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Monthly Archives: November 2016

Safety First

It occurred to me this week that we as a nation are confused and unclear about the rules relating to violent speech in our society. At what point is an offhand remark or figure of speech heard as something more menacing? Could an impulsively composed social media comment be perceived as discriminatory and threatening? When might a well-intentioned joke become an ugly slur, or even hate speech?

I don’t have to think about violence much: I’m a tall man, surrounded by people who mostly look like me, in an occupation that is quite safe. However, considering the diverse circumstances of students around the world today—and the equally diverse environments in which they are learning—my experience of safety puts me in the minority. I’m increasingly thankful for this safety, as violent deeds and words seem to be ascendant these days. And the lines that should delineate them are becoming blurred with equal frequency.

This matters in several ways, some self-evident and some less so. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: being subject to verbal violence and the consequent fear for one’s safety—at home, at school, at work, or in one’s neighborhood—is uncomfortable at best and frightening at worst. And the ramifications related to learning are sizable. Simply put, it’s hard to learn anything when you fear for your very well-being. The energy required to learn is siphoned off into worry, anxiety, and apprehension. Immediate survival trumps learning new information about calculus or chemistry any day of the week.

The proposition that fearing for one’s personal safety impairs the ability to learn is weak fodder for debate. But I would add that there is an economic argument for getting clear about violent language. Our nation’s economic well-being, no less than our psychic well-being, is at stake.

In the long term, economic growth relies on increasing worker productivity. Hamper people from developing their full potential and you limit achievement. Safe boundaries are imperative if we are to realize the growth of human capital that necessarily precedes economic prosperity. If a group of educators and economists were to hammer out an estimate on that cost, I’d bet it would run to the billions of dollars each year.

Violent speech is harmful all across the entire educational and economic landscape, whether it takes place in the classroom, the playing field, the factory floor, or the office break room. Addressing it requires clear, definitive, and enforceable standards of behavior, and those of us who claim to be the leaders of others should be held accountable for defining and upholding those boundaries.

As we enter the season of thankfulness and giving, consider a gift to your fellow people: stand up for nonviolent speech and give the gift of less fear. Also, give the gift of courage to others who are in fear.

Be an ally.

3 Things All High School Students Should Know (and why)

We often hear about how swiftly evolving technology is transforming the acquisition of knowledge in our schools. However, though the modes of acquiring information may change rapidly, the essential knowledge that high school students should possess is fairly timeless.

  1. How to communicate. Beyond simply parroting a rehearsed message, students must consider their audience’s needs as well as their own intentions for what to communicate, and then figure out the best channel for that communication. Technology quickly alters those channels, so schools need to keep a vigilant eye on what’s new, and adopt and adapt in proportion to the needs of their students. Project-based learning requires more intensive and more intricate levels of communication among students than traditional modes of learning, making it one of the best ways to help students sharpen their communication skills.
  2. How to form research questions. With information scarcity no longer an obstacle for most U.S. students, all learners must know how to direct their curiosity into actionable questions. Research protocols like The Big Six and others give clear and repeatable structure to inquiry, allowing students to make question design and formation a habit rather than a whole new endeavor each time their curiosity bubbles up.
  3. How to ask for help. Too many adults assume that students’ digital nativeness equates to expertise with all technology, and too many students are led to believe the same. I don’t meet many teens who can harness the power of spreadsheets, however. Adults need to ensure that schools are places where asking for help is encouraged, instead of being an impediment to covering the next content chunk. Students need to consider that adults actually do know things of value to them. Adults facilitate that attitude by listening well to them and helping each student understand that their independence springs from adults who help them build that capability by stepping over one stumbling block at a time.
Please comment and share your experiences with these and other essential learning skills.