When I told my sons, ages 11 and 15, that I would be interviewing a series of unconventional and inspiring educators about their teaching methods, they insisted—nay, demanded—that I sit down with them and watch their favorite teacher, Michael Stevens, host of the wildly popular YouTube education channel Vsauce.
They queued up their favorite episodes, “What If The Earth Stopped Spinning?” “What If the Moon Was a Disco Ball?” and “Why Are Things Creepy?” These particular videos have been viewed an average of 4 million times each, so my sons are clearly not the only Vsauce enthusiasts out there. Far from it—Stevens’ Vsauce channel boasts nearly 8 million subscribers and 700 million views.
Three hours and two bowls of popcorn later, I’d become yet another number in the Vsauce subscription and view counter, and I’d also pieced together some theories on what makes Michael Stevens such an effective and popular teacher.
Stevens understands that the best teachers don’t just hurl vast shovelfuls of wisdom at their students, hoping some of it sticks as it whizzes by. Great teachers know that education is a long game, and much of the time, the lesson at hand is not the final destination but an opportunity to contextualize and support future learning. Stevens does hurl a lot of information at his viewers, but he also creates a massive net for his audience so they will be able to catch and hold on to his teaching.
For example, in the video, “What If Everyone Jumped at Once?” (14 million views), Stevens opens with a simple, yet intriguing (not to mention highly clickable) question. While he dangles the promise of an answer for his viewers (which—spoiler alert!—turns out to be “not much”), arriving at an answer isn’t really his goal. During his seven-minute examination of the question, Stevens bushwhacks through a wide range of related topics, including the population and mass of the earth, geology, geography, seismology, the etymology of the word
“decimate,” Dunbar’s number, Newton’s Third Law, human lifespan, and the collective and individual power of human beings—in this case of this particular video, the power of Felicia Day.
Stevens refers to these zigs and zags across disciplines as “hooks,” or opportunities to build, reinforce, and retain, new knowledge. He builds on the knowledge he imparts with new knowledge, and before you know it, you’ve learned a lot about a huge range of subjects. That knowledge is durable because he’s connected it to real-world contexts. You don’t learn from a Vsauce video because you put out a lot of effort to do so; you learn because Stevens makes the information matter. This, Stevens explained to me, is his cardinal rule: “to teach so that people don’t even know that they are learning.” Here are a few other trade secrets Vsauce shared with me:
Know your subject well enough to explain it to someone else:
You have to be able to explain the topic, so that other people can understand it. If you can’t do that, then you don’t really know it. What I’ve found is that even the most common things are things that we think we know, until we are really asked to explain it to other people or to say exactly what it is. Everyone knows what diabetes is, for instance, but could you explain to me, at a molecular level, what really happens? I think you really have to step back and force yourself to really explain something such that no one can have a problem with the explanation. That’s when you really get into full understanding, when you are really ready to teach something to someone else.
Keep it simple, but never talk down to your audience:
You should always overestimate your students’ intelligence. They are smart people. They are smarter than you would ever think. However, you should underestimate their vocabulary. They may know the words, but they don’t know what they mean. So if I’m telling you that insulin is a hormone, well, that doesn’t help anyone who doesn’t know what a hormone is, or why they should care. You just keep taking a step back until you can finally get to the simplest terms, “Okay, how does your pancreas talk to your blood?” You have to get that simple. It’s not talking down to the audience, it’s just making sure that we know exactly what all these terms mean and in a lot of cases we’re wrong, and that’s kind of a mind-blowing moment.
Generate excitement and inspire people to dig deeper on their own:
Look, there’s so much fascinating information out there, and I’m just a curator. The people who come up with these incredible ideas and do the research, they are the heroes. I’m a the Sherpa that packs the content in and then says, “Look at all these great resources and papers that are out there, and here’s what they say and here’s why you should go read them! Here’s a video about a Slinky falling in slow motion! Go find out what that can teach you about gravity!” I’m not teaching “Here are Michael’s thoughts,” I’m teaching about how all these bits of knowledge fit together into a bigger, even more interesting picture and what else they can learn.
Stevens acknowledges that he’s fortunate in that his viewers seek him out, fully equipped with their curiosity and interest, all suited up and ready to learn. Traditional classroom teachers, on the other hand, must meet students on their terms, taking into account their abilities, moods, and preferences. I submit, however, that Stevens’ cardinal rule—to teach so people don’t even realize they are learning—is a great place to start. His videos are proof of concept, evidence that learning can be entertaining, something to share with your kids along with a bowl (or two) of popcorn.