by Tarah Hodgkinson
"As I watched my class struggle, I came to realize that conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill we fail to teach students!" – Paul Barnswell
This quote was an accurate description of my experience teaching at a university over the last several years. Students entered the classroom, sat down, not even acknowledging the person sitting beside them and began immediately looking at their phones until the class started. Sometimes even after the class started!
When asked questions, they looked shocked they were not getting a lecture for two straight hours. When asked to get into groups, they would awkwardly look around, uncomfortable that they might have to engage with others in their class.
There are a lot of articles and stories about millennials and their lack of social skills. But I don’t just see this in millennials. I see this in meetings I have with adults from all age groups as they quickly rely more on their phones for connection than each other.
The extent of the problem wasn’t evident until I taught a class of 25, fourth-year students. Using problem-based learning methods (PBL), the same approach we use in SafeGrowth, students were constantly talking to each other, working on group projects, participating in activities, coming up with ideas and creating solutions in teams.
CONNECTING WITH OTHERS
In their feedback at the end of the semester they said something surprising – they made friends! For the first time in university they felt that they knew people and could connect. This was the moment I realized that conversational competence, listening skills, conflict management, and emotional intelligence were more important than any of the content I had been teaching. They had learned how to talk to each other!
It is the same success emerging from a field training program for police recruits that also employs PBL and emotional intelligence – the Police Training Officer program – and it was recently adopted as PBL/emotional intelligence curricula upgrades into the teaching at a small number of leading police academies.
In an article entitled The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us, George Monbiot described how youth are lonelier than ever and the dramatic effects on our health and communities.
After witnessing media reports of incident after incident of excessive force and mistreatment, and a lack of police communication skills to prevent those incidents, I decided to broaden this style of teaching beyond just a fourth-year class.
A NEW WAY TO TEACH POLICING
Thus, this year, I introduced PBL into an introductory policing course in which many of the 70 students planned to become police officers. Did they learn the structure of policing in Canada and about different types of policing strategies and issues nationally and internationally? Of course! But they also learned how to talk to each other.
They were tested on their listening skills and then practiced those skills with a partner. They reflected on conflicts in their own lives, how they managed it and how to manage it more appropriately. They read You in Blue: Guide for the New Cop and learned how to improve their self-awareness and emotional intelligence. They explored mental health, work-life balance, and poor management in policing. We discussed how to have better conversations by acknowledging the speaker's position and listening with the intent to understand, not just to reply.
Consider that most police training includes only a few hours of verbal judo, this course provided far more time to work on the most important skills in policing – social interaction and listening.
Equally important, when we reflected on the class in the last day, over 90% of the students responded they had made new friends in the class. Maybe the “Age of Loneliness” is not killing us. Maybe we just need to help our students (and new police officers), learn how to better connect with others in their classes and in their communities!