A Teaching-and-Learning culture is one in which knowledge and experience are shared in all directions, from young to old or old to young; where individuals draw on what they do and what they care about and teach it to those around them. All involved not only learn new skills and gain new knowledge, but also get insights to more closely connect with loved ones. It is in the process of Teaching-and-Learning that creativity is unleashed, affecting both the young and the old, and a passion for learning is instilled and continues for the rest of their lives.
Jerry Witkovsky, MSW
Author, The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection*
A Teaching-and-Learning culture is one in which teaching and learning are multi-dimensional and multi-directional. It’s a culture that acknowledges that we are responsible to teach and share what we know, no matter how young or old. Even more impactful is the idea that we can always learn something new, no matter what stage in life we’re in. And when we become open to the possibility of learning from those closest to us, it deepens all of our relationships—with family, ourselves and the broader community.
Tell me a story about…
As part of the Teaching-and-Learning culture, Witkovsky talks a lot about “entering their world.” For Jerry, it’s about entering the world of his grandchildren and finding ways they can enter his. For many years, as an interculturalist, I advocated (and still do) for “perspective taking”—seeing things through the eyes of the other. Of course this is always easier in the abstract. Trying it with family is a whole different arena.**
Jerry says it starts with opening a conversation with “Tell me a story about…” He had long heard grandparents and parents lament that if you ask a teen “How was your day?” you will likely get an angst-driven grunt for an answer. “Tell me a story,” on the other hand, sometimes yields a surprising answer.
Asking my son to tell me a story about being late to class as a sophomore in high school elicited a long story about being corralled by a group of seniors (“They were seniors. I couldn’t say no!”). They dragged him with them to be in a ‘get well’ video they were making for the school principal, who was on leave recovering from cancer. This required walking all over the school campus and ultimately left my son arriving to class with only 20 minutes to spare in the period. “Why were you late,” the teacher demanded. “Surely your teacher must have understood this was important,” I said. To which he replied, “I just told her I had diarrhea.” Isn’t that far more entertaining than the bland “fine” I would have gotten had I simply asked “How was school today?”
Entering their world…
I knew the idea of “entering their world” had become part of the fabric of my extended family when I overheard my mom having a conversation about the St. Louis Blues hockey team with my nephew. Later I pulled her aside and complimented her new-found sports knowledge. “For years I tried ‘why haven’t you called. Call your grandma!’ with no luck,” she shared. “Now I got faster Wi-Fi and studied the sports pages.” In other words, she embraced the things that were important to her grandson. If that meant watching the Mizzou basketball came so she could call to share commentary at half-time, so be it. It brought them closer together.
The difference between preaching and teaching
Teaching-and-Learning helps in families as children get older and become adults themselves. “Because I’m the mommy” may work when kids are little. In the teenage years, however, you want teens to develop their own set of principles and make their own decisions. It’s the time to trust you’ve taught them well and given them a good foundation. Control the impulse to yell and instead say “tell me a story about that.”
Preaching says “my way or the highway.” Preaching says “I own the right answer and the truth,” and the classic “I’m going to keep saying it until you agree.” Teaching says you’ll share what you know and give insight into how you got to your perspective, but ultimately the other person decides how they will use and adapt the information or skill to their own life.
What’s wonderful about the teaching and learning culture is that teaching is not hierarchical, but rather a gift that you share with those you love. It’s a great way to be confident, to know who you are and to do an inventory of your own skills and knowledge. It also starts with acknowledging what you don’t know as an opportunity as opposed to a weakness. You can learn something new at any moment of your life if you are open to it.
Aging as a Rocket (not an inverted parabola)
Teaching and learning is not time delineated. Many people think of aging as an inverted parabola, that you “rise” in knowledge and power as you are growing up, you peak middle age, and that old age is a decline. For Jerry, now 90, life is a trajectory, a rocket going up and up and up. One can learn new ideas and stay intellectually stimulated across one’s lifespan.
Jerry wrote a chapter in the book titled 80 Things to Do When You Turn 80. “Life’s an adventure,” he counseled. “I’m going to keep going and never stop!” He also often says, “Don’t die until you’re dead,” a phrase that frequently gets edited out of print materials for speaking events he does around Chicagoland and across the country.
Maybe they don’t want to think about the inevitability of death. But for Jerry, it gives an amazing power for the present. Act now. Pursue it now. At 90, there’s nothing like the present to get stuff done.
What are you putting off? What can you teach and learn from your family, or from the world?