Last Friday (March 12), at Cengage Learning‘s 2010 “Course Technology Conference,” an annual gathering of college IT teachers, I talked about the importance of connection, engagement, communication, and relationship development in the classroom–skills that educators often consider “soft.” The points I made are relevant to any classroom, workplace, institution, or organization.
Pay attention to the small moments. Life is an ongoing series of casual, everyday interactions that add up. You don’t hear the sound of strings swelling in the background when something important is about to happen. So if you don’t pay attention, you might miss moments that matter. A brief talk in the hallway, an email from a former colleague, a Facebook response to a comment, a few minutes spent helping someone else–each conversation results in a bit of information, insight, clarity, a feeling of being connected, or a good laugh. And the more you notice them, the more you make them happen.
Celebrate diversity. An odd by-product of political correctness is that although it supposedly eradicates offensive language related to gender, race, religion, sexuality, and the like, it can also limit the celebration of differences. A community collage classroom, for example, is a rich font of diversity, and everyone–the taxi cab driver, the single mother, the house painter–brings something different to the table–and to each other’s lives. Different perspectives enrich us. That’s why the Occupation Test, has a range of jobs, up and down the socio-economic ladder. As sociologist Bonnie Erickson, having a diverse social convoy is “like enrolling in a liberal arts college and getting a degree in a little of almost everything.”
Use relationships, not rewards, to motivate. Actually, relationships are the best reward. In the classroom, in the workplace, at home, or any setting where people are expected to cooperate and contribute, the goal is to join with instead of laud over, to position yourself at the center, rather than rule from on high. Read this post by Howard Rheingold in which he talks about dealing with students’ divided attention in the classroom by heightening their awareness and asking them to participate with him. Smart corporate managers take a similar approach with their workers. For that matter, so do smart parents! A relationally-engaged person is a partner and an ally. (I talked about the dangers of not engaging in How GM Lost Touch With Its CS.)
Today, the ability to communicate, share, and be open to others’ ideas are essential. To think of these as “soft skills” is dismissive. Every decision we make, every piece of information we acquire, every insight, every project that needs completion involves interactions with others–face-to-face and/or online. We are all in it together.
Important Note: Howard Rheingold has developed the Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory, a free online resource for students and teachers. Arguably, we all need to explore what he considers the five key “Internet literacies”: attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness, and crap detection! It’s worth a look.