I’ve been thinking about my last post concerning raising expectations. That post came out of a little non-scientific survey that I did with some students regarding what they thought were necessary aspects of a progressive and relevant highschool. I’ve known that the two are linked but it’s taken me a little while to work things through – and I’m not sure I’ve completely done that.

When I first arrived at my current location, I had just come from two very “learn by fire” years as a new administrator. I had 10 years of teaching behind me in middle years so students didn’t really scare me. I had finished a MEd in leadership and had two years of vp experience. I figured I was ready. Yeah right! About as ready as a canoe for an ocean crossing. Each day the learning line was vertical and I seemed to be always scrambling. I didn’t have time for reflection because I didn’t have time to much of anything but survive. Looking back, which is always the easiest thing to do, I realize that although I was able to see issues and areas that need improvement, I wasn’t able to communicate with others in a way that allowed me to move forward. Instead, my communication skills inhibited me from making the progress I wanted to make.

Now, in a position for four years, I’ve been able to work on my communication skills, advancing and improving little by little to a point where I am now confident in my ability to share ideas with others and come to a solution based on active listening and reflective discussion. I’ve also spent time thinking about my vision for school and writing that vision down so that I can articulate it to others. As I’ve gone through this, I keep wondering why these weren’t skills that I learned during school? Why did I have to learn them the hard way?

I began to read about successful communication and the skills involved in being a successful communicator. The resources for this topic are plentiful. However, over at Six Minutes there is a few very good resources that point people in the right direction. From my reading, there were still things that I believe we can do in schools to help our students to be better prepared to communicate with others once they leave our halls.

My Non-Scientific, highly subjective, communication needs of all students

Speak in front of others – I really believe we need to help our students to learn how to speak in front of others in such a way that they don’t become powerless and lost. Just as readers become stronger readers through reading, speakers become better speakers through speaking. Well, not just speaking but discussing and examining issues with others. By speaking in front of others I don’t necessarily mean reading, although that, too, has it’s place. I am more concerned about the moments when they are asked their opinion and can’t say anything or are asked to talk about their ideas and experiences. It’s more a development of skills to be able to join in conversations that are formal – at work during meetings, at gatherings where people ask their opinion or at a social when just sitting at a table with a group of people.

Dialogue vs Debate vs Argument – I really wish people knew the difference between these three. Dialogue, a discussion in which people put forth ideas and listen without trying to persuade the others that their’s are the right ones. Debate, when two sides put forth evidence to convince the others or someone else that their’s are indeed correct. Argument – what usually happens most of the time when people put forth their ideas, usually forcefully, with little regard for anyone else. I get to see a whole lot of the latter and very little of the others. Students need to understand that there are times when you need to dialogue about an issue in order to get people’s perspectives without trying to make one or another the “correct” one. This is very important in such things as Interest Based Bargaining or solution focused problem solving. In these two cases, you are trying to find what people think and how they are feeling with the primary goal of getting to a point where you can discuss a solution that is reasonable in the given situation.  Debate is something that people often get confused with argument. A debate usually takes place between two parties who are trying to convince a third party that their position is the best. A good example is the basis for political debates where parties or representatives put forth their opinions or the opinions of their party on a given topic. Unfortunately, these usually turn into Arguments or mud slinging. Arguments are what I deal with the most – people are not wanting to really find a solution – they want to push their position or point. Typically, the volume gets louder the more they think that the other party isn’t listening because they haven’t changed their minds. The other two forms are much more productive but harder to master unless you are able to practice such skills. Unfortunately, we are seeing way too much arguing being classed as the former so no wonder students are confused.

Presentation Skills – I believe our students need to learn how to present something in a convincing and dynamic manner. I once had a student who wasn’t the best athlete or or or but this student could write jingles and do a presentation like nobody’s business. He was very talented and it was a pleasure to have him do one. I even modeled a presentation rubric after what he did because he did it so well. Eye contact, voice, intonation, body movement, focus and elaboration, explanation and conclusion. He was a natural – I even let him do most of his major projects in this manner because writing wasn’t his strong point and he just couldn’t do in writing what he could do in a presentation. He always seemed passionate about what he was talking about just through his body movements and his delivery. These skills will, I believe, be important as students enter a global economy where much of the information about them will be found online and their sale or their next job will rely on their ability to nail that presentation.

Active Listening and Responding Skills – these are skills that all parents should be required to take classes to understand and use. With my own children, I’ve had to really work at developing these skills. Heck, with my wife I’ve had to learn how to listen. I’ve heard that females are much better at this than males but I not sure if I heard that correct or not;) Whatever the situation, our students need to be aware of what it means to be an active listener – and not a repeat back to me or “I think I hear you saying” as my own children have informed me that these are, in fact, lame and demonstrate that you have taken some type of course and are practicing. It was only after I actively listened to my oldest daughter who pointed out, through the severe eye-roll motion, that beginning with something like that was not, in fact, an indication of listening but of mimicking. I’ve really learned quite a lot from oldest three daughters about listening, not listening and the whole being in the room when a conversation is taking place. (Don’t let them know this otherwise it will make it hard for me to look like I’m not listening to their conversations when I am in fact listening). To be an active listener is to be aware of body movement and positioning, eye contact, how their voice is sounding, how they position themselves and many other things. It’s the whole act of focusing on that person who is speaking and making connections for yourself with what they are saying.

Finally, the art of being silent – I know this went out with Charlie and his moustache but it is something that is key in good communication. The silent pause has become a sign of something being not quite right and people feel they need to fill it in with something – usually a bad pun or joke or something of little consequence. Silence is a moment for reflection, a moment for people to allow what has been said to pass through filters. Really good speakers use that pause to allow audiences to absorb what they’ve said just as great comics allow audiences to laugh and set up the next lines. In fact, silence, used at the right moment can be even more effective than anything a person can say.

Somehow, there needs to be a greater focus on speaking, presenting and listening that will allow students to develop these all important skills. Yes, the five paragraph essay is extremely important, until you get out of school. Learning to use language in writing is a great and wonderful thing. However, many of our students will also need to be as well prepared to speak and listen. It’s sure makes someone stand apart from the crowd when they have those skills. I’ve watched students who, through their superior development of presentation skills be able to do better than students with equal writing skills but underdeveloped presentation skills. As someone who was an entrepreneur at age 19, I developed some of these skills through just having to do them over and over again. And, when I became a teacher and now an administrator, I  had to continue to add to my skill set things that, had I been actually shown examples or been made aware of, I might have been able to use and incorporate myself without all the “trial by fire’ learning that I had to do.

As I learn more about them and practice them myself, I have become even more aware of their importance. A perfect example was while interviewing for a recent position, one of the prospective candidates arrived chewing gum and continued to do so throughout the entire interview. Another candidate over-explained, over-sold themselves instead of providing what was asked of them. Again, these are sometimes the results of being nervous but, also, the results of not having been taught presentation skills.

What’s your experience with students and presentation skills? Do you believe they need to be taught more formally than at present? How important do you see them being for today’s students?