Discussion skills are embedded in the VCE English Study Design and the Australian Curriculum: students are required to take turns, actively listen, check for understanding and ‘apply the conventions of discussion’. But what are the conventions of discussion? If media interviews, YouTube videos and online conversations are any guide, ‘blurt, blather and bombard’ seem to be widely accepted discussion techniques.
American journalist and radio broadcaster Celeste Headlee’s TED talk from May 2015, ‘10 ways to have a better conversation’, is a clear and concise exploration of the lessons she has learnt about good discussions. Most of the talk outlines her ten simple tips for a good conversation. Her introduction acknowledges the impact of technology on people’s ability to have constructive face-to-face discussions and hints at the rising prevalence of ‘shouty-caps’ discourse in real life. Is there is an English curriculum outcome that has more direct, everyday, real-life applications?
This talk could be the central focus of a very practical class or unit designed to build speaking and listening skills. Headlee’s easy-to-follow rules are classroom-friendly for Years 7–12, and perhaps even accessible for the later years of primary school. The talk will be a helpful starter to build EAL listening skills and will be made even more useful by the subtitles (which are available in 16 different languages) and the full transcript. TED talks are also downloadable, so there is no need to worry about having to stream it in class.
Two incredibly useful features of TED talks that most people don’t notice are the speaker’s footnotes and reading list. The notes link you to all the articles and studies mentioned in the talks, indexed by time. The reading list provides you with a series of additional resources curated by the speaker. Asking students to complete similar lists to accompany their own oral presentations will help them to achieve the outcome of appropriately citing sources in their oral presentations. (From her notes, I particularly recommend Paul Barnwell’s My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation from The Atlantic, which raises important questions about teens’ ability to hold articulate, extended, face-to-face conversations.)
Scroll down for a content breakdown that will help you to assess if these resources are right for your school context or class, and for a free downloadable PDF of guiding questions and activities. Please note that all links below and in the PDF will take you to third-party sites.
Best wishes and happy teaching.
10 ways to have a better conversation by Celeste Headlee, TEDX Creative Coast, filmed 10 May 2015 in Savannah Georgia.
Form: filmed live presentation
Presented by: Celeste Headlee, host of the news/talk show On Second Thought, which airs in the USA on Georgia Public Broadcasting
Central ideas: includes a list of ways to improve the quality of conversations based on Headlee’s experience as an interviewer. The talk is based on the premise that modern communication, and its reliance on screen-based interactivity, has diminished our capacity for face-to-face conversations that require impromptu responses.
Suitability and relevance
Download includes guiding questions and activities suitable for:
- Year 11 and 12 English/EAL: exploring the conventions of discussion
- Year 10: discussing the inclusive and exclusive social effects of verbal and online communications; actively developing verbal interaction skills
- Year 9: discussing the ways that relationships are expressed and changed through communication; actively participating in discussions to develop interaction skills
- Year 8: using appropriate conventions in different types of verbal communication; interpreting implied meanings in spoken conversation
- Year 7: developing interaction skills and comprehension strategies in discussions, using appropriate language for a given situation
Content warnings: the word ‘crap’ is used once.
Cross references: Paul Barnwell article, My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation, in The Atlantic (22 April 2014); Henry Higgins’ advice to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady; and Pew Research Centre study about the number of texts teenagers send a day (estimated to be over 100 texts a day for 1/3 of Americans teens)
- On Second Thought segment ‘Atlanta Native Creates Global Event Dedicated To Listening’, by Celeste Headlee & Sean Powers, 12 April 2016. This radio interview discusses Free Listening Day, an event that encourages people to stand outside holding signs that say ‘Free Listening’, and listen to whatever people have to say.
- Free Listening Day is an initiative of Urban Confessional, an organisation that originated in Los Angeles as a group of actors who stood in public places with signs that read ‘Free Listening’, and would hear the stories of to anyone who felt like a chat. The group is now active in 13 countries, with participants from a wide range of professions and backgrounds.
- ‘My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation’, by Paul Barnwell, The Atlantic, 22 April 2014 – a piece about teaching his high school class to speak on a specific topic without notes.
‘Now everyone is connected, is this the death of conversation?’, by Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 27 April 2012 – an opinion piece about the impact of mobile technology on human interaction.
- Julian Treasure, ‘How to speak so that people listen’, TED, filmed February 2013 at TEDGlobal 2013. Julian Treasure is a sound expert, who advises businesses around the world how to use sound for their benefit. In this talk he discusses his ‘Seven deadly sins of speaking’.