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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Conversations about Learning Part 2: real life learning

Learning is profoundly misunderstood by the school system. People learn all the time, typically when they are trying to accomplish something and are having some trouble getting what or where they want. 

They may have to ask for help. That’s learning.

They may have to think hard about what is going wrong. That’s learning.

They may have to recall some prior similar experience and figure out its relevance to the current situation. That’s learning too.

But when someone is talking to you about a subject that that person has decided you need to know about, that is not learning or anything like it.

We typically call that “teaching” but it really isn’t teaching at all. It is something teachers do. It is something tour guides do. It is something drill sergeants do. It is something that leaders of organization do. But it is not teaching. It is talking at people and hoping they are listening. But, they usually aren’t.

What if they were listening? Would that be learning? Probably not.

Notice I didn’t say absolutely not. It is possible to hear somebody say something and learn something. Just today, I asked where something was, was pointed in the right direction and now I know where it is. Today that is.

By next year I will likely have forgotten where that place is unless I continue to go there regularly.

We only learn by listening under two conditions:

  1. we continuously practice or rehearse what we have learned
  2. we didn’t really need to retain what we learned so we only remembered it temporarily

The first of these conditions I will call “real life learning.”

The second of these conditions I will call “school.”

What is the difference between real life learning and school? In school we learn things we are likely to never practice after school and thus are unlikely to retain in our memories. We might randomly retain some of it, enough to answer a question on Jeopardy or in a game of Trivial Pursuit, but we don’t need it and so it is not part of real life learning.

In real life learning we learn how to do things, usually things we will need to do again. We are not attempting to retain information, although that may happen, we are simply trying to attain new skill like driving a car, or selling, or drawing up plans, or designing a house, or programming a computer. Schools don’t usually teach useful skills until graduate school, although they may not teach them then either.

Learning happens when we try something, practice something, make something, use something, respond to something, change something, fail at something. 

But how does learning take place actually? What is the medium of learning?

The answer is very simple indeed. We learn through conversation.


Because a conversation only happens when two people both want to participate. This immediately differentiates it from school in which there is only one willing participant typically — the teacher.

In order to understand what I mean here we need to grasp that conversation takes place not between two people, but between two memories. Learning happens if the memory of at least one of the participants is altered in some way. But in order for that to happen, the memory of the other participant had to be part of the process. Whatever the first memory retained had to be in the memory of the second participant in the first place.

Well, not really.

It is possible for two people to both have their memories altered by a conversation in the sense that they both come to a mutual realization about something that neither them fully understood in that way prior to the conversation

It is also possible for the memory of one person to be changed by a conversation due to thoughts initiated by the conversation in that person’s memory that were not there before the conversation started but were not in the memory of the other person at any time.

The first of these situations we call knowledge transfer. It is typically what we think of as teaching although neither participant in the conversation may see it that way at the time.

The second of these situations we call mutual inquiry. It is typical in research and intellectual conversations when both participants are trying to figure something out and attempt to do so by talking to each other about what they are thinking about.

The third if these situations we call reflection. Often during or after a conversation we come to realize something we had not realized before. Reflection is an internal process but it it is quite often initiated by conversation.

This is how learning happens. It happens through conversation and involves the memory of individuals which are altered in some way by the conversation.

This could happen in school of course, But, typically it doesn’t happen in classroom.

In conversation, what we hear reminds us of something we have already experienced. From this reminding, we make responses. We may change the other person’s idea. We may use their idea to tell our own story. But all of this is non-conscious. We don’t know what we will be reminded of in a conversation. We don’t know what we will say next. We don’t control our thought process. Conversations with other people initiate our thought process by inciting reactions and ideas that we feel the need to try out on others. We need to find out what we think. We need to talk. We need to respond. We need to defend our ideas. We need to come up with ideas. In conversation, we are certain to learn.

Conversations are often contentious. That’s not the only kind of conversation that works for learning, but it does work well. When people are passionate about what they are talking about, especially in the context of a project or problem they are working on, the world opens up for them.

A conversation with someone wiser than you, someone who takes time to listen to you will make you wiser. A conversation in which you must struggle with what you think, where you must defend your point of view will make you think more carefully. Conversations matter when you are discussing things that are important to you. In order to write about the importance of conversation for learning,  

Despite how natural and essential conversation is to living and learning, we have neglected its power and importance in school. School has become primarily about facts and tests. School used to be a conversation. The Oxford tutorial system was about conversation. Plato wrote about conversation. Even the Bible is all about conversation. But today school has very little real conversation. 

And people are having fewer valuable, challenging conversations in their daily lives. Turning off the ubiquitous noise of messages, tweets, and postings to allow the time and space for real conversation and non-conscious thought is rare. A series of 140-character remarks, no matter how clever, is not a conversation. Even a so-called discussion on social media is not likely to challenge, support, or even provoke a person to come up with new or better ideas. Nobody ever seems to post, “Wow, you’re right. I never thought about it like that before.”

Interestingly, when we are mentoring our most advanced students (PhD candidates), we seem to recognize the absolute and essential value of conversation in the learning process. 

PhD students regularly have conversations with their advisors to discuss their thesis progress. They talk at length with their mentors about their problems and ideas in the context of their work. Some might argue that this is a valid learning method for PhDs because they’ve completed years of rigorous knowledge acquisition and are therefore prepared to engage in conversation involving their own questions and ideas. 

So, is it only the academically accomplished who should be learning from conversations? When we are parenting, we unreservedly accept that conversation is the primary tool we use for teaching as our young children encounter the world with questions, ideas, beliefs, problems, discoveries, experiments, and fears. We recognize conversation’s paramount importance in the development of children. And yet we neglect it in our schools. 

What is it about conversation that matters so much in learning? Don’t we learn just as much from reading a book or listening to a lecture? Well, no. You would learn more from talking to me than you will from reading any book I have written. Why? Because you would be able to argue back. I might learn something from you as well.

Consider the last time something interesting happened to you. What was the first thing you did when that experience was over?

You have a choice when something interesting happens to you. You can sit and think about it (having, in essence, a conversation with yourself). But, usually if another person is available with whom you could discuss your experience, you choose to have a conversation. But you don’t tell just anyone. You find a person who will empathize with what just happened, who will help you think about it, who will challenge your assumptions, or who will just be very interested for some reason. No matter the kind of reaction you get, you benefit from that reaction as you fully digest the experience.

Conversation helps us think through what we have experienced, even if it’s the experience of reading a book or watching a movie. Put another way, the only lasting benefit we receive from reading and listening or watching (aside from the entertainment value, of course) happens because of the conversations that we have about our reading or viewing experience. The learning – the changed perspective, the improved ability, the new idea – if it happens at all, happens when we are in the conversation.  And as it happens, because we are humans and naturally want to learn, conversations beget more conversations. This is how human beings work. This is how we operate. And yet most school does not involve nearly enough conversation, so not nearly enough learning takes place. 

Of course, some schools pay lip service to the idea of conversation. Even the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that have dominated recent news coverage about education are now starting to include so-called discussion groups. And yet with thousands of students, how can the mentors individually challenge their students and engage in meaningful conversation? Most people will admit that MOOCs are terrible, for this reason and more. But most of us have not noticed the stark absence of real conversation in the classroom. And even if we have noticed the absence, we have not recognized what it means. Without real conversation, there can be very little learning going on. 

Learning depends upon conversation. Learning is fundamentally a conversation.

I’m not just lambasting MOOCs as bad. I’m saying that conversation is pretty much all that should be taking place in education and lectures and therefore MOOCs are therefore the worst of what education has to offer. Of course, in learning conversations, you have to have something important to talk about. Ideally, you should be working on something challenging and talking about your ideas, your thoughts, and your problems.

For meaningful conversation to happen, we should get rid of classes (unless they have fewer than ten people and consist of an ongoing conversation), tests (which are the antithesis of conversation), and all aspects of school that do not involve a conversation in which students are learning to challenge and be challenged, express ideas, work together and solve problems. 

Learning unquestionably depends upon our fathers and mothers and all the other parent surrogates and mentors who care about us enough to make the time to think and learn with us, in conversation. 

Here is a conversation I once had with my father. 

I showed him the latest book I’d written. He said it was unimportant. I asked how he knew that. He said that the general public wouldn’t read it, so it wouldn't matter. I said that I was a professor and I wasn’t writing for the general public. He said that my work wouldn’t make any difference then. I was provoked, as usual, by my father. I was angry. I believed I didn’t have to write for the general public to do work that mattered. 

This conversation has carried on, even though my father isn’t around anymore to disagree with me, because that’s how people think. And I think maybe my father was right. 


jake said...


You are my favorite blog to read. It always makes me smile.

I am with you 100%. I have read your book, Teaching Minds, a few times. As you know, I am a teacher at the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry. I am putting into practice what you talk about in your book on a daily basis. I am getting incredible results.

We are also pushing hard on the BC government to change and it looks like it is working. We are leading the way in the province to change to what you have been proposing. We just call them competencies instead of cognitive abilities, but they are very, very similar. It looks like we will get to fully implement this vision starting next school year.

If you are ever in Victoria, BC, we would be delighted to host you. And if you need any research for an upcoming book, I would be happy to provide a ton of data.

Thanks so much and keep blogging.

Bill Purves said...

Thanks Roger. This was one your very best "outrages." You stayed on point. (bill)

laserblue said...

Would you agree with R. David Lankes that " knowledge is created through conversation"?

Unknown said...

Very nice article. I completely agree... that "knowledge created through conversation".