Share your thoughts not your screen – how to hold healthy off-screen conversations as a family

Hayley McDonnell, an external SMSC Consultant for Schools, considers the importance of constructive dialogue and ‘screen-off time’ for children’s development

Discussion and discourse away from the confines of a classroom for children, away from screens and smart phones for teenagers and young adults and away from the pressures of working and family life is imperative. When the norm is to find answers from a search engine, from a hand-help device or screen it seems at times impossible to imagine a world where we look to each other for answers, suggestions, and an individual world view.

However continued discussion and discourse should be promoted because by doing so we are practising skills which are vital, imperative, and much needed in our world. Discourse and discussion built around a framework of mutual respect and a pursuit of understanding others should naturally improve literacy, as well as speaking and listening which are clearly benefits for everyone. This can improve emotional awareness and critical thinking skills for all involved. Discussion and discourse expect us to rely on our imagination and reasoning whilst exploring values, assumptions and vital concepts like justice, truth, knowledge, and beauty. All involved will be searching for meaning together, becoming more reasonable by offering reasonable justified opinions and opening to the reasoning and suggestions of others involved. An increase in self-esteem is one benefit that can be claimed by participants observed.

With the increase in children spending more and more of the free time in front of a screen for entertainment and using it as a source of information, the art of meaningful discussion is becoming a dying art. I speak as a professional, a teacher having worked my way up to Middle Management over the last twenty years.

From a practical point of view, we have seen the issue of mobile phones becoming common place within the classroom and school environment. It started as a novelty as a handful of students had a phone of their own. I would query “Who are you going to call”? no not Ghostbusters!!! With a typical response “It’s for an emergency”.

Notwithstanding the loco parentis role all teaching professionals have, they are well versed in what to do if there is an emergency. Emergencies of all types were dealt with successfully prior to the invention and use of mobile phones. Over the years the sight of mobile phones has become the norm in schools – and in turn it has become in many respects a nuisance.  Students “texting” under the table, playing games, an alert of a message or a phone call not to mention the more serious issues of cyber-bullying and on-line grooming and radicalisation attempts.

Each school will have its own policy with regards the use of mobile phones in school and I have heard from other teaching professionals of schools banning the use of phones altogether so they are not brought into school at all, and then others who impose a sanction if the phone is used in lessons or seen in between lessons and even the laissez-faire approach to the freedom to use phones as and when the student chooses. Each will have its merits but all share the core knowledge that screen time is on the rise and contrary to popular student belief on-line search engines are not the font of all knowledge – the big wide world is there to be experienced and learned about within a safe environment – this is the best encyclopaedia of all.

For this reason, among many it is becoming increasingly more important for adults and children to talk face to face together in situations where differences can be welcomed and explored. I suggest this should become the norm for the reasons outlined above. Talking to someone via a chat box or messenger group does not provide opportunities for talk that is meaningful, memorable and has the power to transform. Open discussion allows the participants to move beyond the exchange of information but to ask questions, filter the arguments they want to support or oppose, consider alternative viewpoints all in the pursuit of greater understanding of our world.

So how can this be done? I am well versed in a model used in schools and have been a facilitator in for many years. These facilitated discussions over my twenty years of teaching and more so following a framework for the last ten years or so have been a staple diet for my students. However, my desire here is to show how welcomed outcomes can be achieved beyond the walls of a school building and moved directly into homes and family life.

The phrase “the world is your oyster” certainly comes to mind as anything that we can experience around us becomes a source of inspiration and a prompt. Using a chosen feature as the inspiration the first opportunity for discussion arises. It is now time to decide what to discuss and generate a “talking point” or discussion question.

There are several important points to note at this stage. The first is that the discussion question or “talking point” should be an open question or as open as possible. A discussion cannot ensue if there is a mere pursuit of ascertaining a fact and someone can easily supply that fact, similarly a discussion will come to a quick halt if the question requires a simple Yes or No from the participants.

To help create a “talking point” it is often advisable to use the feature itself as a mere conduit towards a question rather than making it about the feature. A simple example is trees. Imagine that you and your family are out for a walk or look out of your window and see trees. This is your feature. The temptation to create a “talking point” about trees may seem obvious e.g. “Why are trees green”? or “What is your favourite tree? Both questions are closed and area about the subject matter. A suitable example could be “Should we always plant more trees if other trees have been chopped down to create more houses”? or “Is it important that we understand how the natural world works or how computers work”?

To be clear, anything can be a source of inspiration, anything from left over food on a plate to a lone figure waiting at a bus stop. Inspiration for a question could be a piece of music, something that is read, something that is tasted, inspiration is all around.

Several questions or talking points should be mooted and presented as part of the thinking skills and decision-making progress. All questions are presented to the participants and then a decision made about which one to take forward. Avoid using the phrase “this one is the best”. All of them have their merits, some may need to be re-phrased, some may be similar but all of them have contributed to the point in which you find yourself.

How it is finally chosen is up to you, but the decision should involve everyone and should be democratic. It may seem that you have not done anything or very much so far but in fact the meta-cognition skills you have acquired will be there.

So now the question or discussion point has been selected it is time to gain initial reactions, thoughts, ideas, questions, conclusions – nothing is off limits and at this stage no elaboration of any points is necessary. If someone does not want to say anything that is fine too, they simply pass. The beauty is that they will be listening so will still be playing an active part.

The discussion begins from the person who generated the question that was chosen. They are asked to elaborate on their point, maybe the motivation why they chose that question, what is important to them, what their own questions are, what their answers are at this point. No one is in charge, this is a key point, though it often helps to have a facilitator if that is possible to move the discussion forward, ask leading questions or clarify a point made. If anyone wants to contribute, they are invited into the discussion by the previous person talking and they can indicate their desire to speak by a simple thumbs up, hands on knees type of gesture. I avoid a hands up situation as it is too reminiscent of a school setting where there is often an overt desire to “get it right”.

Here we are discovering, learning, and practising our skills. Everyone benefits. Avoid making disparaging comments about a person and their views, better to say, “I disagree with Nick’s point on …. Because……” rather than a comment about Nick himself. So, the discussion continues in this way with the facilitator allowing the topic to move on but hopefully not meander too far from the initial thoughts unless it has taken a particularly interesting turn.

So, when to stop? It may be when there is a natural lull of flow, or when the facilitator chooses it to end. At that point everyone is invited again to offer their views on the discussion or talking point. There may be circumstances when an opinion has changed, or there is a desire to find out more about a thought contributed and all comments in this vein are welcomed. Similarly, so is the “Pass” comment as the person stating this claim has been listening and thinking and so has made their own strides in this journey. The “Pass” comments do naturally become less and less the more practice you get. No one is under any pressure to say anything.

I am presenting an abridged version with some adjustments to this system that works within a school setting but the outcomes if not the process should be the same. I say this to reassure anyone that should things go slightly array or you prefer to do it another way then you should feel comfortable enough to use your initiative to make it work for you.

Ideally the results will be seen over-time though it is difficult to test results within a family type situation. However, there is no harm in pursuing opportunities to meet with each other purposefully and have shared time and focus.