My Students Don't Know How to Have a Conversation

"Students’ reliance on screens for communication is detracting—and distracting—from their engagement in real-time talk."
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Recently I stood in front of my class, observing an all-too-familiar scene. Most of my students were covertly—or so they thought—pecking away at their smartphones under their desks, checking their Facebook feeds and texts.

As I called their attention, students’ heads slowly lifted, their eyes reluctantly glancing forward. I then cheerfully explained that their next project would practice a skill they all desperately needed: holding a conversation.

Several students looked perplexed. Others fidgeted in their seats, waiting for me to stop watching the class so they could return to their phones. Finally, one student raised his hand. “How is this going to work?” he asked. 

My junior English class had spent time researching different education issues. We had held whole-class discussions surrounding school reform issues and also practiced one-on-one discussions. Next, they would create podcasts in small groups, demonstrating their ability to communicate about the topics—the project represented a culminating assessment of their ability to speak about the issues in real time.

Even with plenty of practice, the task proved daunting to students. I watched trial runs of their podcasts frequently fall silent. Unless the student facilitator asked a question, most kids were unable to converse effectively. Instead of chiming in or following up on comments, they conducted rigid interviews. They shuffled papers and looked down at their hands. Some even reached for their phones—an automatic impulse and the last thing they should be doing.

As I watched my class 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? 

When students apply for colleges and jobs, they won’t conduct interviews through their smart phones. 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’s no surprise to any teacher or parent that teenagers rely heavily on cell phones for communication. According to the Pew Research Center, one in three teens sends over 100 text messages a day. 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 (mine included), despite attempts to restrict or even integrate it into the curriculum.

But in our zealous rush to meet 21st-century demands—emailing assignments, customizing projects for tablets and laptops, and allowing students to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)—we aren’t asking students to think and communicate in real time. Online discussion boards and Twitter are useful tools for exchanging ideas. But they often encourage a “read, reflect, forget about it” response that doesn’t truly engage students in extended critical thinking or conversation. All too often I’ve seen students simply post one (required) response to the prompt and then let the discussion go dead.  

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist, MIT professor, and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Ourselves, has dedicated her career to researching people’s relationships with technology. Much of her writing has shaped my skepticism for tech-overload and its impact on conversation. In a New York Times column, Turkle wrote, “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.” 

Could it be that the push for screen use in schools is watering down the questions and thinking we require of students? For me, using classroom discussion boards has increased participation and given a voice to many students normally reluctant to speak in class. On the other hand, I wonder if my frequent reliance on digital participation is too easy on students. As Turkle writes, “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.”

Instead, what if we focused on sharpening students’ ability to move back and forth between the digital and real world? An ironic benefit of technology is that we can leverage digital devices to capture and teach the art of conversation. All smart phones are recording devices; why not use those to record and assess students’ conversation skills? I’ve noticed that students take critical conversations, debates, and discussions more seriously when recorded. We can use technology to encourage students to strike a balance between digital literacies and interpersonal conversation.

The next time you interact with a teenager, 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 Turkle did when interviewing a 16-year-old boy about how technology has impacted his communication: “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

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Paul Barnwell is a teacher, writer, and urban gardener based in Louisville, KY.

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