Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Unpacking "Communication Skills"

A valid criticism of a "21st century skill" approach in the classroom is that the skills--communication, creativity, problem-solving, etc.--have become glittering generalities. Everyone has a sense what it means to himself, but it is hard to share a common conception of the skill.

Because of this, it makes it difficult to assess, and therefore, difficult for a teacher to improve their practice. Almost every teacher wants to build creativity in her room, but many don't because no one can explain why what they do now isn't building creativity, and what they should do to build creativity. Simply because, no one can isolate what the term "creativity" really means.

UNPACKING
The task before us is to unpack these terms. Communication skills is an excellent example. Sure to be one of every district's core outcomes, the ability to communicate in a diverse array of settings is crucial. But what does it mean? How do you assess communication skills?

The first step that we sometimes forget is to remember the wide variety of forms for communication. If our outcome is for students to develop communication skills, we often make the mistake of pigeon-holing it to be oral communication. Oral small-group communication, to be precise. 1-1 communication, written communication, visual communication, listening, and intrapersonal communication are often very underdeveloped in schools.

But even if we have settled on oral communication, from personal experience, I can say that breaking it down into basic elements, such as "hand gestures", "rate and pitch", and "eye contact" is not the full solution. It can give students specific knowledge to build upon, but when a student communicates orally, it is not good for them to be consciously thinking of 15 different elements of speech. The true conundrum is, even though we need to better define and describe "communication skills", communication is in itself a holistic item.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH
I've been fortunate to work with two of Iowa's best oral communication teachers in Kathy Turner, now retired from Postville, and Liz Hansen from Grinnell. A common theme I gleaned from both is to have students critically assess communication from a situational perspective. What is your audience, and what is your outcome? With both teachers, communication was a cognitive study for students, not just a skill mastery. It makes no difference if I perfect my eye contact and use the optimal rate and pitch; it matters if I actually communicate what I intended to.

The best teachers, then, do three important things. First, they give students a wide variety of audiences and situations for communication. One persuasive communication activity I observed had students at one point persuading their parents to improve their cellular plan, another point persuading the school board to change a board policy, a 3rd to persaude their best friend to go to the movies over the basketball game, and a 4th to convince the 6-year old they were babysitting to eat their peas. Rapid fire. And afterwards, the students had to analyze what did they change between settings, and what else did they notice that others were doing effectively. Much better than basic recognition of oral communication elements, the students had to actively manipulate them and analyze their use.

Second, the best teachers help students understand what type of communication is most appropriate. One of the best science units I have seen was an infectious disease unit a biology teacher named Dale Dennler used. Dale had what he termed as a basic unit: look at some attributes of infectious diseases and have a test. That is, until he experimented with authentic assessment. He posed the situation where an outbreak has just happened in an area. What and how do you tell the public? Not just, "we're going to write a letter to the public", but "is a letter to the public the best way to communicate the dangers without creating panic, or is there a better way?" And what was excellent to see is that, students realized there is more than one effective way to communicate.

Third, the best teachers provide authentic formative feedback from communication. From not just the teacher, but the students. I've mentioned a couple 21st century tools that can be used for this, but there are several ways to have students give feedback without needing technology. And, not just from the students as well, but also from authentic audiences. If you are communicating through visuals, have a panel of community members give their perspective on what was communicated (or how well).

What ultimately needs to happen is for communication to become a cognitive activity, where students actively think "What is the best way to communicate, and how effective am I reaching my goal?" Mike Sansone posted yesterday on what he describes as a void in "conversation literacy", and I think this really rings true. Do we teach students how to communicate in a positive way with friends? How to argue appropriately? How to be respectful in public communication? We (myself included) complain often about the way students communicate with authority figures in school, but do we have students think about the process they do?

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