The lost art of communication

Written by: Tom Ravenscroft | Published:

It is one of life’s most important skills, says Tom Ravenscroft, so why aren’t we teaching children to talk to each other?

We communicate a lot. From the lecture hall to the office to the boardroom, the adult world is filled with situations where we have to absorb information and speak engagingly.

So as a young teacher, I was troubled by what I observed in the 15 and 16-year-old students in my business studies class. Though bright, these students struggled to capture what was discussed in class, and were often muddled when presenting information. When I asked questions, students would prefer to shrug and maintain a blank look.

According to the all-important coursework trackers, they were making good progress – but I could see that there was something fundamental missing.

Asking around, I heard the same story from my colleagues at every level: 11-year-olds heading into secondary school unable to arrange their points in a logical order; eight-year-olds needing classroom instructions repeated endlessly; five-year-olds talking over each other in conversations without actually listening.

These students didn’t have these essential communication skills. Why on earth would they? No-one had ever explicitly taught them.

Great communication is, of course, a two-part process. First, there’s the ability to listen actively, considering not just the words being said but their context and the speaker’s motives – not to mention retaining and processing the information.

Then we have the ability to present effectively, which involves thinking hard about language used, the organisation of arguments, and the likely attitude of the audience.

These skills are critical enablers of learning. There is a lot of knowledge and understanding to be consumed in the classroom. Equally, the process of collecting your own learning and conveying to someone else deepens understanding.

Beyond the classroom, these skills become even more essential. College and university require that students absorb complex information, often in crowded lecture theatres, and without the individual adaptations of school. In the workplace, too, communication skills are paramount. Many jobs require the quick comprehension of instructions.

We also know that employers are quick to make judgements at the interview stage, so it’s critical that applicants are able to speak, listen and answer questions impressively.

As we would expect, employers consistently highlight communication as one of the most important skills sought not just in entry-level employees but in those being promoted. However, half of businesses responding to CBI research in 2016 reported that school and college-leavers lacked communication skills.

The Ancient Greeks made communication skills the foundation of their education system. Collecting and presenting ideas publicly and asking fruitful questions were viewed as keys to success in other disciplines – and as such, these skills were taught explicitly.

Their wisdom persists to this day. These abilities are not the innate gifts of the empathetic and charismatic few, the truth is that anyone can learn these skills.

Teaching essential skills – including communication skills as well as creative problem-solving, self-management and interpersonal skills – is best done as a core part of the curriculum at every age level, just like numeracy and literacy.

This includes the youngest students of four or five building their listening skills through recalling narratives and instructions. They must learn to be patient and minimise distraction.

In secondary school, young people must learn to think critically about the speaker’s motivations and perspectives, as well as demonstrating their attention through engaged body language.

Similarly, presenting skills can be built from early on. Key skills include structuring and expressing complex ideas, noticing the effects of varying tone and gestures, and an awareness of context and audience.

Furthermore, it is key that this teaching takes place in an environment where skills are referenced explicitly and consistently. Progress also needs to be measured so that strengths and weaknesses can be identified.

Crucially, we must make sure we bring the skills to life, by framing them in terms of their relevance for the outside world.

The ability to communicate really well underpins learning at school and at university, opens the doors to fulfilling employment and allows young people the freedom to choose their own path in life.

The Skills Builder framework from Enabling Enterprise – a social enterprise – breaks down these communication skills into teachable and measurable chunks so they can be built progressively from a young age all the way until young people leave school. And our work shows that, while not every child will become a renowned orator, every child can become an effective communicator – and they are much more likely to thrive because of it.

  • Tom Ravenscroft is founder and CEO of Enabling Enterprise a social enterprise working with schools to build the essential skills of three to 18-year-olds. Tom’s book, The Missing Piece: The Essential Skills that Education Forgot, is out now (John Catt Educational Publishing).


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