Dialogue in Education

9 September 2016

SocratesI am right, you are wrong. In nearly every debate the ultimate motive is to prove that one side is right and the other is inherently wrong, rarely leaving any room for middle ground. Sadly, because of debate’s prevalence throughout society, American culture and education has been deduced to lecturing and mere dualistic contention. From news shows to elementary classrooms, logic and reason serve as the gateway to discovering truths, according to western education. But what exactly are the consequences of a debate-centered education system, and can America make changes in order to diminish any negative consequences?

For one, it is evident that in comparison to Asian nations, American education is lacking. When it comes to academic achievement, according to the International Business Times, the US is ranked 17th in the world (Gayathri). Additionally, research has shown that Americans do not appreciate education like many Asian nationals who value knowledge as, “integral to what it means to be a person, and that socialization, education knowledge and morality are inseparable” (Alexander 11).

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In order to address these two issues and better America’s education system, one solution does not exist.

A hybrid of solutions must be explored. The two articles The Roots of Debate in Education and the Hope of Dialogue and The Power of Context: Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime, written by Deborah Tannen and Malcolm Gladwell, respectively, offer two theories that could revolutionize western education. By considering, and possibly implementing, the authors’ theories regarding the importance of dialogue and the influential power of our environment, America would permanently improve its education system.

In her article, Deborah Tannen mentions an important consequence of the debate pedagogy dominating western school systems: “The tendency to value formal, objective knowledge over relational, intuitive knowledge,” she claims, “grows out of our notion of education as training for debate” (405). The Georgetown professor addresses the agonistic, debate focused educational system by referring to it as warlike, “deeply rooted in Western tradition, going back to the ancient Greeks” (Tannen 402) American education has always been centered on discovering abstract truth through the debate of two ideas.

Tannen explains how seeking to prove others wrong, as opposed to discovering new ideas or solutions, has become an end in itself (413). For example, western education teaches that academic essays are, for the most part, only supposed to be written in direct opposition to another essay. If an author fails to objectively choose a side, then their opinion is often considered unnecessary. But how can we expect students to think creatively and discover new solutions when they are only told to tear down and refute already presented ideas? Tannen considers this very question.

Despite the millennium long roots in western society, she believes America is capable of altering its education system to a more dialogue based method of teaching, and explains the benefits of doing so. Early in her article, Tannen asks readers to compare the contention filled western education model with that of the dialogue dominated Chinese culture. As stated earlier, many Asian nations, including China, have far surpassed the US in academic achievement, and Tannen believes the inherent presence of dialogue throughout their culture may be the reason why.

She explains how educating children by using a dialogic approach fosters an increased access to knowledge because “the aim [is] to ‘enlighten an inquirer,’ no to ‘overwhelm the opponent’” (403). Whereas, in western culture and education, critical response is limited to critique; therefore, students are, “not doing the other kinds of critical thinking that could be helpful; looking for new insights, new perspectives, new ways of thinking, new knowledge”- all processes made possible through dialogue (414). Consider Asian talk shows, for example.

As opposed to American shows such as the O’Reilly Factor, Chinese talk shows portray how approaching a situation from many perspectives instead of simply two opposing viewpoints can be very beneficial (Tannen 422). Not only does adding multiple perspectives expand the possibility of discovering solutions, but it diffuses arguments into discussions instead of escalating them into tension-filled disagreements, as debate often does. Western society allows debate to dominate over any type of dialogue, thus snuffing out the possibility of exploring already proposed ideas.

If a dialogue mentality was adopted into western education, however, people would no longer instinctively view solutions and truths from within the constraints of a limited, directly opposing argument. Rather, many people would search for other solutions instead of remaining intent on proving an idea right or wrong. With problems becoming more complex annually, and the US becoming more globalised, solutions to problems are no longer linear and as clear cut as before.

Multiple perspectives and opinions must be considered, and without dialogue in the classroom, we are only preparing students to carry a one-dimensional mindset in a world that requires multifaceted solutions. Nevertheless, many authors believe that dialogue in the classroom does more than prepare students to solve the most complex problems. They argue that dialogue lays the entire foundations of a “good society”. For example, in his essay Education as Dialogue, Professor Robin Alexander from the University of Cambridge concurs with, and expounds upon, the benefits of dialogue that Tannen mentions.

Dialogue, unknown to most, is more than conversation. “Dialogue requires willingness and skill to engage with minds, ideas and ways of thinking other than our own; it involves the ability to question, listen, reflect, reason, explain, speculate, and explore ideas…dialogue within the classroom lays the foundations of social cohesion, active citizenship and the good society” (Alexander 2). Clearly, Alexander believes dialogue in the classroom determines a student’s behavior and the behavior of society as a whole.

What may seem extremely trivial, such as how a question is posed in the classroom, can affect the fate of society and “our private lives,” according to Alexander and Tannen (Tannen 426). Alexander believes dialogue is imperative during the primary education years due to the human brain’s expanded learning power throughout that time period. According to his research: Neuroscience shows us that between birth and adolescence, brain metabolism is 150 per cent of its adult level, and synaptogenesis, or the growth of brain connections, causes the brain’s volume to quadruple.

In this process language plays a vital part…The period from birth …to adolescence [is] critical for all subsequent development, for during this phase of life the brain restructures itself…Language, and especially talk, help drive that process (Alexander 6). With dialogue having such a monumental effect on society’s structure and people’s ability to discover truth, it is crucial the US education system begin utilizing a pedagogy focused on dialogue as early as elementary school.

It is important to note, however, that Alexander does not believe debate or recitation pedagogies should be thrown out, but rather included alongside dialogue for the most effective teaching to occur (7). Alexander’s notion that the educational environment plays a pivotal role in student behavior leads to Gladwell’s discussion of behavior and the Power of Context Theory. Gladwell attributes human behavior to what he believes is quite a radical idea. In his article, he searches to discover what causes behaviors to “stick” or become pervasive, and at what point a government or organization becomes able to make a societal change.

The article covers New York City’s drop in crime rates during the 1990s, attributing the decline to the Broken Window Theory by claiming that people’s behavior is heavily influenced by their environment. Thus, small things, such as graffiti or dilapidated buildings, will inevitably lead to increased crime. His Power of Context Theory is quite similar, claiming that the immediate context of one’s environment is most important in guiding one’s actions (Gladwell 164).

Essentially, “behavior is a function of social context”, and, “it isn’t just serious criminal behavior that is sensitive to environmental cues, it is all behavior” (Gladwell 159,165). With this reasoning, it becomes simple to see how the Power of Context can be applied to the realm of education. For the first twenty-two years of most students’ lives, their most influential environment is school. Just as Gladwell explains people’s behavior is influenced by the appearance of buildings and side-walks, a student’s behavior is defined by the environment set by a school’s physical appearance.

Naturally, the debate of whether determinism or constructivism is the main cause for one’s behavior arises. It seems to reason, according to Tannen, Alexander and Gladwell that determinism wins and whether people like it or not, they are molded by their environment. As a result, in order to maximize student learning, school systems must make every effort to improve classroom environment as much as they are able. While clean buildings ensure students are not distracted from learning, dialogue serves as the “Stickiness Factor” of an environment according to Gladwell (164).

This is what Tannen is referring to when she talks of relational knowledge in the quote mentioned earlier. It is the ‘x-factor’ of personal connection that engages a student and brings them fully into dialogue. Tannen gives the example of an elementary student who brought a rock to class for show-and-tell. He spoke of the rock’s personal meaning to him, quickly tying contextual and emotional strings to the object. The teacher redirected the student and began to ask questions relating to facts about the lava instead of the relation between him and the lava.

“The example”, says Tannen, “shows the focus of education on formal rather than relational knowledge – information about the rock that has meaning out of context, rather than information tied to the context” (405). According to Gladwell, keeping things in context is all-important, and that is exactly what dialogue does. Bringing American education back to the top “can be done through the influence of special kinds of people, people of extraordinary personal connection…it can be done by changing the content of communication [dialogue], by making a message so memorable that it sticks in someone’s mind” (Gladwell 164).

By building rapport. Applying the Power of Context to education may seem as a bit of a stretch, “but in reality it is no more than an obvious and commonsensical extension of the Power of Context, because it says simply that children are powerfully shaped by their external environment” (Gladwell 165). A mixture of the approaches mentioned above could very well serve as Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” to move the US back into contention as a world leader in education. A core argument against implementing dialogue into western education is the effectiveness of doing so.

Unlike Asian nations where collectivity is already stressed in their culture, American culture focuses on competition and individualism, and therefore lacks natural collectivity in the classroom and society. Alexander notes, “In a British and American context, shifting towards a more collective and less individualistic learning culture may demand considerably more than it does in Asian classrooms, where the collective principle is more firmly established” (9). Nevertheless, despite Asian schools being able to easily introduce collectivity through dialogue, they have failed to implement reciprocity into education.

Alexander believes, “Interaction which is collective without being reciprocal remains monologic and therefore suitable only for transmission teaching” (9). What he means by reciprocal is the willingness of the student and teacher to ask and answer questions. With reciprocity, the two listen to each other and give consideration to each other’s comments, “questions are framed on the assumption that there are alternative answers, some of them unanticipated…ideas are exchanged and it is accepted that students know things which teachers do not” (Alexander 5).

Implementing reciprocity is a matter of choosing to alter the immediate environment, as Gladwell would state, and does not require a societal connection in order to be implemented with ease. Others would also argue that the US has already implemented dialogue into the classroom with the popular adoption of the Socratic Method. However, according to philosopher Janice Moulton, Americans have misinterpreted the Socratic Method as a process of asking questions to lead someone into admitting error (Tannen 414). The true Socratic Method was to discover new insight by “asking questions rather than merely accepting what one is told” (Alexander 9).

Essentially, the true adoption of the Socratic Method would utilize reciprocal discussion to discover a solution neither side initially proposed. Reciprocity is a pillar of dialogue that Asia lacks and America is capable of implementing. In fact, due to the stress on respecting authority, many Asian nations would be extremely wary of reciprocity in its schools. America could easily use reciprocity in education to maximize the results of dialogue and improve its educational standings in comparison with Asia.

Each of the theories presented serve as a possible solution to improve American education, and collectively have the potential of revolutionizing society. This may seem to be a drastic statement, but according to Alexander, dialogue, “may be one of the keys to our survival as a species” (10). While the reasoning for much of this may seem theoretical, authors Brian Ripley and Randy Clemens outline how community dialogue in Lynchburg, VA and Syracuse, NY have already significantly built trust and tolerance amongst residents (Everyday Democracy).

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