To be successful, students must practice and use the ancient art of conversation

Recently I was about to begin a Student Success Project Presentation when sitting in front of me was an all-too-familiar scene. Most of the students were covertly—or so they thought—buzzing away at their smartphones, checking their Facebook feeds, Instagram posts and texts.

They know the rules – no tech when I talk. I told them how ironic that request was considering the day’s topic, or should I say project. I told them we would be discussing a skill they desperately needed – “How To Have A Conversation”

They were perplexed. Some wanted to make a beeline for the door and others wanted to quickly share their dilemma, where else – but on the phone.

And you knew this question was coming – a student raised her hand and asked, “How is this going to work.”

The task was simple; groups of four would sit at a round table and have a simple conversation about anything they wanted. But it had to last 15 minutes and focus on one topic. This would allow all of the students to build upon each other’s thoughts, thus having a conversation!

As I watched these kids struggle, I came to realize that 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?

I just don’t get why this is not hammered into our kids. I have had parents tell me that they are actually afraid their kids can’t speak without their phone at least attached to them.

When students apply for colleges and jobs, they won’t conduct interviews through their smartphones.

When they negotiate pay raises and discuss projects with employers, they should exude a thoughtful presence and demonstrate the ability to think on their feet (or at least without Google).

When they face significant life decisions, they must be able to think things through and converse with their partners.

If the majority of their conversations are based on fragments pin-balled back and forth through a screen, how will they develop the ability to truly communicate in person?

It should be no surprise to any teacher or others that more than half of teens use texting to communicate daily with friends, versus only 33 percent who regularly talk face to face.

Cell phone use is rampant at most schools despite attempts to restrict or even integrate it into the curriculum.

Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits … we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions. We dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters.

Instead, what if we focused on sharpening students’ ability to move back and forth between the digital and real world?

The next time you interact with a student, try to have a conversation with him or her about a challenging topic. Ask him to explain his views. Push her to go further in her answers.

Hopefully, you won’t get the response I did when speaking with a 16-year-old boy about how technology has impacted his communication: “Someday, but not now, I’d like to learn how to have a real conversation face to face.”

This column is by Ritchie Lucas, Founder of The Student Success Project and Think Factory Marketing. He can be reached at 305-788-4105 or via email and on Facebook and You Tube as The Student Success Project.

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