Giant Business Cards and the Art and Science of Communication

Recently, I was listening to an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast entitled, “Alan Alda Wants Us to Have Better Conversations.” The episode details Alan Alda’s work with scientists and health care professionals to help improve their communication. During the interview, he talked about an experience working with the TV show Scientific American Frontiers, during which he had to learn to help scientists make the content accessible to a general audience. This experience later lead to the work he does at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. According to the center’s  website, “The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science empowers scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear, vivid, and engaging ways; leading to improved understanding by the public, media, patients, elected officials, and others outside of their own discipline.” As I listened to this interview and read through the website, I thought, “Hey, this is what I do!”

As a teacher, professor, and research associate at AIMS, I try to change ideas from complex to accessible for a general audience. I work with students of various ages and adults of various levels of experience, and I try to think of ways to communicate so they can easily understand the message I intend. Sometimes, it seems like translating from one language to another. This type of communication is one I’ve experience in many contexts, including my work as a missionary in Argentina.

While in Argentina, I went to a print shop to have some business cards made. I used a half sheet of paper to outline what I wanted on my card. When I returned a week later to pick up my cards, they were the size of a half a sheet of paper! I had failed to properly communicate because I did not attend to what the person working at the print shop was possibly thinking. I made assumptions about what the printer thought and that lead to the error in the size of my business cards (one of which is now pinned to my office wall as a reminder of this experience, by the way).

The aspect of communication that requires me to attend to the other person in the conversation is empathy, the process of seeing something through someone else’s perspective. This is the intent behind performing formative assessments in classrooms and listening to our students as they share their thinking. We should also be practicing empathy as we plan lessons and consider how our students might think of the experience we are presenting. Empathy also helps us build relationships with students by acknowledging their perspective.

In all these cases, the ability to put ourselves aside and try to see as the other person sees is critical to communication. It’s especially critical to communication of ideas that are housed in language and frameworks that are not easily accessible to those who haven’t spent time deciphering them. One example is children and place value. In my next blog post, we will explore how students might see place value in our attempts to teach that concept in the classroom.


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