Raising expectations – communication skills

I’ve been thinking about my last post concerning raising expectations. That post came out of a little non-scientific survey that I did with some students regarding what they thought were necessary aspects of a progressive and relevant highschool. I’ve known that the two are linked but it’s taken me a little while to work things through – and I’m not sure I’ve completely done that.

When I first arrived at my current location, I had just come from two very “learn by fire” years as a new administrator. I had 10 years of teaching behind me in middle years so students didn’t really scare me. I had finished a MEd in leadership and had two years of vp experience. I figured I was ready. Yeah right! About as ready as a canoe for an ocean crossing. Each day the learning line was vertical and I seemed to be always scrambling. I didn’t have time for reflection because I didn’t have time to much of anything but survive. Looking back, which is always the easiest thing to do, I realize that although I was able to see issues and areas that need improvement, I wasn’t able to communicate with others in a way that allowed me to move forward. Instead, my communication skills inhibited me from making the progress I wanted to make.

Now, in a position for four years, I’ve been able to work on my communication skills, advancing and improving little by little to a point where I am now confident in my ability to share ideas with others and come to a solution based on active listening and reflective discussion. I’ve also spent time thinking about my vision for school and writing that vision down so that I can articulate it to others. As I’ve gone through this, I keep wondering why these weren’t skills that I learned during school? Why did I have to learn them the hard way?

I began to read about successful communication and the skills involved in being a successful communicator. The resources for this topic are plentiful. However, over at Six Minutes there is a few very good resources that point people in the right direction. From my reading, there were still things that I believe we can do in schools to help our students to be better prepared to communicate with others once they leave our halls.

My Non-Scientific, highly subjective, communication needs of all students

Speak in front of others – I really believe we need to help our students to learn how to speak in front of others in such a way that they don’t become powerless and lost. Just as readers become stronger readers through reading, speakers become better speakers through speaking. Well, not just speaking but discussing and examining issues with others. By speaking in front of others I don’t necessarily mean reading, although that, too, has it’s place. I am more concerned about the moments when they are asked their opinion and can’t say anything or are asked to talk about their ideas and experiences. It’s more a development of skills to be able to join in conversations that are formal – at work during meetings, at gatherings where people ask their opinion or at a social when just sitting at a table with a group of people.

Dialogue vs Debate vs Argument – I really wish people knew the difference between these three. Dialogue, a discussion in which people put forth ideas and listen without trying to persuade the others that their’s are the right ones. Debate, when two sides put forth evidence to convince the others or someone else that their’s are indeed correct. Argument – what usually happens most of the time when people put forth their ideas, usually forcefully, with little regard for anyone else. I get to see a whole lot of the latter and very little of the others. Students need to understand that there are times when you need to dialogue about an issue in order to get people’s perspectives without trying to make one or another the “correct” one. This is very important in such things as Interest Based Bargaining or solution focused problem solving. In these two cases, you are trying to find what people think and how they are feeling with the primary goal of getting to a point where you can discuss a solution that is reasonable in the given situation.  Debate is something that people often get confused with argument. A debate usually takes place between two parties who are trying to convince a third party that their position is the best. A good example is the basis for political debates where parties or representatives put forth their opinions or the opinions of their party on a given topic. Unfortunately, these usually turn into Arguments or mud slinging. Arguments are what I deal with the most – people are not wanting to really find a solution – they want to push their position or point. Typically, the volume gets louder the more they think that the other party isn’t listening because they haven’t changed their minds. The other two forms are much more productive but harder to master unless you are able to practice such skills. Unfortunately, we are seeing way too much arguing being classed as the former so no wonder students are confused.

Presentation Skills – I believe our students need to learn how to present something in a convincing and dynamic manner. I once had a student who wasn’t the best athlete or or or but this student could write jingles and do a presentation like nobody’s business. He was very talented and it was a pleasure to have him do one. I even modeled a presentation rubric after what he did because he did it so well. Eye contact, voice, intonation, body movement, focus and elaboration, explanation and conclusion. He was a natural – I even let him do most of his major projects in this manner because writing wasn’t his strong point and he just couldn’t do in writing what he could do in a presentation. He always seemed passionate about what he was talking about just through his body movements and his delivery. These skills will, I believe, be important as students enter a global economy where much of the information about them will be found online and their sale or their next job will rely on their ability to nail that presentation.

Active Listening and Responding Skills – these are skills that all parents should be required to take classes to understand and use. With my own children, I’ve had to really work at developing these skills. Heck, with my wife I’ve had to learn how to listen. I’ve heard that females are much better at this than males but I not sure if I heard that correct or not;) Whatever the situation, our students need to be aware of what it means to be an active listener – and not a repeat back to me or “I think I hear you saying” as my own children have informed me that these are, in fact, lame and demonstrate that you have taken some type of course and are practicing. It was only after I actively listened to my oldest daughter who pointed out, through the severe eye-roll motion, that beginning with something like that was not, in fact, an indication of listening but of mimicking. I’ve really learned quite a lot from oldest three daughters about listening, not listening and the whole being in the room when a conversation is taking place. (Don’t let them know this otherwise it will make it hard for me to look like I’m not listening to their conversations when I am in fact listening). To be an active listener is to be aware of body movement and positioning, eye contact, how their voice is sounding, how they position themselves and many other things. It’s the whole act of focusing on that person who is speaking and making connections for yourself with what they are saying.

Finally, the art of being silent – I know this went out with Charlie and his moustache but it is something that is key in good communication. The silent pause has become a sign of something being not quite right and people feel they need to fill it in with something – usually a bad pun or joke or something of little consequence. Silence is a moment for reflection, a moment for people to allow what has been said to pass through filters. Really good speakers use that pause to allow audiences to absorb what they’ve said just as great comics allow audiences to laugh and set up the next lines. In fact, silence, used at the right moment can be even more effective than anything a person can say.

Somehow, there needs to be a greater focus on speaking, presenting and listening that will allow students to develop these all important skills. Yes, the five paragraph essay is extremely important, until you get out of school. Learning to use language in writing is a great and wonderful thing. However, many of our students will also need to be as well prepared to speak and listen. It’s sure makes someone stand apart from the crowd when they have those skills. I’ve watched students who, through their superior development of presentation skills be able to do better than students with equal writing skills but underdeveloped presentation skills. As someone who was an entrepreneur at age 19, I developed some of these skills through just having to do them over and over again. And, when I became a teacher and now an administrator, I  had to continue to add to my skill set things that, had I been actually shown examples or been made aware of, I might have been able to use and incorporate myself without all the “trial by fire’ learning that I had to do.

As I learn more about them and practice them myself, I have become even more aware of their importance. A perfect example was while interviewing for a recent position, one of the prospective candidates arrived chewing gum and continued to do so throughout the entire interview. Another candidate over-explained, over-sold themselves instead of providing what was asked of them. Again, these are sometimes the results of being nervous but, also, the results of not having been taught presentation skills.

What’s your experience with students and presentation skills? Do you believe they need to be taught more formally than at present? How important do you see them being for today’s students?


  1. Reply

    Presentation skills are crucial, whether presenting in print, in a speech, through a podcast, via a video, or interacting with others during a live webcast. I always thought these skills were taught in English. I was taught in English (you can tell I didn’t do too well either).

  2. Ed


    Kelly, I wish I could find a way to communicate this better… I just keep saying it!

    I got all excited when I read your “Raising Expectations” headline. I thought we were going to raise expectations. And then I found that it was basically more of what I have read 400 times since I started reading edublogs and edu-nings – more of the same ole call to teach them to “communicate”.

    Back in the day, this was an issue. Is it really now?

    Where are all the young adults (20-30) with huge amounts of things to say, but no ability to communicate them? Do we have this problem?

    Or is it, as Peggy Noonan wrote a couple springs ago, that we have an entire generation whose ambition is to “go into communications” yet who really have very little worth communicating?

    How many times a month do I flip from channel 3 to channel 657 looking for someone communicating something of substance to me? Every one of those channels is filled 24/7 with “communicators” but few are compelling.

    I go to the internet. Some good content is there; yet even the good sites have to devote huge amounts of time to debunking pervasive myths with no backing in reality whatsoever; yet which are believed by 50-70% of the population.

    I pick up books in the bookstore. There are so many of them! Yet so many also just talk just to talk.

    What about editing?

    In as basic a matter as why we went to war 5 years ago, a huge majority of the population now somehow believes that the President, SECDEF, and a few generals “cooked” the intelligence given them by the CIA. Very smart people are content to now believe this. Yet it totally ignores the reality of what the CIA, every foreign intelligence agency, Congress, and most foreign governments believed right up through the invasion. Did the Intelligence stink? Probably. Are we as a nation looing at the root causes of a CIA lacking the central I? Not really.

    This is what comes when everyone is a communicator and few stop to learn and think.

    We have a few historical specialists, and a nation with little general knowledge of history.

    What about the number of students who go into engineering and science? I dunno about Canada, but in the US those numbers have plummeted.

    Or basic economics and finance? Nearly everyone needs these. Its amazing how many teachers know nothing of the topics.

    I’m not disagreeing that your list has a place in school. I’d just like to once or twice find an educator writing on the net about actually teaching critical knowledge.

  3. Reply

    Ed, I’ve done some reading from your site and your blog and then did a bit of pondering about what you said. As I was reading through your information, I was wondering what type of information you are hoping people will learn? What do you mean by critical knowledge? Are you talking about various historical events or the implications of decisions made by major players during important moments in history? Are you looking for economic theory, socialism vs capitalism, or are you wanting to look further at the whole idea that particular governmental systems, democracy vs “others” require a particular type of economy?

    As for not having anything to communicate, they’re no different than any generation before them. In studying through history, there have been few under 30 generations that have had much to say other than voicing their displeasure with the present establishment.

    As for not knowing “facts” about history, I’m not sure whose history you mean – American, Canadian, British, European, Roman, Greek, Mesopotamian, Phoenician, Babylonian, Chinese, Japanese, Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Egyptian,… there’s quite the list that we could debate. From each are we talking decisive battles like the Greek triumph over the Phoenicians that was decisive or the triumph of the Romans over the Carthaginians. Do we discuss the Visigoth sacking of Rome – one of the first sackings of Rome or some of the later ones when the Ostrogoths were able to briefly hold the throne or the Francs who would ultimately hold and establish France? All of these, of course, were to have a huge impact on the settlement of the Americas. Are we talking American or Canadian history or do you want young people in each country to have a general knowledge of their countries history?

    Society has become one of specialists – there are very few generalists any more. I’m not sure why teachers in the US don’t have a better understanding of history or of different economic systems. I don’t know why there seems to be a void in knowledge in the general public as you point out in your examples. All over we have fewer people going into specialized areas like nursing, medicine, engineering, accounting and finances. We also have fewer people in specific trades like carpentry, plumbing and others because for many years they were seen as less desirable than other areas.

    We also have a generation of youth that are a product of their parents’ excess and societies excess and, combined with a whole new way to access information, knowing facts isn’t nearly as important as being able to use facts.

    I’d be curious to know what you mean by “I’d just like to once or twice find an educator writing on the net about actually teaching critical knowledge.” Are you talking strategies to teach them or methods of assessing them once you’ve taught them or the actual critical knowledge. If so, when I dropped by your site, I noticed that your top people to know deals with mostly American, Roman, Greek and European influences with a few other “greats” tossed in. Where are the Asian greats or the Middle East greats, the Egyptian greats, …. Canadian? Critical knowledge can be very difficult to catch – like the establishment of great literature – there are huge numbers of non-European authors that are being accessed for the first time. Seems many people in history had a lot to say too!

    I don’t disagree that people should know who some of the movers and shakers were in history like Homer or Horace, Shelley or Keats, Napoleon or Hannibal, Calvin or Hobbes. It’s just hard to narrow down what exactly is critical/essential/imperative for people to know.

    What do you think is some of the critical knowledge that should be taught?

  4. Reply

    Mrs.Durff, I guess I don’t see them being wholly the domain of English anymore. I see them being used across the curriculum, as it is so quaintly stated. All subject areas can have students using communication skills in some manner. I guess I look at our school’s focus on reading strategies and the need to use these strategies in all subjects, not just English.

  5. Reply


    I gleaned two ideas from your comment:

    First, it sounds much like the thought process of the “cult of the amateur” by Andrew Keen. The idea that most of what young people have to say is of little value or importance. I think the issue continues and will continue to be the the sheer mass of online content and ridiculously easy way of publishing means more crap than quality. Not to say quality doesn’t exist but it’s often harder to find. Sort of like shopping at your mom and pop store vs. a Megamall.
    I think in some respects helping students rise above mediocrity in communication is critical. Everyone has a voice but not everyone can communicate well. So yes, communication remains an issue. And your example of the war also supports the need for critical viewing and interpretation of communication. Consuming and creating. In an age of easy creation, perhaps we’ve gone too far in our wonder of that and forget the value of being critical consumers.

    The other point about knowledge workers and science and math, I’m not sure how to respond other that yes, it’s hard to find those online promoting those disciplines largely because I think most of the proponents of those areas, don’t have the communication skills. That’s a pretty big assumption, I agree but I think might explain part of it.

  6. Reply

    There were multiple things that struck me throughout your post.
    First Big Idea: Being successful in the 21st century is more than a “tech” issue; it is a communication issue. It is the “C” in ICT that matters most!

    Second Big Idea: I think one of the reasons that our students struggle with communication skills is because their teachers struggle. I am addressing this issue currently as my grad. students are making their final presentations tomorrow. I have had panic phone calls and emails all week. I couldn’t help thinking, as I read your post, what if my students had been giving,practicing, and receiving feedback on presentations all since kindergarten. As teachers, we teach our students in the way that we were taught. We need to break that cycle for our kids.

    Excellent post, Kelly. As always, thank you for making me think!

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