Seeking first to understand

My kids roll their eyes in mock dismay at the mere mention of Stephen Covey, but one of his principles which I cite the most is to “Seek first to understand,” rather than to be understood.

This principle is floating through my head this morning as I read through a stream of blog posts about including student voices more in education–whether at the NECC conference or other conferences, or in the educational blogosphere, or in schools in general.  Scott Schwister, Karl Fisch, Clay Burrell, Scott McLeod, and Sylvia Martinez have all picked up threads in the conversation if you want to follow them.

Scott Schwister writes,

“Central to all of this is the idea that educators have much to learn from students, and that we start by listening to what students have to say. Accept this premise, and then comes the straightforward task of creating spaces for speaking, listening, and dialogue; and after that the infinitely more complex task of figuring out what to do with what we’ve learned. “

He offers an excellent list of ways to support student bloggers in the conversation, while recognizing that there are many other ways to get students involved.

This is a worthwhile conversation and the writers I respect, above, have a lot of insightful comments.  So my addition is, rather than starting with blogs or with a national conference, how can we change some practices on the campus level to engage more student voices?

1.  Including students on campus committees and giving them authentic input is important.   Having had experience with that this year on our Vision committee which has student members, it’s been helpful to have their perspectives.  (In fact, a student is chairing our technology subcommittee on the Vision committee–first time we’ve ever had meetings that ended on time!).   

2.  Our district has a policy of clearing/deleting all student email accounts and network folders at the end of each year, starting fresh for the next year.  All these discussions about student voices and 24/7 learning has led me to believe that we need to rethink that policy.  How can we continue to stay connected with our students and be partners in learning if we shut the doors on that in May?  (I got this idea from one of the blogs I read, can’t remember where, so someone claim credit for this!)  I’ve wanted to share things with some of the students on our committee this summer, but I had gotten so used to emailing them, that I forgot that their accounts would be eliminated and we forgot to make some other arrangement for communicating prior to the end of school.)   Having places where the conversation with students could happen year round is a significant shift.

3.  Set up a Ning group for students and teachers to interact on broader conversations about education on our campus.

4.  Some of our English teachers have their students write  “Occassional Papers”  which are short essays that are read aloud and discussed.  While the topics for these are self-driven, could we somehow build on this model for some conversations about education that are written, posted on a wiki for discussion, or even blogged? 

5.  Panel discussions–We’re starting a series of Power Lunches next year, where we invite speakers in to talk with both students and teachers once a week.  Could we deepen these conversations by having “follow-up” discussions on a blog or face-to-face, after the speaker leaves, so that there is more conversation between the teachers/students?

6.  Panel discussions part two–Could we set up some student panel discussions where students of different “walks” could discuss issues relating to education?  (I’m thinking more in the broad philosophical sense here, rather than should lunch be 30 minutes or 45.)

7.  Workshops and inservice days–Could we invite students to attend teacher technology workshops or inservice days?  Or at least select groups of students like those on our student council, Vision committee,  or in our “Ready, Set, Teach” class?   What about allowing interested students to sign up to attend technology workshops the same way we allow teachers to?    AISD had a model where they trained teachers/students together on digital filmmaking.  What would that look like and how could something like this work?

8.  Book/webpage selection–I’m going to look for the best tools to set up a sharing site for students on our library webpage, where they could share good websites with me or suggest books to purchase, and try to draw on their expertise more.  (I try to do this in conversation and by watching sites they use, as sometimes they don’t want to take the time to “post” on our website, but this would give them more options.)  We do have a blog for students where this could happen already.

9.   Continue to solicit input on the new library design from students(and on the building in general).  We did a survey about the library prior to the bond, asking for student input, but I’d like to continue that as we move closer to construction.  Students rarely get asked for input on design of their building, yet we build them for students.

10.  Collaborate with teachers/administrators on this issue in department chair and Vision committee meetings.   Talk about as a campus how we can enable more of a partnership in learning with our students.

Clay Burrell writes about the infantalization of our students and his comments remind me of comments Tim Tyson made at the closing session at NECC.  He talked about how sheltered and revered today’s students are, and wondered when we start asking them to make meaningful contributions–at what age do we ask them to do that?  College? Adulthood?   He asked why we wouldn’t start asking them as students?

When we seek first to understand our students and the meaningful contributions they can make, that conversation can transform our campuses into  much deeper learning communities.

Additions? ideas?  What can we do?

2 thoughts on “Seeking first to understand

  1. Isn’t it amazing that we continue to try to create our educational institution/”business” without consulting the student “customer”? The really neat side-effect is that the student participants often gain an understanding of responsibility and accountability in the experience…and that the “adults” begin to really understand the power of collaboration!

  2. Striving first to understand, and then include all the parties, in education is probably the first and only step needed to nourish the continually evolving business of education.

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