Monday, June 10, 2013

How effectively did you teach your students how to communicate?

"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
                                                                                     -George Bernard Shaw

In education's obsession with content we have seemingly brushed aside any concern for developing 21st century skills and soft skills in our students.  These include communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, self-directedness, the handshake, eye-contact, leadership voice, etc......  Year after year I hear teachers complaining that there is so much content they are required to teach that they cannot fit it into the school year.  Unfortunately, this does not leave much (if any) time for emphasizing the real things that matter.

This year I had a unique experience to partner with businesses and community members to help educate our students.  A group of three other teachers and I started an interdisciplinary, problem-based pilot program that worked in the community, with the community, in order to do projects that improved the community.  We were fortunate enough to partner with over 80 community businesses/partners this year as the community was extremely receptive to helping provide a more relevant and hands-on education for students. Time after time after time we heard guest speakers, mentors, and partners say that they "do not care if you know any facts or procedures" because they could teach you everything their business does once you get their.  What they want, are students that can effectively communicate, collaborate, innovate, critically-think, look someone in the eye and talk, etc...  It is ironic that this is an overwhelming need according to our society, yet these skills are secondary thoughts in the world of education.  I know that the first thing most people would respond is that "good teachers can teach the content while having students work on their 21st century skills".  Okay.  Whatever.  I am sure there are a select percentage of superstars that are effective at this, but for most, the justification would be that they had their students present a cheesy power point using a cheesy rubric in a completely unrealistic display of skills.  This is not what I am talking about, though.  When do you take the time to TEACH these communication skills?   This isn't just for the literacy teacher, because their plates are also packed.  When do you teach them about:

* Speaking - eye contact, leadership voice, nonverbals
* Speaking - voice inflection with speed, volume and pitch.
* How to send an email that doesn't look like a text message to a buddy.
* How to differentiate between a science research paper, a magazine article, and a letter to a coworker.
* How to listen and respond.
* How to give constructive feedback to a group member.
* How to differentiate between talking one-on-one, in a small group, or in front of an audience.
* How to adjust a speech after careful consideration of the intended audience.
* How to be assertive, rather than submissive or aggressive.
* Etc........

So, my question is this:  Did you improve your students at these "real-life" skills that will have a major impact on their future success?

These students will not need the content (jeopardy facts) that we are teaching them.  Even if they did, they WILL NOT REMEMBER THEM in two years.  They will learn those facts when they are older and ready to learn them.  In the meantime, we should teach them the real skills they need to survive and succeed.

*  Throw aside the textbook and break out the Dale Carnegie book once in a while.
*  Use passion-based learning such as 20-Time or Genius Hour.  Allow students to get enthusiastic about learning, while learning about something they love.  While they are doing this, work on their communication skills (during small group discussions, presentations, emails to experts, using search engines properly, taking constructive feedback and adjusting to it, giving feedback).  The best part is, they won't even know that you are doing it.

Pretend that each student is your own child and do what is best for them.  There are creative ways to ensure they will get all of the facts they are required to get.  In the meantime, teach them the skills they need so they can succeed in the real-world. Do not hope that you find time to work this in, GIVE TIME to it.


  1. Thanks for this post Oliver. You've keyed in on such essential communication skills that won't be addressed unless we make time.

    Sounds like a fantastic program!


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