Can education exist without communication? Whether through spoken language or body language, we have evolved to learn by observing and tweaking, and that natural process seems almost entirely absent from the programming provided by fraternities and sororities, and education as a whole.
When one wants to learn to play a sport, there are moments in which they learn the rules or in which the coach instructs via lectures. To improve as an athlete; however, one must practice and must then be coached further to improve their personal skill set and knowledge base.
As a swimmer, our coach would show us videos of olympic athletes to observe their technique. We would practice those techniques out of water, where he would position our arms and legs so that we could learn how it felt to get it just right. He’d then record us while we swam and review our videos after practice to explain where we needed to prioritize our focus for subsequent practices. Sometimes he would jump in the water and literally move our limbs.
That is how one learns. The lecture is important, but so is observation, practice, and personalized coaching. Perhaps too few of us consciously acknowledge that communication is the basic skill set of any educator. Communication is a two-way street; a great communicator does more than speak well. (Think of Hilary Swank in “Freedom Writers” or any movie with that cliché, “white teacher struggles, then learns to talk to anarchical non-white students” storyline)
We often recognize the need for personalized education, but the vast majority of educational programming within higher education and the fraternity world comes in the form of one time lectures. Too few people are willing to challenge the system, thinking minor tweaks like “breakout sessions” solve the problem. They might address a challenge with a 3-day educational program, but what about after those 3 days?
We need structural change to our approach to education – and technology is in a place to allow it.
A study out of UCLA suggests that sexual assault interventions may result in a reverse of their intended effect among “at-risk” males, and the researchers suggest this is due to a lack of a comprehensive strategy in university programming. Given the heightened focus on sexual assault programming, and the increased expenditure of predominantly student dues to pay for it, that is a horrifying outcome.
Two obstacles inhibiting fraternity education and higher education in general:
- Students grow up in factory-styled learning environments. If a student doesn’t communicate as others do and doesn’t do well in the world of standardized tests, curriculums and teachers to the extent that they can’t improve, we label that as a “disability.” What is a learning disability if not a recognition that a student needs to learn through a different method of communication? What about students who perform just well enough to avoid the diagnosis of “disability,” but just poorly enough to evade personalized attention at the expense of their future?
- Some educators are so eager to make it big, become a renowned speaker, and acquire mentees/fans that they disregard the need for continued follow-up and personalized coaching. Any follow-up resources are written from one perspective, and without explicit instruction to continue learning their ideas lose favor over time because too many people attempt them, fail, and assume that the ideas were wrong, not that they weren’t taught correctly. This is what happened with Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why?”
Great educators learn from their students. They learn how students talk, they observe them as they put what they’ve learned into practice, and they take note of what learners value. They ask questions not only to recognize if a student understands what is taught but to learn how a student communicates so that they may adjust their tactics accordingly. Importantly, they guide students to other educators who might better suit their needs.
Journalists communicate with and educate the public. They should be curious and ask thoughtful questions, but most use lazy tactics: “So-and-so said this on twitter, defend yourself!” As educators, they inadvertently teach us to learn by accusing others, formulating an opinion and asking someone to prove us wrong. I smirk when I see folks demand others “staying informed” by paying attention to the news. . . most news media is high brow gossip – at best. To learn from others we must learn from them. If we do not value what they have to offer then we find someone else to learn from.
So we fail students when we simply talk about them at conferences and leave them ignorant to decision-making processes. Too often, journalists and higher education professionals grill the CEO of the NIC or of any particular fraternity, but they are misplacing their focus. It’s the students we need to learn more from and coach to progress (beyond a 1 hour seminar) – because the students ultimately control our policies and whether or not they are adhered to.
Here are some things to consider when it comes to a comprehensive, effective education strategy. Choose one you like and work toward making it happen – I’ll help as best I can:
- Facilitate the facilitator. Curriculums often include a lead facilitator, small group facilitators and students – but your lead facilitator should have the duty of coaching “small group” facilitators (swap “facilitator” with volunteers/advisors) to best coach the students. Teach up the chain. Every student program is a chance to teach your volunteers how they best help coach others.
- Crowd source educational programming, so that a greater variety of people with a greater variety of approaches can reach and connect with a greater variety of students. Focus on consistency of direction, rather than uniformity of programming.
- Prioritize your communication departments and officers. Why? Because education is communication, and every essential element of fraternity life (friendship, networking, recruitment, community engagement) improves with a consistent direction in an organization’s communication efforts. (A post on my personal experiences in this area coming soon!)
- Finally, give students room to practice and to fail until they get it right. Just like we send students to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress, we should actively help students engage in local/regional issues, issues affecting the greater fraternity world, and within umbrella organizations. We can’t teach “practices of leadership” and then offer nothing when it comes time to practice them.