Dialogue and conversation for learning, education and change
by Mark K. Smith
The Encyclopedia of Informal Education
Conversation and dialogue are not simply the means that educators and animators use, but are also what educators and animators should seek to cultivate in local life. They may be approached as relationships to enter rather than simply as methods. We focus on the thinking of four people in particular:
Paulo Freire – with whom the notion of dialogue has been linked as an educational form;
Hans-Georg Gadamer – the philosopher who uses the metaphor of conversation to think about how we may come to understand the subject matter at issue; and
Jürgen Habermas – the social theorist who argues for the need for ‘ideal speech situations’ in fostering both understanding and a humane collective life.’[A] humane collective life’, he said (1985: 82), ‘depends on vulnerable forms of innovation-bearing, reciprocal and unforcedly egalitarian everyday communication’.
David Bohm – the eminent physicist and friend of Krishnamurti, whose example and practical proposals for dialogue have met a response from a number of different areas – but particularly those, like Peter Senge, who are concerned with organizational development.
Martin Buber has also made a significant contribution to the appreciation of encounter and dialogue in education.
Gadamer – horizons of understanding
I want to begin by approaching conversation as a way of coming to an understanding (sometimes called a dialogic structure of understanding). This particular way of approaching matters is linked to the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer. He describes conversation thus:
[It] is a process of two people understanding each other. Thus it is a characteristic of every true conversation that each opens himself to the other person, truly accepts his point of view as worthy of consideration and gets inside the other to such an extent that he understands not a particular individual, but what he says. The thing that has to be grasped is the objective rightness or otherwise of his opinion, so that they can agree with each other on a subject. (Gadamer 1979: 347)
In conversation, knowledge is not a fixed thing or commodity to be grasped. It is not something ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. Rather, it is an aspect of a process. It arises out of interaction. The metaphor that Gadamer uses is that of the horizon. He argues that we each bring prejudices (or pre-judgments) to encounters. We have, what he calls, our own ‘horizon of understanding’. This is ‘the range of vision that includes everything that can be see from a particular vantage point’ (ibid: 143). With these pre-judgments and understandings we involve ourselves in what is being said. In conversation we try to understand a horizon that is not our own in relation to our own. We have to put our own prejudices (pre-judgments) and understandings to the test. ‘Only by seeking to learn from the ‘other’, only by fully grasping its claims upon one can it be critically encountered’ (Bernstein 1991: 4). We have to open ourselves to the full power of what the ‘other’ is saying. ‘Such an opening does not entail agreement but rather the to-and-fro play of dialogue’ (op cit). We seek to discover other peoples’ standpoint and horizon. By so doing their ideas become intelligible, without our necessarily having to agree with them (Gadamer 1979: 270), we can come to terms with the other (Crowell 1990: 358).
The concern is not to ‘win the argument’, but to advance understanding and human well being. Agreement cannot be imposed, but rests on common conviction (Habermas 1984: 285-287). In this, the understanding we bring from the past is tested in encounters with the present and forms what we take into the future (Louden 1991: 106). We experience a ‘fusion of horizons’.
The horizon of the present is being continually formed, in that we have continually to test all our prejudices. An important part of that testings is the encounter with the past and the understanding of the tradition from which we come… In a tradition this process of fusion is continually going on, for there old and new continually grow together to make something of living value, without either being explicitly distinguished from the other. (Gadamer 1979: 273)
Whether ‘fusion’ is quite the right word is a matter of debate. It does not quite fit the ‘ruptures that dis-turb our attempts to reconcile different ethical-political horizons’ (Bernstein 1991: 10). However, what we do know is that in that ‘moment’ our own horizon is enriched and we gain knowledge of ourselves.
Emotions and virtues
For there to be dialogue in the dictionary or etymologically sense we look to dia meaning two or between or across and logos speech or ‘what is talked about’. Dialogue is , thus, speech across, between or through two people. It entails a particular kind of relationship and interaction. In this sense it is not so much a specific communicative form of question and answer, ‘but at heart a kind of social relation that engages its participants’ (Burbules 1993: 19). It entails certain virtues and emotions. Burbules lists some of these:
concern: In being with our partners in conversation, to engage them with us, there is more going on than talk about the overt topic. There is a social bond that entails interest in, and a commitment to the other.
trust: We have to take what others are saying on faith – and there can be some risk in this.
respect: While there may be large differences between partners in conversation, the process can go on if there is mutual regard. This involves the idea that everyone is equal in some basic way and entails a commitment to being fair-minded, opposing degradation and rejecting exploitation.
appreciation: Linked to respect, this entails valuing the unique qualities that others bring.
affection. Conversation involves a feeling with, and for, our partners.
hope: While not being purely emotional, hope is central. We engage in conversation in the belief that it holds possibility. Often it is not clear what we will gain or learn, but faith in the inherent value of education carries us forward.
So it is, Martin Buber believed, that real educators teach most successfully when they are not consciously trying to teach at all, but when they act spontaneously out of their own life. ‘Then he can gain the pupil’s confidence; he can convince the adolescent that there is human truth, that existence has a meaning. And when the pupil’s confidence has been won, ‘his resistance against being educated gives way to a singular happening: he accepts the educator as a person. He feels he may trust this man, that this man is taking part in his life, accepting him before desiring to influence him. And so he learns to ask….’ (Hodes 1972: 137).
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