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.