Modeling Conversation to Model Learning

One of the things I liked most when I started teaching online was that I didn’t have to lecture. Now I like the sound of my own voice as much as the next professor, but I was at least intuitively aware that lecturing was not the ideal method for communicating complex ideas in or out of the classroom. I made what adjustments I could of course. I was enthusiastic, I asked what I hoped were engaging questions, I varied my volume and tone, walked the room, was animated and used humor where possible, and choose my images with care. My students responded and my class sections were always full, but it became clear to me that the lecture was an overused method of delivery especially for first and second year under-graduates.

In smARThistory, Beth Harris and I have sought to replace the lecture with unscripted conversation. We believe that the unpredictable nature of discussion is far more compelling to our students (and the public) than a monologue. Conversations grow naturally and in ways that surprise even us, and I feel they can ultimately be even more informative than a scripted and edited essay. Of course an essay has a tighter structure and can be dense with material that the author seeks to convey, but because its construction is controlled and proofed–its intention is fixed. Based upon my experience as a teacher, students and readers learn to accept and expect static arguments, but I suspect that the mind is not naturally inclined to do so. The lecture can, of course, be an enormously valuable strategy for conveying complex information. It can be very engaging, but requires of the reader, or listener a kind of submission to the authorial voice and its fixed argument. Unfortunately, this sort of submission can, too often, lead to passivity and disengagement.

In contrast, a conversation is obviously far less premeditated. It is spontaneous and full of risk and improvisation and this is all very clear to those listening. The speakers may well have ideas they had intended to express, but they may have had to abandon them if the discussion goes in an unanticipated direction. And it is because discussion has twists and turns and false starts and blind alleys that the listener remains engaged with both the content and the pas de deux enacted by the speakers.

Perhaps most importantly, the process of conversation can model learning because it is learning. Students can watch new ideas take shape rather than receive them fully formed. Ideas are introduced chaotically, as one concept collides with another and then another in dialectical progression. In his 1984 parody of academic life, English literature Professor and novelist David Lodge (in the guise of his protagonist, the cigar smoking Dr. Zap) considers the nature of conversation using what was then still fresh critical apparatus,

To understand a message is to decode it. Language is a code. But every decoding is another encoding. If you say something to me I check that I have understood your message by saying it back to you in my own words, that is, different words from the ones you used, for if I repeat your own words exactly you will doubt whether I have really understood you. But if I use my words it follows that I have changed your meaning, however slightly; and even if I were, deviantly, to indicate my comprehension by repeating back to you your own unaltered words, that is no guarantee that I have duplicated your meaning in my head, because I bring a different experience of language, literature, and non-verbal reality to those words, therefore they mean something different to me from what they meant to you. And if you think I do not understand the meaning of your message, you do not simply repeat the same words, you try to explain it in different words, different from the ones you used originally; but than the it is no longer the it you started with. And for that matter, you are not the you that you started with. Time has moved on since you opened your mouth to speak, the molecules in your body have changed, what you intended to say has been superseded by what you did say, and that has already become part of your personal history, imperfectly remembered. Conversation is like playing tennis with a ball made of Krazy Putty that keeps coming back over the net in a different shape (David Lodge. Small World, Penguin: NY, 1985, p. 25).

Perhaps the better metaphor for a lecture, is not a tennis match, but a pitch from instructor to student. Here, meaning remains more fixed (though not entirely so, since the audience does still transform meaning even if it does so silently or occasionally when a question is posed). Still, it is clearly in the rapid alternating voices of a conversation where ideas more rapidly evolve. Think of the genetics laboratories that favor short-cycle life forms because change can be observed so much more rapidly. When students witness these shifts of meaning as each speaker seeks to understand the other—to learn from the other, they rehearse this process for it models exactly the experience we want our students to have—a willingness to bravely encounter the unfamiliar and transform it in ways that make it meaningful to them.

We most naturally speak in conversations. Of course none of this is new. Socrates’ dialectical method begins (or perhaps continues) a tradition where questions are offered to dispel the weak beliefs held by those doing business in the Agora. The arts and humanities have used social interaction to amplify the expression of ideas since antiquity. In the performing arts, for example, narratives, and the issues they contain, are most often conveyed by exchanges between actors, dancers, musicians and their audiences. The stage is a social space, but so are museums and galleries. Yet in the modern university, excepting Marx, interest in the dialectical conversation seems badly neglected.

In my own undergraduate education, I attended very few lecture courses. Colloquia and seminars were small and students spoke frequently. We asked questions and challenged our instructors when we could. But the playing field was never flat and discussion was too often a means of bringing students to a conclusion that was known in advance. Is that the best way to encourage students to move beyond the confines of their apriori understanding of the world? Perhaps all we need to do is place two faculty members together in a classroom and ask them to have an authentic multilayered discussion in front of their students. I suspect this would often be far more informative and engaging than the traditional monologic approach. A good conversation brings the mind to life. For our students it also models how they can approach the unfamiliar in a meaningful way.

2 Comments on “Modeling Conversation to Model Learning”

  1. Malaszka
    October 27, 2010 at 7:58 pm #

    OK, so how does one get a class room full of students that feel too insecure to speak up? The title of this is modeling conversation yet there are no concrete examples. Could someone please give a few examples of leading questions to get the conversation rolling?


  2. Steven
    October 27, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

    Dear Malaszka,
    Thanks for your comment. Beth and I are thinking about just this issue and want to add a section to our main site that offers the sort of specific strategies you request. Please let us know if there are other questions or services we can offer that would help in the classroom.

    Here are a few off-the-cuff suggestions. Break your students into small groups to wrestle with key issues. Perhaps use web-based sites like Voicethread or the annotation capability of Flickr. Some faculty have even asked their students to make Smarthistory-style videos!


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