Effective educational environments start with conscious communication.
The way in which adults communicate with young people shapes developing attitudes towards learning, towards others, and towards themselves. When adults sincerely trust in the learning process it comes across in our words, facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. These powerful messages of trust are integral to establishing and sustaining a learning environment characterized by mutual respect, true collaboration, and open creative expression. At Talking Stick we believe the key to an effective educational environment is conscious communication, which nurtures the learning process so that young people can make meaningful connections from their experiences.
Our facilitators use phrases such as “I wonder”, “What have you tried so far?” and “Tell me more,” to encourage autonomy, curiosity and creativity. “What have you tried so far?” prompts people to be conscious of their problem solving process and implies there is more to try. “Tell me more” invites participants to share their work, experiences, and struggles. We also use statements like “I wonder what would happen if we added another teaspoon of baking soda”, “I wonder what we could use to make costumes”, and “I wonder what this stone would look like under the microscope”. By wondering out loud we invite participants to explore and experiment in a non-coercive way. When participants go on to share their experience with us we express appreciation without praise or shame.
How it Works
In order to increase knowledge and raise skill levels we must face challenges. When people are faced with a new and seemingly insurmountable challenge, they respond in a variety of different ways. Some immediately go to someone else to do it for them. Some ask for help or advice. Others insist on figuring it out themselves.
For example, a group of us at Talking Stick is working on origami. A young person comes over with a piece of paper and asks the facilitator to make a crane for them. The facilitator responds with, “Okay, how should we begin?” That gets the young person thinking about what the first step may be. They weren’t thinking about the steps before because their mind was focused on trepidation about the unknown. They go get the instructions. Now, the facilitator knows this person, and has a good sense of their learning style and skill levels. This information is used to figure out how best to meet the participant at their level and facilitate their process in a way that is both familiar and challenging. The facilitator communicates by narrating their thinking, “Okay, it looks like we fold the paper in half to make a triangle”. They then put the paper in front of the young person who begins to work at making an exact fold. Notice there is no quizzing at all in this process. There is no need to ask them what they know since they are in the middle of showing what they know. Questions such as “Do you know the name of that kind of triangle?” is irrelevant to their goal of creating a paper crane. Such questions put unnecessary pressure to please adults by showing how much they can memorize not what they have actually understood.
Facilitator and participant are both making cranes at the same time and the facilitator says, “let’s see how they match”. The young person may notice some differences or some similarities. They both continue following the instructions, and perhaps it proceeds rather smoothly because this person does have highly developed spatial skills. At the end, no one says “good job”. They may be asked “how was that for you?” They are allowed to judge their own experience and product. The focus is on the experiential process and not on pleasing the adult instead of pleasing themselves. Not finishing the project (or creating a crane that looks like it was run over by a truck) is often not what is important. The accomplishment of taking risks, trying new activities, learning new concepts, and collaborating is the reward.
Words for Conflict
Conflict between participants is inevitable in any group and is an important opportunity to develop communication skills. During conflict we experience the differences between being passive, being assertive and being aggressive. “What happened?” is the first thing said when addressing a conflict, even if we saw the altercation first hand. Doing so allows people to identify and articulate their experiences so that they may move on to a solution. The question, “What are you wanting right now?” inspires them to be present. We follow this with, “How can you both get what you are wanting?” Speaking in such a way conveys the expectation that this conflict will be worked out to the satisfaction of everyone. The young people pick up on this expectation and really think about mutually beneficial solutions. We discuss their ideas, agree on one, or eventually prompt them with suggestions. In this way we facilitate their opportunity to solve the conflict themselves.
Conscious communication is perhaps more critical to the success of a learning environment than materials or curriculum. The ways we communicate are a manifestation of our beliefs about learning. At Talking Stick, we believe that all people have an inherent drive to learn and that making young people learn information that is not meaningful or useful is actually detrimental to this inherent drive. We invite parents and educators alike to get in touch with us to explore the subject of conscious communication further.
Talking Stick Learning Center is a non-profit organization that offers group learning experiences for homeschoolers. It is located in Fort Washington, PA. Over the six years we have developed Talking Stick, we have operated under the belief that an effective educational environment starts with conscious communication. To learn more about conscious communication, take a look at Pam Leo's book Connection Parenting.