Breeding Civilty With Civility

2680397236_29306068f8_bA recent “Grey Matter” piece in the New York Times Sunday Review entitled “This Story Stinks” takes a look at the impact comments have on people’s perception of content (in this case, nanotechnology). The goal of the study being reported on was to better understand how civil and  uncivil comments on blogs, digital newspapers, or other Internet hosted domains shape readers’ reactions and opinions.

They split up their study subjects into two samples, both of which read the same article on nanotechnology and then different sets of comments to the piece. The authors, Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele write,

Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”

The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

While the focus of this particular study was on Internet user comments, and on a very specific subject topic, it would not be hard to see how these micro trends might play out in schools and classrooms.

Do student comments influence how other students perceive an activity, information, or learning experience?

Can civil or incivil discussions supplement or distort students’ perceptions of knowledge, opinions, and even themselves?

Do words directed at others shape self concept, both negatively and positively?

To these questions, I would resoundingly answer, “YES!”

The language of schools and learning communities very much shape the culture, attitudes and norms of any particular institution or group. If our goal is the cultivation of life-long learners who are capable of collaboration, creativity, and effective communication toward solving problems, civility must not only be embraced by schools as a worthwhile theory, but actively taught, modeled and practiced.

As this study suggests, incivility breeds polarization. And as we have seen all too often in Washington D.C., polarization breeds paralysis. Before “achievement,” we must consider the intellectual, social, and emotional well-being of each and every student and stop at nothing to ensure students feel safe to listen, share, and learn.

Photo Credit: eric Hews via Compfight cc

A Landscape of Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones?

Stepping Stones by Vicki 13Our varied perspectives on gun control, safety, and equity will be thrown into stark contrast as we process the recent tragic events in Newtown. Our discourses, dialogues and debates will not be simple or easy, but they will be essential and necessary to not only heal from this tragedy, but to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

In a recent TEDx Talk, Superintendent of Albemarle County, VA, Dr. Pamela Moran, suggested the audience look up the work of D.W. Meinig, the Maxwell Research Professor Emeritus of Geography at Syracuse University. His piece, “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” offers a apropos frame for remembering what is most common among us all: That we are all different.

He sets the stage as such:

Take a small but varied company to any convenient viewing place overlooking some portion of city and countryside and have each, in turn, describe the “landscape” (that “stretch of country as seen from a single point,” as the dictionary defines it), to detail what it is composed of and say something about the “meaning” of what can be seen. It will soon be apparent that even though we gather together and look in the same direction at the same instant, we will not – we cannot – see the same landscape. We may certainly agree that we will see many of the same elements – houses, roads, trees, hills – in terms of such denotations as number, form, dimension, and color, but such facts take on meaning only through association; they must be fitted together according to some coherent body of ideas. Thus we confront the central problem: any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads. (emphasis mine)

While he goes on to describe ten possible frames of perspective that viewers might impose on the landscape (such as a Problem, a Habitat, a System, etc), the exercise is an apt metaphor for thinking about Newtown. As we, from our varying experiences, understandings, knowings, and assumptions, “view” the events of last Friday, we see them not just with our eyes, but with “what lies within our heads”, and, I might add, within our hearts.

It is herein where our differences become either stumbling blocks or stepping stones.

Do we default to ideology or suspend opinion/judgment long enough to both listen AND hear another point of view? Do we focus on a single event or on a larger scope of violent injustices that endanger children (often children of color, which go largely unreported) in cities across our nation on a daily basis? Will our mosaic of learned wisdoms become a quilt of solutions or will they remain fractured fragments of understanding whose fabrics and patterns are too eclectic to come together?

While I do not know the answers to those questions, I do know that within learning communities, differences are the norm. Or, perhaps stated another way: What is “normal” is variation. When leveraged well, this normed diversity is a strength — a uniter, not a divider.

Dr. Meinig closes with this:

Ten landscapes do not exhaust the possibilities of such a scene, but they do suggest something of the complexities of the topic. Identification of these different bases for the variations in interpretations of what we see is a step toward more effective communication. For those of us who are convinced that landscapes mirror and landscapes matter, that they tell us much about the values we hold and at the same time affect the quality of the lives we lead there is ever the need for wider conversations about ideas and impressions and concerns relating to the landscapes we share.

If the events in Newtown are of any indication (especially against backdrop of the challenges of our urban districts and our failure to close the racial achievement gap), “more effective communication” is at the heart of what we need as a nation to bring about and sustain more transformative learning communities. And, if I may dream so large, bring about peace and equity across this land.

Image: Vicki 13, flickr

For those of you interested, I highly recommend the below TEDx Talk by Dr. Pamela Moran.

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