We all know, from watching political events unfold as well as from negotiating with our children over school work, bed times, chores, and sibling squabbles, that ‘peace talks’ are a way to resolve conflict. How many of us realize, however, that the activity of conversing in itself teaches us how to be peaceful?
Having conversations is a tremendously important part of education! Learning how to dialogue with others is not simply working together productively, it is also a way to build fellowship, establish stable, healthy relationships, and achieve community goals. It is an important process in which, perhaps, we most consistently fulfill the highest aspects of our humanity as creatures made in the image of God, from whom the peace which passes all understanding flows.
Is not speech the special ability that sets human beings apart from every other creature? It is through speech—in conversation with others, with ourselves as we are conscious of our own thoughts, and with the Lord through prayer—that we learn! Learning is not an accumulation of facts, but occurs by questioning, connecting information, examining it, and articulating governing principles and truths from it.
Prime opportunities for learning, therefore, arise in conversation. We are essentially forced, through the need to communicate our ideas with other people and to hear and understand the knowledge and points of views of others, to ask questions, integrate concepts, study them, and draw collaborative conclusions from them. The question for educators, then—whether we are homeschooling parents, tutors, or teachers—is how best to nurture these good conversations.
At first, this can seem an ill-defined and daunting task. However, there are a few guidelines we can follow to encourage fruitful dialogue—not just in formal settings such as the classroom, but informally between ourselves and in our families.
Step #1: You cannot know everything!
The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, master of learning through questioning conversations (hence the books written by his student, Plato, are referred to as ‘dialogues,’ and the well-established use of the expression ‘Socratic Discussion’ is used to describe his model) said something to the effect that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” This truth has been echoed throughout the subsequent centuries. For example, Shakespeare opined that “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool,” and the author of our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, rephrased it along these lines: “He who knows best knows how little he knows.”
As educators, we need not only acknowledge the vastness of our ignorance, but to act with that knowledge by not insisting we are wise when we are not. There are many questions we need to ask in order to keep learning and many new ideas to which we need to be exposed.
Step #2: Gracefully lead!
As we gain maturity through experience, we realize that we do not know everything. Yet, when we step into positions of authority—such as fulfilling our responsibilities as parents, tutors, and teachers—we feel the weight of the expectation that we should know it all. This is because people look to us for answers and solutions. However, we must recognize that we can work towards truthful answers and effective solutions without the necessity of being ‘experts.’ In fact, we need to recognize that no one, even the most ‘expert of experts,’ can ever know everything.
Consider famous people in various fields. How many were ‘experts’? For example, Kepler was not an expert astronomer; he was an apprentice to Brahe, and he was, therefore, under another’s authority precisely in order to learn. Yet Kepler, not his master, was the one who discovered that the orbits of planets were not circular, but elliptical. Think about Lincoln, often regarded as a brilliant lawyer. He was self-educated, and learned to read in a log cabin in the Indiana wilderness using only a small stack of books (such as the Bible and Plutarch’s Lives). What about Einstein? He worked in a patent office. Who would have considered him an expert physicist? To give a more current example, remember Tom Clancy, author of the immensely successful 1980s novel The Hunt for Red October. He was an insurance salesman who would not be considered a military expert. Clancy was simply avidly interested in the topic and as a result he gained an insight about it which, when combined with his writing abilities, produced a series of best-selling books and blockbuster movies.
Therefore, we can gracefully lead others by humbly admitting that we are not experts. Even the most expert of scientists, for example, have been known to emphasize that they had only scratched the surface of potential understanding. We can then act upon that realization by letting others—our children, students, and all those whom we lead—step up to lead alongside us. In doing so, we facilitate learning more effectively than we ever could by demanding that others follow us blindly, insisting they assume we are the ‘experts.’ When we do insist upon this, we most likely act out of pride in our own knowledge or fear that we will be judged as inadequate, or both.
Step #3: Respectfully listen!
Do not quench conversation by dismissing or aggressively confronting a question or idea simply because it makes you uncomfortable or you have never heard it before. Remember that others—even our children and students—have thought about concepts with which we are unfamiliar. We will squelch conversation if we are not willing to consider the possibility that those around us, even when we are the ones in the positions of authority, know things that we do not.
Instead of assuming that an idea or question we have not considered is erroneous or off topic, we need to allow the conversation to flow by listening carefully. If it turns out to be spurious or irrelevant, or even offered in a spirit of jest or sarcasm, this will become obvious to all soon enough. Meanwhile, we will have shown respectfulness and love to others, and we can then redirect the conversation to more fruitful ends.
Step #4: Ask questions!
When someone, a student for example, introduces a question or idea with which we are unfamiliar, we need to explore what they have shared! Be encouraging, not dismissive! With respectful kindness, ask them to explain it and to support it with their knowledge and experience. In this way, we will be able to rightly and gently assess their contribution to the dialogue. This will also spur additional questions and encourage the conversation to delve deeper into the subject.
In conversation, we must learn not simply how to ask questions and propose ideas, but how to explain why these matter. Encouraging others to explain themselves is an excellent way to practice asking questions, promote good communication from others, and practice good listening skills ourselves.
Of course, these four steps are not the only elements of fostering conversational learning, but they are among the more important ones. Following these steps allows dialogue and fellowship to flourish. With good dialogue, however, we must be aware that there are also at least two consequences of such conversation that will surface:
The first, and happiest, is that of joy. Have you not had conversations with someone which sparkled for you? In which you felt a ‘meeting of minds’ when you had the same references and when you found it a thrill to share what you knew as well as to discover what they knew? These kinds of conversations are enormously educational. They are like the conversations that develop unexpectedly when we meet someone whom we discover is from our hometown: like us, they know all the best places to eat, have hiked the same trails, and remember the same community events. They share our growing up experience and yet they bring their own perspectives and insights to the dialogue. We learn things about our hometown we did not know, and we also learn a great deal about the other person we have just met. Much that we do as ‘schoolwork,’ such as discussing a book we have all read, or reflecting on a biology lab we have all completed together, can produce the same thrill and expansion of understanding, not just about the subject matter, but about ourselves—about human nature and roles in society and with respect to God. These kinds of conversations teach the wonder of exploration, they illustrate the fun of making connections, and of fitting the pieces together in a way that brings out wonderful ‘Aha moments.’ Everyone wants to join in and participate, because the learning is so much fun.
On the other hand, there is a second inevitable consequence of real dialogue, one that is not always so enjoyable. This is something which feels negative. It feels counter-productive and contrary to learning. It is conflict. This occurs because when people share their ideas with one another, they often disagree. This can be for many reasons, but really the reasons do not matter. What matters is that when deep dialogue happens, we begin to share ideas that we care deeply about. And when we care, being questioned or disagreed with also affects us profoundly. We experience many responses, but some of the more common include feeling challenged and contradicted; if our ideas are those in which we place a high value (for example, our ideas about faith, right thinking, good behavior, parenting, and teaching), then it is inevitable that we will be in conflict with those who question, disagree with, or reject our views.
These two things—joy and conflict—are indeed in tension, but they are not at cross purposes! In fact, as much can be learned to increase fellowship and learning through conflict as through joy. In conflict, we also come to understand our subject matter better and to understand each other better. In doing so, we can increase learning and deepen fellowship. The key is that we must be willing to stay the course, acting with love of neighbor as our highest priority. The dialectic that occurs in conversations is a two-edged sword, and we must learn how to value both the harmonious joy as well as the frustrating struggle. We need to learn how to manage conflict and navigate to resolution.
To understand this, the ideas of Peacemaker Ministries may be helpful. Consider one of the fundamental images of Peacemaker Ministries, the ‘slippery slope’:
When we have conversations that force us to practice the peacemaking skills exemplified in the center area of this graphic, we are learning to be people of peace. With this in view, we reject the extremes of the spectrum. In conversation, we do not:
• Stifle or repress our questions or contributions because we are afraid they will be attacked and rejected, out of fear that our feelings will be hurt or that we will be embarrassed;
• Run away from disagreements;
• Simply deny disagreements exist and continue on as if conflict had not occurred, ignoring the views of those who pose new ideas;
• Engage in attacking another person through aggressive confrontation, rejection, or mockery;
• Embrace grudges over differences, appealing to those higher in authority for punishment of perceived wrongs;
• Nurture dislike in our hearts for those with whom we disagree.
Instead, we should learn to hone the skills in the healthy, middle section of the slippery slope:
• Give the benefit of the doubt, and overlook what may be slights spoken in frustration—realizing that it is always hard to be disagreed with, and it is human nature to respond defensively;
• Practice reconciliation by steadfastly and calmly taking the conversation through to its end through constructive questioning;
• Negotiate, to allow iron to sharpen iron so that in the end, everyone has learned something they did not know when the conversation began;
• Learn to mediate and arbitrate, by pointing out to those in conflict that resolution and reconciliation are possible;
• Practice accountability to the biblical mandate that we are, in every circumstance, to love our neighbors. And that means that when conflict arises we are obliged to work it out in grace;
• Teach each other out of love, learn how to be humble, welcome questions as well as answers, listen well, have empathy, and open our minds and hearts to others.
Because of this, we might add a fifth step: do not interpret questions or new ideas, or what appear to be opposing ideas, as personal confrontation or an affront to your authority. A rigorous conversation is not a power struggle! If you want to be a good teacher—no matter the environment, because in the end, we are all teachers to one another—learn to facilitate good conversations by maximizing spontaneous joy and lovingly managing inevitable conflict. As Classical Conversations’ founder Leigh Bortins says in her soon to be released book The Question, “if you can…channel your child’s inquisitive and argumentative nature into constructive questions, you will be well on your way to finding delight in…education (Chapter 2).” Peace talks!
Additional Articles regarding Conversational Learning: