A large part of my current activities involves explaining stuff to people. Be it to my students when I teach, to my teammates when I am working on games, to my friends when I am playing board games, and to both of my readers on this site.

Phil Carlisle stressed the importance of meaningful practice in his latest post, and the fact that it takes a lot of time to actually become good at something. With only a few years of teaching in my back, and even if I could compute the total time I already spend carefully putting explanations together, I would still be quite far from the 10k hours rule. I other words I am probably quite bad at it, but I can feel steady progress.

Explaining board games is a good exercise. I don’t have to worry about existing knowledge, I simply start from scratch. It is also useful, as an interactive discussion ends up much quicker and efficient than reading the fine manual, I save time and keep people entertained. I can focus on the logical structure and flow, and refine the process every time I go through it with another group of people. That’s sweet and all…

Yet often I end up with some people telling me the explanation was vivid, while the others look at me in silence with a slightly worried blank stare. They are both in the same group, they both followed the same explanation, so where is the difference?

The human brain is terrible at memorizing meaningless stuff. I have troubles remembering my own phone number, yet I have several hundred pages worth of rulebooks in mind with enough accuracy that a simple glance is enough to play a game I haven’t touched in months.

Where a random sequence of numbers doesn’t mean much, a coherent system of rules does. They are somehow stored in my brain as a mixture of space, color and shape information, feelings about the relative importance of various elements, even some muscle memory of mechanical gestures, whatnot… Actually, everything but words.

When facing a stream of new information, it is impossible to properly absorb any of it if we cannot store it in non-verbal form on the fly. Failure to immediately recognise patterns upon which we can classify knowledge makes us fall behind pretty quick.

I spent a good deal of my education wondering what the teacher was speaking about, writing down everything I could with the intent of figuring it out later. Needless to say, that was the most inefficient way of learning something, but I believe I was far from being the only one doing it that way. I failed to realize that some familiarity with the subject was a prerequisite for understanding, and that it often comes in the clumsiest way.

Back to board games, after several explanations of the same rules to different groups of people, it seems that starting from the goal and explaining the rules backwards helps, which is the opposite order that most written manuals tend to follow. It also helps a lot when people have already tried to figure out the game by themselves, have watched others play it, or have played games with related mechanisms. Nothing surprising, but I think the principle of “try first, understand later, then finally do it properly” is often overlooked, because that “try first” part looks like a waste of time.

Did any of this make sense?