Look Up! “I”-Users Need to Learn Conversation and Discussion in the Classroom

May 29, 2012 — 1 Comment

When I asked a question in class this year, I had to directly address a student: “Christina, what do you think….” or “Patrick, how does…”. I could not just toss out a question to the entire class. In fact, if I failed to individualize the Socratic method, the result was a chorus of dissonance, a cacophony of responses, a gabble of student voices directed towards no particular audience.  I also noted this year that a great number of students would reason aloud rather than think  before speaking.  This year my students did not discuss as much as transmit. What I was hearing was the  sound of student voices broadcasting as individual program streams. I needed to train my students in the art of discussion, when to contribute to conversation, and how to share communal air time.

I wondered how to account for this phenomenon and concluded my students had an “I” problem. They are the “I” tech pioneers students who grew up with multiple digital devices marketed to that 1st person singular pronoun.

Consider that the I-pod was released to the public on November 10, 2001. My 9th grade students who have proven incapable of clicking into a shared conversational stream were two or three years old at that time. My students have grown up listening to a self-selected soundtrack piped through earphones singularly and directly into their ears. They have had complete control over each musical track all of their lives. There has been no “B” side option to their playlist.

My students have been able to control all other forms of media as well, choosing to watch video content commercial-free selected  from multiple streaming websites. They watch TV shows from any  number of platforms (Hulu, Netflix, Amazon), yet few admit to watching TV during regular broadcasting on a TV screen at all.  They design their own video channels or post their own videos online. Pronoun marketing abounds for this generation: YouTube’s use of the 2nd person singular has been an invitation for them to post their content since they were 8-11 years old. How individualized my students’ experiences are from the collective experiences of their elder siblings, their parents, and their grandparents.

They have “friends” they have never met, they play games against people without regards to age or gender, and they cannibalize photos and files from other sources to create “personal” websites. They were 6-9 years old when My Space came online; now they now have a plethora of choices: Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc.

Yet, for all of their posting and tweeting, they are still communication-impaired. They have difficulty in developing or engaging in a discussion in class. Of course, students in previous years have required guidance on class discussion rules, but this past year was substantively different.  I believe all of this “I”-serving technology has led an increase in personalized content but a decline in knowing how to share “we”-time.

By way of contrast, I am a child of AM radio. I was one pair of the million ears that heard the DJ chatter of Harry Harrison or Cousin Bruce Morrow. I grew up to a prescribed soundtrack that would reverberate in pop record synchronicity on city streets, sidewalks, parks and beaches. In 1970 the air pulsed hourly with The Carpenters Close to You even though I hated the song. I was part of a collective experience whether I wanted that experience or not. I am a child of network television who remembers when one evening’s broadcast of Ed Sullivan or Walter Cronkite would be the following week’s discussion.  I played with peers I could touch; I could see my friends. We talked in person, and we had long extensive conversations. I was in an environment that conditioned me to wait my turn and share my time. I knew I was in a collective, and for good or for bad, I was connected but “unconnected.”

So when I read Sherry Turkle’s opinion piece “The Flight from Conversation” in the NYTimes on Sunday, April 12, 2012, I saw one line that described a symptom I recognize in my students, “A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, ‘Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.’

 In the piece, Turkle describes how an increasing reliance on technology reflects the “I” centered experience:
“We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.”

The daily environment for the “tribes of one”, my students,  in and out of school is filled with digitally enhanced communication, but there is little serious conversation.  My students have few opportunities outside of the classroom to practice the art of discussion without a digital device in hand. So I have been taking “baby steps” in the classroom by first asking them to respond to each other.

“Do you agree with Mackenzie?” ”
“Can you add to what Matt said?”
“Please restate what Breanne said.”

There are popsicle sticks with each name to insure I have each member of the class speak during the day. On some questions,  I also ask them to pause 30 seconds before responding and remind them they are graded on not only what they say but by the attention they give to others. These techniques have helped control the immediate response impulse- the noisy nonsense of 25 incomplete thoughts spark-plugging aloud in the room. Only recently, however, have  I asked them to look at each other when they respond. The first three exchanges were awkward, but Nick’s full on attention to Logan was so comical that  “making eye contact” became fun. I hope that continuing eye contact will help the interchange of ideas which is the basis for conversation.

Turkle’s concern is that, “We are tempted to think that our little ‘sips’ of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.”

I agree with Turkle and recognize that teaching the “I” generation requires changing the way we, teachers and students, communicate in the classroom. Successful participation in conversation and discussion are the critical skills students need to counterbalance the social media that Turkle says continually asks us what’s “on our mind,” but allows us  “little motivation to say something truly self-reflective.” Our students need to move from the digital ease of self-expression to a stage of self-reflection in order to demonstrate understanding and to share that understanding with others. To insure all student have these skills, the recently adopted Common Core Standards in English Language Arts will require teachers to improve the speaking and listening skills from K-12 grades. For example, requirements for grades 9 and 10:

CCSS  SL.9-10.1.Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.

Our students cannot continue the experience of dancing solo to the selected soundtrack of their own “I”-device in the classroom without learning how to either share that experience with others or reflect on how that experience defines them. Educators need to teach all students that they should appreciate the many ways we now communicate but learn to recognize that the limitations “I” center devices have in communicating. We need to encourage those who are like Turkle’s 16 year old student example,  a student who wants “someday”to participate in conversation “but, certainly not now,” to see themselves as social beings.They must learn that their use of technology’s social media can not replace the in-person interaction that happens in social and academic conversation. They need to practice the act of conversation now rather than “someday,” and the classroom is a great starting place. Oh, and we need to remind everyone  to make eye contact.

One response to Look Up! “I”-Users Need to Learn Conversation and Discussion in the Classroom


    When I was teaching in the upper elementary levels, I ran across the assumption that students at this age had already mastered the research process. My mind could not grasp how people thought that, but there it was. I broke down the process into small steps and taught the skills needed to (age appropriately) complete a research project. It is amazing when, as teacher, we run into something even more fundamental such as having a conversation and have to treat it the same way. Explicitly teaching these skills, however, is crucial for success in the classroom and for the students’ success beyond.

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