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Conversation Goes a Long Way in Building Responsive Communities

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Do we communicate better today?

“Of course we do,” you’re inclined to say. “I mean, I can text anyone in the world for free, I can check in on my kids at the playground down the street, breathe a sigh of relief, and get back to that email to my boss. Then, I can share a great LinkedIn post, like my friend’s Facebook post, and send a calendar invite with my business partner. In under 30 seconds!”

All true. But is it enough? In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, MIT professor Sherry Turkle says our communication is lacking in simple basics, including the most rudimentary of all – conversation. And it’s filtering down to our students. Conversation would be a good thing to bring back to the classroom, she asserts.

“These days, students struggle with conversation. What makes sense is to engage them in it. The more you think about educational technology, with all its bells and whistles, the more you circle back to the simple power of conversation. ― “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” by Sherry Turkle.


Communication as Clickbait

It turns out, then, we may not be communicating as well as we should be, especially the digital natives, the students among us.  Think about it. Historically speaking, we’ve mostly been talking to one another face to face, straight to the point. That is, if you wanted to share something, you told your neighbor, who told his if it was important enough, and on down the line.

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Maybe your neighbor lived in the same savanna, cave, or gold rush town as you did. Either way, sharing something had cache.

Without a share button to press on, it was almost always super important, and the further away the source, the more likely it got heard given the effort it took to communicate it. That’s almost the opposite today. Space is unlimited in our digital world – there are no borders.

Our interactions have gotten shorter; our attention, too. Turkle calls this the Goldilocks effect, we are never too far away or too close. It’s just right, which is not a reflection of how humans interact.

“Human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding,” she continues. “When we clean them up with technology, we move from conversation to the efficiency of mere connection. I fear we forget the difference.”


The Passback Generation

 One of the paradoxes of the interconnected world that our generation of students is entering is a so called “communication skills gap.” There are more opportunities than ever for students to connect to one another, to impress future prospects, and to build a sound digital portfolio to share to the world. But with the plethora and yet increasingly short half lives of the apps they use, students risk being bored with communication in general.

Turkle comments on this. “We are not teaching them that boredom can be recognized as your imagination calling you,” she states.

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It turns out, technology promises students instantaneous results, but the real world doesn’t always operate that way. How often do you get the yes you may need on a job offer or a college application? Turkle argues that we are not setting students up for success unless we teach with technology. Teaching to technology, much like teaching to the test, stymies engagement. Technology simply changes too fast to keep up. Instead of passing back, we might consider passing it on.


So, do we?

So, let us return to our original question. Do we communicate better today? It’s really in the eye of the beholder, or, to put it in better terms, the swipe of the user. And in this case, I really think it’s better to answer the question with other questions. In what medium do we want students connecting with one another most? With technology, or old fashioned speech, pen, and paper?

If you think students should connect digitally because that’s where the world is going, then we definitely need more social and emotional engagement in schools. If you think the latter is more important, that the older methodologies work, that’s understandable too. In my belief, the best is when both hum along together, like the white noise of a modem connecting the best in us. And what we want to do for our students is to see that technology and communication are like good life partners – growing, evolving, and communicating on equal terms.

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About The Author

Chris Coomey is a teacher, writer, and community engagement specialist. When not working with students or writing about education, you can find him on his bike, on the basketball court, or out on a long hike on the incredible Colorado trails.