Learning from those you intend to teach

Posted on February 02, 2011 by Janet Coats

Sometimes you learn the most from those you are trying to teach.

I’ve discovered this over and over again. As an editor working with very young reporters, I often found myself discovering a new technique or approach. I was a reporter before the Internet, so most of my knowledge about Web tools and social media came from younger reporters on my staff.

I just finished a stint as a coach for the Knight Digital Media Center’s Leadership program. I worked with leaders from non-profit, entrepreneurial news sites. While I think my management experience was valuable for the folks I worked with, I felt as if they gave me a graduate course on the challenges and opportunities of working in a start-up organization.

Perhaps my most consistent teacher these days lives a little closer to home: my 14-year-old son, Sam.

Sam’s mind has always been a wondrous thing to me. He’s a math genius; I still cross through numbers when I’m subtracting more than 3 digits. He can put anything together, and I’m all thumbs.

When it comes to technology, he is a savant, and I’m just an idiot.

One of the things I’ve missed most since leaving a corporate setting is being able to call tech support when I mess something up on the computer. My basic approach to technology problems has always been to unplug, then plug back in and hope the device heals itself.

One day, after spending hours fussing with a calendar program and my iPhone, I had a revelation: I could ask Sam. I did, and what had led me to my breaking point was hardly a challenge for him. Ten minutes later, problem solved.

So I put Sam on retainer for tech support. He started doing things like updating software on the computer and the phone, syncing my calendars, dealing with balky printers. It was an incredible relief.

Then one day when I was struggling through putting together a PowerPoint presentation, inspiration struck again. If Sam could handle my basic tech support, what was the harm in asking him to help me with presentations and spreadsheets?

This may go down in history as my best call ever.

Not only did Sam prove more facile with this work than I would ever be, he immediately showed an ability to read my narratives or listen to me talk about what I was trying to show and then find a visual way of presenting the information.

I’d looked at Sam as tech boy. In reality, he was proving to be a pretty darn sophisticated synthesizer of ideas, helping me to take what was in my head and put it into a format others could grasp.

Best of all, as he learned more about what I was working on for The Patterson Foundation, he began to suggest ways I could put information together that would be more effective. TPF President and CEO Debra Jacobs praised the formats I was using to present information; I had to confess that they weren’t my formats. They were Sam’s. Debra began recommending the formats Sam had created as examples for other TPF initiative managers to follow in their work.

I knew we’d crossed into new territory when I asked Sam to review responses to a survey we were doing of entrepreneurial community news sites. He did the work I’d asked, but he also started asking qualitative questions. I notice, he said, that a lot of these sites say they are using the same technology platforms; are there ways they could improve the efficiency by sharing knowledge? This site says it gets revenue in these ways, Sam would say. Couldn’t this site learn from that approach?

As he talked, I took notes. Lots of notes.

I’m Sam’s mom, and it is my job to teach him. It is also my job to learn from him. As we all work in a changing world – one without the hierarchies and proprietary expertise of the old one – we should open ourselves to learning from unexpected sources.

Knowledge – even wisdom – doesn’t come from a title or from tenure. It can come from someone who sees the world with fresh eyes and has a suggestion – or two – about some new ideas to try.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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