Communication is perhaps the most vital skill of the knowledge worker economy, and as such it must be a key element in our education of children.
Of course, schools all over the world teach communication. Everyone, well nearly everyone, is taught how to read, write, listen and speak. These are the fundamentals of all communication and without them we would not be able to learn anything.
However, in the changing nature of the modern world, the 4 pillars of language learning should be considered as the base foundation upon which we must now build so much more.
With the complexities of global communication and the huge changes in how we communicate through social media and digital mediums, communication is an essential skill we need to develop beyond fundamentals.
We must now ensure that our children, our students, and our employees are well versed in communicating to different global markets, through different media, using different text types, for different purposes, and be critical in how they absorb the mountains of information available to them at the push of a button.
Communication: A Vital Skill
So what is communication?
“Communication is still the social glue that holds together nations, corporations, scientific disciplines, and families.”Communication in the 21st Century
Communication is such a massive topic with so many things to address that it could fill books, and does.
But at it’s very basic level, communication is about sending and receiving information.
We sent messages, in a myriad of different ways, and we receive messages from all over the place. It is these messages that allow us to function as a social group and allow us to get things done.
However, it is when communication breaks down that many of our problems occur.
To avoid these massive problems, we must make sure that we are able to communicate at an effective level.
And this highlights one of the big problems with communication – it is accepted as a given skill.
We often believe if we can read and understand the meaning, and we speak, or write ‘clearly’ we can communicate effectively. That is at least the view of my students. They don’t see the need to go any further. They believe they can speak good English, who needs to go further.
And yet, when I ask them what feelings they want to convey in they work, they are completely lost. Or when they submit work that is framed poorly and gives no context, they have no idea what the problem is. And we could go on.
I think we all know the problems caused when communications are misinterpreted and we see the issues caused by the different modes of communication through social media.
Again, we could fill books.
Message before we continue:
This article will highlight many of the major issues and concerns around communication and how it is taught. While at times I may suggest that it is not taught well, that is not the message I wish to communicate. In many cases it is taught well. However, it is when communication is ineffective that we need to remember to address these areas explicitly.
Basically: Communication is a skill, and we need to teach it as such:
“Economic historians have estimated that persuasive communication accounts for at least 25% of the GDP. And such communication is a significant aspect of the work of college graduates: in the 1980s, surveys showed repeatedly that college-educated workers in a variety of professions spend 25–30% of their time on the job writing; as they gain seniority and responsibility, these workers spend more time in oral communication and their success depends increasingly on the quality of their speaking and writing.”Communication in the 21st Century
The skills of communication:
There are too many to cover in a short discussion, so for today we are going to look at the general areas of communication.
Speaking & Listening
The most obvious form of communication, since the dawn of time, has been the verbal communications of speaking and listening.
And when life was more simple, we all lived in the same village and we all spoke the same language, and we all know who Jack and Jill are and what they do, and so on, it is easy for us to communicate. The context is the same. We all share the same etiquette and forms of speech and so on.
However, in the modern, global economy, speaking and listening has become an advanced operation that has evolved over time.
The basics of speaking and listening is still words, however, the meaning of each word can have so many different variations depending on context and purpose and geography. As communicators, we need to ensure we are careful with our choice of words and we must make sure we explain our context and ensure we are aware of our purpose and shape our words for that effect.
I said what I meant, does not always translate into, I heard what you meant.
So one of the big problems we have with communication comes down to clarity of verbal instructions. Is this an area that we are clearly and explicitly taught to do? I think not. And then problems occur when we believe we are being clear, but we are not.
This is a problem I have as a teacher all the time. I tell the students what they have to do. They nod along and pretend that they have heard. Then the ones on my ‘wave length’ do exactly what I want. The ones who didn’t quite understand do something a bit different; others do it completely wrong; and a whole bunch proclaim they never heard me.
We can never assume what we say is what people hear. And this should be a clear point when we teach communication.
Again, we often assume that if we are hearing the words we are effectively listening.
And I’ve done listening activities with classes. They listen to the recording and they fill in the gaps correctly, but when I ask them what the whole communication was about, they have no idea.
This highlights the huge difference between listening and hearing. We can listen and hear the words, and take the most literal understanding, but completely miss the point.
What we need to be sure to do, is to actively listen. What is being said? Why is it being said? Who is saying it? What is the message? What is their motivation? What do I understand? What do I need to question? What are the different ways it could be interpreted?
Are we taught this?
I would imagine, in most cases we are taught to listen for details and to comprehend basic understanding.
However, we need to make a clear point to note that what is said is not the message, it is what is heard that is the message. Both sides need to be active in shaping and understanding meaning, more than detail.
As part of the speaking and listening, in-person communication, a huge area of communication is often disregarded. Body language. This is often taken for granted, however, there are whole volumes of texts on how to read body language.
We really should be teaching people how to use body language to aid their communication and how they can read body language to help understand what is being communicated.
This can be done through viewing films, modelling, roleplaying and things like that. However, in our modern education systems, body language seems to be an accepted, taken for granted thing. And student often ask me, ‘why do we have to do drama?’
Reading and Writing
When we write, we are always in the process of delivering a message. And I guess we are always aware of that, and we teach an awareness of that. But what we are not always explicit about, is to ensure that we are aware that the meaning is created by the reader.
Often, I see my students write what they believe is a clear and direct message, but it is obvious they have only considered their writing from their point of view. They write what they want to say with little to no consideration for how someone ‘might’ read what they have written.
In this case, we need to be more critical of what we have written. We need to actively question our own writing. Important areas are:
What is often missing from my students’ writing is context. They blurt out a simple response to an often complex prompt with no care for framing the discussion for the reader. Context is vital in how the reader will read the communication and when they blurt out simple responses, there is no frame of reference for what is communicated.
This I believe is one of the huge failings of digital/social media communication. The simple, character-limited responses, out of context can cause huge miscommunications and thus huge disputes. We must be careful to instruct students and employees to establish context for their communications.
Again, and tied to context, I see students respond to both simple and complex tasks, addressing a generic, featureless audience. There is no positioning and no targeting in their responses. This causes further breakdowns in communication. This, as well, should be taught as an automatic feature of communication; step 1, develop context, step 2, shape response to specific audience.
The purpose of the communication must dictate the language features we use to communicate. This is somewhat more obvious, and I believe we naturally know this. However, how often do we actually think out the purpose. How often do we sit down and say, ‘I need Joe to act a certain way, so I will use A,B and C, and he should see the logic and respond with feeling?
So again, being a little more explicit in the teaching of these areas would perhaps help to shape our communications.
Then we come to technique. How many of the techniques do you actually employ in your daily writing? And do you do them consciously?
Do you consider the purpose and then plot out your piece of writing considering how you will position your audience, how you will actively seek to influence the way they respond through the use of rhetorical devices?
Are we teaching students to be aware of persuasion?
Where once upon a time, schools actively taught rhetoric and would cover persuasive techniques of targeting ethos, pathos, and logos, I don’t think we today spend so much time on teaching students to speak and write persuasively in a day to day context.
Maybe you do?
Maybe you don’t?
But either way, these are very big considerations when it comes to communication. And I believe it should be something we teach explicitly.
On the flip side, we need to make sure everything we read is being critically assessed. We need to actively make the meaning, not simply read and ingest what is given to us.
This is one of the big issues for the future of teaching, when it comes to communication.
I still see so many students, and people from the broader public, accepting Wikipedia, or the rumour mill of opinion journalism, or the first thing the algorithm throws up, as fact.
We need to ensure that we foster a more critical approach to reading, building on above, what is the context, what is the purpose, what is the message, is it reliable, what are alternative messages, do I accept it, what are my thoughts? And on and on. We must be weary not to simply accept what we read as fact. We must also be aware that we are active in making meaning, so that we verify that we are understanding clearly what is being communicated?
And so we need to ensure, more than ever, that we are aware of the fluid nature of modern communications.
Another area we need to be aware of is visual communications. We are constantly bombarded by visual stimulus in many forms. These forms of communication affect us in different ways, and I believe this would be a very rich area to investigate. Do we really know how we respond to visual stimulus? I know looking at my students, they are constantly drawn to the visual stimulus of screens. Video games, music videos, and on and on, and what do those visual communications teach us?
They teach us so much about how we should behave, act, dress, be, and so much more. They also train our psyche, our attention, our visual functions, to respond in new ways to stimulus.
Add to that the stimulus of visual platforms which teach us to view information in ‘web’ format, where we are encouraged to scan, flick, click, like, clap, follow the link, and generally view for quick, surface meaning.
This is having a huge effect on how we receive and communicate information.
We really need to start to make more of these developments and begin to teach effective communication through these visual and interactive mediums.
Building on that, we have the new forms of communication through social media. These bring up huge issues of the use of non-standard English, the issues already mentioned of brief responses without consideration for communicating context, audience, and purpose. And add to that, the fact that etiquette, accuracy and decency are all considered givens in society nowadays.
I think we are all aware of many of the issues here.
However, we can not simply ignore these issues. The fact is these are new communication forms. The context is unique and the purposes have changed. Often the purpose is as hugely complex and important as to get more likes to validate our sense of self-worth. And when we fail to communicate on that level, we see tragic circumstances of on-line bullying, depression, withdrawal and suicide.
Add to this, the hidden, taboo communications of the web. We are fooling ourselves if we don’t think our kids are seeing it all. On the web there is no reliable filter. What does it mean to be human, to be stable, to be part of a community, to be male, female, other, to have healthy sexual relations and form identity, is often not communicated in sound, values-centred academic texts, but in porn and opinion pieces spilling the rants of disaffected people who aren’t interested in well-being or accuracy.
We need to be aware of these communications and teach our kids and our students how to interact with the new forms of information.
So Much More to Communicate
And there is so much more.
To be fair, at times I’ve gone on a bit of a rant, and I haven’t been entirely fair to those teachers and communicators who are doing a great deal in this area. We do really make a point of teaching communication and we are mostly aware of all these issues. However, I feel it’s important we stress the need to be serious and explicit in our teaching of communication.
By being aware of these issues and seeking to be a bit more critical in our communications we will improve how we do business and improve our level of social interactions. And it is this that makes communication such a vital area for us to consider.
Communication is a vital skill for success. Become more aware and work on communicating your way to success.
Mission to Success
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All the best, and remember to keep striving for success.