The ‘Ultimate test’ of knowledge is to teach someone else

Bill Gates believes there is only one way to know if you really understand a subject: Can you explain it to a child?

The billionaire Microsoft founder’s lifelong love of math was put to the test when he tried to explain math concepts to his then-school-age children — and it didn’t always go smoothly, Gates said in a recent keynote address at the ASU +GSV Summit in San Diego.

“Learning with kids and seeing what’s confusing for them, what’s easy for them, is kind of the ultimate test of whether you know a subject — whether you can explain it,” Gates said.

There’s a reason teachers often ask students to give presentations on a topic to demonstrate their understanding: People are more likely to remember and understand concepts they’ve learned after explaining it to someone else, or even for themselves, psychology studies show.

That means you can test your own knowledge of a topic simply by trying to teach it to a friend, to see both how much information you’ve retained and how well you actually understand the concepts.

If they succeed in learning from you – which in fairness may depend on your friend as well – that’s a good sign that you’re on the right track.

Gates, who studied mathematics and computer science at Harvard University before quitting to start Microsoft, noted that while he personally excelled in mathematics as a high school student, he had trouble passing that enthusiasm on to his three children.

“I love doing math, [but] my younger daughter always said, ‘You made it so complicated’ and ‘You didn’t have to explain this to me to get the answer. Why did you go through the whole general description of angle, side, angle? You could have finished 10 minutes ago,” Gates said. “She just wanted the answer.”

Today, Gates’ three children are all in their 20s. And while they may not have enjoyed the math lessons, Gates still said his tutoring sessions were a “great” experience — at least for him — because they reinforced his own love of math.

“One of my favorite things was teaching the kids calculus … There are some very difficult concepts, like area under the curve and rate of change. You have to explain why it’s so important and why they have the funny symbols.” Gates said, adding, “It’s crazy. That’s probably my favorite thing.”

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