I will try to establish why I believe that one can only learn through conversation(Gadamer, 2001)
We have been interacting more over the internet than in face-to-face exchanges. Speaking online become an important aspect of our lives and livelihood and calls for new skill sets that people need to develop. Effective online communication has become crucial for both our social and professional lives.
“Why do you use the concept of conversation instead of dialogue?”
This is a question I often get. As my research indicates, conversation is a broader concept than dialogue. Dialogue is but one of the components of conversation, which stretches beyond dialogical structures. Conversation in the Online Professional Learning Community (OPLC) I studied was the ensemble of interactions AND the space in which these interactions occur and was a central and crucial activity and medium for learning.
Conversation is therefore a wider concept that includes both the dialogical process and the ecosystem in which this dialogue occurs.
Within online learning settings, the means of communication require reading texts to interrogate different perspectives. The space in which the conversations occur is afforded and constrained by technological, psychological, social, professional, institutional, features alike. With this concept of conversation, I am referring not only to a certain quality of verbal interaction between participants, but importantly is considers things like the ecosystem in which dialogue happens, the context, cultural and organizational, and the patterns of interaction between people who are engaged in conversation. All of these, taken together, form what I call the Ecology of Learning.
I argue that conversation is a paramount concept for teacher education and professional development in general.
Biesta et al. (2017) note that some talk seems to support the ways in which teachers make sense of their practice, while other types seem to interfere with and distort what they feel matters and should matter in education. Conversation plays a role in the achievement of teacher agency, and readiness for future action; for example, if a teacher felt more able to experiment within the environment of her own classroom, she could also feel less able (powerless) within the wider context of the school, and education system of her country.
The case I studied (the Pestalozzi programme of the Council of Europe) and its OPLC was successful to bring teachers to a space of transformation, while considering education for democracy and human rights. My research aimed to understand why and how this was the case and, in doing so, to understand why certain conversations are better learning opportunities than others. As a result, I conceptualized conversation as an ecology of learning and arrived at a comprehensive definition of conversation.
The conversation tree
The schema (Fifure 1) hinges on several consecutive criteria for assessing the qualities of conversation (and its fitness for learning): it represents the main elements that may be helpful to evaluate and assess the extent to which a conversation has the potential to become a learning conversation.
- Quality of Interaction
- Quality of Attention
- Quality of Meaning making
The result is described in Figure 1, where a strong distinction is made between ‘monologue and lecture’, ‘debate’, ‘discussion’, ‘Chat’ etc. and conversation. The model highlights how the former are forms of talking that cannot afford the best conditions for learning. In my research learning conversations and dialogue are seen as interactive, focused on process and harbouring high level of meaning making.
I am very aware that I am stating controversial ideas here. I know how teachers and educators, and especially colleagues who are working in the fields of History teaching and Civic Education or Democratic citizenship education, or philosophy or language teachers, are passionate about debate as a good learning environment. I tend to disagree.
Definition of conversation
Conversation is the activity of talking/writing with one or more others, in an ecosystem, that involves interaction in a non-formal format that is open-ended, collaborative, and focuses on the process of interacting and exchanging ideas more than on the results or outcome of the activity.
Inclusive conversation, playing out in a democratic ethos, displays individuals’ show of respect for the other, learning through inquiry, openness to inquiring into values, beliefs and assumptions, accepting disagreements as opportunities (congeniality) in order to engage in collaborative meaning making.
A conversation is more than the sum of its parts and makes connections across a wide variety of participants’ experiences, beliefs, thoughts attitudes and behaviour. Therefore, it is a socio-constructivist concept useful to talk about learning and teaching as a social, emotional as well as cognitive activity. With such a definition, learning takes on meanings such as joining new communities and partaking in new conversations for new meaning making, thus shifting our relationship to others, and possibly shifting within ourselves.
One could then argue that there is no such thing as ‘mere’ conversation because conversation involves learning when we are loyal to its principles and practices and perhaps its continuance is the only successful outcome a conversation may claim.
Thus defined, conversation is a means for an education process that educates for uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity and opens a path for new possibilities.
These characteristics are much needed today, in line with the increasing demands on the profession, and the complexity of present-day systems. Thus, it is critical to continue to articulate the relational and potentially transformative power observed in the conversation, in the data. Figure 1 shows an understanding of forms of talking that illustrates a definition of ‘meaning making conversations’ that the results of the study suggest, and that distinguishes conversation from other forms of talking.
If you are looking to engage people with values, the double loop learning would be very helpful: an educational concept and process that involves teaching people to think more deeply about their own assumptions and beliefs. Double loop learning involves changing goals or decision rules in the light of experience. The first cycle uses the objectives or decision rules, the second cycle allows their modification, therefore “double loop”.
Such conversation gives learners, adults and kids, the cognitive and emotional tools that help navigate and thrive in today’s ‘on the brink’ environment, highly volatile with rising distractions, and diminished access to other in face-to-face encounters. It develops competences that are crucial for understanding our self, tuning in to other people, and sensing the wider world and understanding the how its systems interact. The connection between emotion and cognition is a very salient result that has surprised even me who is a firmly set in socio-constructivist traditions. So, the connections between social, emotional development and the capacity to apprehend our contexts as systems is compelling enough and should push us to transform our curricula and pedagogies to engage with more straightforward strategies leading to systems learning, embedded in shared values.
The use of a wide concept of conversation has been gaining traction in the latter years. Scholars have stressed that conversation matters and is a “meta process of how we bring forth the world” (Scharmer, 2016, p. 290) and it becomes transformational when it involves personal connection, defined as authentic sharing and listening, dialogue attending a “deeper space” (adding up to “collective presence” (ibid.). This process is similar to the experience of “flow”, meaning that conversation can be seen as a way of enhancing our lives by improving the quality of our experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), with others.
As for online conversation outside of educational settings, Turkle (2016) stressed that the virtues of person-to-person conversation are timeless and human’s most basic technology, She has pointed to how conversation may be endangered when technology replaces it with other forms of communication. My research contradicts her position, since I consider that the educators in an OPLC are in fact engaged in conversation that responds to real-life challenges through technological means. Conversation, as I am choosing to use the word, is a way of exploring the underpinnings of the multiple crises that we face today. It enables exploration, inquiry into, and understanding of what at time may interfere with authentic communication between individuals, and groups/communities small (play, classroom, school) and large (organizations, nations).
Our ability to converse together about subjects that matter deeply to us will be necessary to overcome formidable challenges of our present situation.(Mompoint-Gaillard, 2021)
Extract of the thesis
In this interview by Laureen Golden, I was invited to speak about this concept of conversation for the National Workforce Registry Alliance 2020.
Photo credits: Fabrice Villard https://unsplash.com/photos/Du41jIaI5Ww
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