Do We Learn Best by Being Taught?

We learn best by being taught (by taking on the traditional role of student).

What is the Best Way to Learn?

On this page, we theorize thatThe best way to learn isn’t “being taught”, its mixing self-directed learning with the roles of student, peer, and teacher in different social settings. Limiting ourselves to the traditional student role limits the angles from which we can approach a subject, and the questions we ask.

TIP: This is a theory created by the author of this page, see references below for other studies and theories it builds on.

A Summary of “Self, Student, Teacher, Peer Theory”

This “self, student, teacher, peer theory” says that learning is best done through self-directed learning, peer-to-peer interaction, and by taking on the roles of both student and teacher (rather than just taking on the traditional role of student).

This theory is rounded out by saying those learning roles should be taken on in individual settings (like research on the internet), in an interpersonal situation (between one other person), in small group (like a study group), and in large group settings (like social media and other large forums).

The main underlying theory here is that utilizing different learning roles helps us to avoid potential pitfalls of any one role. This is backed up by studies showing the merits of each learning type and by looking at the nature of our neurology.

Neurologically, the more ways we can experience information, and the bigger impact it makes, the easier it is to encode the information in our long-term memory and create successful neural networks (learning and neuroplasticity). By using the right learning roles, in the right situations, we can optimize the chances we will learn effectively.

The end result should be all types of students excited about learning, and importantly communicating their ideas on social and cultural levels. Students with a passion for learning and truth will inevitably be “good” allies to a “good” society, while students who get burnt out by a more single minded learning system may actually be put off from learning and become accidental roadblocks on pathway to “good” group decisions.

Due to the way neuroplasticity works, it is only logical that we learn better when we see the same information from different angles. It literally helps us connect and understand information better.

THOUGHTS: If I had to pick a “best” learning type I would nominate “self directed learning” where the “student” chooses what they want to learn about. This would arguably work best with a “all-knowing guide” who one can ask questions of.

Uniting the Learning Roles

When we think of learning, we often think of the traditional learning role of student and teacher. The teacher teaches and the student learns. The teacher is the authority, the student asks questions of the teacher, but the student doesn’t question the teacher’s knowledge.

Although “being taught” is the traditional role of the student, different studies have shown “peer-to-peer learning” (where students learn from each other) and “the protégé effect” (where students learn by teaching) to be the most effective ways of teaching. [1][2][3]

If instead of choosing just one, if we combine ALL these interpersonal roles as needed, and pair them with another familiar and highly touted learning type, “self-directed learning”, we get complete access to the different ways to approach a subject.[6]

Beyond this, we also need to factor in how we can learn from groups, how we learn from experiencing something versus being lectured at, or how we learn through repetition rather than other types of impact, and the roles that respect and questioning play in the learning process.

NOTE: Apprenticeships are a good example of this theory in practice. In apprenticeships we first take on the role of student, then we self-direct learning and work with peers, then finally we will soon be taking on apprentices of our own. In this, we will “master” our craft. We can also look at a similar concept used in medical training called “see one, do one, teach one”.[4][5]

How We Learn by Playing the Roles of Student, Peer, Teacher, and Self

Let’s look at the three interpersonal roles and one self-directed role we can use to approach learning:

  1. The traditional role of the student: we learn from being taught (intake). When we are a student we take knowledge in and give respect to the knowledge of those who know more than we do. We tend to believe what we are taught. We can ask questions, sometimes a “child-like” mind asks questions that are hard to think of otherwise.[1]
  2. Peer learning: we learn from working with peers (collaboration). When we communicate with a peer we work through knowledge with the aid of someone “on our level”. Ideally, we give a peer equal respect due to their relatively equal status. Peers question each other, ask each other questions, and come up with answers together deferring back to a teacher for guidance.[2]
  3. The protégé effect: we learn from teaching (output). When we act as a teacher we take on the role of “the elder” and must convey our understanding to another. Students ask us questions and we must understand our material enough to convey it clearly. When we don’t know the answer we must ask peers, our teachers, or turn to self-directed learning.[3]
  4. Self-directed learning (experience, exploration, and reflection). There is an element of self-direction to each of the learning types be it homework, preparing notes for a class, or working out a problem independently in a collaborative setting. Nobody can be taught unless they actively learn. In self-directed learning, a person learns through reflection, experience, and experimentation, without the guidance of interpersonal learning roles.

By seeing the same subject from different angles, asking questions, answering questions, and working through the knowledge in the unique ways required to perform each role, we come to a better understanding than any of the three alone would allow us.

The protégé effect.

An example of mixing the learning roles to master a craft.

I want to learn the guitar.

  • I go to guitar lessons, I go home and practice my guitar riffs. This is traditional learning.
  • I play guitar and jam with the other students. We switch between roles of self-direction, peer, student, and teacher as we pass back and forth knowledge and get used to playing in rhythm. This is peer-to-peer learning.
  • I teach my little sister how to play the guitar. In doing this, I must take a step back and reformulate what is taught to me in a way that is teachable to someone else. This is taking on the role of the teacher.
  • I sit in my room and jam; accidentally I come across a new chord I’ve never played before. I look it up online and discover a new scale type and a new website for learning guitar. This is self-directed learning[6]

By taking on the different learning roles, we broadened the different types of input and connections we could make by utilizing traditional learning alone. These roles all easily interrelate as well. For instance, I can ask questions of the teacher about what i’ve found through self-directed learning and then teach that new skill to a friend.

How We Learn: Memory, Attention, and Some Basic Principles

To help make the point of why the different learning roles are so important, we should look at our biology.

According to neurosciences, we learn by directing our attention, utilizing our memory, and making synaptic connections between neurons.

  • We learn through sensory input and making connections.
  • We can break that down into three phases of memory encoding, storage, and retrieval. These three processes let us learn, store, and teach knowledge.
  • We intake and output information by directing attention.

The stronger the connections are between useful information the “smarter” we are. Repetition does not necessarily denote importance (see the daily grind of work). We actually learn better by “anchoring” information to symbols and emotions. The better the connections and the more important we deem something the better attention, memory, and neuroplasticity come together to make us smart.

THOUGHT: Our collective intelligence is part of what makes us human and where creativity comes from. To be “collectively intelligent” we must efficiently transfer knowledge to one another.

Learning From Groups and Self

Not only can we take on the different learning roles, but we can take on different roles within the context of different types of social settings, for instance: individual, interpersonal, small group, large group (and in modern age, electronic or not, physical or not).

We can learn from groups by watching the behavior of the group and interacting with it (either in a self-directed manner, as a “student” of the group, a “peer”, or as a “teacher” of the group).

We might take on the role of teacher for ourselves, asking the internet questions and finding books to read about a subject. We might teach a friend (interpersonal), or teach a small group, or teach a larger group.

NOTE: One could also consider spiritual experience to be learning. For instance we might lead a meditation.

I won’t discuss each of the ways to apply the social roles of individual, interpersonal, and group to each of the learning methods here, as the above examples should be enough for you to imagine each type yourself.

Again, the general theory is self-directed, peer-to-peer, student, and teacher roles taken on at the individual, interpersonal, and small group level. That ends you up with a list of X amount of ways to approach learning, not everyone will be as strong as the other in all settings, but each gives an opportunity to get excited about learning and approach learning from a new angle.

This video discusses peer teaching, along with the protégé effect (and the traditional learning of schools) shows us how the different types of learning play together to level us up.


Timing and Choosing the Correct Learning Role for an Environment

A good argument against the ideas on this page would be that a specific role, or some but not all of the specific roles, was the “best” all the time. The answer would be that “the best” role depends upon the situation and the environment at a given time. This results in the same conclusion that “being taught” is not “the best” way to learn.

Feel free to comment on the theory below, i’m happy to flesh it out over time.


By taking on the role of self-directed, student, peer, and teacher in different social settings we maximize our potential for learning and teach ourselves both humility and respect. Such a simple concept, it almost seems like “common knowledge”, but yet in this lies it’s beauty and power.


  1. How Students Learn — and How We Can Help Them“. Retrieved Jan 20, 2016.
  3. The Protégé Effect“. Retrieved Jan 20, 2016.
  4. See one, do one, teach one: advanced technology in medical education.”. Retrieved Jan 20, 2016.
  5. Beyond ‘See One, Do One, Teach One’”. Retrieved Jan 20, 2016.
  6. Self-Directed Learning“. Retrieved Jan 20, 2016.

"We Learn Best by Being Taught" is tagged with: Attention, Collective Intelligence, Equality, Learning, Memory, Systems, Universities and Colleges

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Mike Brenan on

Imagine if our public education system adopted this learning system. That would be transformation of the highest order.