“Only Connect”: On using dialogical methods to reform the toxic culture of communication

Adobe Spark (1)Today was Sunday, December 30,2018.  As is their wont at the end of a year, the Sunday morning news programs ran their “year in review” discussions.  Face the Nation ended their broadcast with several of the pundits lamenting the loss of common experiences.  Locked behind doors, our screens as portals to personal experiences, or to siloed experiences, we lack the kind of publicly shared, common wonderings that used to create, if not unity, at least a sense of community.  Where once we couldn’t walk down a street and look in windows to see 90% of people watching their radios as FDR delivered a fireside chat, we now sit behind LCD screens in gated communities, blithely unaware of our own privilege and prejudices.

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This is not a new phenomenon. We’ve been on this path since the 80s when Newt Gingrich leveraged the power of dissent and gamesmanship to rise to power and, according to Atlantic journalist McKay Coppins, “turned national politics and congressional politics into team sport” (NPR, 2018)  But perhaps 2018 made us understand just how far we’ve gone and forced us to decide whether we want to return to the sort of caring community that listens more than it talks; or whether we want to continue building walls that shelter our fragile opinions, blocking the voices of those who think differently from us and echoing back the words of those with whom we agree.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Waterson

I’ve already made that decision.  Students in my classroom are engaged in dialogical learning throughout the year.  Weekly discussions using the Touchstone Discussion Project, regular Socratic Seminars (I don’t recall where this came from, but whoever did it, I thank you), dialectical notebooks, novel chats, pinwheel discussions (and this example), Literary 3x3s (pages 35–44…Thanks to Dan Ryder @wickeddecent) and the occasional creative dialog  (example here) complete the repertoire. (I leave out here my over 25 years experience as a coach of speech and debate, though surely it is foundational in my use of these methods.)

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Example of an extended, group Literary 3×3 as a reflection on my English Class, 2016

When students learn to listen deeply to their peers (or the works of the authors we study), when they come to class prepared to discuss the texts and issues at hand in a culture of cooperative communication, when they learn that disagreements are chances to understand rather than chances to dig their heels in deeper, when they practice the difficult but necessary task of listening to all ideas, to bearing the silences that naturally populate such conversations as everyone contemplates new and challenging ideas…when all this happens, we learn to open ourselves to new ideas.  This openness develops into a wide and diverse marketplace of ideas where we do not throw rotten tomatoes or nasty tweets at each other.  We toss our opinions into this marketplace so that others can engage, play with, and further develop or respectfully refute our ideas.  Learning, then, is not simply a give and take, not merely the “Chalk and Talk” (though there is a place for that).  Instead, it is a dialogue, an iterative, developmental process in which we all grow and benefit, including the teacher.

(To see this culture far more developed than my own, visit the work of Monte Syrie at https://www.letschangeeducation.com/ )

And while I am an English teacher, such methods are not the sole purview of my discipline.  Courteous, kind, constructive dialogue is at the heart of all learning.  Socrates surely demonstrated this, but the best of our parents or relatives do this as well.  There must be compassionate ears and hearts behind the work we do as students and teachers if we are to reform the toxic culture of our current national dialogue…if we are to (re)learn that we must talk, listen, and seek to “only connect” lest we “surely . . .  hang separately.”

 

How to be Astounded: Volume 1

There are days in the classroom when the experiences my students and I have designed are simply magical, days when the lessons melt from hard, crystallized structures into liquid understandings and we all just float along with the learning.  These are the days where my hard work and planning pay off.  They are rewarding.

howard-zeidermanAnd then there are days where the structures of the class, the routines, and the community are so synergistic that the results are far greater than the sum of their parts…even if it is just for one of the students in the class.

Below I recount, via a series of e-mails, one such day where the class community and the individual, through the method, taught us all more than we ever thought we’d learn.
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(Just a bit of context:  I’ve been using the Touchstones Discussion Project for over 20 years.  I am a member of the board of directors, and I have countless such stories of how it fosters meaningful, thoughtful, dialogue and of how students of any age discover the power they hold in themselves to use their own voices as pathways to powerful learning.  But this story…this is special.)
The E-mail Thread

11/2
Stef, Howard,  [Stef Takacs, Howard Zeiderman:  Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project]

Last year in my HS English classes I began the process of converting from a grading system (which I’ve used for the entirety of my career) to a “grade-less” system in which students are provided ample feedback on substantive work, are asked to reflect on their work and their learning at least once / week, and are then asked to conduct a “grading” conference with me at the end of the MP, because no matter how much I agree with Alfie Kohn, Dylan Wiliam, and others in the “gradeless/scoreless” camp, I still have to put some letter on a grade report.
I’ve outlined what students should include in their conferences, but I’ve not created a recipe for them to follow in terms of how the conference should be conducted.  They are simply told to use the documents I provided regarding how the system works to choose a grade and provide support for that grade in the form of hard evidence and warrants for the validity and applicability of that evidence.  So some students will sit with me and an outline and take me through their documents, others will create a video in which they discuss their progress, and still others find more creative ways to go about it (eg., an “application for a grade”).
To the point, I had a face-to-face conference with a student who has a speech impediment (stuttering).  He had written out a document and moved through it with minimal problem.  When he came to a discussion of Touchstones and the growth he felt (and really, learning that is felt…I know it’s subjective, but learning is a lived experience, and as I do not keep (would not know how to keep) a data driven record of all student’s definite improvement in Touchstones that didn’t in some way alter the dynamics of the discussion, I’ll simply go along with “I felt…” statements for Touchstones)…anyway, he felt that he had grown immensely.  What he wrote is below, but let me preface it with this:  T___ came to me at the beginning of the year because he was worried about Touchstones discussions and participation, given his speech impediment.  I told him  I do not grade these discussions and only look for growth over time at the personal and group level.  So here’s what he wrote:
“Out of all the things we have done so far, I am most happy with the results of Touchstones.  I expected to not participate much, if even at all.  But I felt drawn to the discussions and thought it might be a good way to initiate some self-improvement.  To my own surprise, I really enjoy the Touchstones system.  I have been a talkative member of the group and my input has always been of meaning to the discussion.  As well I help keep the discussion active and moving forward.  I think I am at my best when participating in Touchstones Discussions.”
I know, from years of speech and debate coaching, that students with speech impediments are often some of the most determined when it comes to the work they do in public speaking, but I never had a student with an impediment like T___’s take part in Touchstones.  His reaction above is a testament to his own drive, something I obviously wouldn’t have known were I simply tallying points on quizzes and tests and “averaging” them out for a grade.  But moreover, it is a testament to the “system,” as T___ calls it, of Touchstones and system’s ability  to promote a space in which all members of all abilities are welcome, in which all ideas are considered, and in which all members can realize growth in ways the “system” of school generally ignores.
Thank you again,

 

Garreth Heidt
Gifted & Honors English
Thought Connector
_________________________________________________________
(Reply from Howard Zeiderman, Co-Founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project)
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Howard Zeiderman, CoFounder of Touchstones Discussion Project

Dear T___,
I am very grateful for your thoughts about Touchstones. At 6 I developed a terrible stutter which continued until high school. Even as a grad student at Princeton I could still have great difficulty saying my name. And that still persists. In confronting stuttering you must master many synonyms but the one phrase that is unique is one’s name. And of course, when you are desperate to speak, as when you are asked or expected to share your name, you frequently bite your tongue which makes it even worse.
My stutter was not the reason I created Touchstones but it certainly made me aware how hard it is to speak in general even without a stutter and how one crosses an abyss whenever one tries. I applaud your courage in trying and your trust in others to have made that very vulnerable attempt. It is far greater than I ever undertook.
You are a beacon for others as in this new world that is emerging in which each of us must insist on having a voice coupled with ears that strive to listen and make room for others.
I look forward to our paths intersecting,
Best,
Howard
_________________________________________________________
My forwarding of Howard Zeiderman’s letter to T___’s Mom and Dad:

Mr. and Mrs. E___:

Mr. Heidt here…T___’s Gifted Honors English teacher.  I wanted to make you aware of something that arose this past week.
On Thursday, T___ and I sat down for an end-of-the-marking-period conference.  As you may be aware through my initial e-mail in late August, Meet the Teacher Night, or through T___ himself, my class is largely “gradeless.”  Thus, these MP-end conferences are like annual reviews in the work world.  They carry a huge impact.  T___ was prepared and presented in a professional manner.
During his conference, he referenced his work in our weekly Touchstones discussions.  What he wrote was moving, and I asked if I could send it to one of the founders of the project and the board of directors (I’m a member of the board as well).  He permitted such.
I know T___ is quite capable and that he has learned ways to cope with his impediment; it does not define him.  I didn’t send his testimony because I was amazed by him.  I sent it because of his honesty.
What you’ll find above is my letter to the board and above that a reply from Howard Zeiderman, one of the co-founders and the man who has led the project over the past 30 years.   I have known Howard Zeiderman for almost a decade.  I did not know what he recounts below.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.
Garreth Heidt
Gifted & Honors English
Thought Connector
_______________________________________
The Reply from T___’s Mother

Dear Mr. Heidt,

Thank you so very much for sharing this. T____ has talked with me recently about having this discussion with you, about the gradeless system, and about how proud he was of his work and progress.
That’s some amazing feedback from the Touchstones founder and I’m so grateful you shared it with us. I’m very proud of T___ and the person he’s growing up to be. He’s insightful and had a great deal of both empathy and introspection. Here you’ve provided an example of how he’s applied those things to himself and his own learning.
Thank you so much for creating a safe and positive learning environment for T__.  I believe that vulnerability is the key to a fulfilling and happy life and you’ve given him a chance to safely try and succeed.
With gratitude, Barbara E___

 

Astounded Every Day.

In 1999, after just a year of using Touchstones, I wrote the company via e-mail to tell them how much I appreciate their product.  I tried to couch my wonder at the project into as small a space as possible.

What resulted is a statement of my teaching philosophy.  Where it came from, I cannot recall.  But then that is the magic of words–we often know they came from us, and yet we do not know where they came from.

I’ve never been hesitant to utter these words, and I thank the Touchstones Discussion Project for helping me to find them and set them free into the world.  I think more teachers should have such succinct statements of philosophy:

“Touchstones is a perfect match with my philosophy of education:  When we trust our students, empower them to take charge of their learning, and offer them the necessary guidance, they will astound us.”

This story I’ve recounted…this is just one of years’ worth of astounding words, acts, and learning that I’ve witnessed in Touchstones Discussions.  More children deserve classrooms where they can and can be astonished.  Touchstones is one huge step in that direction.

Education for the Self and Community

I’ve been thinking more about what it would take to redesign an educational system to honor student agency and center the learning where it belongs…on the learner.

First, we need to have some idea of what knowledge and skills an educated person ought to possess.  I wonder how many administrators/teachers/citizens have a common picture of what that person looks like.  We could refer to the standards, but inferring from those to the real world seems hard for some, and their codification and commodification (from the outset, in terms of big business’s influence of the creation of the Common Core) is a non-starter to many.  Instead, in the face of innovation-speak and market economies, a better picture can be drawn from the tradition of a liberal education.

I was a fortunate learner.  Somehow I developed/possessed the skills necessary to win the game of school.  This allowed me the great fortune to explore the meaning and importance of a liberal education for over 25 years.  One document in that time has meant more to me in terms of getting that “picture” of an educated person than any other: “Only Connect:  The Goals of a Liberal Education” by Professor William Cronon.  I’ve studied that document and revisited it every year I’ve taught.  It is part of me.  As such, I have a  particular and, I think, historically accurate (though culturally and ethnically skewed) view of what an educated person ought to know and be able to do.

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William Cronon’s 10 Goals of a Liberal Education

Thus, at least in some part, redesigning schools necessitates designing/redesigning curricula to create modern pathways to the goals of a liberally educated person.  Further, though…schools need to have a common picture of their end and language with which to talk about the learning experiences they can design to help all learners get there.

Education as an Organic System

Still, none of that matters if the school leaders, both administrators and citizens on school boards and in other elected offices, do not view education as more than some assembly line/linear process.

“Liberal” (as in the “liberal education” which public schools purport to provide), as Cronon points out, derives from a proto-Indo–European root, “rodhati”, meaning “one climbs, one grows.”  Clearly, education wasn’t originally viewed as a linear, mechanistic process, but rather as an organic/dynamic system.  Like a vine, it rises to the light, adjusts, stalls, changes, and moves up again.  It is always overcoming obstacles, making course corrections.  It does not follow rubrics or recipes. It seeks the light.

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From Patrick Cook-Deegan Wayfinding Our Purpose” in Purpose Rising: A Global Movement of Transformation and Meaning, Kuntzelman and Diperna, eds.

But linear systems are easier and more efficient for humans to create, and so we wind up with a school system that works in a linear fashion.  Of course, we know this is not the best system for education–one of the most important responsibilities of any community–yet, here we are, blind and deaf in a world filled with educators, parents, business people all pointing clearly for the need to change our system. (While a thorough listing of these change agents would take far too long.  See below for an attempt at such.)

So how do we wake up, open our eyes and ears and risk the upheaval inherent in change?  Primarily, it starts with a culture shift.  Our communities and school leaders need to create cultures where calculated/educated risk-taking is part of the environment, where such traits as courage, persistence, creativity, and risk-taking are what we look for, not only in our students but in the lead learners hired for our schools.  This would entail the questioning and the slaying of many sacred cows such as:  grading systems, standardized testing, strict schedules in the school day, the role of the teacher themself, diplomas, transcripts, and the role of higher education as a driver of secondary curricula, etc.

But let’s start more simply….

Get a B.S. Detector

If we are to truly shift our systems of public education,  we need the same thing that Hemingway said all great writers need:  a great B.S. detector.  It’s so easy to want to jump on the new, the ed-tech, the subversive, the test-prep, the “innovative” because it seems so…shiny and data is so “objective.”  And yet,  so much of it is B.S.

At the most basic level, our understanding of human beings hasn’t grown all that much. The observations of the Progressives about the classroom environment, the efficacy of discovery learning, and (still) the work of Dewey are ever reified in the studies of more modern social scientists.  While our potential is infinite, our learning interventions need not be so.  Human beings require meaningful relationships, connection with their natural environment, and a sense of joy and purpose in what they do if they are to grow and learn.  (We do not learn through coercion unless the learning goal is how to despise learning.  I recommend William Glasser’s The Quality School and The Quality Schoolteacher for more on that point.) If we can use these needs to guide our schools past the dictates of efficiency and cost savings (a daunting task) we’ll have a more humane society, perhaps.

Human-Centered Education

Finally, we cannot overlook the fact that, at its heart, American Public Education will always be driven by three goals:  Economic, Civic, and Personal.  (Erin Raab names four…and I’d not disagree with her, though the Eudaemonic goal–Aristotle’s “Flourishing”– I’d fold into the “personal” (again, see Cronon’s “Only Connect”).)  While we’d like to think there is no hierarchy in these goals, the economic goal generally dominates and pushes the other goals behind it.  Its ends are to ensure the continuation of the free market capitalism that is the foundation for our own form of democracy and which makes our pursuit of happiness (the personal ends) possible.  While I’d rather think it otherwise, I have to believe that without a functioning economy, our government and our own pursuit of self-actualization break down.  Empirically, look to our devolution as a political society and our hunkering down with those most like ourselves post-2008 market crash as evidence. So we must always consider that the culture our schools create is geared towards feeding a hungry, (sometimes beneficient) monster…though monster nonetheless.

But that monster need not be as frightening and consumptive as I paint it.  An education that puts the human at the center, that recognizes as its end the elevation of all learners so that they may reach their own highest potential could ameliorate many of the more base effects of the economic ends.  Of course, that can only happen within a functioning democracy and that end, the civic end, of public education, cannot be overlooked.  We must understand and be driven by the sense that Jefferson noted when he wrote that “A people who seek to remain ignorant and free, expect what never was and never will be.”

Future Searching

It is no secret that education is a Wicked Problem. We will always be at it…tweaking, pushing, pulling, and at times disrupting.  We’ll never solve it. The best we can do is hope to manage it better and seek balance among our goals.  But none of that should ever, must never, distract us from what I believe is William Cronon’s most important point in “Only Connect“:

“In the act of making us free, it [a liberal education] also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom. In the end, it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves…Liberal education nurtures human freedom in the service of human community” (pp 5-6).

And so, the picture we need of this learner is not intended to create a template for some standardized form of “liberally educated widget maker.”  Rather the picture will serve to show us that these learners, these children so full of freedom and potential, reveal to us our own best selves, and their education represents our own highest potential.

We, as communities across the world, therefore have a responsibility to our future that is different than what our public system currently seeks.  We are not here to replicate the present.  To, in a sense, create children in our own image.  We are here to create spaces for learning that are filled with inspiration and that are driven by aspirations.

Which is why a district and community that seeks to create plans or visions for its continued existence ought to engage in concerted future searching at least once every 15 years.  School systems that never engage in such deep and comprehensive planning will never see beyond themselves, will never find the capabilities to move beyond themselves and embody the very aspirations we want four our students.

Why Design: Reading and Writing the World.

 

 

I was/am an English major.

The confusion in verb tense stems from a shift in how I act within the world. For years I buried my head in books. Fictional worlds allowed me to explore a myriad of human experiences I would never have had the chance to understand outside the covers of books. I spent years in college honing my skills at reading these worlds, divining the author’s deeper motives (if such is even possible) and understanding the intentionality at the heart of writing.


Head over to www.plusus.org/our-thoughts/ to read the rest.

“Only Connect”–They Listen and They Hear

 

A few weeks ago I initiated a series of blog posts at PlusUs.org (cross posted here, and vice versa) investigating the rationale for using design-based learning as a teaching method.  I wrote I would be delving more into the ways I see design as a method that honors the traditions and goals of liberal education as outlined by Professor William Cronon in his essay, “Only Connect”: On the Goals of a Liberal Education.

Consider this blog post the first foray into the connections between the 10 goals of Prof. Cronon (and the great liberal educators who came before him) and design itself.

Some of these posts will be longer than others, but my intent is that, by putting Prof. Cronon’s ideas into dialogue and play with the field of design, we will recognize that, without question, design is a liberal art.  The implication here is two-fold.  First, that the development of designerly minded learners is a doorway to the development of singularly self-directed, self-determined learners.  And, second, that the liberal arts are key to security and prosperity in the future for ourselves and our students.

So, onto Cronon’s list…

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Part of a personal Mindmap of Cronon’s Argument in the essay, “Only Connect.”

1)  They Listen and they Hear.

Cronon states that this goal of a liberal education is something you’d think goes without saying.  Essentially, it describes people who “work hard to hear what other people say. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.”

There is hardly another goal so clearly linked to design as this one.  Design, like education, is a human-centered endeavor.  Educators like designers must empathize with their students/users.  If empathy is the heart of design, and design thinking more specifically, it seems listening and hearing is a fitting place to start this comparison, and more fitting to this argument that Prof. Cronon begins here as well.

I’ll admit to a good deal of bias here.  I’m a debate coach.  Offering students activities that help them work towards this goal is easy.  Engage them in structured controversies like debates and constructive discussions.  There are any number of debate structures you might employ, with the more formal styles outlined clearly and fully at websites like the National Forensic LeagueThe Pennsylvania High School Speech League, and other such leagues around the nation.  Additionally, teachers can employ structured discussions.  Programs like Paideia Seminars, Socratic Circles, Literature Circles, or The Touchstones Discussion Project all offer students opportunities to speak and listen and learn from each other in many different curricula (not just language arts or social studies).

However, for the teacher practiced in design-based learning, the opportunities for practicing listening skills increase exponentially.  Teaching students how to use empathy maps during interviews, or even as ways to track and analyze characters in works of literature help to hone this skill through real world practice or close reading.  Design research of this sort hinges on the key skill of listening deeply and empathetically.

My list is not exhaustive, but I am certain of the solid outcomes each of the different strategies I suggest can produce if a teacher buys into and believes in their individual processes.

And in the end, listening and hearing?  Sure, you can’t test for it, but you sure as heck aren’t building a solid foundation for a democracy if all you focus on is computation and comprehension.   At least by focusing on a goal like “They listen and they hear” we’ll have a chance to erase future episodes of The Jerry Springer Show from our airwaves and promote more civil discourse than what we’ve seen in the world lately.

Featured image: Simon Sinek–Quote Fancy