One of the most foundational quotes about the nature of experience comes from Aldous Huxley's book Texts and Pretexts--"Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you DO with what happens to you." (Or, in the original, "Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him." This concept is touted regularly by experience-based educators as the basis for a "constructivist" understanding of learning. Deep learning occurs, in this view, when you employ something like what is described in the Kolb cycle (see illustration below) as a way to internalize understanding and avoid settling for only superficial knowing.
And there is a great deal of truth, I think, in this formulation. You can try this model out on the latest piece of "deep learning" you have achieved and see if it holds true.
One day I was foraging around in a bookstore in the Hague while on a trip with a Model United Nations group in 1984 and I happened upon a book tucked away in the corner or the shop. The book was a translation of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize speech that he gave in 1970.Solzhenitsyn was a major figure in the intellectual world after his arrest and deportation from the then USSR in 1974. I sat down in the bookstore and began to eagerly read the speech. As I did I came across a line that has continued to be in the back of mind ever since, and certainly throws a deep complication into Huxley's mantra.
Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Perhaps man’s most damaging characteristic is that he can only learn by his own experience, that he allows other people’s experience to pass him by." He then went on to ask, "But is there anything we can do that can overcome that characteristic?"
A great deal of my thinking about teaching and learning has been organized around that idea ever since. Experience-based learning is a paradox--you can only deeply learn through your own experience, but we individually have such a limited experience that there is so little we can learn.
Then, in another bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico I came across the ideas of the quantum physicist David Bohm. And while I do not begin to understand the physics parts of what Bohm was talking about, I was immediately drawn to his ideas about his version of "dialogue." The way Bohm defined the concept, it began to look like it might be helpful in addressing the paradox of experience-based learning.
Here is a sample of what Bohm meant by dialogue:
“Dialogue comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos means “the word,” or in our case we would think of “the meaning of the word.” And dia means ‘through’- it doesn’t mean two. A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of dialogue is present. The picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us.This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ which holds people and societies together."
What I loved was that this concept of dialogue required a spirit of exploration. And then, in addition, the idea that we are looking for some NEW understanding, not the confirmation of some old understanding that we try to convince others is valid.
But as I looked at my own classroom I realized it was a mess in terms of practicing dialogue. As I began to analyze the kinds of discourse that happened, I realized that people were engaged in conversation, or discussion or debate--but rarely, maybe almost never, in dialogue.
No wonder we generated so little "shared meaning that held us together." So, since I love etymologies, I did a little research. Here is what I found as the origins of those different forms of verbal interaction:
Discourse: "a running about"
Conversation: "turning about with" or "taking turns" (related to keep company with)
Discussion: "to shake apart" (related to concussion or percussion)
Debate: "to beat down" (related to battery, as in assault and battery)
And then, a couple of things became a little clearer. First, my classes were incoherent in part because everyone was in a different mode of discourse. Second, that dialogue rarely happened because we were "taking turns" or "shaking apart" or "beating down." But we were NOT creating a "stream of meaning."
And I realized that one way to take on the experiences of others was to engage in dialogue. In fact, it was even better in some ways--I could help create environments where experiences were collaborative. There was not just my experience, or the other person's experience, there was a "third thing"--the experience that was generated by the coming together in dialogue. And I began to look for this everywhere I could. The best examples of great ideas in teaching and learning are frequently not found in the field of education, and I began to look for "Bohm moments" wherever I could.
Now, click this link ( YOU HAVE TO CLICK THIS LINK; IT WILL MAKE YOUR DAY) and you will see my friends Evita and Michael engaged in a dialogic relationship (the "third thing" is the dance itself) on their way to winning the Big Band Lindy Finals at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem this past May. (Enjoy, and remember this is all improvisational dialogue, not memorized choreography. See if you can pick out the spots in the tape where the two of them achieve what Evita calls, "Mojo.")
That, that is what experience-based classes in dialogue would look like, I thought. And so, I continue to search for other examples of dialogue and to think about what the necessary precursors are for creating "Mojo."