Sudbury Assignment: Negotiate, Mediate, Communicate

Many parents want to know what their child is learning at the Sudbury School of Atlanta.  “Sudbury Assignment:” is a series of articles that help parents recognize what sorts of things their children are learning and the depth of experience their child gets at our Sudbury school. 

Sudbury Assignment #3: Negotiate, Mediate, Communicate

A 2012 study of 225 U.S. companies showed that 98% of employers say that communication skills are important or very important skills they consider when hiring.  A 2010 study on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) found that 89% of companies feel that colleges and universities should place greater emphasis on “the ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing.”   A 2011 study on behalf of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) found that the top three skills desired by employers are:

  1. Interpersonal skills
  2. Teamwork
  3. Problem solving

These skills are placed even above “job-specific knowledge!”

 If communication skills are seen as critical for nearly all companies in hiring, why is the predominant message of traditional K-12 education, “Don’t talk.”

Shhhhh.  Don’t talk in class.  Don’t talk at lunch.  Don’t talk in the halls.  Don’t talk when going to the bathroom.  Hold your finger over your mouth to remember.  If you talk, you might not get a candy reward or you might get a demerit or even detention.  If you continue to talk in class, you might even get sent to the principal’s office to talk about your talking problem.

Does spending 13 years in a system that punishes communication develop strong communication skills in students?  No.  It simply does not.

Previously, I was the Associate Director of the Center for Global Leadership and Team Development at the business school at the University of California, Irvine, a top 50 MBA program.  My job was to provide leadership skills trainings for MBA students and corporate clients.  What were our training priorities?

1.  Communication skills
2.  Teamwork
3.  Problem solving

Sound familiar?  There is no escaping that these skills are essential in the workplace and there is no escaping that the traditional K-12 system actively discourages the development of these skills.   I have also worked for twenty years organizing and facilitating leadership programs for high school students.  High school leadership programs are popular because they focus on these important skills that are discouraged in traditional K-12.

At the Sudbury School of Atlanta, student communication is a priority.  Part of the students’ responsibilities at SSA are to build a democracy, create a fair and equitable judicial process and manage the affairs of the school.  How could they possibly take on such large responsibilities if they were not allowed to talk?  What other instances in life do people have to accomplish important tasks without communicating?  The scenario is absurd. 

Students practice negotiation, mediation and communication skills every day at Sudbury.  They learn to work together as they build their democracy.  The must think critically and creatively and communicate through every decision and every vote because they agree to live by what the group decides.   Early on at our school, students spent six weeks negotiating with each other the conditions, rules and expectations for getting two gerbils for the school.  They mediate conflicts with each other every day and if they are not successful, they mediate further as part of the judicial committee until a resolution is achieved.  And if their judicial system or democracy falls short of their needs, they communicate, mediate and negotiate further to create the necessary changes.      

And what about when students choose not to talk?  What should they be doing?  Listening.  At Sudbury, students listen to the perspective of others, discuss personal and community values and priorities and negotiate decisions accordingly.  Negotiation and mediation not only require communicating but also receiving communication, thoughtfully considering another person’s ideas and responding appropriately.  Students practice these skills every day at SSA.

Bottom line: If communication skills are a number one priority for hiring employers, shouldn’t they be a number one priority for schools?  At the Sudbury School of Atlanta, communication skills are a top priority which is why we build them into the structure of our school.