Learning through Conversation
"The Dialogues" at Northern New Mexico College
If you have not yet participated in Northern's conversation classes (formally referred to as "The Dialogues"), the following introduction might help give you a sense of what you can expect.
The Conversation Method
The style of teaching and learning that takes place in Dialogue courses is often described as "conversational." The classroom experience is co-operative, respectful, and non-competitive. Each class features a discussion that (a) pursues questions as they arise and (b) handles topics of general interest to the participants. Sometimes this method is referred to as "learning together through shared inquiry.” These inquiries, or discussions, give students an opportunity to enter into conversation across time and space with foundational ideas that have shaped our cultures. In these courses we listen to and converse with the texts. Such work requires active and collaborative students. The conversations in these courses also create a space where every student can safely examine, develop, and challenge his or her own values and ideas in the process of scrutinizing the texts under discussion.
A key component of "The Dialogues" is the investigation of seminal texts that deal with the most profound aspects of the human condition. These are books and essays commonly recognized by scholars as seed works that have shaped many other thinkers and disciplines. The investigation of seminal texts serves as an entry point for exploring the social, political, ethical, existential, and personal dilemmas that are shared in all times and places. We believe that such reading promotes an appreciation for diverse cultures and ideas; it also helps students understand the assumptions behind their own discipline.
The Dialogue courses are led by a team of two facilitators. Although facilitators are expected to guide the discussions, their role is quite different from that of most professors. For one thing, facilitators are expected to avoid lectures or even interpretations; instead, they mirror the process of inquiry, helping to create a spirit in which a fresh, exciting, open-ended, and meaningful conversation can take place. In this way students are encouraged to express, defend, develop, and modify their own ideas and to develop their skills as critical (and independent) thinkers. We've found that this process naturally strengthens the ability of students to engage in the world of ideas. We've also seen that students come away from these courses ready to make positive changes, both personally and professionally.
A Few Guidelines
Although there is no right or wrong way to hold a conversation, some students might find the following hints useful:
- Everyone is expected to contribute to conversations. For this reason it's best not to worry about such formalities as raising a hand before speaking. Just jump right in, exactly as you would among friends.
- Succinct comments are more effective than long-winded speeches. Speak briefly. Try to build on the ideas of your classmates and try to make it easy for them to build on your ideas.
- Listening is at least as important as speaking. Asking questions of others and connecting ideas makes for interesting conversation.
- There is a dramatic difference between dialogue and debate. One enters a conversational dialogue by assuming that no one has a personal monopoly on the truth. Questioning the ideas of others (and having your own ideas challenged) is perfectly acceptable as long as it is in service of the conversation and the mutual search for truth.