teaching is an endeavor that teaches the teacher just as much as the taught. There are so many ways to do it, and there’s definitely no right answer. Teaching is not constrained to the classroom either, it exists wherever and whenever we are learning from each other. Education is always changing. Catalyzed by the pandemic necessity of remote learning, we’re moving away from a one-size-fits-all model, and continuing to discover more deeply and more meaningfully how we can better teach and learn from one another.

Teaching asks us to challenge what we know and how our knowledge came to be. It forces us to probe what we take for granted as known and to perceive things through the lens of others. It’s been quite a year of screen sharing, mute buttons, and more technological snafus than any of us could possibly count. But each stumble is a bit of evidence that education is changing faster than ever, creating a new normal for teaching and learning, and new things to teach and learn.

Let’s ask ourselves what we’ve learned, about how we learned it — and use this understanding to make the process better for all of us. As I look from the podium towards the masked smiles in the classroom, ready to present, I can’t wait to learn.

William Y. Yao '22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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