Civil Conversations

Daryl Davis is a piano player. In 1983, he was playing country and western music in a bar in Virginia. A patron came up to him and remarked that it was the first time he had ever heard a black man play piano as well as Jerry Lee Lewis. Davis explained that Lewis had learned to play from black boogie woogie and blues piano players. The man was unconvinced. Davis explained that Jerry Lee was a friend of his, and the two had discussed his influences many times.

5159469189_c370510ed4_zThe two struck up a conversation, and the man admitted that he was a member of the KKK. Eventually, Davis met with several high-ranking klan members, and even befriended some of them. He found that many klansmen had strong, deep-seeded misconceptions about black people. By forging respectful relationships with them, he was able to counter the stereotypes. It’s harder to hate a group when you know and respect someone who is part of that group.

A few years ago, Davis told his story to Nick Van der Kolk on the excellent Love & Radio podcast.  You should invest 40 minutes and go listen to it. It’s a compelling and entertaining and amazing story. But when you’re done, come back. Because there’s more.

A couple weeks ago, Davis returned to Love & Radio. We seem to be in a world where there are more divisions among us than ever before. And he’s an expert at working to bridge those divides. So we should listen to what he has to say. Go listen to that one, too. Or, if you have to, just read my notes. These are Daryl Davis’s ideas, as told to Nick Van der Kolk, listened to by me, and summarized for you. So how do you have a civil conversation with someone you disagree with?

Do your homework. Before going in, know what their position is. Learn as much as you can about their argument, the reasons behind their beliefs. Ideally, you should be able to make their argument as well as you can make your own.

Have a conversation, not a debate. If you have a debate, it’s about convincing the other side that you’re right. It’s argumentative and confrontational , and it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be able to change their mind. Instead, invite them to have a conversation. Go in with the idea that you want to understand why they feel the way they do. Give them a safe space to explain themselves.

Look for common ground. You agree on something. You can find some area where you’re both on the same page. I was discussing the Affordable Care Act with someone a few months ago, and we were on diametrically opposite sides of the issue. Finally, I looked for common ground. “Can we agree,” I asked, “that when someone gets in a car accident and goes to the hospital, we’re not going to refuse to treat them?” He agreed. Great. All we need to do, then, is figure out how to pay for it. By finding some common ground, you start to build a connection. The more you do that, the less important the differences become.

Talking is not fighting. When you’re talking, you’re not fighting. You might become animated. There might be some yelling or fists pounding on the table. But there’s no violence. The violence doesn’t start until the talking stops. As long as you keep talking, you’re okay.

Be patient. You’re not going to convert someone overnight. Whatever the issue is, there are roots underneath it. You’re not going to spend an hour discussing abortion or immigration or social programs and convince them to change their mind. But maybe you can give them one thing that they’ll think about later. Give them one little reason to just move their position an inch. Be pro-active. Talk to people who disagree with you. Learn from them, and give them the opportunity to learn from you.

Avoid condescension. Don’t be insulting. You will hear opinions that you don’t like. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and remember that you’re giving them a safe space to express them. But everyone is not entitled to their own facts. When they say something that is untrue, call them on it. Ask for evidence of their claim. Or, if you have evidence that counters their point, share it. Correct the facts, but don’t be mean about it.

I think maybe it’s time to venture out of our bubbles and echo chambers once in a while to try to have some real conversations. I’ll close my HuffPo and Mother Jones browser tabs for a little while. Maybe you can stop listening to Breitbart and Fox News for a couple hours. And we can look for common ground.

Photo credit: Martha Soukup on Flickr.

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The Scheduled Unconference

I recently attended EdCamp NEO, hosted in the fantastic new Paradigm facility at Mentor High School. I’ve been to about a dozen EdCamps now. It’s always fun to watch the schedule evolve as the event goes on, and people create the conversations that are most relevant to them.

edcampneoThis event had about 100 people, which is the perfect size for an EdCamp. All of the usual topics were discussed, and people left feeling excited and energized about genius hours and maker spaces and Google tools and learning apps. Most of the participants seemed to get a lot out of the experience.

But they don’t come back. It’s something I first noticed in 2013. In just about every EdCamp I’ve attended, someone asks during the welcome session how many people have never been to an EdCamp before. Usually, about 2/3 of the hands go up. The leader then explains how EdCamps work and encourages people to actively participate in scheduling, facilitating, and participating in sessions.

But if 2/3 of the people are new to EdCamps, and they don’t seem to grow much beyond about 100 people, where is everyone going? Why is it that they leave with a sense that it was time well spent, yet many of them never return to another one? Of the 30 or so veterans, about half of them are the die-hard leaders who go to every EdCamp. These people are engaged in professional learning networks. They engage with others in a variety of online and offline formats. Attending an EdCamp is just one piece of an ongoing dialogue about learning that transcends any particular event.

But that means there are only a handful of people who have been to a few events without fully engaging in a PLN. With the overwhelmingly positive reaction that most EdCamps get from the participants, there should be a lot of people coming back for a second or third time. But there’s a huge gap between the value teachers claim to derive from an unconference and their willingness to repeat the experience.

If I compare that to other conferences I’ve attended, the difference is enormous. The people who attend OETC or the IdeaStream conference or NEOTech seem to go year after year. Sure, there are always new people. But many of those attending have done so repeatedly.

Maybe it’s because it’s free. Nobody has to come. We don’t get time off to attend. Nobody has to pay anything. Once that registration is submitted, there’s no down side to not showing up. I guess that’s part of it. We don’t value the things that we don’t have to pay for.

Maybe it’s that they’re repetitive. We do see the same kinds of conversations, with the same questions, the same responses, and the same roadblocks. Maybe we can’t get beyond that because nobody has good answers to the tough questions. The room is always smarter than the individuals in it, but even the collective intelligence can’t have all of the answers.

Or maybe it’s a lack of faith that participation in a learning community is is actually beneficial. We’re living in an era of standards. We have to be very clear about our instructional goals. We spend an enormous amount of time getting to consensus on what we’re going to teach in every class at every grade level. The structure of education is the organization of content to be covered. That’s a good thing. A student who has successfully completed 7th grade science in Cincinnati should have the same basic skills and knowledge as a student who successfully completed 7th grade science in Ashtabula. So if there’s a professional development event with no clear objectives, it has a diminished value.

Last fall, I attended a one-day conference for school technology professionals organized by ITSCO. Their approach was a hybrid between a traditional conference and an unconference. They had a couple general keynote sessions. Then, there was a series of breakouts. Some of the breakouts were pre-scheduled, with leaders that were selected in advance who were prepared to speak about pre-selected topics. But they also had a few rooms available for unconference sessions. At the opening session, attendees were encouraged to propose ideas for these unconference rooms. This gave the conference the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the audience, without entirely abandoning the concept of pre-planned, organized conference breakouts.

I think we’re going to see more of that as we move along.

Photo credit: Jeremy Shorr, using Vicki Turner’s phone.

Are We There Yet?

I’m a believer in personal learning networks. I’ve often said that I have learned far more from my colleagues than I have from any graduate course or workshop or conference. I’ve connected with people from all over the world, exchanging ideas, debating instructional approaches, and uniting in finding the best ways to leverage technology to improve learning and best meet students’ evolving needs.

map-29903_1280The technologies have evolved over the years. Online bulletin boards and usenet made way for web-based discussion boards and email lists. Blogs and wikis made it easy for anyone to post ideas online, and podcasts, Skype and Google Plus made it easy to connect with audio and video. The move to mobile and the integration of social networking tools have made connecting a friction-less part of life. It’s easier, sometimes, to use these tools to message the people in my own home than it is to go upstairs and find them. At the same time, these tools have made it easy to blend my social networks with my professional learning networks. Everything is in the same place.

At professional conferences, I’ve increasingly moved away from the the pre-planned presentations, in which a speaker talks about a topic for an hour, in favor of more interactive sessions that are more improvised and targeted to meet the needs of the people in the room. For me, this trend began with Educon several years ago, and has continued through the EdCamp movement and the unconference components of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference, OETCx. I think the exchange of ideas on that informal level is just as valuable, and perhaps more authentic, than the sessions that have an “expert” doing all the talking.

At the same time, though, I’ve noticed that I’ve been increasingly disengaged in the last couple years. I’m still writing here (at least once a month), and I get good feedback about the ideas I share. But I’m really not reading a lot of blogs anymore, and I’m not reading any on a regular basis. I’m listening to a lot of podcasts, but most are not directly related to technology or education. I check in with twitter occasionally, and find an occasional resource or perspective being shared that’s new. But for the most part, it’s the same things over and over again. Testing is killing American schools. We have to do a better job of teaching students to think critically. Common core sucks (except when it doesn’t). Everyone’s attacking education and teachers, and no one is doing anything about it. Politicians haven’t got a clue. Yeah. I’ve heard all that.

Learning must be student-focused. We have to meet the individual needs of every student. Differentiate by adjusting rigor. Assessment should inform (formative) and reflect (summative) learning. Evidence of learning happens in more ways than just test performance. Learning must be relevant to the student. It has to be active. Insert your favorite John Dewey quote here.

None of this excites me, because it’s not very groundbreaking. I have to use that word carefully. I’ve been twice accused of killing podcasts by claiming that they’re not adding value to the global conversation.  But I’m more likely to jump into Facebook these days, which I’ve curated to be entirely social, than I am to check Twitter (which is mostly professional). The same people are talking about the same things they’ve been talking about for the past decade.

A couple years ago, I tried to lead a conference session on moving the conversation into practice. We all have great ideas on what education should be, but sadly that vision is not fully realized in very many schools. Even in my own school district, where we have vertiable edtech rock stars, there’s a lot of disagreement about how to best put these ideas into practice. The session was quickly derailed and devolved into a weird mix of “Pearson is evil,” and “we have to protect our kids online.” I was embarrassed that we couldn’t get further than that.

The more I think about it, though, the more I see the edtech conversation as a weird combination of candy and Jaeger shots. The retweets from conferences are the ones that are witty and shallow. Find the 12-word sound byte, and you’ll be popular. It doesn’t matter if you say something new, as long as you’re clever about it. I think I’m ready to have a salad or a pint of ale or a grande cafe con leche. Let’s  dig a little deeper and spend a little more time.

Coursera keeps telling me that it has suggestions for me. Maybe I should take them. Or perhaps I should be engaging with fewer people on a deeper level. Tools like Slack and Viber make it easier to organize small teams. Maybe that makes sense for collaborative learning projects with more  specific goals in mind.

We know that the success of learning is largely dependent on setting goals ahead of time, and then demonstrating that progress has been made toward reaching that goals. At this point, though, I’m not sure that “continued professional growth” is a sufficient goal. I need to be more specific about what I want from my learning network, and curate  the network to meet that goal.

Image source: Pixabay.