You have more resources for learning than you might imagine. Not money, but the people you know. They have all sorts of expertise and experience to share. Add another degree of separation, the people they know, and the range wildly expands. These are your knowledge networks. You can activate these networks to enliven your life and your child’s learning.
It may never have occurred to you that your sister-in-law’s cake decorating business might help you vet your own start-up ideas. She can also give your children insight into possible culinary careers, the benefits of entrepreneurship, the art of shaping sugar, or the folly of overindulgent weddings. Everywhere in your life are people who have valuable (and sometimes cautionary) experience—your former boss’ penchant for explaining probabilities, your world traveler friend’s proficiency in planning, your stepbrother’s tales of incarceration, your father’s new passion for gardening and canning, your friend’s long journey through rehab, your neighbor’s home repair successes.
It honors people to approach them with respect for what they know. Sharing information and skills is surely encoded in our genes because that’s the way humanity has thrived. Even a question can show respect for what another person knows. One time my son couldn’t find the answer to satisfy his curiosity about an obscure form ocean life and we couldn’t even figure out how to search for it. On a whim, we called a neighbor who had a degree in marine biology, but who ended up working in an unrelated field. He was thrilled to be asked. He not only knew the answer, he happily chatted with our son about marine science and for years afterwards brought up interesting tidbits about the field when he saw our son at neighborhood get-togethers.
Asking questions can also strengthen connections. I noticed that a woman who relocated every few years had an interesting way of striking up new friendships. She built relationships by seeking knowledge held by others. Surely it was something she wanted to find out, but she asked in such a way that it made the other person feel recognized. I watched her observe another couple foster problem-solving with their kids. She struck up a conversation, telling them how impressed she was, and asked for some pointers with her own daughter. A week later she called me, saying she’d heard from a mutual friend that I grew tomatoes and made homemade salsa. She made sure to pass along the friend’s compliment, then said she was mulling over different recipes, saying, “I want your opinion about whether to use lemon juice or vinegar.” I let her know I was hardly a salsa expert but have to admit it gave me a little glow to be asked. We ended up talking about some other things as well. It wasn’t until I got off the phone that I realized this was how she tentatively reached out to make friendships. Clearly it worked, even though she’s moved again we stay in touch.
To stretch your knowledge network using questions, be sure that you’ve done some background work. In other words, be as informed as possible in advance, then ask an engaging question. For example, several of my kids have been fascinated by fossils. They’ve always been better at spotting them than I have and even when very young were able to identify many by using guidebooks. But we ran across several that defied categorization. So we took them along the next time we went to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Small kids asking big questions get results. In no time a paleontologist came out of a basement work area, thrilling my kids with his explanation of the fossil’s origins and age, then invited our family to tour an employee-only area where he was working on a project!
You can activate your knowledge networks beyond simple questions, in ways that benefit a larger group. I’ve set up such things for years, mostly for our homeschool group but also for seniors and community groups. Here’s how.
When you’re ready to ask any chosen expert, start out by expressing your respect for their knowledge and experience. Let them know you understand their time is valuable. Then explain that you’re hoping they might share their work with your group. I’ve found if you ask them to teach or present, people often freeze up. They associate this with a classroom style lecture. What any of us really want is a more interactive experience, hence the word “share.” Let them know that your group wants to see what they do, maybe take part if possible, and that a great deal of preparation on their part isn’t necessary.
Some busy people in your knowledge network may prefer to suggest helpful sites, videos, and publications. They might agree to let individuals correspond with them, interview them, or answer a few questions one-on-one. That’s great.
Many people will agree to share with your group. That’s when the synergy begins. They might show up at your meeting place with stories and photos from their stint in the Peace Corps, newspaper for everyone to build a geodesic dome while talking about sustainable design, jars of herbs to smell as they discuss the history of herbal remedies, fencing gear for everyone to wear as they learn the rudiments of the sport. They might invite everyone into the kitchen where they make pierogi, the garage where they create stained glass windows, the lab where they test polymers.
These people are busy with their own lives, but when they’re appreciated for their knowledge and experience it adds an extra dimension to their lives. And the interests they nurture in us and our kids may very well grow into something amazing.Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.