Well, can teens carry on a face to face conversation anymore.  They’re people, aren’t they?  I know I’ve noticed, probably so have you at times, in a coffeshop or pizzeria the table where there is sitting a group of young people, teens or a little older.  And they are all staring at their phones instead of interacting with each other.  It’s almost a cliche, it’s so common.  Young people are heavily dependent on (obsessed with?) their devices for communication.  And they’re good at it.  But can they bring it old school?  Analoggy style?  Actual face-to-face conversation with a real person who is right there with you In Real Life?  Skype  and other face chatting doesn’t count.

I’m not the only one who’s wondering.  In The Atlantic Paul Barnwell writes: My Students Don’t Know How To Have A Conversation.  Subtitled  “Students’ reliance on screens  for communication is detracting-and distracting-from their engagement in real-time talk.”,  the article is a teacher’s tale of challenging his high school students to put down their phones and effectively converse and communicate ideas with each other.  It was not an easy task.  Barnwell leads off the article with this statement:

Recently I stood in front of my class, observing an all-too-familiar scene. Most of my students were covertly—or so they thought—pecking away at their smartphones under their desks, checking their Facebook feeds and texts.

He proceeds to tell his High School Junior English class that he will be giving them assignments designed to help them practice, or in some cases learn a basic skill they would need in real life: holding a conversation.  The article then details some of the types of assignments given and results achieved as well as some of the shortfalls regarding our approach to teaching and communicating “in the 21st century”.  It would be worth the few minutes of your time to click over and read the whole thing.  Barnwell  is obviously a committed educator who is thinking of how he might serve his students after they move on from his classroon into their adult lives.  There is much emphasis in education today on technology:  many schools supply each student with a laptop and encourage electronic communication, submitting assignments via e-mail and the like.  This emphasis on technology is an overemphasis in my opinion.  While Barnwell doesn’t explicity share this estimation, he does seem to concede the possibility:

It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation?

I for one do not find it a funny question, and I think the answer is clearly “No there is not a more important 21st century skill than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation”.  The ability to receive, process, formulate and express concepts verbally is the very foundation of communication and learning.  If one had no skills other than those, it would still be possible to learn any other skills needed.  And without the skill to communicate verbally, the neccessary exchange of information for all other learning cannot succeed.  So before a child (teen? young adult? any person?) needs internet access or a smartphone or a laptop they first need to learn to use the computer between their ears.