The Illusion of Communication – Teaching it Real
Teaching it Real

The Illusion of Communication

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“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

Schools are places that depend on communication. We are constantly communicating complex information to the young people. Not only are we transmitting, but we are continually seeing what they are communicating back to us, to assess what they understand, what they need and what we can do to best provide that. We use our words and gestures, images, demonstrations, exemplars, and models and pretty much anything else we can lay our hands on to communicate our ideas to them and encourage them to do likewise. We are a continual flow of information back and forth, which we aim to adapt to as swiftly as possible.

But we are also in the business of communicating with adults too. That is not only staff, but parents, the public and pretty much anyone else who has an interest in the workings of schools.

So why is communication, one of the thorniest issues that comes up when I visit schools and talk to teachers and leaders? What are the issues and what might we be able to do to improve it?

Well, the first thing relates back to the words of George Bernard Shaw which I used at the start of the blog. Communication can be an illusion. We think it’s happening, but the reality of that is never simple. Just as with our students, having gone through the process of having said something, doesn’t mean it has been acknowledged, understood and embedded. We work hard with students to provide opportunities to check the message has been received, planning carefully for different ways to approach it, making use of questions, revisiting key information, summarising, condensing, and testing the quality of what has been received. We work hard too to provide the right conditions for them to receive that information, stripping away distractions, considering how we the layers of meaning and attending carefully to what they are communicating back to us. We look at their body language as well as their words to help us to understand what they are saying back to us.

However, this isn’t something we always take time to do when we are dealing with our communications with adults. We might provide letters and emails, deliver presentations and documents, but this can seem like we are broadcasting as opposed to really communicating. It becomes a one way process and not always an effective one.

During the most recent Twitter ‘storm’ around the Head Teacher’s decisions to bring in some new rules, one of the points that was raised was how this became a storm in the first place. It seems to have been taken to the ‘press’ (yes the inverted commas are deliberately selected there), presumably by some parents, or even staff, who were unhappy with the decisions being made. Regardless of what attempts may have been made to communicate the intricacies of this new policy, it hadn’t produced the desired result of producing understanding on both side. Hence perhaps the desire to involve outside bodies. We might assume this was a group who may have been unhappy regardless of the rules, already grinding personal axes or scoring points, but equally we might need to consider if maybe something had gone array in the communication of what was intended. Maybe not, but it is worth perhaps considering.

Making sure that our message is received and understood, is one of the trickiest aspects in all of our interaction in the workplace, not just when we are talking about policy change and communicating that to the wider school community but in how we build mutual understanding and relationships.

I recall sitting in meetings with senior leaders who have been talking about an upcoming event or change they wanted to see happen. There was an enormous amount of communication taking place there. It was excellent. There had also been a flurry of emails, sent back and forth, and even quite a few to inform teachers they would be involved. It was in the calendar and staff had been told about the dates and times and that details would be coming soon. . . The discussion around it appeared to have been non-stop. Everyone on the leadership team knew the fine details of what their role was. But when I began to ask questions about the logistics, if staff understood why it was being done, what their role was, and if we were certain their understanding of it was secure, it was met with blank faces and confused looks. Well, someone had spoken to staff hadn’t they? Well, no. It turns out that whilst there had been hours of communication taking place, nobody had yet began to communicate that to staff. A further flurry of emails swiftly followed.

Some would argue that there is an element of ‘need to know’ around this. What was important was that the leaders knew what was needed and why they were doing it. Of course there are times when we all need to do rather than thinking but in some of these cases staff are aware it is coming, but without understanding what it really and what they needed to do. That meant when the communications lands they were already concerned and unsure. The rushed communication that follows, lead to a lot of confusion which needs unpicking, different approaches being adopted and an outcome which did not quite fit with the desired outcome. If we don’t take time to explain not just the what, but the why and the how, it is going to be much harder to both make sure things run smoothly and ensure it is successful. Clarity in what we communicate is important, as well as ensuring it is heard, understood and open to further exploration.

This communication issue isn’t just an issue for leaders and it pervades all aspects of school life. We want to improve teaching and learning so we spend a lot of time considering how we do that, but that can happen in isolation or become reduced to list of things to do. When we cut corners with communication around this, especially when we rush to wanting to see things in action before we have even seen if people understand what we are trying to do, it is unlikely to go well. It leads us down the tick-box compliance road again, furiously laminating signs and writing reports around impact without ever pausing to see if everyone even knows what we are doing let alone if they are doing it well. People might be cold calling, modelling and assessing until the cows come home, but without understanding what it is for, why it matters and how to do it well, it is unlikely to make a significant difference to the learning that will come from it.

The same can be true of curriculum. Heads of subject and other leaders will have spent an age thinking about what they want to do and how they will go about achieving it. They will have written statements of intent, some of which will be adorning websites and office walls with pride. There may even be maps to show what route this curriculum will take. However, none of that means that it has really been communicated. Those who have created them will have devoted significant time thinking and exploring to come to their conclusions. Their team won’t have, and they are relying on how this is then communicated to understand what it is all for. They need the same opportunities as our students, especially when what we are communicating is new or complex. Ideally, they need to be part of that initial thinking process too and we need to listen carefully to what they want to communicate back to us.    

Schools we know are incredibly busy places and it is never going to be possible to sit down and check with every individual that all communication has been received and understood. However, we need to be careful about which corners we cut. If it matters, we need to take the time. Not a snatched corridor conversation with no follow up, or an email which may of may not be read, let alone understood. We need to listen to what it being communicated back to us too and reflect on what we learn from that. Review those conversations, reassess, and refine if we really want to make sure we are all heard and understood.

Good communication really matters. It not only matters on the level of the systems we want to develop, but the values, the ethos, and the purpose of all we do. When communication goes wrong, we know that issues will inevitably follow. We need to carefully consider what we are communicating, what is being communicated back and not let ourselves be distracted by the illusion.

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