One thing that struck me about EduCon 2.8 in Philadelphia last week was the emphasis on voice. The event began with a series of interviews followed by a panel discussion. The next day, following the keynote address, a series of three sessions were labeled as conversations. Attendees present and online followed #educon on Twitter to join, to listen, and to amplify concerns. Students from the Science Leadership Academy were vocal, too: they led tours, hosted the EduConcierge, and held panel discussions of their own. They freely talked with participants, and their ideas not only received our full (and sometimes divided) attention, but also, their ideas were echoed and amplified online. As you see in this tweet:
Attendees and conversation leaders offered guidance on how to cultivate and nurture students’ voices, how to remember the invisible/inaudible voice, and how to use privilege responsibly to share platforms, megaphones, and soapboxes for everyone to share their voice.
Twitter reverberated these messages about voice:
- “Everyone has a voice” from @rairvin
- “It’s not about what diversity looks like, but about how power shifts when a new voice is in the room.” from @hellowhomeroom
- “So many voices are missing, not just in education. A voice being heard gives power.” from @jenorr
- “How can we help families understand and support student voice and empowerment vs fear of social media” from @adinasullivan
- “Make sure that you don’t force students to use their voice. We need to be able to choose that for ourselves” from @xianb8
- “Please never say ever again you are giving someone voice or power, they have it, they were born.” from @MrChase
- “Schools may be the only place that students have a voice – what actions are teachers taking to insure this takes place?” from @jackiegerstein
Yet, what was missing in general, and what one conversation brought to light, is how both audiences and platforms can affect what is being said, what is not being said, and how.
The Importance of Platform: Twitter
Although EduCon 2.8 made a concentrated effort to empower students’ and teachers’ voices, there were some barriers. Twitter enabled everyone to “join the conversation,” but an individual’s reach – and read here “level of empowerment” – is limited to the audience listening. Images and participants with hundreds of followers crowded out many, many voices. Search Twitter for “#educon voice,” and you’ll see the many quotes from above under “Top Tweets.” I didn’t even bother to look at “All Tweets.” Does this act silence those voices with fewer retweets and favorites? How can people be responsible for hearing all voices without popularity to curate what we hear?
Also, note how many tweets with images are retweeted and favorited versus those that contain text. Twitter is a fine place to broadcast ideas, but one individual voice relies on chance to be heard. Will others see it in the constant cacophony of tweets? To what extent does an individual’s awareness of marketing and branding play into his/her ability to reach larger audiences? In one conversation I had, a teacher mentioned he tweeted some, but he was hesitant and doubted his ability to articulate his thoughts into an attractive message. To what extent does Twitter’s platform and culture mute voices?
The Audience of Privileged Voices
At EduCon, most Conversations were facilitated by a few experts in the subject. Panel discussions began by taking questions from the audience, workshop presentations began with introductions and quickly shifted to group work, and other conversations (read “sessions”) had a couple experts who facilitated rounds of questions and comments from those attending. Many of these sessions are available online, at the YouTube channel from Chris Lehmann.
The format was deliberately democratic, and throughout the conference, there were few “sages on stages.” The audience was empowered and given the platform to voice concerns and questions, and the audience was encouraged and given time to respond. However, the audience will determine which voices are heard and which voices are dismissed.
The conversation The Privileged Voices in Education 3.0 facilitated by Jose Vilson and Audrey Watters gave an audience and offered a discussion about who has and doesn’t have a voice in education. If you have an hour and 45 minutes to spare, I encourage you to listen to the discussion here. The myriad of opinions and concerns of these individuals should be heard by more than those in attendance. There were those from private technology companies who sought to learn how to use their privileged platform to empower others. Others spoke of frustration and requested that the invisible voices are heard. As I listened, questions filled my head:
- When voices are heard, what does listening mean and look like?
- What are the messages of silent voices and how can we hear them?
- If the problem isn’t that unprivileged voices don’t take power but rather wait for power to be given to them, how do they amplify their message?
- If everyone has a complex narrative, must it be simplified to reach a greater audience?
- Are these same narratives and voices subject to noise and interference? If so, do competing complexities accidentally cancel each other out, the same way sound-cancelling headphones work?
- Can networks, connections between members, preserve complex messages while spreading them to larger audiences?
- How do we move voice into action? How do people of privilege use their voice to spur action?
I am unqualified to offer a summary or answers to these questions, and the room itself posed more problems than specific procedures to create solutions. A few in attendance did offer solutions. Research can educate others, and Hive Research Lab was specifically mentioned. Businesses can create partnerships with schools and give their teachers and students opportunities, tools, and audiences. A couple students from a school in New York City shared how their school offered internships with IBM (one student’s voice 48:13). There was also one woman who became frustrated with trying to change education from within and ran for public office. She was the first elected woman in 150 years winning the seat of township supervisor. She’s working to bring townships together and finding advocates to speak for schools during meetings with school superintendents. “Baby steps” she offered and “taking another tack.” (20:45-22:30)
The audience amplified voices, as the video shows with several speakers repeating themes, and the audience stifled others. See what happens to that same township supervisor at 1:06. Here, she is also struggling with finding solutions, and she says, “You have to show up at the voting booths… but part of it is, if you don’t show up, it doesn’t happen.” The room had already heard her efforts to include others and to facilitate conversations among school superintendents. Unfortunately, because her words, “You do have to show up,” were perhaps ill-chosen for this specific audience, a couple attendees offered rebuttals: “The idea that only showing up, that is a very traditional, white-centered idea of what it means to show up.” After several of such statements, this woman was quieted. What other ideas or concerns might she have spoken? How might this conversation affect her own efforts back home and her own interactions with invisible voices?
Now, the conversation was labeled a “safe space,” and since many were tweeting and the conversation was broadcast live and recorded, I’m not sure what it means to be safe. Surely, this incident could have turned out better, and the fact that the room was allowed to turn on this woman concerns me. Must some voices be sacrificed to amplify others? While both sides of this exchange are valid and should be heard, it’s clear that audiences must listen with empathy.
Empathy: The First Step
The conversation Inundated with Initiatives: How do we honor the teacher’s voice? offered Design Thinking as a method for empowering teachers’ voices. For those unfamiliar with Design Thinking, the method comes from IDEO.org, and it emphasizes listening, brainstorming, and prototyping ideas to find solutions. Teachers can find a .pdf of the toolkit here, and Design Kit offers a good introduction and additional resources for human-centered design.
Amy Stolarsky and Amy Gorzynski, both from Leyden High School District 212 in Illinois, shared how and why they turned to Design Thinking in their own school and how this method helped them listen to teachers’ concerns and guided them through finding feasible solutions. Their presentation is available here.
While “Design Thinking” continues to be an educational buzz, empathy is under-represented. What makes this method powerful is the time and effort spent on researching and listening to the stakeholders. At their school, they conducted interviews with individual teachers, formed focus groups, and de-emphasized survey data. Narratives held more weight than data. Finally, their school offered valuable incentives for teachers to participate in their focus groups. How did they determine what teachers would find valuable? They listened.
We in the audience formed pairs to interview each other, and the facilitators led us through the Design Thinking method, and we practiced what they preached. Personally, I found the experience valuable. I practiced the method, but more importantly, I learned about challenges other school districts and administrators face. I also left with several ideas to bring to my own school.
Interviews conducted with empathy give invisible voices platforms and understanding audiences. They offer a chance to listen to narratives told in isolation, without disruptive feedback or noise. Then, while reviewing the interviews, themes among the voices emerge, and interviewers can form focus groups to learn more. Voices are empowered, not silenced, not lost amidst counter-narratives. The interview platform provides an attentive audience and offers the voice time and space to articulate a genuine message.
While EduCon provided many opportunities to engage in conversations, dialogues, and panel discussions, I learned the most from dialogues with attendees.