I’d like to spend a few more words on a couple of passages that one can find in David Bohm’s book On Dialogue. At the very beginning of the book he clarifies the nature of the matter. In a dialogue,
when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical.
Then, he concludes,
when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood.
Seeing this “difference” is key to conversation. It is precisely what allows us to move forward.
This point is clarified, when Bohm extends the idea of conversing to inanimate objects. In doing so he asks a simple question about the work of artists.
Can it properly be said that the artist is expressing himself, i.e., literally “pushing
outward” something that is already formed inside of him?
To Bohm it cannot be the case that the artist simply implements an idea that is already formed inside of him. And he explains why.
what usually happens is that the first thing the artist does is only similar in certain ways to what he may have in mind. As in a conversation between two people, he sees the similarity and the difference, and from this perception something further emerges in his next action.
Bohm stresses that, as the artist pushes something outward, something else comes about outside of him, which then gets back to him in a different form. The crucial insight that Bohm provides is that the artist perceives a difference between what is yet to be articulated inside of him and what has been already taking shape outside of him, which offers now some kind of scaffolding structure. Interestingly, such scaffolding structure is temporary. It will last until the next move, which, in turn, will pull it down to erect a new one. And so on and on.
A wonderful example is provided by this video documenting the making of One vision, one the greatest hits of a certain band called Queen.
In this segment we have a perfect representation of what conversing means:
One says something, the other objects, which forces the other to put forward an alternative. In some other cases, they finish each other’s line.
This back and forth has something in common with tinkering, which can be described precisely as perceiving the differences that in subsequent iterations become generative of something new (a song or a lyric). It is capable of generating something new, precisely because we tinker with the perceived difference(s) – something that kind of stands out, that even may confuse or irritate us. As I explained in this blog, there is always a chance element, which is nothing but this something that gets back to us over which we literally have no control, that may may even surprise us. If we had it, we would not need to act. We would simply be content with what we have.
The example that Bohm makes is about the kind of work done by artists. But essentially this is a universal feature that holds water for any kind of medium that we are using, any kind of “tool”, be it pen&paper, technologies (including AI) and even language itself, etc. As soon as we start using a tool – any kind of tool, this very dynamic is potentially there. Incidentally, this means that the very act of distributing cognition is a conversational one, because what is established is precisely a conversation between us and the tool(s), which only then acquires a meaning. The conversing and the distributing are coupled together.
This that I am describing has very important consequences for learning (and education). Learning shares something crucial with the case that Bohm describes. To develop understanding – be that on nature, our machines, languages, society, culture or the human being, the learner is precisely like the artist who pushes outwards something in the hope that something will happen as a result – in the case of learning, I believe, it’s understanding. What is crucial then – what enables learning – is that the learner senses or perceives differences and similarities between what is out there and what is growing, say, “within himself” this understanding. That can only happen, when the learner participates in a conversational situation, which can involve a teacher, peers, teacher and peers, or/and all the above plus the tools. Sometimes the conversation can actually take place between the learner and a tool,which may come in the form of a book, a blog post, a search on the net, a discussion on social media, a podcast, etc.. The list is potentially as endless as our ability to establish conversational situations out of our will to learn. Indeed, in conversational situations the teacher may be at the same time the partner in a conversation. Or the person who actually helps the learner sense or perceive differences in the exchange. I would qualify that as a pedagogical act.
It is worth stressing that, if differences cannot be perceived and therefore used as a springboard for furthering the back-and-forth that I described above, then learning becomes some kind of indoctrination (for lack of a better term). This does not mean, though, that conversing implies giving up on what one thinks. This misconception has pressed us to think that, lecturers should not lecture any more. That would be imposing their own view. Actually, it’s the other way around: we can truly converse, if we share our opinions – no matter how incomplete or groundless they are, precisely because in a conversational situation they just provide the temporary scaffold to manipulate this sort of “prima materia”. For example, what the lecturer says can be used by the student(s) as a springboard rather than as a piece of content to be poured into his mind.
So, more in general, when conversational situations are established, learning can become convivial, which I define in opposition and opposite to learning as indoctrination.