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August 22, 2007

Layers of Dialogue

I think that sometimes we are drawn to a topic that we do not necessarily have the answers to or that we have resolved but that somehow continues to jolt us back to essential unanswered questions – questions that won’t go away! A reflection about dialogue raises some of the key issues about learning and teaching and touches us both personally and in the broader debate about what makes an effective and possible school.

It is a vast topic and could be explored in a number of ways and so in this short talk I would just like to raise some of the questions that I have been thinking about in relation to the place of dialogue in my own reflections about working in a non-formal school and to the particular question of how we perceive our role in bringing about change.

There is a Telegu folk story called A Story in Search of an Audience that captures the mutuality of the storyteller, the story itself and the attentive listener. The story tells of a woman on a festival day who longs to share not only the special sweet dish that she has prepared but also the story that inspired the celebration itself. Her own family are far too busy to spend time listening to stories when they want to get on with their work and neighbours are also impatient at the idea of wasting valuable time . The woman searched on the highways and byways asking everyone she met to listen to her story. At last she finds a pregnant woman who struggles to make a living by selling salt. This poor woman agrees to listen to the story but first asks for a bowl of payasam.

The woman soon falls heavily asleep but the woman is surprised by the voice of the unborn child who asks to be told the story. The tale changes the destiny of the same child who is born some months later and the lullaby that the old woman sang as a blessing comes true. Wherever the daughter of the salt seller went cotton seeds turned to pearls, poor villages began to prosper, dry trees bore fruits, lost jewels were found and dead men came to life.

This could be understood as one essential aspect of dialogue where there is an independence and also an interdependence between the different elements. In some ways the person or organization who is seeking to change, improve existing structures could be compared to the storyteller looking for a receptive audience.

In the last two or three years I have been involved in a small programme here in Chamrajnagar District in thinking about how art could be integrated into the curriculum of Government Schools. The idea was to think in what ways art could be for all the children rather than thinking of art as an extra curriculum subject that was done occasionally by a few talented children.

I have not been so involved in directly implementing the programme but more in the background . The question is in what way has this been a process of dialogue .This is part of a larger question as to how far can we assess any of our efforts to improve or change quality in school as dialogue ? What are the layers of dialogue involved when we think about change in schools ?

Towards a definition of dialogue

Dialogue has been understood in different ways so it is important to begin by clarifying in what sense I am using it. The word dialogue comes from two Greek words - dia meaning ‘ through’ or ‘breakthrough’ and ‘logos’ which is translated as ‘word’ or ‘meaning’ . It gives the sense of a movement and growth towards a greater understanding or unfolding – the creation of a whole picture. It also conveys the notion of a relationship and collaboration.

The everyday, familiar definition of the word dialogue would be a conversation between two people – but dialogue in the sense I am using it has many more layers of meaning. It might include a conversation between two people but it might also mean a response to a text, a story, an image or piece of music, a consideration of a theory, a response to nature or the environment, our connections to our past and it might even be a time of shared silence between two or more people. It is the quality of the encounter that is crucial.

Further every conversation between two people might not be classified as dialogue – or dialogue in its fullest sense. The word ‘discussion. comes from a very different root word ‘cuss’ which means to break apart or to analyse . Dialogue could be understood as moving from the parts to the whole and in contrast discussion could be defined as moving from the whole to the parts or even breaking into fragments. Dialogue is qualatively different from empathy or sympathy and implies a meeting in the space between people but without surrendering one’s sense of integrity .

Monologue in the negative sense implies a lack of relationship because it excludes listening of any kind . The ‘other’ becomes a target or object of word, action or gesture. In education this is when the teacher becomes a propagandist or manipulating the other for his own ends or when the would be reformer forces change regardless of what others need, want or understand.

In a practical way there was a real challenge when I was asked to be involved along with three others, in the art in education programme in Chamrajnagar. First it has to be said that the suggestion of introducing art activities in school did not come from within the community or the school staff . It was perceived as a need from those outside who had the means to carry the project through. There was a question that needed to be addressed but the question was coming from a source other than those directly involved.

A preliminary visit to some of the Government schools did nothing to allay our fears that this project was somehow being generated from outside. There was very little evidence of art work of any kind done by children in the Government schools with the exception of one school in Chamrajnagar itself which under the influence of NIAS staff had done some origami work.

There was also not much interest on the part of the teachers and so it was not easy to identify activities within the school that we could build on. A sense of diffidence was expressed by the teachers – for example one teacher remarked – "If I can’t draw how can I expect the children to draw?

Most teachers thought that only professional artists could support children’s art and that the pictures on the wall should be done by professionals. The hesitation of teachers about encouraging art activities seemed to be connected with the sense that the product is all important and that the process is not part of learning experience.

It became clear that there were real differences in perceptions about
the nature of art,
about teaching and learning ,
and what was in need of change
and these were all interconnected.

Where were these differences coming from ? There is a tendency for the person who takes on the role of reformer to assume that he or she is in a position of knowing what is good for others and is therefore only required to find the most efficient way of communicating answers and ensuring the solutions are put into practice. Experiential learning and the hands-on, discovery method need to be built into the training itself if different methods of pedagogy are going to take root.

But the fact is that even when we think that we are being most practical, focussed on the particular we communicate a stance about our basic attitudes because it inevitably reflects a larger framework that has conditioned us in positive and negative ways.

We cannot imagine that we are neutral - cultural, historical economic, political and personal factors make up our world view and affect the way we shape a curriculum – what we consider is worth teaching and the method we choose to impart it.

To imagine that we can be objective, neutral and unaffected by the outer situation would mean the folly of the inexperienced traveller who journeyed for the first time on a three tiered night train. He boarded the first train that came into the station of Nagpur without enquiring which direction it was gong in. Then, in his habitual friendly way asked a fellow passenger where he was going and was told Chennai. Our traveller declared that he was going to Delhi and then marvelled aloud at the wonders of modern technology that allowed people within the same compartment to travel to different destinations depending on which tier they were booked ! We are in fact sometimes on different tracks!

Soon after this first visit we were asked to do a baseline study. This would have provided a kind of a yardstick to show what we had found on arrival and what we had achieved over a period of time in realizing our stated goals and objectives. Initially I was rather quick to make a judgement that art had little place in the school or in the lives of the children. I looked on the walls for evidence and found almost nothing done by children and concluded that this meant art was not there.

An incident intervened that dissuaded us from carrying out such a study. Roshan conducted a short workshop with the children of one of the Ashram schools. He had taken the children for a walk and asked them to collect things that they particularly noticed . The children then returned to the school and together they made an elaborate design of stones, leaves, sticks and clay . The children’s capacity to transform natural materials into a work of art not only reflected their own creativity but also the community’s sensitivity and relationship to the natural environment and sense of the sacredness of things. Similarly we became aware of a vibrant, traditional dance form that was popular in some of the communities of Chamrajnagar District.

It became apparent that some of the aspects of art that we were concerned with were already there within the community – a sensitivity towards natural materials, crafts in house building, basket making and skills in farming were a necessary part of life. Were there aspects of the Lambani and Soligar way of life , their usage of materials, their crafts and sensitivity to the environment that could be valued in the school?

More problematic was to see where art could in anyway be part of learning within the school. The teachers we met and spoke to seemed to find it easier to appreciate the need to acquire skills and learn techniques but art as a form of expression or as a means of communication or a way of thinking and learning and as an evolving process related to a child’s development did not appear to be important.

We realized that it might be unreasonable to expect a free approach to art when other subjects are taught in prescribed ways. For example within the school children are not usually expected to write poems or stories of their own nor are they given much scope for exploring and experimenting with materials in a science lesson. Dance and drama are also directed and the idea of children expressing themselves through these media would not be given much support.

The lack of relationship to the immediate environment and the fact that it is not used as a resource to draw on either in terms of materials or in terms of experience is again only part of a larger context of not engaging closely with the immediate surroundings and children’s every day experiences. In one class we noticed second standard children were writing the names of the days of the week but when asked which day it was they were unable to say. In one school for Solighar children the class we asked what birds they had seen – the teacher prompted the class by asking what was the national bird to which they readily answered “Peacock.”

Bruner in his essay, The Language of Education describes two distinct kinds of teaching – transmission and transactional which might be another way of talking about the differences between monologue and dialogue. Monologue excludes an active participation on the part of the listener and is neither a discussion nor a dialogue. It is typical of the teacher who expects conformity where the pupil becomes passive and subservient and accepts uncritically and mechanically information given.

He proposes that there is a need to accept a level of uncertainty, wonder and questioning if the teaching is not to become dogmatic and if a culture is going to evolve and not stagnate or decay.

The teacher who remarked that she could not teach because she herself was unsure was not surprising. Teaching is most clearly recognized when it is in the form of direct instruction and the child is an empty vessel to be filled. This raises the question how to enter into a dialogue where several very different viewpoints are at work. On the one hand there is an understanding that the teacher should be in a position to instruct children what to do, how to improve and how to reach a certain standard of perfection and on the other hand a method was being advocated to encourage children to discover their own means of expression and to allow children to explore the materials in their own particular way. This means among other things to recognize that to make mistakes is an inevitable and necessary part of the process. and that the teacher is not in control in the way that he or she is maybe accustomed to being.

Are these two views inevitably opposed to each other?

The relation between teacher and pupil has elements of dialogue but it is an asymmetrical relationship in the sense that it is neither an equal relationship nor one of friendship. The teacher tries to include the students perspective and to understand the relationship from two points of view but the teacher has an openness that makes the meeting a negotiable one. Inclusion is different from interference. In other words we expect that the teacher should try to understand the child’s context but we do not expect the child to understand the teacher’s perspective.

Martin Buber, (the modern Jewish Existentialist thinker) compares the teacher pupil relationship to the consistent but detached concern of the doctor or therapist towards a patient.Such a relationship has intimacy and distance but does not get confused with empathy or positive and negative projections. However Buber does not see the relationship wholly as a vertical one and he writes that we can only expect to change someone if we are ourselves are open to being changed.

The teacher who denies a voice to the student – for whatever reason maybe a clash of personality or may stem from a prejudice that labels a child as slow or inadequate - effectively closes the possibility of dialogue. Language, cultural, religious, gender and economic differences as deficits are often reinforced by a teacher or by the text itself in a destructive way. Murali Krishna, a Marathi, Dalit writer speaks in the following way of his school experience :
I was not silent out of choice. I did not like to be silent. In fact I resented it. It was the school that forced me into silence.

There are other patterns of learning that have elements of a dialogical relationship that do not usually come into the school. According to Buddhist teaching there are various ways of teaching or responding to a question and each has its own right place and time. These include direct instruction, silence , the story or metaphor, life itself and analysing the question itself until it no longer is seen as a relevant question. Examples have been handed down to illustrate how the master responds to the student in quite different but appropriate ways.

In the course of the Lord Buddha’s teaching a disciple, Kashyap sought to probe the meaning of Nirvana. He asked many searching questions but remained unsatisfied with the answers Buddha gave. Finally the Lord Buddha showed him a flower and at that moment the disciple was able to move beyond words to a new understanding expressed in a smile. This is one aspect of dialogue where the teacher’s total response enabled him to meet the need of his student.

Yet another disciple asked the master how to attain the wisdom of the Buddha. The master began to polish a brick. The disciple enquired what he was doing and the master replied that he was polishing the brick to make a mirror in order to see his reflection. The disciple was incredulous and remarked that such an exercise would be fruitless and the Master retorted that it would be as helpful as sitting in the lotus posture to attain enlightenment.

In both these examples we see the teacher responding not so much in words but through direct action to meet the needs of the student. Direct instruction is the most common method of teaching in the school situation and is often appropriate . However this sometimes means that other ways of teaching or thinking and learning are not usually encouraged. Traditionally apprenticeship into skills of craftsmanship and survival skills were taught within an often unspoken dialogical process. The dialogue may include not only the relationship between the teacher and the learner but the relationship between the learner and the material and tools themselves which may become the teachers.

Barbara Rogoff broadens our understanding of apprenticeship by referring to it as “guided participation”. The drawing of rangollis or kolams is part of a shared tradition (albeit only among women and girls) as with the learning of dance, when it involves the whole community seems to be an unpressured, gradual assimilation of practice through observation and participation through trial and error.

Teaching in whatever context must meet different children’s capacity, style and pace for learning without under estimating or over estimating the child’s potential for learning. A vivid example of a teacher trying to understand the particular needs of different students is Dr. S. Suzuki, the renowned Japanese music teacher. He describes how he struggled to find the appropriate way to teach a blind student the violin by experimenting in blindfolding himself and thus experiencing directly the sensations of his student. He imaginatively entered into his student’s dilemma in order to find the most appropriate way to support him in becoming independent. It is comparable to the math teacher who, in a spirit of enquiry takes pains to examine how a student came to a wrong answer.

In an apprenticeship there is a shared meaning and purpose between the teacher and the taught. The teacher maybe the community itself or the professional teacher in the school and sometimes there are real differences in perceptions. Rogoff quotes an Afro American mother’s criticism of the formal school when it comes to teaching for life

“He’s got to learn about the world. Nobody can tell him about it. How crazy it is! When white folks hear their kids say something, they say it back to them – they ask them again and again about things as though they are supposed to be born knowing. Do you think I can tell my son all he’s got to know and how to get along? He’s just got to be keen (observant) keep his eyes open then he won’t be sorry. He’s got to watch himself by watching other folks. It’s no use my telling him ‘ Learn this! Learn that! What’s this? What’s that?’ He’s just got to learn got to know. If he sees something once at one place and at one time he will he will know how it goes. Maybe he will do the same but maybe he won’t. He has to try it out. If he doesn’t he’ll be in trouble. He’ll get left out. You’ve got to keep your eyes open. You’ve got to feel to know. “

In some respects the school mirrors the values and aspirations of the society. The way the ethos of a school evolves reflects a congruency of shared meaning about the past, the present and the future. This very solidarity sometimes feels like an impregnable fortress and is difficult to challenge most especially by the unarmed or less powerful. . Sometimes the consistency of approach serves only the needs of a powerful minority and the voice of the marginalized is hard to hear.

Changes in school come when this very congruency is challenged. There is a change in expectations of what is possible, a shift in perception and a demand for realignment between children, home, school and society (and at the present time this includes the global community) takes place. There are so many forces that resist change because changes in some ways threaten the status quo but also there are changes imposed that are spurned as inappropriate.

A conflict of interests and different ideas of remedies often polarizes the issues so that extremes are positioned against each other – alternative or mainstream, conservative or progressive, traditional or modern, process oriented as against functional; but beyond the external style, fashion and theory what is more difficult to gauge is the level of dialogue which enables the child to learn in a way that leads towards autonomy.

In a recent article (Constructions of Educational Inequalities Through Classroom Routines and Practices – published In Teachers Talk July 2006) by Dr. Baljit Kaur describes how children in New Zealand in an apparently free and democratic setting were actually being manipulated by the teacher to conform in a particular way. The seeming non-authoritarian attitude of the teacher masked a very clear agenda to control the children’s behaviour and very thought processes. The idea of autonomy was as alien in that outwardly informal classroom as any more overtly rigid and controlled classroom.

There are very different understandings of what congruency means in practice. By ‘congruency’ I mean a unity of purpose and methodology and value system between the child, the family, the local community and the larger society.

Is the management of a private school that offers English medium and the assurance of certification to children by paying exorbitant amounts to local Government officials more in tune with the parents aspirations than the alternative school that advocates vegetable gardening and creative writing in the mother tongue? Where is the possibility of dialogue in this context?

The many parents who are ready to go to great expense and sacrifice to provide an English medium education for their children which they did not have themselves are not likely to respond to what at best seems like patronizing concern and at worst suspect that an already privileged person is intent on perpetuating differences and inequalities.

The well-intentioned liberal position that advocates individual expression and autonomy and is averse to direct instruction is quite often identified as part of a culture of power that represents the educated middle class. Access to funding and to people in authority make it possible for decisions to be made that might not be appropriate for people in different cultural contexts.

In an article called The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children the writer Lisa D. Depot sharply criticizes the reformer who seeks to improve, as she puts it, ‘other people’s children’. She writes about her position as an Afro American teacher who resists, for example, process oriented, creative writing in favour of imparting literacy skills that enable students to compete equally for jobs and opportunities in an open market. , She concludes her article: We must keep the perspective that people are experts on their own Lives… We must learn to be vulnerable enough to allow our world to turn upside down in order to allow the realities of others to edge themselves into our consciousness….

Both Gandhi and Tagore challenged the imbalances of the systems of their day in fundamental ways and endeavoured to draw the lines of congruency anew. In different but not necessarily contradictory ways both Gandhi and Tagore saw clearly art and craft as central to the discussion of a fundamental change in school. They both were not afraid to articulate their concerns and not only to suggest solutions but put them into practice. Gandhi succeeded for a brief time to transform government policy in an effort to create a just and balanced system of education, as he understood it.

An essential dimension of dialogue is to hold on to one’s own experience of truth. Buber says
One can be truly open and ready to meet others only if one stands on the ground of one’s uniqueness and deepens that ground through each meeting. Gandhi speaks in a similar vein of Swadharma.

Dialogue does not mean accommodating everyone’s suggestions, otherwise we would get into the absurd position of the story of “The man, the boy and the donkey” who follow everyone’s advice and end up struggling to carry the donkey and the load.

The more we got involved in the art project the larger and more basic the questions seemed to loom. What changes are relevant and possible? Who has the right to define art and its purpose in education? It was only in the actual working with the trainees that some clarity began to emerge because there was a realization that we could not provide the answers on our own but only insofar as there was an openness to look again and again at the questions.

Before beginning work it was important to clarify what seemed to be the essence of what we were trying to do.

1. Art provides a language, ‘graphic speech’ for children to relate to the outer world and to their inner world of feeling. *
2. Any written material for teachers describing methods and reasons for doing artistic activities with children might not have much impact unless it is strongly supported by a sustained process of training through practical activities.
3. The problem is more complex than providing tips or recipes for artistic activities and it would be important to help teachers to understand the patterns of development so that they could be sympathetic to a child’s artistic efforts and provide the right kind of balance that would be both supportive and challenging.
4.The teacher’s role would be not only to help the child to learn to respect and use materials but also to begin with the child’s experience and then to extend and build on it. Copying is of limited value and the uniqueness of each child’s response should be recognized.
5.That the workshops would be to some extent shaped by the trainees’ response and questions. This would mean that there would be some direct instruction but also time and space given for experiential learning and an effort to respond to questions raised.

In the course of the workshops that 15 trainees came to there was a lot of emphasis on the teachers themselves exploring ideas and materials practically. For example in the workshop on materials the teachers were asked to explore ways of making things with paper and thread before any direction was given. In all the workshops time was given for discussion and many question were raised. Some of these questions really challenged the very idea of children doing art in school. The response of a number of the teachers was very open and enthusiastic but questions were raised

In response to the teachers request an effort was made to see more directly how art could be used to support learning in the curriculum as given in the text books.

How much impact was affected by all the inputs? It is a slow process and inevitably some things will be quietly dropped as irrelevant, others modified and adapted but there are the beginnings of some change and in some schools at least teachers have taken the initiative to do art activities other than those suggested in the Resource book or already done in workshops which is possibly the most positive thing.

It has been important that some of the NIAS staff work in the schools without access to additional resources. Recently Roshan went to a school and was working on the story of Gulliver’s Travels, which comes in the 4th standard text book. Groups of children were asked to choose one of several scenes that were listed. In a class of thirty-four children there were ten children without pencils and two small boxes of crayons. The project has not been a glorious success in terms of fantastic displays or all the trainees doing daily activities with the children but some serious work has been done and an important process has been started. I think there has been real learning on all sides and many questions raised and the children have certainly been eager participants when given opportunities. A number of the teachers expressed their surprise that when children are given a chance they respond so positively and in unexpectedly independent and original ways.

The process itself requires a suspension of judgement, pausing to reflect and listening to learn on all sides. The kind of exchanges, different interpretations, successes and failures surprises and disappointments were a part of the process of reaching something that might take root.

Supporting a spirit of dialogue – objective – learning to listen, examine assumptions, suspending judgement

In all our efforts to transform, change and improve methods unless we seriously look at the demands of dialogue our work will be limited. As mentioned before one of the important aspects of dialogue is that we stand firm in our own particular vision so that we listen and are open but do not feel overwhelmed by the other.

There is a story of a Chinese teacher who had been asked to give a talk in the town. The hall was filled with the students and the townspeople. Unexpectedly the nearby ruler arrived to join the audience. He was a wealthy and important man used to being obeyed and respected. The teacher saw him and faltered and was unable to continue in quite the way he had been speaking. The next day he called his students and announced that he would be leaving. The students were dismayed and pressed the teacher to explain the reason for his sudden departure. The teacher said that he felt unfit to be their teacher because when he saw the ruler he had trembled and had felt lost for words.

In these days we are not faced with a feudal lord but we are sometimes confronted with demands to meet the expectations and prove success to those in power and in fashion – in the form of donor agencies, religious leaders or even politicians and so may compromise what we see fit to do.

The criterion for judging success or failure does not only lie in outward achievement and it is possibly more in our willingness to respond to the questions that we are asked. It would be a contradiction to demand an openness to dialogue when there is no felt need. It has been compared to trying to play ‘hide and seek’ on your own. Buber says “One can be ready for a dialogue but one cannot will it.” .

I will conclude with a legend about the great Chinese teacher Lao Tzu. The story goes that Lao Tzu as an old, frail man was rejected by the community whom he had served for many years as a teacher. He left without bitterness along with his ox and a boy. They met a gruff rather coarse customs official who demanded that they should declare their valuables. When the official realized that they had nothing of monetary value but that he was a teacher whose wisdom lies in the discovery that like water on rock, hardness gives way to gentleness he realizes that these are different kinds of travellers. The official suggests that they stay and that Lao Tzu writes down his teachings for him because he also wants to know “ Who gets the better of whom”. The sage remarks “Those who ask a question deserve an answer”. And so Lao Tzu stayed for seven days as the custom official’s guest and the Tao Te Ching was written for him and for the world at large. The poem by Brecht concludes;

But not to that wise man alone our praise is due
Whose name adorns the Tao Te Ching
For the wise man’s wisdom must be dragged out of him too.
So the customs man also deserves our thanks for the thing:
He did the eliciting.

The teaching is given in response to a deeply felt question. The teacher finds a purpose in his teachings because he has been asked. (“The student asks and by means of his questions he unconsciously cause an answer to take shape in his teacher’s mind that would never have seen the light but for that question being asked” - Or Hagunuz)

This essay started with the story of “The storyteller in search of an audience” and I am ending with the story of the learner in search of teaching. It is a relationship of mutuality that makes learning possible.

-Jane Sahi, July 2007

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