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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Can You Engage an Audience for 18 Minutes?

By Peter DeWitt — May 01, 2015 4 min read
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In education, as well as other professions, we have a habit of finding a formula and going with it. It’s engrained in our psyche, because we have been doing it for decades. We have 50 minute classes with students or 1 hour faculty meetings with staff. Everything we do can be compartmentalized, including our classrooms, offices, and other facets of our lives. We keep doing it because we’ve always done it that way.

You need only look here to see this classroom.

To see it’s not very different from this one.

Director of Technology, and friend, Bill Brennan and I were discussing technology and “recalibration” when he stopped over to my house on the way to a speaking engagement in Albany. I liked Bill’s use of the word “recalibration.”

Bill said we need to recalibrate our present understanding of the classroom, and the role of technology. It seems strange that we would still be having this discussion in 2015, but just because times have changed doesn’t mean the inside of schools have. How many classrooms still have desks and rows? I know I’m not the first person to point that out, but isn’t it a little sad that I won’t be the last?

When it comes to recalibration, it’s something we all have to do in our lives. Perhaps it’s after a break-up or losing a job. We have to recalibrate our present understanding of what life around us means. The same, as Bill really hit home with me, needs to be said around learning.

We usually reflect in order to recalibrate, but unfortunately we end up doing the same thing over any way. In order to really break out of the boxes we have created for ourselves, we need to start doing some things differently, even if those things seem small. We need to challenge ourselves.

I get that there are constraints, and there will always be constraints. Accountability, mandates and increased testing are constant obstacles to the way we lead, learn and teach. As we keep fighting against those harmful realities, we do have to find ways to move forward.

We already use tools that help us communicate differently. Social media has been hugely helpful in the fight against the injustice that we have seen play out on television. It brings people together, and can spark a revolution.

Unfortunately though, as more and more people use these tools, they are sometimes used in the same old format. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s a format that works. We engage in #chat sessions on Twitter throughout the week. Many of them have 5 or 6 questions that go out every 9 or 10 minutes....but the chat still lasts an hour, which usually goes by super quick.

We need a jolt of creativity and focus. There are #chats on Twitter that last for 15 minutes. It takes awhile to get used to it, but deep dialogue can take place over 15 minutes.

Distracted Communication

These days, we often hear that our students do not have the attention spans that we did when we were kids because they are wired differently. I’m not so sure we have those attention spans either! After all, they, as well as we, use smartphones like an appendage. Youtube videos are typically short, and when we talk about flipping classrooms or leadership we suggest that the videos go no more than 5 minutes or we will lose our audience.

Unfortunately for us, children are not the only ones who are distracted. According to this study of 6 to 12 year olds completed by Highlights Magazine,

We know that parents are busy and that kids have to contend with many things competing for their parents' attention, so it wasn't too surprising that 62% of kids responded "yes" when asked if their parents are distracted when they try to talk to them.

The study goes on to say,

When asked what distracts their parents, cell phones came out # 1 at 28%, followed by siblings (25%), work (16%), TV (13%), talking to others, computers and laptops, cooking, housework and driving. In total, 51% of those who responded cited some form of technology --phone, TV, or laptop--as the distraction.

What if we could do things a bit differently? What is we spent less time doing some of those old things in order to gain more time to have great conversations with our children, spouses or partners? Maybe, just maybe, it will get us to focus on what is important. After all, we can say a lot in 140 characters on Twitter, so maybe we don’t need as much time to say what we mean as we think we do.

18 Minute Webinars?

Recently I read Talk Like Ted by Carmine Gallo. I wasn’t looking for the book. I just happened to find it in Chicago O’Hare waiting for my connection. I am so thankful I walked into the bookstore! It is an incredible book, and well worth the read if you are a leader, speaker, workshop facilitator or teacher. Gallo suggests that Ted Talks are all 18 minutes or less. And that’s for a good reason.


Gallo writes that “thinking is hard work.” He quotes TED Curator Chris Anderson who said,

It [18 minutes] is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people's attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It's the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.

What can we learn from our distracted ways and Talk Like Ted by Carmine Gallo? I believe we can learn to communicate more effectively, but take steps toward....using Bill Brennan’s idea of recalibrating what we do already. Perhaps we will fail from time to time, but instead of doing less with more time because we are distracted, maybe we can do more with less.

Inspired by Gallo and Ted Talks, Peter will be providing a few 18 minute webinars:

  • May 6th at 9 a.m. EST (Register here) and 4 p.m. EST (Register here) - Instructional leadership (sponsored by Corwin Press).
  • May 13th at 4 p.m. EST - Flipping Leadership (Register here. Sponsored by Swivl).

Connect with Peter on Twitter

Creative Commons photos courtesy of Alfaro and Roujo.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.