Quote of the week – teaching

People have said you don’t understand something until you’ve taught it in a class. The truth is you don’t understand something until you’ve taught it to a computer, until you’ve been able to program it.

George Forsythe

Most of the quotes I pick are on this blog because I agree with them. George Forsythe was the founder and head of Stanford University’s Computer Science Department so he certainly has standing to comment on teaching methods, but I think that this quote underestimates the usefulness of teaching a class to other people. Teaching a computer is useful, it forces me into many corners that I wouldn’t have to explore and exposes my misconceptions; however teaching a class exposes me to other people’s misconceptions, many of which end up not being misconceptions at all. At the very least, they point me towards a different way of thinking about the problem.

Teach it in a class and teach it to a computer.

3 thoughts on “Quote of the week – teaching

  1. Florin says:

    Hi Bob,

    I’ve been enjoying reading your posts. Keep it up.

    Where and what do you teach, if you don’t mind me asking?


    • Bob says:

      Thank you for the kind words Florin, they are much appreciated. I don’t teach in the sense of being a lecturer or being employed by any school. Over my career I have had many opportunities to teach classes and give talks – the last talk I gave was just before I left Coverity. I gave a presentation to the Northwest C++ User’s Group which you can find on YouTube here:


      Last year I taught a class on Git at my employer. One of the reasons I volunteered to teach the class was that I didn’t understand Git as well as I wanted to. Preparing and teaching the class helped get my mental model of Git straightened out, and I also learnt about other people’s mental models. If I taught the class again there are a couple of areas I would delve into even more because they are ripe for misunderstanding (merging and the staging area).

      One of the reasons I set up this blog was to get more practice at explaining things. I enjoy the challenge of finding a good way to explain something. I think that most of my readers came here from Eric Lippert’s blog, but for anyone who didn’t, go check it out. He does a great job explaining things, and while his blog has a C# focus, plenty of his commentary can be applied outside of C#.

      • Florin says:

        I do follow Eric’s blog and I must say that Coverity should pay you both for the advertisement. It seems like an amazing place that attracts great people.

        I see your point about re-organizing things mentally when one needs to explain it and I appreciate you taking the time so the rest of us can benefit from it. As I said before, I enjoy reading your posts and looking forward to the next ones.

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