From Conversation To Dialogue: An Art of Reflection
‘Dialogue’ as a pedagogic tool has been admired by educationists from centuries and its capacities for building up democratic mindsets has been discussed for a long time. Why then have most of our classrooms ceased to be open space conducive to the spirit of dialogic learning? The researcher penetrates into the depths of this issue.
Neha Aggarwal is a Ph.d scholar at JNU, New Delhi.
There are hundreds of theories that explain what education ought to be. However, when educational ideas come into practice, teachers, professors and researchers fall short of strategies to make meaningful interventions in terms of creative pedagogy or innovative classroom designs. An ideal researcher goes back to further research and fills the missing gaps. However, the teachers may not have either the liberty of time or the motivation to engage in meaningful research on teaching methods.
Latest researches on classroom teaching promote debate, discussion and dialogue as effective tools for establishing democratic environments. Practicing ‘dialogue’ in the classroom faces similar difficulties, it sounds easier in theory than when applied in practice. A lesson or lecture is turned into a dialogue, when, rather than transferring knowledge to students, the teacher creates and constructs knowledge along with the students. Each student has his/her own voice and thus multiple students mean multiple voices. The role of the teacher then becomes that of an initiator of a discussion, who then takes a secondary seat and listens to all these voices which come from the students. When the teacher facilitates the discussion with the support of theories and by encouraging students’ own arguments, then knowledge is constructively built.
When seen from this perspective, the teacher becomes a learner himself: since attaining knowledge is a never ending goal. A textbook can only quote some facts, but is always an incomplete knowledge and there is infinite scope for the discovery of the truth beyond the textbook. Thus, a classroom lecture can be a monologic delivery of someone else’s ideas transferred from the textbook to a group of students, or on the contrary it can become an engaging involvement with a mutual exchange of ideas between the young learner (student) and an adult learner (teacher). This is how critical thinking is practiced in classrooms, by looking beyond the textbooks and engaging with ideas through mutual discovery and wonder.
The great Greek philosopher Socrates would always do this- go in the market and talk to people about ideas such as justice and truth. He would keep questioning their beliefs until the absolute truth was reached. Such a practice would do wonders for critical thinking of the people. They would start questioning their own selves. Questioning one’s own self is a usual practice which every individual engages himself in but when it is done with consciousness, and some metacognition, then it is seen as critical thinking. The process of questioning and talking to oneself then becomes ‘inner dialogue’, a term that Russian educationist and psychologist Lev Vygotsky termed and used in education research. Even a child has the mechanism of ‘inner speech’, when the thought is not very well formed to be used in a social setup, a child is always talking to himself to make sense of the world, for his or her acts. So, dialogue has been our innate nature, and if used with intelligence, can become a potential tool for communicating with others as well as with ourselves.
The spiritual philosopher and great world teacher Jiddu Krishnamurthy reminds us, ‘We get tired of talking to ourselves that’s when we turn to others’; a powerful statement indicating the reason for the social nature of humans. The dialogue with the self is often used to practice spiritualism, in learning to be comfortable with one’s own company. This can happen when one reflects on one’s own thoughts; in this way we talk to ourselves and enjoy our own company. When we start enjoying our own company, we are even happier in other’s company.
If dialogue is so crucial to social existence, it becomes important to explore its characteristics. Unlike a regular conversation, ‘dialogue’ has some prerequisite conditions. First and foremost, a dialogue must be differentiated from any conversation or talk. An example of a conversation is when two friends talk/ chitchat/ gossip, when one shares his/her story with the other and the other responds or reacts to it and then both/ either move to another topic and so on.
On the other hand a dialogue is more persistent on one theme or topic of interest, and requires capabilities such as contemplation and reflection. In the field of counseling and psychology, the art of conversation is a crucial skill to be learnt and taught. Skills such as listening, reflecting, paraphrasing and summarizing are meticulously used by counselors to carry out a conversation with a client to help them understand what they are saying. The skills borrowed from such conversations can be used to establish or initiate a dialogue in classroom teaching.
The crux of reflection is to ‘hear oneself out’. Becoming aware of one’s thoughts opens up new horizons to the underlying belief system. The renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud studied various mechanisms to know the unknown of the human psyche. He brought to use the famous term ‘unconscious’ and related it to one’s personality. He put forth that one is not always aware of what he or she thinks or believes. These are particularly those beliefs that are unacceptable by society, and often get suppressed or repressed in one’s psyche. These hidden desires, conflicts, beliefs and thoughts often find their way via processes such as dreams or slip of the tongue etc. Thoughts can be prevented from going into the unconscious if they are reflected upon at the level of thought itself. People who have a ‘heightened awareness’ about themselves are less susceptible to deep unconscious conflicts. These difficult unacceptable beliefs are often related to social and cultural norms such as sexuality and immorality. When such unacceptable processes are not attended to and dealt with, they end up shaping themselves as escape mechanisms. So, we avoid entering the difficult terrains. Often these hidden thoughts are the route to seeking truth and deep consciousness.
A teacher’s job thus becomes to make the students comfortable in identifying and then developing awareness of the hidden thought processes, make them question those thoughts and instigate their curiosity to challenge the everyday practices in and around ones’ self. A dialogue of such critical nature brings insights and creates reflective practices encouraging both parties to extend their boundaries and leading them to question the socio-political nature of knowledge.
Practicing dialogue doesn’t come easy to the teacher. It requires a different frame of mind than that of conventional teaching. In a dialogic classroom, the power equation between the teacher and the student is pretty much egalitarian, equally empowering the students to ask questions, diffusing the tension which conventionally exists within a class structure. Thus the knowledge of the student elevates itself to come at par with the teacher’s knowledge. Both are co-builders of the knowledge system. Practices of such kind involving dialogue remind us of the great educationist Paulo Friere and his ways of construction of critical pedagogy and developing critical consciousness among the masses.
Another crucial element of dialogue is the use of dialectics. Here, in the context of dialogue, dialectic is seen as two opposing poles contradictory to each other merging towards a common point. In Hegelian terms these opposing poles are thesis and anti-thesis that keep evolving to form a synthesis. Synthesis however doesn’t mean a nodal point of view, it’s more like a common point from where another thesis and anti-thesis can be created and the debate continues. Finding opposing points of views is not uncommon as it seems. There are multiple views not only in different individuals but also within an individual himself. Contradictory views when handled systematically to carry on a dialogue become a powerful technique to be used in the classroom. Many researches display how when students are made to hear different opinions about a similar issue, their own viewpoint undergoes changes. This isn’t some new discovery, it happens all the time with all human beings. When humans come in contact with another resource such as another human being or a book which tells a different story, their own beliefs change, or at least becomes open to change.
Then why should a classroom become a closed space where the teacher imposes the textbook’s opinion to students homogenizing their minds and making them dull? The present system of education is flawed at various levels, but it is also upon the teacher to make it better by exercising her creative agency in the classroom. If innovative measures are taken to discover the potential of each child in the constructivist classroom, and if knowledge is seen as an ever going domain rather than a fixed category. Our schools would become more inviting to the students and lend them a more fulfilling experience.
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