WHY DIALOGUE IS NECESSARY
I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the conference, The World Needs Dialogue, hosted by the Academy of Professional Dialogue. Throughout the week, we were presented with many case studies on how dialogue was being used in a multitude of settings and what impact it was having on peoples’ lives.
I also presented a paper at the conference, Why dialogue in the classroom is necessary for building a healthy, sustainable community. I was excited to share as I saw the importance that dialogue can have in a child’s life from my time as a teacher. I taught for many years at a small holistic school in Vermont. I was able to use dialogue in the classroom and observed the impact this form of communication had on my students and their relationships.
In one sense, the positive impact dialogue had on my class was quite profound. However, if one could take a step back, I think we would all know intuitively that of course dialogue in the classroom makes sense. So journey with me here: Do you think dialogue should be a fixture in all education? IF so, why is it that dialogue is not a focus for our children? How do we bring dialogue into our schools and homes as an everyday experience? What age should it start?
Why dialogue in the classroom is necessary for building a healthy, sustainable community.
Our society has many issues all of which come from a dysfunctional root — a root built from the narrative that we are separate from the world.
The education system is the foundation in which our culture is constructed and maintained. Over time, the system through fear and coercion, perpetuates the belief that we are separate from one another and nature. Because of this, most people in our culture live in conflict and dysfunction within oneself, in our relationships and collectively with the world at large.
Generally speaking, children don’t have a say in their learning and are taught that their voices don’t really matter. Instead, we have been taught to follow what we are told, and to push down our voices and sense of wonder. We are essentially coerced by fear through rewards and punishments to follow the prescribed curriculum in school. John Holt, an educator shared, “For many years I have been asking myself why intelligent children act unintelligently at school. The simple answer is, “Because they’re scared.” I used to suspect that children’s defeatism had something to do with their bad work in school, but I thought I could clear it away with hearty cries of “Onward! You can do it!” What I now see for the first time is the mechanism by which fear destroys intelligence, the way it affects a child’s whole way of looking at, thinking about, and dealing with life”
Instead of fear and a forced curriculum, what would happen if we were to give space and opportunities for our children to have their voice and wonder, and at the same time, modeled and built in dialogic skills to help facilitate open, direct, safe, honest conversations?
I had the opportunity to teach 9–12 year olds at a small holistic school for over 18 years. All students’ voices were important at this school. From almost the beginning, I created space each day for dialogue practice. Over the years, I began to recognize the deep importance of dialogue in not only creating a healthy classroom environment, but for the world at large.
These were the expectations for our dialogues.
- Be open to each other
- Listen to understand
- Have patience, there is no goal or outcome that we are trying to arrive at.
- Notice what you are feeling. Don’t react, but find a way to present your thoughts without blame or judgement.
- Try not to agree or disagree
- Be aware of your own beliefs and assumptions and notice if you personalize them. See if you hold on tight or are flexible. How does that impact the way you can look at an issue?
Through this practice, students began to change the way they spoke to each other. Because of learning to appreciate differences in perspectives and not needing to become defensive, students grew closer and more thoughtful in their relationships with each other. They became more patient in their interactions. They learned to trust their voice and see that each voice in the classroom was important. Dialogue illustrated a true democratic approach to life itself. We learned that for us to move together as a community, we needed to make sure that we were all participating in learning and that nobody had more power than anyone else.
They also began to use the dialogue process to solve their issues. Instead of the conflict becoming an argument and creating more issues, they would not only find a solution to the problem, it actually brought the class or the pair closer together. When a conflict arose, we learned to confront it thoughtfully.
One person would share at a time explaining their perspective without trying to blame or judge. While the person shared, their classmate or classmates would listen. Because the sharer was expressing themselves in a thoughtful way, the other students were able to hear and seek understanding. As each person shared in a circle, the problem became understood. By the end of the process, either we discovered that there was a misunderstanding or the person who made a mistake took responsibility. This led to compassion and forgiveness as people were able to understand not only what the problem was but also what led up to the problem.
We also spent every Thursday outside in the wetland. We would often circle up and dialogue about our experience with nature. There was one day, when one of the students who was sharing said, “Wait. Hold on. Just listen.” We all were quiet except for a beautiful flute sound emanating from a red maple a few yards away from us. The sound was mesmerizing. I am not sure how long we listened, but it was for a while. Finally, the wood thrush flew away. The student continued, “That seemed to be part of this dialogue. That bird was a part of our circle. Maybe the trees, the soil, and insects are also a part of our circle…” They finished by saying, “I think if people could come out here and just be quiet for a second, they may see something really beautiful and learn something that makes them feel joy.”
As I reflected on what dialogue teaches us, I thought about what dialogue can not only do in the classroom, but also for building an ecological community of engaged community members.
Dialogue illustrates that there is no hierarchy. Dialogue illustrates that we are all in this together and that there is no other. Dialogue pushes us to be patient and not react. Dialogue builds trust and connection and helps the teacher let go of control and mirrors back that learning happens in an open safe space. Dialogue teaches about how to listen into thoughts and emotions and how to let go. Dialogue points to presence and listening with a quiet openness. This made me ponder. Isn’t this what is essential to education?
I came to see that if we can bring dialogue into the classrooms, how that can transform the students’ experience from one of fear into one of joy and wonder, but also help build a foundation that when these children become adults could potentially transform society.