If you only have time to read just one of our Blogstitute posts this year — and we hope you have time for all of them — you should definitely read this provocative, inspiring piece from Lucy West. She digs into what it means to have respectful discourse in the classroom, with our students, with colleagues, and why it’s crucial to teach our students the skills they need to disagree respectfully. “As educators, we don’t have much influence over the way people in the media or our politicians speak to one another. We can, however, have a positive impact on our own interactions and those of our students.” We say – AMEN. Lucy’s latest professional video is Adding Talk to the Equation.
Give Me the Patience to Listen and Learn
By Lucy West
Have you noticed how polarized the discourse in our country has become? Whether people are talking politics, health care, or education, it seems that they take a stand and insist on that stand no matter what. On TV and in the political arena, the talk can get downright hostile and disrespectful, with people talking over one another, name calling, and shouting. As a New Yorker, I’m accustomed to feisty talk with multiple voices speaking at once; it’s part of our fast-paced culture. However, it is not an effective way to have a conversation. If the purpose of the conversation is to share ideas, come to a better understanding, solve complex problems, and even learn from and with one another, these patterns of interaction are not only counterproductive, they are downright harmful.
In both the math and literacy standards, respectful discourse in which students listen well to the ideas of others, reflect on those ideas, and then agree or disagree using text-based evidence is expected. It seems a bit ironic to expect of our youth this sophisticated and open-minded way of discussing matters of importance, but not of the leaders in our society. How is it that teachers—who are not given much voice in what and how they teach these days and can’t often speak out and challenge policy effectively—are expected to not only give students lots of voice in what and how they learn, but in how to engage in argumentative dialogue? Seems like we are being hypocritical, to say the least.
As educators, we don’t have much influence over the way people in the media or our politicians speak to one another. We can, however, have a positive impact on our own interactions and those of our students. If we have the will, enough self-awareness, and emotional and social intelligence, we can function in schools the way we want our students to function in the world. We can have quite a bit of influence on the interactions our future citizens will have in society by changing how we talk with one another and with students in our schools. If we realize how important adult interactions are in shaping our students’ ways of interacting, and we take the time to learn how to have challenging conversations with one another, we will have a positive impact on society. By understanding the importance of culture—the way we interact and do things—and reshaping that culture to welcome the kinds of interactions that respectfully and reflectively challenge the status quo, we can set an example for the next generation. We can, by our own interactions with students, other adults in the school, and the larger community, demonstrate how reasonable, intelligent human beings engage in informed conversations, in which opinions are backed by facts and valid evidence. We could show students how new information causes us to rethink what we used to think and reconsider our stance and actions.
You may be thinking that the teachers and administrators in your school get along really well, are polite to one another, and even enjoy one another’s company outside of school. While this may be true, this sort of collegial discourse is not what I am referring to. I am thinking about the tendency of adults in schools to stay at the superficial level in discussions that matter. When it comes to the instructional core—planning, implementing, and reflecting on lessons—we rarely take the time to examine why we do what we do and to what degree our present practices are actually getting the results we are aiming for. For example, in many places teachers consider collaborative lesson planning to mean that someone will gather the materials called for in a given lesson, maybe read and plan the lesson, and share it with the whole team that will be teaching that lesson in the name of collaboration. However, rarely does the team question why they are teaching that lesson, whether the way it is laid out in the book or by a colleague will work with all of their students, how they might adapt it to meet the needs of students who need more challenge, or better ways to access the content. When we do attempt to engage in more rigorous analysis and someone disagrees or pushes back by saying “We don’t have time for this,” the conversation is aborted or people decide in their own minds to do it their own way. Therefore, no real collaboration or learning has taken place. We are often afraid to say what we really think, so we don’t say anything or we just go along with whomever we perceive to be in charge. If this is the way we tend to interact with one another—avoiding questioning each other’s choices, beliefs, lesson designs—how can we teach students to challenge one another’s thinking? We don’t have the skill set and haven’t cultivated a culture in which people engage in this way.
Since it is really difficult to teach what we don’t practice or deeply understand ourselves, then it stands to reason that if we don’t practice having academic and professional conversations that go well below the surface, question our present beliefs and practices, insist that opinions be backed by evidence, and work through our differences, we can’t expect to know how to get our students to do these things. When is the last time you politely, yet specifically, challenged a colleague’s thinking, opinion, or lesson design? How receptive was the person you challenged? Was the challenge taken personally or was it considered from a professional perspective—a learning perspective? When’s the last time you and a colleague had a difference of opinion about pedagogy or the use of curriculum materials? Were you able to turn that difference into an inquiry and explore each perspective against evidence of student learning or lack thereof? Or were you content to agree to disagree and keep the status quo safely in place?
In order to create rich learning environments in which children are capable of listening well, with open minds and hearts to classmates’ ideas; considering those ideas before rejecting them or adding another one; then determining whether or not they agree and being able to articulate why; we need to be to do these things with one another–not just those teachers with whom we agree, but especially those who think differently than we do. We need to get past the “agree to disagree” stage to the “let’s investigate this further” stage, during which we test out our ideas and gather evidence to determine their validity.
We need to be able to speak up to administrators and policy makers in a way that our concerns can be heard and reflected on rather than having our concerns be seen as resistance or insubordination. I wonder what it will take to change the education culture—the way we interact and do things in schools—to the degree that educators are practicing the accountable talk standards expected of their students? If we did create such cultures, I wonder if we would be able to influence our larger communities to engage in more thoughtful, reflective, and respective conversations about the important issues that face us all?
5 comments July 15th, 2016