Conversation: thinking together
Good talk makes for a good class—or a good community
Reflection is a fundamental skill, both for education and for building community. Fortunately, it comes readily to people who are exposed to it.
When the Nez Perce fought the U.S. army in a weeks-long war across Montana, they met regularly around council fires to reflect on what had happened, what they faced, what might happen and where wisdom might lie. Day by day the community moved forward, and evening by evening they discussed where they might be.
Along the way, they humiliated the army. Traveling with their families and without pack trains to supply them, they won battle after battle. For me, the council fires of the Nez Perce are powerful model of reflection—thinking together to find the best way forward. Though the Nez Perce faced extreme trouble, their plight is not completely alien to any neighborhood or town. Every community is surrounded by change, every community is threatened by something, and every community is moving toward something. Every community needs reflective forums.
When our lives mean something, we pause and reflect.
Reflection is not only a fundamental skill for living in community, it is also the fundamental technique of learning. Fortunately, it comes to us readily, if we are exposed to it. It amounts to no more than deliberative conversation. The art of conversation is the art of thinking together, of using each other for reflective thought.
Of course, not all talk is conversation. Unfortunately, very little of it is. Serial monologues are more common—speakers take turns making speeches without really responding to what others have said. They compete, wanting to talk but not really wanting to listen.
Conversations are different. Conversations are mostly listening and thinking. Why did she say that? How can I draw her out so it’s more clear? Conversation involves questioning something that doesn’t seem right, adding a fact that supports a point, or pointing out a connection with something else.
Individual members of a conversation have insights and facts that the others may not share. As they pool what they have to make a bigger picture, a more accurate and nuanced version of reality comes into view for everyone.
Some young people find real conversations to be the most sublime educational experiences of their lives—the memorable moments they will carry forever. And not just kids. Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed he wouldn’t cross the Atlantic to see the sights, but that he would be glad to travel so far to have a good conversation. For some young people, taking part in conversations is a new experience—something they haven’t experienced at home or witnessed on television. For them, doors are opened. Sometimes lives are changed.
Young people learn to converse readily when they are surrounded by conversations. Though the organization of our schools—a solitary adult and a throng of young people—is fine for transmitting information, it’s quite poor as a way to teach reflection and conversation. Whenever possible, schools should arrange forums where community members discuss, in front of and with young people, questions that touch on topics students have been researching.
Creating opportunities for adults who do cultural work in collaborative teams to converse with students and with each other is a powerful way to teach reflection. This is part of the reason heritage teachers work to reduce the unnatural separation of young people from their communities caused by our practices of schooling. That separation has isolated youth from the real conversations of real communities that have important work to do. This has been bad for education and it has been catastrophic for many communities. When a community’s young do not join the community’s work, or when the community no longer understands that it has work, the community dies. In such deaths are depths of sadness, for old and young alike. But that’s a story for a different time.
For now, think about inviting experts three or four at a time rather than one at a time. Or take students to them, at the places where conversations normally happen. Most communities have many forums where reflective conversation is practiced, though that might not be readily evident because these are not usually public forums. One example might be a museum staff planning new exhibits by talking about what topics are worthy of an exhibit, what things a community should be thinking about, what resources are available, what should be included and what should left out.
Students who have never observed the way professionals with differing expertise use each other to create a project that none of them could do alone might learn volumes from an afternoon spent with a curator, a museum educator, an archivist and a historian talking about what exhibit students could make of their own researches. This would be valuable even if the exhibit were not going to be actually built.
Finding good conversationalists to converse with youngsters is not only good education, it’s fun for everyone involved. Students are more interested in conversations than lectures, even though good conversations are laced with information.
A good class is good because the talk is good, and the talk is good because reflection is going on. Reflection is to the mental life what digestion is to the bodily life—it’s how we draw nutrition out of the raw materials of living. It’s how we incorporate new information into existing knowledge.
Unreflective experience by itself teaches nothing. Event follows event in an endless stream. We react and react and react, without pausing to think. Before we know what something was we are busy with the next something.
But as we reflect we turn our experience into meaning. We see how parts relate wholes and how wholes are made of parts. We see how different things are similar and how similar things are different. We see how bad stories go wrong and how they can be made better.
When the Nez Perce gathered at their council fires the younger children were off playing, but older children hung around, drawn by their sense that something was happening that mattered. Young people who grow up hearing the adults in their community converse about important things move nearer and nearer to those conversations.
Eventually and quite naturally, they take their place in the circle. They keep the fire burning.
Talking habits that jam reflection
Recognizing conversational habits that interfere with thinking and learning
Our conversational habits sometimes interfere with our ability to think.
Bellyaching: This is the habit of finding what’s wrong in every situation, not to improve but to be justified in not attempting much.
Few habits interfere more with learning than the habit of complaining. Bellyaching is highly addictive and many people accomplish only a fraction of what they could if their time and attention were not taken by whining. It becomes easier to whine than to plan and act, but it’s planners and actors who win the prize.
Bellyaching allows people to feel superior without much effort.
One way way to deal with bellyaching is to acknowledge the problem briefly and then to direct attention back to more important questions: What would you like to be different? What can you do to move things in that direction? What did we learn from this? What can we do differently next time?
Gossip: When something like bellyaching is aimed at another person’s failings, it’s important to nudge the complainer away from judging and toward understanding. We have deep instincts that drive us to try to make sense of other people. Unfortunately this instinct leads some people to focus on the weakness or peculiarities of other people.
Most malicious gossip, after all, is not true. Rather it is a fiction: a theory about another person. Gossips report that a person did or said this or that and then weave the facts seamlessly into statements of what the person intended or was “really up to.” But seldom does the gossiper know what someone else intended.
Because making meaning of other people’s behavior comes to us so naturally and so readily, gossips are often not aware when they leap from fact to theory. They even love to bolster wild theories with shrill assertions: “And that’s a fact!”
When we pass on unconfirmed theories about other people’s motives we are gossiping. This is not a minor problem. Serious gossips are attracted to one another, but other people tend to avoid them because it’s not possible to be a gossip without others knowing it.
Since community-centered teaching involves young people in interactions with community members and since the work has a public dimension, it provides lots of opportunities for gossip. Which means it provides lots of opportunities to contemplate the harm done by gossip.
First, it’s unfair to pass judgment on others when they can’t give their side or defend themselves.
Second, it tends to escalate problems. As destructive information about people moves through human communities, distrust and dislike are spread, making the community less able to do the work it needs to do.
And finally, gossip wastes time and energy that could be better spent on other things.
Gossip is best handled by ignoring it, but if it persists a direct approach might be needed: Let’s not say bad things about him. Please don’t tell me bad things about him. There is probably another explanation. You don’t know.
Alternative explanations for behaviors can be suggested. Questions such as “Why do you think he behaved that way?” Or “How can we help her?” can prompt gossipers to move toward a better story, one that might moves things closer to what ought to be.
Record Playing: We all have little scripts that we run from time to time—previously formulated thoughts or stories that we’ve told dozens of times before. Many people perk up when they hear cues to replay these old recordings. Often such tales are amusing or interesting, but just as often they’re a way of avoiding thought.
We like to say things that win approval from our audience, so it’s easy to rely on tried and trusted scripts. But too much reliance is laziness—trying to force new situations into old molds. Instead, we should try to see what new light today’s experiences bring.
Again, such gambits can be met by asking questions that point the speaker toward the new territory at hand. Avoid getting caught up in swapping old tales and re-focus on the details of the current situation.
Skipping: A particularly difficult pattern to break is the habit of jumping to new topics or interrupting to point out trivial or insignificant details. Some people need to report that their pen quits writing or that someone’s eyelash has a speck on it. Skipping around is a common strategy for people who are getting bored or insecure with the direction a conversation is going. It is sometimes an intentional distraction.
Give persons who are skipping the attention and at the same time encourage them to be more serious. “Is this conversation boring you? Are we discussing the wrong questions?” Such responses make the person aware that his disruption is noted at the same time they invite them to reflect on why they are disrupting.
Reflection and critical thinking
Encourage students to move beyond sloppy reasoning
Reflection is one of the major processes teachers should invite and support during learning expeditions.
We are being reflective when we think about our thinking. Does what we are saying or thinking make sense? Is it reasonable? Do we have enough evidence to support what we think? Are we being logical? Are we being honest? Are we being fair?
In Habits of Thought, Richard Paul of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking says that the basic building blocks of thinking are
(1) Beginning with clearly stated goals and purposes for study and inquiry;
(2) Formulating and framing problems and questions;
(3) Developing a defensible perspective and point of view;
(4) Assessing resource materials and texts for honesty and fairness;
(5) Questioning assumptions and biases;
(6) Making valid inferences; and
(7) Evaluating consequences of judgments and reasoning.
Classroom discussions can prepare the way for critical thinking when students are invited to:
(1) Summarize what others have stated;
(2) Elaborate on concepts and ideas;
(3) Relate topics to their own knowledge and experience;
(4) Give examples to clarify and support ideas; and
(5) Make connections between related concepts.
Often students don’t reason well in the classroom. Sloppy thinking is sometimes accepted or praised by teachers because it although it is poorly reasoned it offers the socially fashionable positions. According to Paul, teachers too often let students get by with “random and undisciplined” thought:
Most people . . .do not have “evidence other than the stuff of their subjective reactions to justify their preferences. They prefer because of the way they feel not because of the way they reason. To choose because of these subjective states of feeling is precisely to lack criteria of evaluation or evidence that bears upon objective assessment. When challenged to support subjective preferences, people usually can do little more than repeat their subjective reactions (I find it boring, amusing, exciting, dull, interesting, etc.) or rationalize them (I find it exciting because it has a lot of action in it.)
The traditional way to teach critical thinking more rigorously is through teaching writing. Students can be invited or assigned to tackle topics that require analysis. In such writing, they should be clear about the purpose of their argument, and then teachers can question whether the evidence and reasoning they put on the page are sufficient to accomplish that purpose:
The fundamental criterion to use in analyzing and evaluating reasoning comes from an analysis of the purpose of the reasoner and the logic of the question or questions raised. For example, if a person raises the question, say, as to whether democracy is failing in the USA (in the light of the dwindling number of people who vote and the growing power of vested interest groups with significant money to expend on campaign contributions), we can establish general criteria for assessing the reasoning by spelling out what in general one would have to do to settle the question.
Heritage Projects provide many chances to help students “reason their way” into school subjects “instead of being spoon-fed information that they memorize and then forget.”
Reflection: learning to ask essential questions
Questions and questioning may be the most powerful technologies of all. Jamie McKenzie
By focusing on the enduring questions that lie at the heart of various academic disciplines, we are also focusing on issues that individual students wrestle with. Thus, essential questions provide the link between students’ lives and the curriculum.
Though an expedition will normally focus on questions that can be answered--Why did people move to Montana during the 1960s? How has the use of the land changed in this valley over the past 100 years? What adventuresome journeys did our grandparents make, and what do they think they meant?--good expeditions continually discuss and reflect on a set of essential questions.
In Corvallis, Phil Leonardi’s classes inquire into how and why the physical and cultural landscape has changed through time. In Ronan, Christa Umphrey’s classes are organized around these questions: How did our community and society change in the 1960s? How was the Mission Valley influenced by social forces in the 1960s? Why do people rebel? And in Simms, various strands of the project led by teacher Dorothea Susag are held together by this overarching question: How do popular myths obstruct our understanding of underlying realities?
Such questions meet the criteria for essential questions that Grant Wiggins described In Understanding by Design:
1. They point to the heart of a discipline such as history or science. They are the “big ideas” framed as questions. They are essential because they point toward core issues in the different disciplines and lead toward enduring understandings. The big ideas at the heart of literary studies, for example, include the belief that our opinions should be based on reason and evidence and that through vicarious experience we can expand our knowledge and understanding.
2. They are arguable. They have no obvious right answers. They can be pondered, explored, discussed, and lived with.
3. They recur in professional work and in life, because they grow out of important conceptual and philosophical issues.
4. They engage student interest and can function as a doorway to inquiry.
Teachers often begin unit planning by listing the activities that will be done. If these activities aren’t at some point selected and shaped by three or four overarching questions, the unit will inevitably lack focus. The key questions frame the sequence of activities and they provide structure to the lessons, the field work and note taking, and the culminating scholarly products through which students exhibit their answers.
Project-based teaching easily degenerates into a series of disconnected activities. When students experience a unit as a smorgasbord, they often have trouble understanding the big ideas the unit should have uncovered. “Why are we doing this?” they wonder. Faced with a series of activities, they may not be particularly interested in learning what records are kept in courthouses or government archives. But when they can be engaged in a few key questions, the use of such resources becomes easier to see.
Organizing instruction around returning at key points to a set of essential questions makes the unit’s intellectual challenge more clear, more coherent, and more engaging for students. The essential questions for the expedition should be posted in the room, they should recur in class discussions, and they should appear at the top of handouts.
Though most teachers pose lots of questions, many are leading questions rather than essential questions. Leading questions can be answered by finding the facts. They are intended to uncover content, or to prompt recall, or to get facts on the table. “Who started this town and when?” Often, they are merely rhetorical or thinly disguised statements. Though such questions can be useful, a steady stream of them stifles thoughtfulness and engaged inquiry.
Just as good stories raise questions in the listener’s mind but delay providing answers, good teaching often introduces important questions that will not be answered right away. To create a sense of anticipation and to help them make sense out of the sequence of activities, students should encounter the big ideas and the overarching questions as early in the unit as possible. Event can follow event, as naturally as a story unfolds.
It’s true that the essential questions are sometimes too abstract and inaccessible to “hook” students at the beginning, so more specific unit questions can be used to organize particular content and inquiry. The essential question, “Who is a friend?” might lead to a unit question, “In A Separate Peace, is Gene a true friend of Phineaus’?”
Of course, the overarching questions won’t work well as research questions for individual writing projects. They are far too big for that. Rather, they provide the organizing motive for the entire class, driving the readings and discussions. When students begin forming their own research questions, the essential and unit questions serve as the background and context for their narrower inquiries. While the class may think together about the essential question, “Why do people rebel?” an individual student might interview one person who protested the Vietnam War, not attempting to provide a comprehensive answer to the big question but shedding light on one aspect of it.
The main reason all this matters is that students need to wrestle with big ideas, but big ideas are seldom learned through lectures. Instead, they come to be understood by being explored, questioned, taken apart and put back together, used, reorganized, and confirmed. To reach understanding, students need to personalize the questions, sharing examples and experiences that bring the questions to life.
Without engaging big ideas through such active inquiry, most students will end up with a hodgpodge of opinions and cliches rather than knowledge and understanding. Teachers need to do more than state what is known. They need to design inquiries that allow students to see how knowledge is developed and upon what evidence it is based.
Questions and questioning are the tools that lead to insight and understanding.
Here are suggestions for essential questions:
Whose story is it? From what point of view is this document or textbook written?
What principles are in conflict? Which is most fundamental?
Whose decision should it be?
What is friendship? Who are your true friends?
What is the relationship between popularity and greatness in literature?
Is there such a thing as a typical “American character?” A typical “Montana character?”
Why did (do) people come to the New World? To Montana?
What is the American Dream (is it fact or fiction)?
How has changing technology changed society?
What is a hero?
What is the role of government?
What is the role of leadership during times of great change?
What is freedom? Who is most free?
Can societies survive without enemies?
How do needs of the individual conflict with the needs of society?
How do I find beauty? What is beautiful? Why is beauty important?