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Trading Places: Adolescents as Teachers

he traditional criteria used for granting status to adolescents no longer fit current conditions and, unless replaced, could produce alienation and excessive reliance on peers for communication and acceptance. The status youth deserve could be attained if the technology skills that they possess are valued and seen to qualify them as sources of learning for adults. A new perspective for teaching and learning in the digital environment is presented. Recommendations are given that support a necessary shift from a hierarchical relationship between adults and adolescents to a more equitable relationship which honors strengths and needs of both generations.

Trading Places, Adolescent Identity, Parent-Adolescent Collaboration, Student -Teacher Collaboration, Reverse Mentoring, Collaboration with Technology

"Freaky Friday" (2003) is a comedy film featuring Jamie Lee Curtis as the mother of an adolescent daughter who is played by Lindsay Lohan. The pair disagrees about nearly everything including fashion, men, and Lindsay's passion to join a rock band. One night the biggest freak out ever happens when mother and daughter are mystically transformed and find themselves trapped in each other's body. Jamie's wedding is only a few days away so the pair must hurry to discover a way for switching back to themselves. Literally forced to walk in each other's shoes, mother and daughter have to learn a lot about each other in a short time.

There is considerable evidence that willingness to participate in role shifting can improve learning, motivation, and relationships. This presentation examines how trading places on the job, in the classroom, and at home might produce unique benefits. Some obstacles that accompany role shifting are also explored. Considerations for adults and recommendations for adolescents are given to help each group foster mutual development.

Trading Places at Work

The concept of mentoring originated with a Greek myth in which Mentor was entrusted to educate the son of Odysseus when he left to fight in the Trojan War. A mentor defines someone who acts as a wise and trusted advisor, tutor, coach, counselor, and faithful friend. A common business practice is to provide a mentor for new employees. This strategy reflects a belief that experienced workers have valuable insights, seniority involves an obligation to share knowledge with colleagues, advice from veteran co-workers can minimize mistakes, and interdependence is the perspective needed for success of individuals, teams, and companies (Zachery, 2005).

Career exploration can become a source of motivation for most students. Researching occupations, identifying the skills required for a job, and determining advantages and difficulties related to particular careers should begin in middle school. The influence of career mentors on adolescents is strong even when the parties never meet face-to-face but communicate on the Internet. An example of how the influence of mentors can contribute to career awareness and recognition of personal characteristics needed for success is the Computer Clubhouse. This joint venture is operated by the Museum of Science in Boston in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory. The center, and 75 others like it throughout the world, gives boys and girls from underserved communities an after-school learning environment where they can explore their career preferences, develop job related skills, and build confidence for performing well in the workplace. Students choose their own mentor after reviewing biographical sketches online including visuals prepared by the adult volunteers willing to dialogue with them. All the mentors have successful careers. They communicate the merits of integrity, civil behavior, and time management. Mentors also emphasize resilience for coping with disappointment, ways to support harmony, and the value of reflective thinking. The Computer Clubhouse web site is at

Most employers arrange conversations between new employees and colleague mentors but less attention is paid to the benefits of reverse mentoring. The concept of reverse mentoring calls for turning around the usual relationship in which an older person mentors a younger one. In effect, it requires role shifting, trading places. Reverse mentoring first became known because of an experiment at the General Electric Corporation. Jack Welch, Chief Executive Officer, realized that he along with his fellow senior executives were unfamiliar with the tools of technology needed for effective communication in the cyber era. Instead of the management officials being sent back to school or providing expensive training programs for them, Welch paired 500 of his top leaders with younger workers who had recently joined the company. The task that younger workers were assigned involved teaching senior colleagues to navigate the Internet and speed up interaction by using electronic mail (Welch & Welch, 2005). This shift acknowledged the greater competence of young adults in the realm of technology, confirmed for new hires that their skills were valued, and called on upper level managers to view younger mentors as sources of learning. The experiment succeeded, introduced a continuous sharing of expertise, and credited this approach for improved productivity. Many businesses have adopted the reverse mentoring model of General Electric and find it results in greater profits (Drucker, 2005).

Trading Places at School

The Olympic district of suburban Seattle, Washington decided to integrate technology with the curriculum at all grade levels. Organizers were agreed that schools have been slow to embrace innovation, mostly because the views of students are overlooked. For the first time in history, many students know more than their teachers about tools of technology on which future learning depends. Many students report that their life online after school is disconnected from the instructional methods teachers use in class. Teachers concede that their low level of proficiency with technology along with the prevailing emphasis on high stakes testing combine to prevent greater use of the Internet for learning (Cole, 2008).

The Olympia approach to reverse mentoring pairs students with a partner-teacher at their school. These student-teacher teams mutually plan a curriculum project that will be enhanced by some technology application. Teachers provide knowledge of the topic, awareness of learning needs, and steps to guide lessons. The student is expected to contribute a visual element that makes the instructional presentation more appealing and better understood. This cooperative creation then becomes part of the curriculum offered by the partner-teacher. This process allows the students to practice and refine computer skills for practical projects and gain collaborative experience needed for employment. The advantage for teachers is having technology support to compliment instruction and new skills shared by the younger mentor (Reese, 2007).

Student-teacher team collaboration has the potential to benefit everyone. Studies have consistently found that lessons containing a visual component are retained to a greater extent and for a longer time than those provided orally or in text form. So great is the advantage of visual memory that it has been designated as the pictorial superiority effect. Experiments have shown that people can remember pictures with more than 90 percent accuracy several days following exposure even though the pictures were viewed for only a few seconds. A year later the accuracy rate for visual memory still exceeded 60 percent (Brockmole, 2008). Comparisons of text and oral presentations versus pictorial presentations have determined that visuals are always more effective. When information is given orally, people recall about 10 percent when tested three days after exposure. The recall rate rises to 65 percent if a picture or visual element is added (Medina, 2008).

The pictorial superiority effect had less relevance before the Internet introduced a broad range of visual resources. Given the enormous selection that is available from United Streaming, YouTube, and other web sites, educators should emphasize incorporation of visuals to optimize learning. The shift can include a place for three dimensional conversation tools such as Google's Lively that provides cartoon-like avatars for chat rooms ( Users can choose from handsome or Disney-like characters, create their own rooms with up to 20 occupants, and post to a blog or social network profile as easily as a YouTube video. Similar 3D chat rooms like Vivaty run on Facebook and other social sites.

Exciting technologies emerge at such a rapid rate that teachers do not have enough time to keep up with them. Reverse mentoring permits teachers to benefit from how fast students learn the latest technical skills and how willing they are to act as mentors. Professional development has commonly relied upon instructional specialists to train teachers in technology skills during in service sessions with the hope that this approach will improve student learning. The Olympia experience suggests that more can be gained by reversing the procedure. Allowing students to practice technology while helping to enhance the quality of teacher instruction improves learning and comprehension while reducing boredom (Rosen, 2007).

The optimal reverse mentor relationship should be explored because it will provide clues about how teacher-student interaction should evolve in the future. Each party participates in setting goals to guide their collaboration. A curriculum lesson requires both to share complimentary strengths for interdependence. The teacher does not control the student but instead conveys freedom and trust that is vital for teaming. Student and teacher alternate leadership. Sharing dominance departs from the custom where the teacher is always the leader.

Over 1,200 schools have adopted the Olympia model for integration of technology with curriculum. This kind of on-the-job technology training where a teacher participates in reverse mentoring with tech savvy students has proven to be an effective way for promoting educational reform. Classrooms should be more interactive, collaborative, and related to real life application. These outcomes are more likely when teachers realize the possibilities of a team problem solving approach, alternate leadership, and relinquish control in favor of self-directed learning. The most enthusiastic advocates of reverse mentoring are adolescents whose projects can be viewed on the Generation YES (Youth and Educators Succeeding) web site at

Trading Places at Home

An inversion of authority is transforming the nature of interaction between adolescents and grownups. Both groups recognize that youth are more competent using the tools of technology. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University did an experiment to learn how this factor alters communication and relationships (Kraut, Brynin, & Kiesler, 2006). The participants were 170 people from 73 middle class homes in Pittsburgh. All the families included an adolescent and were given a free computer with access to the Internet. None of the families had been previously connected to the Internet. During the orientation, researchers explained that computers would be remotely monitored to find out how often they were used, length of time spent online, and sites visited but not the content. At several month intervals the parents and their teenagers completed surveys that described self-defined computer skills, amount of time spent together online, and how often they helped one another solve computer problems.

Monitoring detected that, on average, the time that teenagers spent online was six times greater than their parents. Adolescents received ten times as much electronic mail as parents and explored the Internet to a greater extent. Another source of data were videotapes made during the home visits to observe how each family used their computer. The research team did not help if participants they were watching had technical difficulties. Problems appeared rampant in 89% of the families where the usual reaction of adults reflected a sense of helplessness. Grownups offered a broad range of excuses for their inability to solve computer problems. On the other hand, most teenagers seldom complained when facing difficulties and experimented until completing their tasks (Kraut, Brynin, & Kiesler, 2006).

Everyone was invited to phone Home Net line anytime to obtain assistance. However, the adults were more inclined to turn to daughters or sons for guidance. If adolescents were not home, adults usually chose to abandon a task rather than identify their needs to support sources from the Home Net. Those who phoned the help desk most often were the teenagers, the same persons who performed best. It appears that individuals with the most skill realize what they do not yet know and show more confidence in challenging themselves to try ever-more-difficult tasks. Knowledge trickled upward in most of the families as teenagers claimed the most authority, acting as consultants to their parents.

One way to reduce predictable risks associated with this familiar situation is to encourage adolescents to acquire attributes that characterize good teachers. Possession of a skill does not mean someone is able to convey the skill to others. Patience and encouragement are implicated in teacher effectiveness. In contrast, impatience and lack of feedback can erode the motivation of students and cause them to doubt their capacity to learn. The Home Net findings showed that many adults might be more inclined than adolescents to give up when faced with an unfamiliar learning situation. For this reason, teenagers expected to teach adults need to understand that emotional support should be given so adults remain willing to keep trying after failure (Kraut, Brynin, & Kiesler, 2006).

Adult Considerations for Trading Places

Discovering opportunities for adults to trade places with adolescents in the context of teaching is going to be a challenge from now on. Success will depend on experimenting with new methods that can support more equitable relationships. This section describes some of the factors that appear to warrant consideration.

(1) Trading places is a way to support the adolescent quest for identity, to have status. The custom has been for adults to withhold status until young people have a full time job, get married, become a parent, or no longer need financial assistance. However, meeting these conditions takes longer than ever before. The more lengthy schooling needed for employment coupled with a high cost of living often necessitate continued economic support from parents, even after young adults have obtained a full time job.

The traditional criteria for identity no longer match the environment and could produce alienation and excessive reliance on peers for communication and status. Dependence on peers for communication is evident from the high level of involvement with MySpace and Facebook. Talking to peers is easier because it is based on equality, a condition that is less common in conversations with adults. One alternative is to create a new tradition of bestowing status before students complete job training or get full time work. Because technological skills are important, individuals who possess them deserve status, should be given responsibility, and expected to communicate with older and younger people to support societal harmony (Wallace, 2008).

(2) Sharing dominance is essential for trading places, allowing the other person to sometimes assume the leadership role. The most successful chosen relationships are characterized by shared dominance instead of unilateral control based on age or gender. When people prize and rely on the strengths of one another, they have a partnership. Before the era of the Internet adults were rarely obliged to think of youth as possible sources of learning. Grownups should strive to exhibit maturity and humility recognizing that, in some situations, hierarchy is no longer sensible.

(3) Listening is fundamental for trading places. Children are told and reminded that they are expected to listen to teachers because this behavior will influence how well and how much they learn. Ironically, the divided attention and distraction of teachers is becoming a great concern. A nationwide study of student achievement was conducted using results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress measures. Results showed that students from the lowest 10 percent of the school population made good improvement in their test scores between 2000-2007. In contrast, students in the highest achieving 10 percent of the population did not improve much (Duffett, Farkas, & Loveless, 2008).

To probe for possible reasons why gains were made by one group but not the other, 900 teachers from grades 3-12 were surveyed. These teachers reported that, because of the No Child Left Behind testing mandates, school administrators have made struggling students the top priority at their school. Most teachers, 81 %, agreed this meant low achievers are more likely to get one on one attention in their own classroom. The teachers (92%) felt that the right thing is to give equal attention to all students, regardless of achievement level. These contradictory views indicate that teachers are conflicted about the differences between what they believe and the way they behave (Duffett, Farkas, & Loveless, 2008). When parents of average or higher achieving students are informed by their children that teacher attention is unequal, they are disappointed and often transfer their student to a private school where teachers are expected to show greater equality of attention to everyone.

(4) Teaching includes evaluation of learning. Trusting students to participate in evaluation of group learning is necessary in trading places. Teachers cannot know the interaction in multiple teams and how students teach their peers. Cooperative learning provides an ideal environment for comparison of self-impressions with observations provided by teammates. Being able to self-evaluate helps us know when to think well of ourselves and when to change behavior so our actions more closely resemble the person we wish to become. Middle school and high school students can complete the Interpersonal Intelligence Inventory that calls for the evaluation of peers and self on 25 team skills easily detected following interaction for a reasonable period. Each student receives an individual profile that contains anonymous feedback of teammates about personal strengths and learning needs (Strom & Strom, 2002).

(5) A costly mistake in trading places is the adult inclination to overestimate their willingness to learn from adolescents. An internationally applied measure is the Parent Success Indicator (Strom & Strom, 2008). This two generational instrument reveals how parents of 10 to 14 year olds and their adolescent daughters and sons perceive the role performance of mothers and fathers. One item on the adult version states: "I am good at learning from my child." Optional responses consist of always, often seldom, and never. The corresponding version that shows adolescent observations states "My parent is good at learning from me." Significant differences are found in the generational responses of several thousand adult and adolescent subjects from Japan, Republic of China, and among American Black, Hispanic and White families. In each of these cultures, most of the adolescents assign unfavorable ratings to their parents for learning from their children while most parents portray themselves favorably as willing to learn (Beckert, Strom, Strom, Yang & Singh, 2007; Strom, Strom, Strom, Shen & Beckert, 2004).

(6) Trading places is facilitated by mutual awareness of possible benefits. Providing feedback to adolescents about their instruction helps them realize the favorable influence they can have on others, motivates them to improve how well they teach, and encourages them to offer similar feedback to their own teachers at home and in the classroom. Teenagers are accustomed to getting feedback often on the computer so they generally crave this response from adults. However, few of them recognize how feedback can motivate classroom teachers to continue their difficult tasks and sustain enjoyment in their job. Teachers used to be honored more often by their students than is the case now, a bygone tradition that warrants restoration. By trading places to become a teacher, adolescents can better appreciate the problems educators face as they try to arrange learning for individual students who present a broad range of performance levels.

(7) Some lessons that schools need to learn from adolescents will not be acquired using the familiar forms of inquiry. Discussing ways of motivating and engaging students without inviting their views about conditions of learning has little merit. Trading places must include a way for adolescents to comfortably express how they feel about school (Strom & Strom, 2008). Focus groups cannot provide the information because they require high risk for students that identify themselves as having negative views. The range of views in the student population can never be fully represented by focus groups. School improvement requires electronic and anonymous student polling to determine their preferred ways for learning and perceived obstacles to achievement. Students have the most to gain or lose as stakeholders in their education. Accordingly, efforts should be made to assess their feelings about the quality of schooling. Equality is presently defined as the opportunity to be a student but lack input to educational change. The authors collaborate with school systems to conduct polls that are used to make decisions on ways to improve learning. See

(8) Trading places should be fostered, not just for the tech savvy students but every student when online homework is given to support interdependence. Individuals can be assigned as the single member on their team to examine particular web sites. Specific tasks could include summarizing content, identifying material to augment course curriculum, and describing implications drawn from the reading. These tasks appeal to students because they prefer to work online, like to share knowledge that classmates and their teacher have not acquired, recognize that others depends on them to provide an accurate report, and perceive the greater amount of learning that occurs when each person is accountable as an educator.

Adolescent Guidelines for Trading Places

During middle school students gradually surpass relatives in technology skills. Accordingly, they should be made aware of how to carry out their emerging responsibility for trading places. Students should discuss the following guidelines intended to help them prepare for emerging opportunities as teachers of adults.

(1) Adults prefer teachers who show patience by not rushing their lessons. When learners feel hurried, the usual outcome is less comprehension. If enough time is arranged to practice new skills, then satisfaction and success become common.

(2) While explaining steps of a sequence task, demonstrate using slow transitions between steps. Always describe your behavior like sports commentators do when they inform fans about how a play was executed. This strategy allows an adult to observe and comprehend a series of movements for doing a task (Meichenbaum & Biemiller, 1998).

(3) Repeat the examples you offer several times to provide more opportunities for observation. People of all ages prefer observation as a way of learning. Sometimes teachers know a process so well that they think it is simple and therefore rush the explanation that can leave learners confused or disappointed.

(4) Monitor behavior of the adult learner and offer favorable feedback when a task is done correctly saying 'you did it; that's the correct way.' When the adult behavior is incorrect, have the person try again while you watch and try to figure out possible sources of the error and then explain how to make the correction.

(5) Arrange situations where the adult has enough time and opportunity to go through some process several times. Continue to supervise until the individual can do the task repeatedly without errors.

(6) Ask the adult to explain steps in doing a task that you have taught. Tell them to give reasons for each of their actions. A student should go beyond memorizing to show understanding by an accurate explanation.

(7) Encourage the continued effort needed to become computer literate and motivated to remain up-to-date. Bear in mind that some adults are inclined to give up following failure with technology tasks so giving your emotional support is important.

(8) Recognize the common problem of adolescent teachers doing a task for adults without insisting that the grownup then perform the process. This strategy of modeling without getting the individual involved is meant to save time but usually produces unnecessary dependence.

(9) Invite questions to find out what the person finds confusing or wants to know more about a specific task. Good teachers of every age group encourage questions in order to detect learning needs not observed.

(10) Speak slowly and clearly because adults often process information at a slower pace than you do. Explain terminology because beginners do not know the language associated with the use of computers.

(11) All adolescents should be involved in reverse mentoring, including those living in hierarchical cultures where adults prefer the traditional bases for status and are less willing to trade places. In these cases, the youth strategy should be to express a willingness to teach and confidence that elders can learn.

(12) Discover the satisfactions of teaching and enjoy this leadership role. Students of every age can tell when a teacher likes working with them.


Trading places is an educational practice that offers possibilities to go beyond customary sources of learning, improve communication and respect across generations, support adjustment to novel ways of thinking, and create a society in which interdependence and harmony enrich the lives of everyone. Trading places can be difficult because it contradicts attitudes and behaviors that many adults are reluctant to abandon. Arranging creative initiatives for trading places at work, in classrooms, and at home can help to define the broader vision of human development and learning that we contribute to future generations.


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