It has taken me a long time to put my thoughts on paper regarding the ideas in this post. However please forgive my rambling here – I have another piece of writing jostling in the background pushing this blog post into the world, perhaps before it is fully formed.
So much and yet so little has happened in the days since lockdown, yet each new onslaught from the world has sent me rushing to my garden for peace and solace.I know that I am incredibly privileged to have the large garden and simple life that I share with my husband. Our simple pleasures, and regular income from my work, grant us the ability to close the front door to the world, and go out of the back one. We enter a world which, although has neighbours, is a large space of trees and flowers, where tranquility is punctuated only by bird song. We have only ourselves to please and have found it easy to change the rhythm of our day and it’s pace, and change our routines, to fit the needs of any moment in time. The many days not being able to hold my family were hard, but during lockdown I felt certain that not seeing them face-to-face was the best for their health and safety. Of course we ‘spoke’ via video-call but it just wasn’t the same.
Similarly as a university lecturer working from home, overnight my world changed radically and became a series of online tools used in order to enable me to teach, collaborate, meet, and support my students and my colleagues. I found it so tiring to be online everyday, and I discovered it made me anxious too, so that by the end of each day I was irritable. Escaping into the garden to poke around in the soil, deadhead a rose, or pull a weed was the respite my soul craved. I could feel my heartrate decrease as I listened to the birdsong and buzz of bees, sharing the companionable delight with my husband. As I sat on my gardening stool my toil was often punctuated by moments of reflection. As I stopped in reverie to allow the Robin to pick over the soil at my feet, I unravelled the squiggling thoughts to some semblance of order: I missed social connection and communication during my online exchanges, and felt constantly as if something vital was missing. It was unsatisfying, and like finding a puzzle with one piece missing, it was deeply frustrating. My brain kept trying fruitlessly to fill in the gaps between the words I heard and the person on the end of them.
I have watched and listened to the Twitter chatter and the DfE’s cry that children missing schooling because of COVID would be somehow forever lacking. I hated this attitude that formal education is the only way for children to learn meaningful things. It is so disrespectful to them. Yes, they missed some teaching, but many gained so much more. Children are inherently clever, if we trust them they can discover their own learning. The role of adults becomes as a facilitator…light the blue touch paper and stand well back. Humph. So to go back to connection and particularly communication – my reflections confirmed how they are both a vital part of my life. As we know, speech, language and communication are separate things although often intrinsically interconnected. Speech is the physical ability to form words. Language is the symbolic, structured use of those words in order to express oneself effectively. Language and speech are complex, requiring important cognitive skills so that you are able to know and understand the sometimes complex rules of word order, structure and grammar. I often delight in the tongue-twisting attempts at pronouncing new words for our youngest children, the muddled sentence structure, or the inappropriate word-endings. I marvel at how most children are able to navigate and create their worlds to learn these complexities and become able language users, in whatever form that takes. They just need a wealth of experiences which involve speech, language and communication, and a supportive adult, (or “more able other” as Vygotsky suggests) to scaffold attempts at new words or ideas, and to manage the frustration when the desire to express does not match up to their current ability.
Of course both speech and language require communication and a repertoire of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills in order to assign, as well as convey the intended meaning behind the ‘spoken’ words. We need to ensure a shared understanding. This skill is such a complex one; that ability to listen and observe body language, gestures and facial expressions, knowing when to speak, clarify understanding, question (or not) and analyse. All of this happens alongside listening to the words spoken, not only to make sense of the meaning, but to listen to the nuances of how they are expressed. How clever are children to learn to navigate these things, and how important for adults around them to be supportive when they get it wrong?
Communication is what I have missed so much during the onslaught of online living. When I teach face-to-face I watch for the effectiveness of my words. I watch for the response of the audience in front of me. Are they communicating ‘misunderstanding’ in their facial expressions or body language, whilst verbalising that they understand? Therefore do I need to revisit the topic, or scaffold their understanding now? Are they communicating engagement or boredom? Distress or enjoyment? Has a light bulb flicked on or off? What do I need to change now, or later? A good teacher can read the room, reflect and decide an action to adjust their delivery, and co-construct and walk-beside their student to support learning and development.
When it comes to meetings I use the same skills, but in different ways. The rules of a meeting depend on the hierarchical structure of those involved – it shouldn’t perhaps, but in my experience it almost always does. Those with more power seem to expect that listeners will accept the words that fall from their mouths as truth. I have discovered that sometimes a question from my black face can be seen as aggression, or disrespect. I have learned that I have to read a situation and particularly the wider signals that sometimes belies the words. My challenge is that I have always had to rely on my communication skills in order to interpret ‘true’ meaning. I know that often I am hypersensitive. My eyes and senses are attuned to seeking the truth behind the words, to observe the feelings of others, to know whether to hold my tongue or speak my truth, all in order to respond in the best way. Online I am deafened by the noise caused by the torrent of words, so many words, and blinded by the inability to see, feel, or touch the speaker. Communication misfires as people forget to unmute microphones, or share their camera so people can see their face as they speak. They talk over each other sometimes because those cues that tell us it is our turn to speak are absent. I wonder if like me the silent shy away from engaging at all, perhaps fearful of how much they can reveal, and how little is revealed from others in this online world, where in reality you sit alone. At times you feel like you are actually talking to yourself, or into a void. Social feedback is missing.
A key skill of communication is using memory for recall of similar experiences or learning, in order to interpret and respond to conversation in the best way. We all learn the most effective ways of communication based on our social experiences. I have had a lifetime of watching and mapping the words of others to make sense of how their words don’t always equal my interpretation, constantly looking for the hidden meaning. “Well, you’re Annie, I don’t mean you” (but you are talking about people who look like me?), “it’s just a joke” (but it still feels like a punch in the stomach), “I am not racist but…” (I’ve actually stopped listening because you are being racist) etc etc.
I am hyper-vigilant looking for communication signals in order to remain safe, or work out how to fit in a group where I am usually ‘other’, or to support people who for whatever reason are also feeling ‘other’ at that moment in time. I observe to notice the need for physical connection, so that I can provide it. Without the face-to-face contact all I hear are words. Words without communication are just…well, words! . It puts me in mind of young children that I’ve worked with who notice the hidden signals and miss the words. They notice the subtle changes in body language, or feel a change in the atmosphere and just react. Adults may have missed those small changes, and got mad at the reaction of the child in front of them because they were unaware and unobservant of the antecedent. I also think of those children who miss the communication and only hear the literal meaning of the words. Both are hyper-vigilant desperately trying to navigate the complexities in order to understand how to behave/respond – and too often words just get in the way. Attunement and connection with another is what they need.
This is what I miss too in this online world that has far too much noise, and not enough communication. I bumble along making the best of my current world of faces on screens. I fight to overcome the crashing of the tools used to interact, or the strength of the broadband to power them. I tire quickly as my brain tries to join the dots to truly understand the faces in front of me…but my heart misses communication and connection. When I have had enough and there is space in my busy online life, I leave my desk to walk out of my back door and take lungfuls of fresh air. I put on my shoes to walk through my garden and connect again with the peace of the real world.