Learning as a Conversation

When someone shares their life experience, their opinions, their ideas, what can we learn from this telling? It occurs to me from all my years of formal education and informal learning that learning is no more than a conversation between its participants. The teacher relating a situation, the student sharing a personal experience, the  professor hosting an open discussion, two neighbors talking, the stranger at the bus stop striking up a conversation, the child telling of her day--all are sharing lived and meaningful experience, giving and taking in an exchange that is ultimately one of learning.

The idea of learning as a conversation interests me because how else do we learn except through the passing on of information that is read, heard or lived? We take this information, assimilating it to mean what we need and want it to mean. We mold it into our personal rhetoric, deriving its usefulness for our own lives. Interesting how we never know what we are thinking until we say it. This becomes our learning. I heard a guest lecturer at McGill University once say that this is what makes our learning because our thoughts are on the tips of our tongues and we just need the opportunity to express them.

As facilitators of adult learning, we experience this conversational learning regularly. Yet what can we do to keep the discussion flowing in our classes? How do we include everyone in the discourse? Just like in conversation, an open discussion requires, above all, an animator--one who knows the value of silence. Here are some elements to implement in our learning conversations to stimulate the discussion and keep it going so that each person is engaged, interested and benefits from the collective sharing:

  1. Make good use of wait times. One the question or issue is out there, as educator, don't be too quick to jump in when no one responds immediately. Let the silence prod someone else into speaking.
  2. Ask open-ended questions using the 5 W's and a H (who, what, when ...) to elicit critical thinking and discussion from your learners.
  3. Use your active listening skills to validate your learners. This is so much better than the pat response: "That's a good answer Julie!" Instead, try: "If I understand what you are saying, Julie, is that...(then pause) Does anyone else have a different opinion?"
  4. Refer back to what was said earlier in the discussion, making use of the learner's name: "Sam said x or y about the issue earlier and now I am hearing Julie say..."
  5. Include all learners in the conversation by making eye contact with and smiling at even the silent ones.
  6. Look for body language clues that someone wants to talk. If they keep getting cut off by a more vocal learner, interject with: "Maureen would like to add something to the discussion."
  7. Let the learners speak to each other as opposed to going through you just because you are the teacher at the front of the class. Better yet, if you have the desks in a circle, this sharing happens more easily. As facilitator, you should always sit in the circle.
  8. Because it is so difficult to tear ourselves away from a good conversation, summarize the main points of what was said before moving on. Then say something like: "This gives us lots to think about." Similar to the end of a good counseling session when you still have more to say, your learners will take this information away for thought and look forward to the next discussion.

I always tell my groups that each class participant is a teacher and I am fortunate to be among them, to the point that when someone asks a question, I say: "Let's see what our panel of experts think..." So, next time you are in the throes of an exciting class discussion, use it as a golden learning opportunity for your learners and yourself. Your learners will want to keep coming back!

* Article first printed in QAAL's Linking for Learning newsletter, Vol. 17, No. 1, Fall 1999.

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