Because the ability to communicate is considered a major – perhaps even the primary – defining characteristic of humanity, people assume that, throughout human history, elders have taught the young this essential survival skill. Despite agreement on the importance of learning to communicate, there is no consensus about the particular goals of communication education or even about how people learn. People in many parts of the world and for long stretches of history have assumed that communicative competence emerges almost naturally through innate predispositions and imitation. In other cultural and historical settings, communication abilities have been fostered through informal forms of coaching or apprenticeships that were specific to the context of use. Yet others have believed that communication skills and knowledge were subjects that could and should be taught formally or at least explicitly in educational institutions.
The term “communication education” generally applies to these structured curricula. Discussions of the goals for teaching communication in schools center on the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of the enterprise. From whatever goals are established, educators derive their specific instructional objectives, standards, and implicit or explicit pedagogies. Although multiple goals are present in most educational settings, the four following categories of goals represent distinct rationales for teaching communication.
Goals of Individual Competence
The most evident goal of communication education is to equip individual learners with the skills and knowledge they will require for success. Countless studies confirm the popular wisdom that, other things being even approximately equal, the person who is skilled in communication will have greater academic and career success, more satisfying interpersonal relationships, and a greater sense of individual agency and empowerment. In the popular mind, communication education probably evokes an image of Demosthenes shouting over the sounds of the surf with pebbles in his mouth, a speech coach working with a politician to polish an important speech, or members of a Toastmasters Club meeting to overcome fears of speaking. In every case, the assumption is that individuals can meet their personal goals by becoming more articulate. The primacy of this goal can be traced from the emergence of the sophists in ancient Greece, through the rigid scholastic exercises of the Middle Ages, the stylized posturing of the elocutionary movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the extensive modern curricula in public speaking, argumentation, organizational, interpersonal and group communication, journalism, broadcasting, advertising and public relations.
Communicative competence has been widely theorized, providing alternative frameworks for scholars to classify the educational goals for individuals. For example, Dell Hymes’ influential 1972 model implies a hierarchical and developmental process of acquiring communicative competence. At least a minimal mastery of grammatical and syntactical goals would be prerequisite to the achievement of more advanced strategic goals such as making situationally and culturally appropriate communication choices. Spitzberg and Cupach’s 1984 model identifies three components of competence: (1) knowledge, (2) skill, and (3) motivation. This perspective invites educators to take a more functional perspective on classifying the goals of communication education. Recent documents such as the National Communication Association’s Speaking, listening and media literacy standards (1998) and the Expected outcomes for speaking and listening (Morreale et al. 1998) illustrate comprehensive listings of specific individual goals, combining the type of learning outcome sought and the increasing level of complexity of learning.
Goals of Enabling Advanced Learning
A second set of communication goals, though still centered on the development of individuals, places less emphasis on communication skills as outcomes and more on the essential role communication plays in all learning. This perspective goes beyond the obvious point that learners must be able to receive and process information. Instead, learning itself is understood as a profoundly social process in which students co-construct knowledge through the acts of discussion and writing. This way of justifying the study of communication springs in part from the work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who in the 1920s argued that development occurs first interpsychically through scaffolded communication before becoming internalized. The move in rhetorical theory toward understanding rhetoric as epistemic further reinforces the concept of communication as a way of knowing rather than just a way of transmitting knowledge.
This distinction can be traced back to the medieval universities, where the liberal arts curriculum was divided into the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium consisted of logic, dialectic, and rhetoric, skills that were prerequisite to learning the subjects of the quadrivium. In many contemporary universities, especially in the United States, communication is categorized as a basic intellectual skill, along with writing, critical thinking, and computation, which is required of all students. The justification for the requirement is that speaking and listening are prerequisite to gaining an advanced understanding of all other subjects.
Goals of Civic, Economic, And Social Participation
A third major way to think about the goals of communication education shifts the emphasis from the individual to the needs of the larger society. Advocates of formal instruction in speech and communication often base their rationale on the need for certain kinds of citizens, consumers, or workers in order to meet national goals. Ever since the newly enfranchised citizens of the Greek city states recognized the need for coaching to defend their interests in public forums, the survival of democratic societies has been premised on the existence of a well-educated populace able to listen critically, argue effectively, collaborate, and compromise. When social critics and reformers set forth a vision of the good society, they are in effect specifying the kinds of citizenry that will be needed to create that society. Whether or not democratic values are at the heart of a political system, every collectivity has economic, religious, and cultural goals that can only be realized by developing appropriate communication skills. In a patriarchal society, communication education might have the goal of teaching women how to communicate submissively. Where economic productivity reigns as supreme, workers would need to learn to be complacent and to follow directions without question. In a highly collectivist culture, skills of teamwork and cooperative communication are essential; in a more individualistic culture, educational goals would involve fostering critical thinking, assertive communication, and effective self-presentation. In short, it can be argued that we can discern much about the vision of a society by the goals it sets for education of the youth, and more specifically, by the communication goals that are adopted.
Goals of Transformation and Empowerment Through Communication
A final set of goals for communication education seeks to instill certain habits of mind and heart in learners. Advocates of this perspective look at education as more than technical skill building, and communication as more than transmission of information. Instead, they see all communication, including acts of education, as profoundly constitutive. The ways people speak and listen and relate are deeply tied to their cultural and personal identities and are enmeshed with relations of power and privilege. Within such assumptions, both individual competence and social indoctrination are illusory. It is not possible or justifiable for communication education to incrementally improve either individuals or societies, so the goal becomes to transform both. In effect, the more traditional goals of communication are replaced by a set of meta-goals. Students are taught that although it is impossible to step outside of communication to study it objectively, they can glimpse its complexity through critical reflection. These perspectives have emerged from postmodern and postfoundational philosophy, social construction theories, critical pedagogy, critical theory, feminism, postcolonialism, and new media studies.
The rapid acceleration of change has challenged all educational theories that assume elders know what youth will need to thrive in the future. But specifically within communication, the new communication technologies have radically changed not only social life but also social reality. Students will continue to need to know how to communicate effectively through oral face-to-face modalities and traditional written media, but they also need to master the infinite combinations of time, space, sight, sound, music, pictures, and words that are available to them as communicators. More significantly, they will not only need to know the etiquette of mobile phones, the design of PowerPoint presentations, the dynamics of teleconferencing, and the strategies of Internet searches, but they will need to become aware of how these communicative forms themselves, and others their teachers have not dreamed of, will shape them and their world. This level of self-reflexiveness and cultural observation goes well beyond the foundations laid in critical media literacy or the study of computer-mediated communication, though it builds on both. To reach these goals, students will need a sophisticated arsenal of analytical and critical frameworks. They will need to be intensely aware of the impact of the choices they make, not just about what to communicate but also how to communicate, rigorously critical of the kinds of social arrangements that are instantiated and perpetuated. At the same time, advocates of this sort of critical perspective do not want students to become overwhelmed or cynical, but to be empowered to use communication toward some desirable ends such as social justice or inclusiveness.
Relationships Among the Goals
Those who actually build communication curricula, write textbooks, and/or prepare communication teachers will usually have a conscious awareness of these goals and can justify setting one in a primary position. Politicians, parents, students, and even teachers may not be fully aware of the assumptions they are making when they speak about why communication should be taught. Unstated assumptions about the priorities of these goals underlie some of the dramatic clashes in the political and educational spheres.
When one group of educational stakeholders believes that students need to have the skills employers want and another believes that students should become discerning and eloquent citizens, radically different notions of the goals for communication education emerge. At the same time, if educators are able to articulate multiple goals and develop creative curricula and pedagogies, it is often possible for two or even all four goals of education to reinforce one another. Even when multiple goals coexist at a philosophical level, the move to more specific goals for a particular communication course or workshop typically creates tensions. In any area of communication, educators must set relative priorities for teaching theory and teaching skills, and also must decide whether to emphasize goals for senders of communication or goals for receivers. Those who deal with the performative aspects of communication will also need to set priorities between content goals and presentation goals. Educators find that they differ on the importance of helping students develop effective communication products (such as speeches, press releases, effective interviewing protocols) as compared to helping them master the more general processes (audience analysis, persuasive strategies, empathic listening), which can be applied to a variety of settings (Sprague 1999).
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- Morreale, S., Rubin, R. B., & Jones, E. (1998). Expected student outcomes for speaking and listening: Basic communication course and general education. Washington, DC: National Communication Association.
- National Communication Association (1998). Speaking, listening and media literacy standards for K through 12 education. Washington, DC: National Communication Association.
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- Sprague, J. (1999). The goals of communication education. In A. Vangelisti, J. Daly, & G. Friedrich (eds.), Teaching communication: A handbook of theory, research, and methods, 2nd edn. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 15 –30.
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