Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The Story of communication

This post has been brewing for a while... and my reflections have deepened due to chats with Kierna Corr who has stayed with me over the last few days and we have visited a preschool director (Soledad from Aspen preschool - link at the end to read a post about a previous visit to her preschool) in Botkyrka (Sweden's most immigrant rich commune) and also Annika who is responsible for the preschools in the Rinkeby/Kista area (another immigrant rich area).
The purpose of our visits have been to learn more about how can we better support the children of immigrant families - especially with language... with communication.

But before we can start with the children there is a need to start with ourselves... as educators. So this post will focus on that before moving onto the children and learning...

How do we communicate?
To create a safe space...
to explore ideas...

Do we speak in different ways depending on who we are talking to... and why do we do this? Is it appropriate?
When we communicate are we leaving enough space for others to communicate their ideas? Are we actually, truly, open to these ideas, or are they just words?
Why do we listen to some ideas and not others? Whose ideas do we give the most value to? and why?
What part of communication do we prioritise? Listening? Speaking? Reading? Writing? Why?
What are our expectations of others when it comes to these four areas of communication? Do we hold ourselves to the same standard of expectation as we do our peers, or the children...

Sometimes I think as adults we can struggle to create democratic classrooms, or listening classrooms, or even respectful classrooms because we did not experience this ourselves - we do not truly know what it looks like or feels like. So we have to be creative.

I also think that schools tend to focus on teaching children how to debate... and so teachers are debaters rather than skilled in dialogue, which is very different.
Debate is about getting your point across (whether you believe in it or not in school as a practice in the art of debating) - therefore debate is not so much about finding the truth, or the strength of the facts, but about the ability of the person talking - their passion, their ability to communicate, their ability to out-voice other ideas and opinions.
While dialogue is exploring ideas and opinions together, being open to learning from them, being willing to change your mind if the facts, the research point in a different direction from what you thought you might take at first... or it might just lead to understanding others better and a deepening of your understanding of your own opinion. Not just repeating your own opinion over and over without it ever evolving or without ever benefiting from a greater understanding of others. 
I feel that teaching children to debate is a great skill, but it is just one form of communication, and is not a great one for creating a great classroom atmosphere, of allowing children to learn from each other, for allowing children who are weaker in communicating but have amazing ideas and opinions that can benefit from others to shine.
I also think that debating means educators might be less open to try new things, because they excel in proving that what they know is the right way.
I also think that a school system that tests and has right and wrong answers is also going to produce teachers/educators that are going to need a whole load more bravery to try new ideas... as getting it wrong meant failure in school... that is a hard feeling to shake.

Are we, as educators, really comfortable with unpacking our own prejudices so that we can face them, learn from them and evolve? I think there are many things that we do without reflecting on, small, everyday things, that are steeped in stereotyped behaviour and tradition. These actions can accidentally exclude, even if that is far from our intention. This is why we need to be open with ourselves and how we communicate with others. What is a our view of the child? How does that impact the way we talk with them... do we see them as competent, do we worry about risk, do we stress about physical contact (you don't hug in school)... how does this impact the words and intonation and your body language?

What about the classroom? Does the layout/design of your classroom encourage communication? What kind of communication? Between the children or only from teacher to children - where they listen passively? How do you design a classroom to support active listeners? What is your knowledge about how the children listen? What does real listening look like?

I received a letter from my son's school in preparation for the new term starting in the latter half of August... there it stated (yet again) the need for "studierro" STUDY PEACE - what does this mean? Sometimes it feels that the teachers are expecting silence and to sit still so that the children can learn... but really there is only a small minority of children who need silence in order to be able to learn.. and even fewer that appreciate sitting still as an effective way to learn.
If children are spending their energy on trying to be quiet and trying to be still, then there is less energy being spend on listening, language acquisition, learning and participating in lessons... and also less time for the educator to be facilitating the learning as time is being spend on micro-managing children to sit still and be quiet. So how do teachers create learning environments? That allows all the children to learn... including those that need to move and need to make noise in order to access knowledge?

This might mean the traditional classroom will not work... and there is a need for flexible seating... but equally it might mean a traditional classroom does work with a particular class and a particular teacher (as long as the teacher is open to seeing the needs of all the children and is not just trying to convert all the children into sit still and be quiet learners... as no matter how good you are at making that happen it does not guarantee you that all the children are learning effectively. Silence and compliance does not equal learning.

The norm is an important part of what makes up our society... our expectations of others, what we accept and what we do not... that hitting, violence, being rude, murdering etc are not part of the norm... what we wear is also part of the norm, how we speak, the words we choose, swearing, what foods etc... there is a need for them to create community and also to create a kind of ethical code. The problem is that these norms can be too small and too restrictive and they have a nasty habit of excluding... this is why, we as educators, need to look at the norm we participate in, our own context, and how that impacts our communication.
In the below images if have drawn the norm as a rectangle... the small circles are groups, for a variety of reason that get excluded from the norm, and very often educators strive to include them. The problem is that these children, these groups have to learn how to become a part of the norm, and their differentness is highlighted as a problem... my son with autism/ADHD refuses to adapt, while my daughters have been able to (but at a great personal expense... complete exhaustion and sometimes depression - in fact when I was with my 17 year old as she got her ASD diagnosis the doctor complimented her on her self awareness and the fact that if she continued to work on that her autism would go away... I pointed out, as a mother with ASD that the autism does not go away, what happens is that we get better at hiding it so that neurotypicals feel more comfortable - we learn how to step into that box)

Educators learn various strategies etc to help children enter that box, become a part of the norm... and in this very process alienate even more the identity and the differentness of the child. Whether it be autism, or being an immigrant, a different home language, a different culture or religion, or skin colour, or family or. or , or ... there is no real inclusion.

What we need is to expand the norm... this idea of what is acceptable... to learn that neurodiversity, languages, cultures, religions, ethnicity etc etc enrich our communities. We need to communicate, to listen and to understand... to allow not just the educator but the whole classroom and the whole of society to understand and include and to accept.
To ensure that the rectangle that represents the norm includes all the children and all the groups and that there is a mutual respect and adaptation so that all can stay true to their identities.

I sometimes hear that this cannot be done in a classroom that we need change in the whole of society... but I argue that it is in the classroom that we need to start making the change... so that bit by bit the future looks more accepting, more understanding more respectful, and more peaceful.

If we are learning to dialogue instead of debate
If we are learning to listen to understand rather than listening to answer
if we give children the time to learn rather than instructing at a hurried schedule
If we are open to evolve as educators rather than just do what we have always done
If we are brave - to face our mistakes, to stand up for what is right.

Communication is essential for change. And language is a part of that. so the up and coming posts will be about communication and language... and since I believe in the 100 languages I will attempt to reflect from many perspectives and also on the many ways we communicate and can support language acquisition.

In the meanwhile... here are a few posts to read...

The story of a word - one of my posts exploring the importance of discussing what words mean between colleagues... are we communicating on the same page, or are we interpreting words differently and creating mixed messages?

Oral Language - the verbal child - another of my posts reflecting on language development

The importance of the spoken language - another of my posts... this one reflects on why there is so little focus on non-verbal communication.

Teacher Child Conversations - Dickinson
quality dialogue, open ended questions, also about non-contextural, not just context based vocabulary (ie past and future)...

Why the babies brain can learn two languages

Body Language - how we read body language for deeper understanding of what others mean... that women are better than this than men on the whole, that women with young children are even better... and men with nurturing jobs like nursing arts etc are good too... dues to being in tune with non-verbal. Films without sound had actors gifted in body language to communicate the story... with words/sound, this is not needed, it needs to be verbally good as well as body language skills
negotiating over the phone it is about the words and the stronger argument... face to face it is about the performance

Aspen Preschool in Botkyrka

Reggio and the power of words - a blogpost from Without Windows.

Learning for Life - here you can follow Kierna's 4 week adventure with the Churchill Fellowship - learning about migrant children and the early years in Berlin, Norrköping and Stockholm.

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