Conversational Competence (Part 1 in a Series of Conversations)

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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This newsletter was triggered by an article I came across in The AtlanticMy students don’t know how to have a conversation. Author and English teacher Paul Barnwell reflects:

Conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill we fail to teach students. Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through screens—but rarely do they have an opportunity to truly hone their interpersonal communication skills. Admittedly, teenage awkwardness and nerves play a role in difficult conversations. But students’ reliance on screens for communication is detracting—and distracting—from their engagement in real-time talk. It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves:

Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation?

This question triggered a memory from a parent focus group I facilitated to get feedback on K-12 transdisciplinary skills, and a parent / beauty salon owner lamented how difficult it was to hire a teenager with the requisite skills needed for the reception desk. Her concerns echoed what the article spoke to: looking down to at their screens to engage rather than looking up to see their surroundings, read social cues, and invite people into conversation.

So what does conversational competence actually mean? And why is it so valuable? Bena and I wrote a blog post that offers a deeper explanation of what conversational competence is and instructional strategies that can be used across grade levels and subject areas to grow this vital skill.

I then chatted with a group of 6th grade students and their Instructional Technology Specialist Beth Campbell at Hopewell Elementary School in Bettendorf, Iowa. Take a listen to what they said and how that was developed in their Books R Us series.

Next, I reached out to History teacher Paul Wright on this topic and he described how this played out in a recent conversation his Modern American Viewpoints class had with Annie Duke. He and Carl Rosin (English teacher) authored a piece for the Learning Personalized community on how engaging in conversations with guest speakers continues to grow conversational competence with their 11th grade students.

For more inspiration and to see what other sources influenced the creation of the newsletter, check out:

Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk, 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation, where she explores the urgent need for growing our capacity to engage in conversations and how to talk and listen.

Here is a sneak peak at her ten basic rules:

  1. Don’t multitask (be present).
  2. Don’t pontificate (enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn).
  3. Use open-ended questions so that they can describe it.
  4. Go with the flow (thoughts will go in and out of your mind).
  5. If you don’t know, say you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs (all experiences are individual – it is not about you).
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.

Article in Hechinger Report that describes how King Middle School in Portland, Maine grows student capacity through authentic challenges and creations. The piece starts with a powerful example of 7th grade students interviewing an immigrant from Peru about what he missed from his home country and then wove the interview and independent research to craft narratives. That is only one example of how this Expeditionary Learning school is committed to engaging students with one another and the community on rich, substantive, and challenging conversations.

In case you skipped over the parentheses in the title, conversational competence is one aspect of communication. There are two other newsletters that are in the works related to this topic:

  • Civic discourse where students work through complex and controversial topics that often have polarizing positions. This is inspired from a project Giselle Martin-Kniep developed and refined with a handful of schools to create a series of protocols for discussion, debate, and deliberation.
  • Thinking about Teacher Talk — what you say and how you say it matters. Inspired by the new book from Mike Anderson, we will feature an interview with him as well as engage with other teachers to design prompts, strategies, tools and reminders to guide their growth.

I would love feedback around this topic from all of you — thank you for reading and engaging!


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