Saturday, November 3, 2012

Open and honest communication

We teachers are actually communication professionals, we live in dialogue. We try to transmit the message about important information to our students in many different ways: speaking, writing, showing, and of course also via electronic media. We also try to convey ideas, perspectives, ideologies and concepts, and yet it is up to students to choose whether they want to learn all that, or not.

Communication in education must be reciprocal. This also presents the need for open and honest interpersonal relations between teachers and students, because that builds trust and helps students choose to become involved in their own learning. I have often joked about best teachers being the master manipulators. Now how does that fit together with the open and honest communication?

It actually does. Being a non-native speaker of English I frequently need to visit dictionary pages to gain more understanding about words. Often I seem to have a different connotation to a certain word - like manipulation, which doesn't sound malicious to me, but obviously is that for most people. Dictionary suggests alternative words for the verb manipulate: influence, control, direct, guide, conduct, negotiate, exploit, steer. To me these seem acceptable descriptions for teaching as a profession. It is okay to guide students towards the right direction, that is what teaching is about. Forcing students to obey obscure rules is just bad management.

Shared responsibility to reach the mutual goal is the first step in open communication. As a learning facilitator, or mentor, I practice open manipulation: I tell my students that I am purposefully attempting on changing their perception about something. Grown up students find it funny, but also tend to think about it and then discuss or ask questions about it later, after they have had time to reflect upon it. Children get excited, because they sense the honesty behind the statement. They also feel empowered as they recognize the opportunity to choose, instead of doing something an adult just tells them to do. Cooperative learning can be as easy as this.

Negotiating meaning is the second step of being open and honest in classroom communication. We certainly have different connotations to words and we also have different understanding about concepts we teach and learn, so negotiating what a word actually means is important in order to improve the classroom communications. And, no, it cannot be just the teacher who gives the definition of the word, because how would students then have any ownership over the subject? Those times are long gone (or at least they should be gone) where teachers possessed the one and only correct answer or definition. (I can imagine math and science teachers disagreeing with this, but please bear with me.) Negotiating the meaning of a simple concept can just be facilitated by students explaining to each other in their own words what they think the word means, and then creating a mindmap showing the thoughts of each group. Of course the teacher can (and should) guide students towards the correct understanding by asking questions while groups are working, but the definitions are still students' own production. Constructing their understanding together helps students master the concept, as each student needs to explain to their group how they understand it. This is also the way how bilingual brain works: creating more connections and having several words to describe a concept or a word.

The third step in open and honest communication is the cognitive part: knowing what I learned and how I did it. Often teacher's help is invaluable here, because it is hard to see beyond one's own frame of reference.  Being aware about the choices I made in order to plan my future actions helps the goal setting.  Monitoring and guiding  my own actions, and regulating my own behaviour and learning to be successful. The umbrella term for these is executive functions. Being able to communicate in an open and honest way the reasons for success or the need for revising work makes assessment very non-punitive and it becomes a part of the individual learning process.

Non-threatening feedback immensely improves learning and goal setting. I haven't found any other way to provide that, but by communicating in an open and honest way. Have you?

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