Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dialogue and the Paradox of Experience-based Learning

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."

1 comment:

  1. David,

    I just read your latest blog -- fantastic, by the way! -- and my mind wandered back to an essay I read last week in the NYtimes about charisma.

    The author explores the idea of charisma and mentions that "it cannot be taught...Someone who has it will exude it, whether performing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' or Scarlatti, Mimi or Marguerite. Charisma is not earned with age; an artist is charismatic at 16 or 60. Rigorous training enhances and focuses it, but it cannot create it."

    I began to dig into this statement and wonder whether or not charisma can in fact be taught, or whether it can be learned for that matter (a subtle distinction that is embedded in your blog).

    What if the author is right? The implications are powerful and potentially disturbing. Are there certain traits, characteristics, or behaviors that can't be learned (e.g. charisma, sense of irony, leadership, sense of humor, etc.)? I'd like to open up a dialogue on this; it's something I think about often but I'd be curious to explore further.

    Errol Garner, who I believe you saw perform when you were a kid, had charisma even though he never knew how to read music. When, where, and how did he learn this quality? Did he have charisma from birth, but it only shone through once he put his fingers to the keys? Did he exude charisma as a young musician or did it emerge later in life as he came into himself and crystallized his life experiences?

    Some highlights from the Nytimes essay, linked below:

    To experience a charismatic performance is to feel elevated, simultaneously dazed and focused, galvanized and enlarged. It is to surrender to something raw and elemental, to feel happy but also unsatisfied. Charisma calls forth a melancholy, a vaguely unrequited feeling. I’ve caught myself, after certain performances of an aria or a movement, leaning forward, as if drawn against my will. Charisma requires that you acknowledge a new, larger set of possibilities.

    [Charisma] is a pure, mystifying gift. It cannot be taught, though silly how-to blog posts proliferate (“Eight Keys to Instant Charisma”). Someone who has it will exude it, whether performing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' or Scarlatti, Mimi or Marguerite. Charisma is not earned with age; an artist is charismatic at 16 or 60. Rigorous training enhances and focuses it, but it cannot create it.

    ...charisma is not virtuosity or intelligence or perceptive programming.

    While charisma would seem to be a subjective judgment, there is remarkable unanimity to our recognition of it. We know it when we see it.

    A performer who has it can turn it neither on nor off, but it often crystallizes in certain moments.

    Max Weber wrote, 'Charisma is a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or specifically exceptional powers. These qualities are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.'

    What we generally consider the 'content' of the arts — the notes, the libretto, the bowings, the plot — is actually just the structure that makes possible the crucial thing: watching a performer who is able to connect with fundamental realities. It is not that a singer’s charisma makes a colorful aria sound even better but that the aria provides a platform, a vessel, for us to experience the charisma.