Powerful Learning Comes From A Two Thousand Year Old Idea
Making change that matters doesn’t always require new technology. Sometimes, it’s more important to change how we relate to each other. I think the impact of how we connect is especially profound in education. If we set aside all gimmicks for a moment and think about learning by itself, we realise that it is actually all about connecting. Connecting ideas, connecting pieces of knowledge into networks and connecting people.
How we make these connections doesn’t get much attention when we talk about innovating education. Mostly, I think, because changing how we connect requires making a cultural shift. There is no easy fix for this; it can’t be changed by rolling out a new curriculum, nor investing in a new piece of technology. Instead, it requires slow and deliberate ongoing cultural change.
But this change is something that can be designed and it has the potential to improve education. I also think that there is a two-thousand-year-old way of learning known as the ‘dialectic’ that we can borrow to do this. Let me explain.
The roots of the dialectic live in Ancient Greece. Though it takes many forms, in its simplest, a dialectic is a conversation between two (or more) individuals attempting to untangle a complex idea. Typically, the individuals have different points of view and it is in the constructive opposition and eventual synthesis that they challenge each other and learn. In a dialectic relationship, the teacher is not an authority figure and the learner is not a de-empowered and passive recipient. Though they are usually taking opposite sides of an argument, they are both learning together as they are both constructing the insights. I like to think of the dialectic as a ‘conversation.’
Contrast this to didactic learning, which is the approach we typically associate with schools. In the didactic method the teacher is an authority figure who has specialised knowledge. They give one-directional instruction and the students are passive consumers. Typically, the teacher’s knowledge is considered paramount. In a didactic framework, we can imagine rows of pupils in any average classroom, listening quietly to a teacher talk. Seated, while the teacher is standing. The lecture may be supplemented by imagery and fill-in-the-blank worksheets. The teacher provides the information and the students consume. Pretty much the antithesis of collaborative and creative engagement. I call this type of didactic learning the ‘lecture.’
So if the conversation could replace the lecture, what would it look like? Here is an example of a dialectic exploring the concept of gambling between two participants, Quaestor and Consul.
Quaestor: ‘How does the Lotto work? It seems like they would run out of money after paying someone a big prize.’
Consul: ‘It might seem like that, but don’t you have to account for all the tickets they sell every week?All the new tickets pay for the previous prize and it goes on like that.’
Quaestor: ‘But that would mean you need people to keep buying tickets, wouldn’t it?’
Consul: ‘It does. Lotto, like any gambling, depends on the stories people tell about winning. People buy into these stories and keep buying tickets. Even if the odds are low they will win. Would you buy a ticket based on the thought of winning?’
Quaestor: ‘It sounds exciting to win, but if it’s rare you win it doesn’t seem worth it. If I didn’t know what they were trying to do with the advertisement, maybe I would. Knowing ruins their trick. So what makes a good story?’
Consul: ‘I like to think of it in three layers, from bottom to top. The mechanics, the style and the story, which is made up of character and/or plot. I think the top layer is the minimum; character and story.’
Quaestor: ‘It still doesn’t make sense. How does Lotto make money if they have to pay out all that money when you win?’
Consul: ‘Consider just how many tickets they sell, and how they don’t necessarily have to pay the amount all at once. Sometimes they can pay it over years.’
Quaestor: ‘So they hold the money the whole time, while they are paying you?’
Consul: ‘Yes. Which lets them make more money for more prizes.’
Quaestor: ‘Is that like a Casino?’
Consul: ‘Similar. New people playing and paying offset what they pay.’
Quaestor: ‘But surely people will stop if they don’t win at all?’
Consul: ‘So maybe the odds let you win occasionally?’
Quaestor: ‘Ah. So that keeps you playing.’
Consul: ‘Exactly. Lotto tickets and casinos work on the psychological fallacy that your little wins are worth it. The little wins cause you to ignore how much you’ve spent to get the little win.’
Quaestor: ‘How much do they spend in a lifetime, when compared to a few small wins? It must be in the thousands. However, it’s more than that though, isn’t it?’
Consul: ‘What do you mean?’
Quaestor: ‘In a casino, it’s about the bright lights and keeping you inside where you can’t see the time of day. The noisy sound of money when someone, somewhere else wins. It all works to keep you playing. It makes you feel like you could be a winner.’
Consul: ‘Is it like they are telling you a story?’
Quaestor: ‘Yes! Their story is not real, but you want it to be.’
The entire conversation is a great learning experience. It explores advertising, gambling, probability, social manipulation and storytelling to name a few topics. Buried in the conversational approach to learning are four key patterns that really emphasise the difference between a conversation from the more formal lecture.
Firstly, the points of view are more than comfortable with opposition. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a right answer. The point isn’t to memorise what are accepted facts, but to learn how to think, how to construct arguments, how to reason and how to collaborate. Knowledge underpins the conversation, but it isn’t the main goal.
Secondly, the conversation naturally jumps and changes as topics ebb and flow. Sometimes very tangental topics surface momentarily and this is fine. Meaning is built in layers, over time.
Thirdly, it’s a conversation. The participants trade questions and ideas. There are no sit-down paper-based tests at the end. There are no grades. As a society, we’ve come to treat tests as synonymous with learning, whether in school with young people or even when we learn at work. As if the ritual of taking tests and receiving a grade is a guarantee that learning has happened. That is a dangerous assumption. A test (especially with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blanks) measures ability to guess effectively or ability to regurgitate. It does not guarantee you’ve measured learning.
Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, in the dialectic model, the power structure between the ‘teacher’ (Consul) and the ’student’ (Quaestor) is far more equal. In a way, they are both learners. In the conversational approach, each party has control over the questions, contribution and direction. That’s what makes it a bidirectional conversation, rather than a lecture.
The dialectic model was our original approach to education at all levels and requires a a titanic shift in worldview and power to form this type of collaborative learning relationship. I think the dialectic faded from formal education simply because it didn’t suit the model of mass education. It’s an approach which is difficult to standardise and it requires genuine skill on the teacher’s behalf to keep up with the flow.
In contrast, the didactic model was simply easier to adopt when training large volumes of students to a prescribed level of literacy and numeracy. But this does not make the didactic model better or more effective. In fact, many of the world’s top universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge embrace a dialectic teaching approach.
I’m not saying that a conversational approach is the only way to learn. I also like experiments, brainstorming, reading and so on. I accept that a conversational approach isn’t the only way to evolve education. However, I think it is an interesting, underused and powerful way for people to learn. A powerful possibility for meaningful change in education.
Parthenon Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash