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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Learning is a Conversation

We learn by talking.

Wait, haven’t I always been the guy who said we learn by doing?

Of course. Talking is a kind of doing. But that is hardly my point. Plenty of academic courses insist that they use learning by doing as a methodology. After all, writing an academic paper is a kind of doing too. So, one would learn how to write an academic paper by writing one. But, some clarification is needed as to what kind of learning matters. Is it important to learn to write an academic paper? It is if you plan on becoming an academic.

But the real question about what high school or college should be like should be centered on what learning is like, apart from what is actually being learned. We need to understand what the fundamentals of learning really are.

Many years ago I was having lunch with my closest colleague. I was complaining to him about the way my wife cooked meat. It was always too well cooked for me. He responded by saying that fifteen years earlier he had tried to get his hair cut in England and they wouldn’t cut it as short as he wanted it.

It seemed like an odd response, so I spent some time thinking about it. What did haircuts have to do with rare meat?

At one level nothing. But, at a higher level of abstraction these were identical stories. We both had asked someone to do something for us that they were capable of doing, but they had refused because they thought the request was too extreme.

Instead of focusing on why my friend was peculiar because he had answered the way he did, I assumed something interesting was going on in his head and attempted to figure out what had happened. I wound up focusing on his need to reconcile a failure he had had years ago. (We remember our failures.) I focused on how the process worked. In a short time, I had come up with a theory of how memory is organized (around stories indexed by abstractions such as “refusal to satisfy someone else’s goal.”) This began a long process that I still work on, together with many students and colleagues, to get computers to self-organize their memories. (We work on this by talking about it.)

Thinking by oneself is hard because there are too many distractions. I noticed that I would wake up in the middle of the night with ideas and I wondered how that was happening. I realized that our non-conscious mind does all the thinking (my friend wasn’t consciously looking for his haircut story after all, it just showed up in his head.) I began to realize I could let my non-conscious self do my thinking and then later consciously recognize what I had thought.  

Conversation is a non-conscious act. We don’t know what we will say next. We don’t know what we have just heard will remind us of. And we don’t control our thought process. Conversations with other people enables our thought process to begin by inciting reactions and ideas that we feel the need do try out on others. We need to find out what we think.

Turning off the noise to allow nonconscious thought was hard when I was working on this problem 35 years ago, it is twice as hard today. Your phone is always available, your computer is nearby, and there might be a text message, or a tweet, or a Facebook posting. But those are not conversations, although they may look that way to people at first glance.

A series of cute remarks are not conversations. Even a discussion on Facebook, while appearing to be a conversation, is not likely to challenge one to come up with better ideas and quickly think new thoughts. I have yet to see a Facebook comment that said “you are, right, I never thought about it like that before.”

What does this have to do with learning? Dialogues were used by Plato to discuss how learning works. But one needn’t go back that far in order to understand that the true relationship between teacher and student ought to be one of dialogue.

We see this easily when we consider graduate education. Students meet with their PhD thesis advisors to discuss their progress, their ideas, their problems, and then, presumably, they are ready to go back to working on what they were doing with new insights.

This same sort of thing happens between parents and small children when they ask numerous “why” questions on being confronted with new things, new people, or new ideas.

Why does conversation matter so much for learning? Couldn’t you just read a book or listen to a lecture? Wouldn’t you learn from those experiences as well?

Well, no.

To explain what I mean here, consider the last time something interesting happened to you. What was the first thing you did when that experience was over?

People really have only two choices when something interesting happens. The first is to sit and think about it some. To have a conversation with oneself in other words. But it is rare to choose that option when there is another person available to whom you could tell about your experience. That person has to have some qualifications of course. You can’t just tell anyone. We find people to talk to who will empathize with what just happened, or who will help us think about it better, or who will challenge our assumptions, or will just think what you have to say is wonderful. No matter the kind of reaction we get, we need that reaction. We must tell our story, even if it is just a story about a movie we just saw, a book we just read, or a lecture we just heard.

To put this another way, the only reason that reading and listening aren’t totally useless experiences from a learning point of view (they might be good entertainment of course) is the conversations that they spark later. The real learning takes place in the conversation that follows. And, conversations follow conversations. You hear someone say something and you repeat it to someone else and discuss some more. This how human beings work. But, it is not how school works.

Of course, schools pay lip service to the idea of discussion. The MOOCs that have dominated recent conversations about education have discussion groups for exactly this reason. But, these discussions are not one on one with the teacher. (How could they be with 1000’s of students?) So MOOCs are taking the very thing that is most needed in education, one on one conversations with the teacher, and eliminating their possibility.

My view is more radical than just that MOOCs are bad however. If learning is fundamentally a conversation, then conversation is all that should be taking place in education. Well, not all. You have to have something to be talking about. You should be doing something and talking about what you are working on. Learning is a conversation. We need to get rid of classes (unless they have less than 10 people and are really a conversation), tests, which are the antithesis of conversation, and any other aspect of school that does not involve learning to express your ideas and have them dissected and responded to by interested parties who can help you make your own ideas better.


Mark Miller said...

Roger, I have been enjoying following your various postings relating to learning, MOOCs and so on. For some of your points, I might have want to say "well, of course!" yet I then realize that your remarks are seen by many as contrarian (and hence clearly not obvious at all).

One small quibble with your post is that, while we cannot know what we will think next, if we take a minute before spouting "stream of consciousness," we can know what we will say next, by not saying everything that comes to mind. Sadly, so many people fail to do that.

Thank you for bringing thoughtful substance and deep insight about thinking and learning to the world of social media (which sometimes seems only to be about jumping on the next buzz word to make a quick buck).

shanks said...

Adults fit your bill perfectly, but I wonder if school kids have that thought process to discuss and converse but love to listen

Shiny Elena said...

Such thoughtful post, thanks! I have noticed that children take teachers not as human beings but as heartless repressers and afraid of them and don't like study at all. We need new vision of teaching where there is less teacher talk and more student talk, teachers create the atmosphere of sympathetic understanding. So, for example, if students need thesis writing assistance, they won't be afraid to confess that they don't know how to fulfill this task and ask for help. Educators must inspire an interest to study and gain new knowledge every day and conversation is great way to build relationships between teacher and students!