At the start of the 21st century, when accelerating change and growing complexity are the only constants, education administrators, universities, schools and teachers continue to use outdated "knowledge telling" models of teaching and learning that fall short of what we need.
According to management consultants McKinsey & Co almost half of all jobs in the future will require conversation and negotiation skills. The ability to develop a theory or concept, mount an argument, discuss your ideas and persuade others of their value or importance. It's more about the process - thinking, making good choices, knowledge creation or relating to others - rather than the content, although both are important.
It involves a major shift in the way we communicate. From giving direction and instructions. To encouraging participation and the respectful exchange of ideas, empathic listening and creativity. From "I/you" to "us/we".
The problem is that traditional classrooms offer very few opportunities to develop or practice these skills. And the current fad of learning-on-line falls short as well.
If you trained as a teacher in an Industrial Age world of the blackboard, chalk, textbook and knowledge telling, your brain circuitry has been shaped to automatically give instructions, deliver clear explanations in a precise order and ask closed questions. If so, your classroom is most likely to comprise rows of desks facing the front of the room, you see your role as an instructor and you frequently check to see whether your students are learning what you have told them. And although you may use a computer, an electronic white board and a video projector, we, the teachers, are still central stage.
If you grew-up in an on-line Information Age world, you are more likely to be a skilled designer of content or competent with emails and chat. The on-line-learning approach, which some see as the current "holy grail" of education has become popular, particularly with universities, because it can be delivered at very low cost anywhere in the world. The lecture notes are on-line and augmented by fancy simulations. You see much less of your tutor or lecturer, and spend more time writing, completing on-line tasks or regurgitating information to demonstrate that you understand what it means.
And, although the ability to find and re-organize information is an important skill for today's world, it is a far cry from the much more complex task of converting data into knowledge, learning how to apply it wisely and persuading others of the need to act. And on-line-learning tends to be an isolating activity where students work alone in rooms-full of computers or from home.
So why has conversation become a critical skill for a Knowledge Age world?
It's very simple really. What we collectively know is expanding so fast it is no longer possible for any one person or group to have a complete picture. And if your model of how the future might unfold is flawed and you make the wrong investments in skills, equipment and buildings, your choices can become a millstone around your neck.
You can easily be sidelined or beaten to success by more nimble competitors. People with more advanced or appropriate skills. Companies with better products or cost effective production methods. Or nations with competitive advantages like a better education system, or more attractive places to live or invest, or more people with the skills you need for success.
Because its very difficult to create a bigger and better picture on your own, we need to listen to many points of view, and deeply understand what people mean. We need to incorporate most if not all of their ideas into higher level ideas, which embrace all our thinking. Its called dialectical discourse. Or if we want to be sure that our ideas are appropriate for the whole of our society, we need to employ an even higher level conversational skill, which a colleague, Professor Linda Newman, and I call ethical dialectical discourse.
Change is occurring so fast that many of our traditional governance and decision making systems can't keep up. Think of the regulatory, distribution, management and learning failures of the past ten years. The banks and giant companies that were too big to fail, who were unable to notice major changes in the market place, or the dangers lurking in their trading practices. Our inability to reach agreement about what to do about global warning. Our impotence in the face of earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. Our failure to deal with rogue states. Our inability to look after the poor and the homeless. The way we let young people fail school and fill up our jails to overflowing. The polarization and dumbing down of political decisions in order to win popular elections, instead of providing leadership around breakthrough ideas.
Many more young people are now needed in all walks of life to be wise risk-taking leaders and facilitators of learning, able to create new knowledge themselves and persuade others of its importance. So they grow up ready for a Knowledge Age or Wisdom Age world.
The problem is, we teachers have only learned about meta-cognitive and executive control skills in the lecture theater or on-line and rarely practice these skills. We know the theory of what to do, but we really don't know how to do it. Because we have had so little practice.
On the other hand, pilots are not allowed to fly planes without years of rehearsal. Brain surgeons cant remove that tumor unless they know precisely what to do, without consciously thinking about it. So why should we let teachers teach, if we can't lead and facilitate and regularly practice these skills so they are automatic, easy to do, and be a good role model for young people.
I have hours of videotapes of very good traditional teachers struggling with the new role of facilitator. What to do and say. When traditional teachers try to teach this way, we mess up. What we say is a muddle of "inner speech" used to sequence actions, previously acquired automatic speech routines, authority speech, and the scraps of what we learned to say during our training day. So the next time we think of organizing a class discussion or use some technology in the classroom, we don't.
Facilitation, which is a form of leadership, has a whole new language to learn, processes to follow and a structure that is different to what we currently find in the conventional classroom. How to set up the furniture for conversation. How to initiate and guide the group interaction. How to give clear guidance to orchestrate a group so it can share and manipulate information and resolve their conversations into decisions, theories, models or processes.
Its all about using the inclusive and respectful "we" instead of "I" and "you". Phrases like "what if we?", "Let's" and "It would be good if we could" instead of "I want you to", "you must" or "you will". It's about looking for patterns in what we collectively say, rather than choosing between options, such as "what's the pattern in our thinking" or "how could we pull all our ideas together into a single fantastic overarching idea" instead of "choose the best idea". It's about conducting many conversations at the same time, instead of the loudest dominating. It's "what if we discuss this topic in pairs and then share our ideas with the whole group?" instead of "your idea makes no sense to me". And we used concepts like "ideas" or contributions" instead of "answers" or "responses".
So here are some activities to plan how to conduct conversations in your classroom:
1. Thinking about how your classroom is currently organized, how could you re-arrange the furniture - the tables and chairs - so that everyone can engage in conversation in small groups and pairs?
2. Describe a relating method, like think-pair-square-share, that would allow the people in your classroom to have a conversation with another person and then in either small groups, or the entire class or both, reach a decision where all the opinions are considered and resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
3. Brainstorm a series of open-ended questions from different subjects point of view - maths, science, history etc - to explore the topic of "Body image over the centuries and how our views have changed.
4. Assign each member of the group a different subject area to their own - maths, science, history, art, literature, design, social studies, music, sport - and brainstorm a list of the words used commonly used by each of those disciplines e.g. mathematics - addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, plus, minus, theorem, line, angle etc
5. Brainstorm a list of topics that students could discuss in class in small groups that would bring a broad spectrum of normally separate subjects - maths, science, history, literature, art, design, writing etc. - into the conversation and as part of an argument. e.g. Body image over the centuries and how our views have challenged.
6. Brainstorm some phrases that a facilitator could use to give guidance to a discussion that are inclusive, recognize that all ideas are useful contributions., inspires people to contribute, causes everyone be be involved and engaged.
7. Choose one of the following conversation types and give an example that explains the benefits/advantages and disadvantages. Monologue, Discussion, Dialogue, Dialectical, Ethical Dialectical.
8. Craft/design a series of open-ended rich questions that bring "knowledge" into the process so it can be discussed, evaluated and incorporated into the outcome.
9. Craft/design a sequence of questions that starts with a data collection activity and ends with one of the following. A Theory. A Decision. An Action Plan. A New Understanding. A Concept. A Design.
* Manyika, J.M., Roberts, R.P., & Sprague, K.L. (2007, December). Eight business technology trends to watch. Retrieved February 29, 2008 from http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Eight_business_technology_trends_to_watch_2080